This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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9.2. Hinayana and Mahayana

Two branches

When Ashoka convened the first Buddhist council in 240 B.C. it was in order to settle sectarian disputes, which goes to show that these disputes arose very early in the history of Buddhism, even during the life of the Buddha himself. The council is evidence of this sectarian development and marks its beginning rather than its end. This should not alarm us, since it is the way of ‘missionary religions’ and we can see the same process at work throughout the history of Christianity, and the very power of these ambulatory Revelations is that they are susceptible to a multitude of adaptations.

In truth, the Buddhist landscape cannot easily be divided into primary and secondary groups. Nonetheless, in order to begin somewhere, we will begin with the distinction between the Hinayana and Mahayana forms of Buddhism. This starting place, and the terms themselves, are not without drawbacks. It would perhaps be more politically correct, in the contemporary Buddhist world, to speak of ‘Theravada Buddhism’ instead of Hinayana, since the latter has come to be seen as a pejorative.  We will use Theravada in more specific discussions but here at the outset Hinayana seems historically more appropriate and, if nothing else, useful for our introductory purposes.

Hinayana means, ‘Little Raft’ or ‘Lesser Vessel’, while Mahayana ‘Great Raft’ or ‘Greater Vessel’.

Hinayana Buddhism is distinguished by a) its scriptures being preserved in Pali, b) its claim as representatives of the ‘pure and original’ teaching of Gautama, and, whatever truth there is in this claim, c) its emphasis on the monastic, puritanical, and rationalistic elements of it.

The Mahayana scriptures, on the other hand, are a) recorded in Sanskrit, and b) its doctrine has developed in a markedly theological way, expressing itself through devotion and the basic level and mystical experience at the more advanced, and c) for this reason it addresses itself to the world at large and not only to an elite.

It is a mistake to categorize these schools geographically, as Northern and Southern, since this gives the impression that they are the product of political and situational factors and not expressions spiritual temperament that are found in all traditions. Nonetheless, this categorization can be considered accurate insofar as the Hinayana school grew prominent in southern regions such as Ceylon and Burma, while the Mahayana flourished in Nepal and China and Tibet.

The distinction elaborated

The distinction between Hinayana and Mahayana is something like that between a monastic order and the church at large, if not in spirit at least in form.

We’ve already said that Hinayana lacks the theistic emphases of Mahayana. In the former, Gautama was merely a man among men, exceeding them in intuition and through his intuition the possessed of the secret of life, which led him to Nibbana, extinguishing the causes of rebirth. He is ‘the Buddha,’ but Buddhahood is not a condition regarded as the destination of all, even of his closest disciples. They may attain Arahatta and Nibbana, which is to say, they may come to possess the Way, but they are not Way-finders.

The universal profession of the convert is: “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.”[1] This would have meant, in original Buddhism, the person of the Buddha himself, but in the centuries to follow they could not but begin to take on a mystical meaning. It is precisely this mystical tendency, inherent in the teachings of original Buddhism, that came to develop into the devotional form of the Mahayana.

[1] These are the ‘Three Jewels.’

Change in the term Buddha and Bodhisattva

In the beginning the term Buddha signified a kind of personal office specific to Gautama, but eventually took on a more technical and, as already hinted, theological meaning. The Buddha was originally samma-sam-buddha, the fully Self-Awakened and Shower of the Way for the Arahats, who were Way-followers. But in time and as the Mahayana grew into prominence the term Buddha came to denote a condition to which all could and should aspire. At the same time the term Bodhisattva (Wisdom Being), which at first had been used to refer to Gautama’s status after the Going-forth and prior to the attainment of Nirvana, came into more general usage to refer to any being destined to become a Buddha, whether in this life or some other. Hence the 550 Jatakas (Birth Stories) and the tale about Sumedha (a previous life of the Buddha) spurning the thought of crossing over alone and deciding to attain to omniscience so that he might convey others across with him. Here we are already dealing with the spirit of the Mahayana. Finally, when discussing the term Bodhisattva, we must acknowledge, in addition to the past Buddhas mentioned in the Mahapadana Sutta the lone future Buddha: the Bodhisattva Metteyya, personification of Love, who is mentioned in the Milinda Panha. From these ‘germs’ it is not difficult to anticipate the elaborations of the Mahayana, the ‘Great Vessel.’

The way is easy—the way is hard

The Mahayana presents itself as a ‘world religion’ capable of offering salvation to all people in all walks of life. It is in this sense that it’s name (‘Large Raft’) is justified, and this also explains the reason for giving to the Hinayana its name, however we should point out that the latter title was bestowed (and still is) by adherents of the Mahayana and is considered a pejorative, and if there is a Hinayana in today’s context, Theravada (‘The Way of the Elders’) would be the preferred name, more accurately encompassing the spirit of that group and its claims. Although there has been real opposition between the two ‘schools’ it is, from our point of view, a mistake to consider them opposing sects, since it is not abnormal for a religion to present itself in this dual aspect of austerity on the one hand and mercy on the other.

As an example, we could refer to the teachings of Christ, who said at one point: “narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it”,[1] and this is the Hinayana. Yet it was also said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy and my burden light”,[2] and this is the Mahayana.

In this way, the revelation addresses itself to all but in a way appropriate to all, which is to say, differently and in a graduated fashion; and according to the nature of mankind, the more austere path is reserved for the few, while the way of grace and mercy addresses itself to the many.

[1] Matthew 7:14.

[2] Matthew 28:30.

Development or degeneration

The various branches of each religion are accustomed to criticizing one another for either going too far or not going far enough, of being too lax or too rigorous, even when they are not accusing one another of outright error. Catholicism, which is the most elaborately developed form of Christianity, is accused by Protestants of being an unjustified embellishment of the Gospel, while Catholics, on the contrary, see theirs as both the most primitive and the most complete expression of the faith, the result of a natural, justified, and providential unfolding of doctrine enabling it to become truly Universal, hence truly Catholic. Although the analogy has its weaknesses, it could be said that the Mahayana is in a position similar to the Catholic one, while the adherents of the Hinayana represent a Protestant variation, objecting that the former have added to the original Gospel, for example by accepting texts and teachings that were not present in the original kernel of doctrine.

Additional distinctions

The Hinayana makes few concessions and is geared toward a minority who need neither the devotional comfort of the personal cult, nor the external supports of ritual and rite. The ‘Lesser’ way is the ‘pure’ or even ‘idealist’ way. One need only realize the truth, that is to say, knowledge is what saves. It represents the religious element that is highly exclusive.

The Mahayana emphasizes compassion and is the way of love, and what comes alongside this emphasis is the development of the cult of the Buddha since devotion requires a person for its object.

In spite of this contrast, it should be pointed out that the Mahayana does permit a realization by knowledge since, as we have already said, it addresses itself to all, and from the point of view of its adherents, it does not merely scoop up those whom the Hinayana passes by, but offers to all a possibility for salvation, and its teachers would insist that this does not exclude the path of knowledge. We could say that the two paths are not mutually exclusive—for only the Hinayana ‘excludes’. For this reason some Christians accuse the Hinayana as a ‘selfish’ teaching, but it is selfish in the same manner as the whole of the Christian monastic tradition, and it is clear upon reflection that although the Mahayana speaks more plainly about love of other beings, at the same time it is impossible to imagine a truly ‘selfish’ Arahat.

In the end we find that the two overlap, and that the disciple of love must realize in himself some degree of knowledge of the Truth in order to be saved; and on the other hand the disciple of knowledge will, if love is an aspect of the true, encounter it on the path of ‘self-realization’. We could recall the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, that one in fact must love himself properly before he can love another.

We should be wary of classifying which is the development and which is the degeneration of the Buddhist Gospel. Ananda Coomaraswamy was correct in his appraisal:

“The development of the Mahayana is in fact the overflowing of Buddhism from the limits of the Order into the life of the world; into whatever devious channels Buddhism may have ultimately descended, are we to say that that identification with the life of the world, with all its consequences in ethic and aesthetic, was a misfortune? Few who are acquainted with the history of Asiatic culture would maintain any such thesis.”[1]

[1] Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, p. 228-229.

The ideal of the Bodhisattva

When it comes to doctrine, the distinguishing characteristic of the Mahayana is the primacy of the Bodhisattva ideal over and above the ideal of the Arahatta. The Arahatta, we recall, pursues Nibbana or realization by knowledge; but he in whom the Bodhicitta (heart of wisdom) is fully realized seeks above all else the salvation of all sentient life. Whereas in the Hinayana the Buddha is the exemplary teacher, a conveyor of the highest knowledge, in the Mahayana he is the epitome of selfless love, who would give up not only his life, but all previous and future lives, that all could be saved. In fact, it is not said that he would, but that he in fact already has made this sacrifice an indeterminate number of times:

“As I observe the three thousand worlds, there is no place, not even one the size of a mustard seed, where as a Bodhisattva he did not renounce his life for the sake of living beings.”[1]

Each has the potential to become the expression of this ideal, if only ignorance and vice could be overcome by love. The Mahayana is the call to such a love, and its Gospel of this love. The Bodhisattva takes upon himself the sin of the world in a kind of cosmic empathy and refuses even the opportunity for escape from its trials in order that none are abandoned to this suffering.

While the primitive order, by necessity, teaches that the Way is shown but must be pursued by each of us alone and according to the individual’s ability, the Mahayana makes the salvation of others the concern of all adherents, and in fact the greater the merits of the adept, the more their loves necessarily overflows into the world.

[1] Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, ch. 12.


The doctrine of parivarta is of particular interest to the Catholic student of Buddhism. It is a regular part of spiritual discipline in which the practitioner ‘turns over’ the merit of their goods deeds, transferring their benefits to friends, family, even deities. It is a consequence of the insistence, in the Mahayana, on the interdependence of beings such that no one pursues his salvation alone, which in Catholicism would be akin to the ‘Communion of Saints’ which is the justification for the ‘Treasury’ of merit possessed by the Church and which contains all of the prayers and good works of Christ Himself and all of his saints:

“[T]he ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy. This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.”[1]

Here we will again make the (admittedly tenuous) connection between the ‘Protestant’ mentality of the Hinayana of today and the ‘Catholic’ approach of the Mahayana. The former takes as its starting point a view of the spiritual journey and salvation that is individualistic, from the start, while the latter views man as social, and everything else is colored by this. It is why in Catholicism there is not only a ‘treasury’ of good works, so that all benefit from the virtue of one, but of ‘social sin’ by which the sin of one is in a sense the guilt of all. Such a way of viewing man and his actions is foreign to both the Hinayana and Christian Protestantism.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§1476–1477

Karma modified

The doctrine of karma (Pali: kamma) of early Buddhism now calls for modification: instead of being presented in terms of an accumulation of cause and effect in a linear sense, following a series of previous lives of a single being and leading up to the present life of that same individual, the Mahayana presents a view of all the world as a shared life and therefore a shared karma, such that no one acts by and for himself alone, but either for the benefit or detriment of the world.

Karma is deterministic if we look backward but empowering if we look forward: where I am is the necessary result of a causality, but what we do with our situation hinges on the turning of the will, and for good or ill this will affect the future of all being.

We have drawn certain parallels between the Buddhist conception of merit and the various Christian interpretations, but the contrasts should not be forgotten: it should also be noted that for Buddhism there can be no sudden ‘forgiveness of sins’ by which the world is saved. Any such thing would have to be accomplished in terms of a causality stretching back into the indeterminate history of the world. Our situation and predisposition are the work of the ancestors who came before and who contributed to our present life, which becomes our starting point that we accept with grace.

History and universality

Between the Hinayana and Mahayana there is a difference in emphasis similar to that between Aristotle and Plato, respectively: the former was a ‘scientific philosopher’ and so also is the Buddha of the Hinayana; the latter was a mystic and a metaphysician and so also is the Buddha of the Mahayana. Although the comparison between Buddhism and Greek philosophical development is of course weak, it is apt to illustrate the point that this difference does not imply a contradiction but rather a difference in point of view with its distinctive emphasis.

It is said that the Hinayana is rooted in the context of history, whereas the Mahayana is rooted in myth and it is by this characteristic that it is enabled to become universal, since by transcending time is also transcends place, which is to say, becomes susceptible to adaption in various cultures.

Theistic interpretations

We can call the Mahayana ‘theistic’ in comparison to the Hinayana, but that characterization should be qualified. The Hinayana possesses something more like a psychology, albeit in the broadest traditional sense of the term; the Mahayana possesses a theology, in contrast, but in the same sense as Hinduism, meaning that this theology is fitted within the context of a metaphysic that endows its doctrine with both an esoteric and an exoteric side.


As one example of the metaphysical character of the Mahayana, we could mention the doctrine of the Trikaya, which describes the Three Bodies of Buddha. This doctrine distinguishes between the Dharmakaya, the Sambhogakaya, and the Nirmanakaya. The Dharmakaya is the Buddha at the level of ‘the Father’, which is to say the supreme and unconditioned state, beyond being. The Sambhogakaya is Christ as Logos, and who is therefore conditioned but beyond nature. The Nirmanakaya is then Christ incarnate in human form, or in Hindu terminology, as Avatar. All three ‘levels’ are of course simultaneous but distinct by representing enthronement beyond being and on down to the level of multiplicity, but in the third state the Buddha (as with any of the Avatars) is no less truly one and the same as the first or the second. This could be understood in the same way that Christ speaks truly when he says that ‘I and my Father are One’ (in the state of Nirmanakaya) and of him it is said that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (in the state of Sambhogakaya).

The Void

Buddhism is sometimes accused of skepticism or nihilism and part of this is due to a superficial understanding of its terminology. It speaks of Sunya, ‘the void’, and the non-existence of beings, but by this it is not meant that nothing is, but that nothing is of itself, but, in comparison with the Absolute, the root of all being, only a relative and ‘dependent’ existence is possible, and once this position is acknowledged it becomes legitimate to speak of the unreality of things for the sake of escaping the seduction of the illusions of the world.

Nirvana in light of the Mahayana

In the Hinayana, Nibbana was the extinguishing of passion and death of the individual: there was no corresponding metaphysical interpretation attached to this term and it was limited to the point of view of humanity, as was the manner of speaking of the Buddha.

In the Mahayana, the doctrine is amplified to the point that it takes on the appearance of an extreme nihilism, teaching the unreality of the whole world of Becoming. In the Vajracchedika Sutra, we read:

“And again, O Subhuti, a gift should not be given by a Bodhisattva, while he still believes in the reality of objects; a gift should not be given by him while he yet believes in anything; a gift should not be given by him while he still believes in form; a gift should not be given by him while he still believes in the special qualities of sound, smell, taste, and touch…And why? Because that Bodhisattva, O Subhuti, who gives a gift, without believing in anything, the measure of his stock of merit is not easy to learn!”