From the Parinirvana of the Buddha to the sack of Nalanda (c. 1197) Indian Buddhism passed through three great phases of development, traditionally known as the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana, each with its own characteristics and its own spiritual ideals.
These phases were not mutually exclusive. The earlier yarns, besides continuing to exist as independent schools, were also incorporated in the later ones and regarded as constituting, with modifications, their indispensable theoretical and practical foundation.
The Hinayana, ‘Little Vehicle’ or ‘Lower Way’, was so called by the Mahayanists because it teaches the attainment of salvation for oneself alone. It is predominantly ethic-psychological in character and its spiritual ideal is embodied in the austere figure of the Arhants, a person in whom all craving is extinct, and who will no more be reborn.
While mindfulness, self-control, equanimity, detachment, and the rest of the ascetic virtues are regarded as indispensable, in the final analysis emancipation (moksha) is attained through insight into the transitory (anitya) and painful (duhkha) nature of conditioned things, as well as into the non-selfhood (nairatmyata) of all the elements of existence (dharma’s), whether conditioned or unconditioned.
This last consists in the realization that personality is illusory, and that, far from being a substantial entity, the so-called ‘I’ is only the conventional label for a congeries of evanescent material and mental processes. At the price of complete withdrawal from all worldly concerns emancipation, or Archonship, is attainable in this very birth.
The Hinayana therefore insists upon the necessity of the monastic life, with which, indeed, it tends to identify the spiritual life altogether. The laity simply observes the more elementary precepts, worship the relics of the Buddha, and support the monks, by which means merit (punya) is accumulated and rebirth in heaven assured.
As for the difference between Buddha and Arhant, it is only a matter of relative priority of attainment, and of relative extent of supernormal powers. The most widespread and influential Hinayana school in earlier times was that of the Sarvastivadins, who were greatly devoted to the study and propagation of the Abhidharma.
They were later also known as the Vaibhashikas, the Vibhasha being the gigantic commentary on the Jnana- prasthana which had been compiled by the leaders of the school in Kashmir during the first or second century of the Christian era.
The contents of the Vibhasha are systematized and explained in Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma-kosa or Treasury of the Abhidharma, a work which represents the culmination of Hinayana thought and has exercised enormous historical influence. The commentary incorporates Sautrantika views, thus not only bridging the g; p between the Hinayana and the Mahayana but paving the way for Vasubaidhu’s own conversion to the latter Yana.
The Mahayana, literally ‘Great Vehicle’ or ‘Great Way’, is so called because it teaches the salvation of all. Predominantly devotional and metaphysical in character, its ideal is the Bodhisattva, the heroic being who, practising the six or ten Perfections (paramita) throughout thousands of lives, aspires to the attainment of Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings.
Perspectives infinitely vaster than those of the Hinayana are here disclosed. The earlier vehicle is regarded by the Mahayanists not as wrong but only as inadequate, the provisional rather than the final teaching, given out by the Buddha to disciples of inferior calibre whom a sudden revelation of the transcendent glories of the Mahayana might have stupefied rather than enlightened.
In the Mahayana Archonship, far from being the highest achievement, is only a stage of the path; the true goal is Supreme Buddhahood. They achieved not merely by piercing the gross veil of passions (klesavarana) by insight into the non-selfhood of the person but, in addition, by piercing the subtle veil of cognizable objects by the realization that the so-called ultimate elements of which, according to the Hinayana, the person consists, are only mental constructs and, therefore, themselves devoid of selfhood (dharma-nairatmya) and unreal.
In this radical manner the Mahayana reduces all possible objects of experience, whether internal or external, to the Void (Sunyata), which is not a state of non-existence or privation but rather the ineffable non-dual Reality which transcends all apparent oppositions, such as being and non-being, self and others. Expressed in more positive terms, all things exist in a state of and, since this is one suchness, also in a state of sameness (samata).
On the mundane level, the polarity of the Sangha and the lay folk represents a socio-ecclesiastical rather than a spiritual division, all followers of, the Buddha being united through their common devotion to the Bodhisattva ideal. Faith, as a means of attaining Enlightenment, ranks co-ordinate with Wisdom.
The Buddha is regarded not only as an enlightened being but also as the embodiment of the Truth and Reality behind the universe. Besides being endowed with three Bodies (trikaya), the Dharmakaya or Body of Truth, the Sambhogakaya or Body of Reciprocal Enjoyment, and the Nirmanakaya or Created Body, corresponding to the absolute, the celestial, and the mundane planes of existence, he has various forms and attributes.
These are the different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, such as Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, and ManjusrI, Avalokitesvara, and Vajrapani, the Bodhisattvas of Wisdom, Compassion, and Power respectively, around each of whom there centres a popular cult.
In the field of philosophy the Mahayana is represented by the two great schools of the Madhyamikas and the Yogacarins, the first founded (or rather systematized) by Nagarjuna (c. 150 A.D.) and the second by Asanga (c. 400 A.D.). Both are based primarily on the doctrine of Sunyata as taught in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras; but there are important differences of approach which give to reach their special character.
The Madhyamikas or followers of the Mean emphasize Wisdom, and their method is dialectical. They reduce mind and matter directly to Sunyata, the truth of which is revealed by exposing the self- contradictory nature of all statements about the Absolute. The Yogacarins or practitioners of Yoga, on the other hand, stress Meditation, and their approach is intuitive. They reduce matter to mind and then mind to Sunyata, the truth of which dawns upon the purified consciousness in the depths of meditation. In later centuries the two teachings were sometimes regarded as constituting one continuous doctrinal system, wherein the Yogacara represented the relative and the Madhyamika the absolute truth.
The Vajrayana, the ‘Diamond Vehicle’ or ‘Adamantine Way’, is so called because, like the irresistible vajra, meaning both thunderbolt and diamond, it immediately annihilates all obstacles to the attainment of Buddhahood. It is predominantly yogic and magical in character, and its ideal is the Siddha, ‘a man who is so much in harmony with the cosmos that he is under no constraint whatsoever, and as a free agent is able to manipulate the cosmic forces both inside and outside himself’.
Except that it aims at the realization of Sunyata not only mentally but also physically, the Vajrayana differs from the Mahayana less in respect of doctrine than in its methods. Its goal is the transmutation of the body, speech, and mind of the initiate into the Body, Speech and Mind of the Tatliagata, that is to say, into the Nirmanakaya, the Samhho- gakaya, and the Dharmakaya.
In the case of the Lower Tantra it is believed that this transmutation can take place in sixteen lives, and in that of the Higher Tantra in the space of one life. Such a tremendous acceleration of the normal rate of spiritual evolution requires not only the concentrated practice of various highly esoteric yogic exercises but also a special transmission of spiritual power from an enlightened guru.
For this reason the guru occupies in the Vajrayana an even more exalted position than in the other yarns, being regarded as the Buddha himself in human guise. Various forms of Vajrayana can be distinguished.
These are not doctrinal schools but lines of spiritual transmission which, so far as the human plane is concerned, originated with one or another of the eighty-four Siddhas, prominent among whom were Padmasambhava or Padmakara and Sarahapada.