How does “Sutrayana” relate to actual Buddhisms?

Sutrayana, as I explained it in the past few posts, may have seemed alien; possibly even unrecognizable as Buddhism. The negativity of revulsion and renunciation might seem extreme, and incompatible with your understanding of the Middle Way.

Sutrayana is a somewhat theoretical concept. It lumps together all of Buddhism other than Vajrayana, but Buddhisms are extremely diverse. How well does this theoretical construct resemble reality?

That question is complicated enough to take several posts to answer:

  • The difference between a yana and a sect
  • Sutra and Tantra in Theravada
  • Zen, Sutra, and Tantra
    [Update: I dropped this because I don’t understand Zen well enough]
  • Sutra, Tantra, and Consensus Buddhism
  • How Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen go beyond emptiness, differently

Consensus Buddhism—the current American Buddhist mainstream—is the most important subject here. It has roots primarily in modernized Theravada and modernized Zen, but also incorporates elements from both Tibetan and Hindu Tantra.

In the rest of this post, I’ll briefly cover two minor points:

  • “Sutrayana” equals Hinayana plus Mahayana. Those two are different, so how can they be lumped together?
  • All Tibetan sects teach Sutra as well as Tantra. How does Tibetan practice relate to Sutrayana theory?

Lumping Hinayana and Mahayana together

Hinayana and Mahayana are not the same. Talking about them together as “Sutrayana” could seem wrong.

However, their differences are more significant when you are practicing one of them than when you are practicing Tantra. “Sutrayana” as a term is useful only for thinking about what is distinctive about Tantrayana. It points out what Hinayana and Mahayana share that Tantrayana does not.

So do they actually share the features I attributed to them in “Sutra and Tantra compared”?

Hinayana fits the description better than Mahayana does. Its main difference from “Sutrayana” is that it aims not for “emptiness,” but for “non-self” (anatta/anatman). These are closely related ideas, though.

Mahayana, although officially based on revulsion for samsara, winds up saying that samsara and nirvana are the same. Where Hinayana unambiguously points out of the world, toward nirvana, Mahayana starts to point back in. The bodhisattva abandons the attempt to exit from samsara. Mahayana begins to speak of buddhahood in the world, within samsara but not stained by it, as a positive state. None of this makes any sense from a Hinayana point of view. (I’ve found Bikkhu Bodhi’s essay on this disagreement particularly insightful.)

I believe Mahayana is actually incoherent. It pulls in two directions: out of the world and into unchanging emptiness, through renunciation; into the world and changing forms, through compassion. The history of Mahayana is a series of creative attempts to reconcile this tension. I think this is not actually possible within Mahayana itself.

Tantra resolves the contradictions by coming down decisively on the side of the world. So Mahayana might be best understood as transitional between Hinayana and Tantrayana, and not itself a workable system.

I started to write a post about this, but it got long and academic, so I dropped it. If you’d like to follow up, see John Dunne’s “Thoughtless Buddha, Passionate Buddha,” and John Makransky’s Buddhahood Embodied: Sources of Controversy in India and Tibet. Or, we can discuss in the comment section below.

Tibetan Sutrayana

All Tibetan sects teach Hinayana and Mahayana as well as Vajrayana. It’s important to understand that the word “Hinayana” is not derogatory in Tibetan Buddhism. All Tibetan sects consider Hinayana essential.

Since my explanation of the differences between Sutra and Tantra is based on Tibetan analyses, it’s not surprising that Tibetan Hinayana and Mahayana do fit the description of Sutrayana quite well.

That said, there’s a tendency in Tibet to blur the boundaries between Sutra and Tantra. Many teachings and practices combine elements of both. These mixtures won’t fit neatly into either of the columns in my table of features of the two systems, but criss-cross the two.

Superficially, this sounds like a good idea—why not combine the strengths of both? Sometimes that works. In my opinion, it mostly doesn’t, because the pieces pull in opposite directions. Sutra and Tantra are both valuable paths, and you can practice both at different times. However, you cannot simultaneously renounce and embrace the world. That makes no sense and doesn’t function. I think Sutra/Tantra hybrids have been driven more by economic expediency than religious efficacy, and are better not imitated in the West.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

13 thoughts on “How does “Sutrayana” relate to actual Buddhisms?”

  1. As an undergrad, I read a journal article tracing the origins of prajna-paramita and the bodhisattva ideal in proto-Mahayana literature. Unfortunately I don’t have a reference and my memory is sketchy, but my recollection is that the author suggested these were unrelated developments, and that at least one early prajna-paramita text carried a warning to monks trying to practise the bodhisattva path, in case seeing the emptiness of ‘all sentient beings’ undermined their practice.

  2. RE: “Buddhisms” – have you explained this non-normative use elsewhere? Because Buddhism is customarily, an uncountable (mass) noun. It’s also cumulative, even if we add Mahayana to Theravada we still have “Buddhism”.

  3. interpretive — This usage is common in Western academia. I think it could be said to be “normative” there, based on for instance this. It’s also widely endorsed in the practitioner community, including by respected traditionalists like Thanissaro Bikkhu. I don’t know who first introduced it; if anyone else does, I’d be interested to hear! A simple Google search turns up much more info.

    Part of the point is that Buddhisms are not cumulative; different sects have very different ideas and practices that are not compatible. And this is not just a matter of earlier traditions rejecting later ones; every tradition has had continuous internal innovation.

    Jayarava — Very sorry you didn’t like it. It would be more helpful if you said why you disagreed…

    Josh — Interesting, but I’m not quite sure how it is relevant?

  4. The memory was sparked by your paragraph claiming the incoherence of Mahayana – although I suppose prajna-paramita isn’t treated as an inherently renunciative perspective by all Buddhisms. Perhaps I’m just free-associating on emptiness vs. compassion.

  5. You can take the girl outta the trailer, but…

    I have virtually no exposure to Buddhism apart from what has been developed in and distributed from Tibet. That being said, I thought that it was a characteristic of Tantrayana to always have something of the Sutrayana mixed into it, no? I’m not talking about attempts by Tantric apologists (if such a thing exists) to placate the monastic powers-that-be, but about Sutric philosophies that don’t necessarily conflict with Tantra. And now that I mention it, I can’t seem to come up with any particular philosophy (I don’t read much – maybe pointing to what Josh mentioned re: how the Prajnaparamita more or less leaves the door wide open for Tantra). Tantra deliberately embraces a lot of taboo stuff, but when renunciation becomes taboo, is there a place/technique to embrace/transform it? Is there any way to really get the Sutra out of the Tantra? What would this look like to you? I am genuinely curious. Loving this particular series!

  6. Johann — Thank you, another excellent article from Thanissaro Bikkhu! He does point close to the heart of the incoherence of Mahayana. His article rejects the Buddha-Nature (Tathagatagarbha) doctrine, because it’s incompatible with anatta/anatman (non-self). And, it’s widely acknowledged within Mahayana that there is at least the appearance of a contradiction here.

    All Mahayanists definitely accept both doctrines, so for hundreds of years scholars and practitioners tried to find ways of reconciling them. It can be useful to analyze particular Mahayana-based Buddhisms (Zen, the Tibetan sects, the Pure Land Schools, etc.) by looking at how they did that.

    It’s also worth grappling with the contrast personally, in one’s own practice (if one practices Mahayana and/or Vajrayana). Both the non-self aspect and the Buddha-nature aspect seem to arise during meditation. How do those relate?

    Dharmadhatu Daka — Glad you like these posts!

    Yes, Buddhist Tantra is definitely, distinctively Buddhist, and it incorporates much of the Mahayana doctrinal view. (This becomes obvious when you compare Buddhist and Hindu Tantra.) Tantra is about unifying emptiness and compassion, which are central to Mahayana.

    When I wrote about “blurring the boundaries between Sutra and Tantra”, I meant specifically the differences in this table. Although sometimes it seems they are systematically opposite, they also share a great deal, and that remains, no matter how carefully you maintain the boundary.

    I’m not sure quite what you are asking with “when renunciation becomes taboo, is there a place/technique to embrace/transform it?” Do you mean, is there a way to reinterpret renunciation within tantra? Yes; but then it isn’t really “renunciation” other than metaphorically. Or do you mean, can tantrikas practice renunciation? Yes, definitely, and we almost all do at times. I just think it’s important to be clear about what you are practicing and why.

    The tendency is to think that renunciation is inherently “holy,” losing sight of its actual function. It becomes the socially approved “nice” mode of living, rather than the way to liberation from samsara.This frequently happened throughout Asian Buddhism. Often tantrikas would practice renunciation to look holy in order to get economic support from lay people. If you do that, you aren’t on both paths, you are on neither one!

    Josh — Thanks, yes, I understand now. That probably is another manifestation of the same underlying problem.

  7. David,

    Your response that the word ‘Buddhisms’ is ‘common in Western academia’ does not make in-roads to the concept of normativity – which generally requires wide recognition and acceptance across the entire culture (that is: outside a particular, special or technical use).

    The link you gave to defend it as normative use was to a book series entitled ‘Buddhisms’, sponsored by Princeton University Press and University of California Press.

    The incidence of the word ‘Buddhisms’ when compared to ‘Buddhism’ on the Princeton site also suggests that the Editor, Stephen F. Teiser was using it for a particular purpose and neither he or the sponsors see it as having wide acceptance.

    A summary for query ” Keywords: buddhisms”: found 8 matches
    A summary for query ” Keywords: buddhism”: found 63 matches

    On to your other point about it being ‘widely endored in the practitioner community’, I think you would have to Cherry Pick your definition of the practioner community and it’s members to support the claim of it being ‘widely endorsed’.

    Finally, on the ‘respected traditionalist’, Thanissaro Bikkhu – nowhere in the main body of the article does Thanissaro Bhikkhu use the word ‘Buddhisms’.

    ‘Buddhisms’ is used in the title only – and the title is generally selected at the discretion of the editors.

    It’s Not Buddhism, It’s Buddhisms

    Even if he did agree to its use in the title, to presume his commentary is representative of traditional thought in Theravada generally might be hard to justify on the basis of this article and his comments elsewhere.

    Google serves up 611,000 results for ‘Buddhisms’ and 10,900,000 results for ‘Buddhism’. Although this is not trial by Google, this aggregated data suggests that ‘Buddhisms’ is used only 5% of the time – again suggesting it’s use has not been widely accepted as you suggest, many of these instances may well be spelling mistakes from poorly edited copy.

    My point about Buddhism being cumulative is not controversial from a lexical standpoint – but the best push back that it may need re-evaluating I found was from Richard Payne here:

    Buddhism or Buddhisms? Lexical consequences of geo-political categories

    I fully understand that different sects have different ideas and practices, but what is at issue is not the history of Buddhism, but despite that history – is it a legitimate use of the English language to count each tradition in the same way as we might count cars (as opposed to say – gravel)?

    Richard Payne does not provide any stark conclusions about this, but for a clue as to the vagaries of the English language we could take our lead from similar words – like Idealism, or Existentialism, Post-Modernism and so on.

    We might be able to identify many adversarial personalities and schools of thought within these concepts, and they make admit them or disavow any link to the labels of post-hoc consensus. None of these words and many -ism’s like them are not normatively – count nouns.

    The main thrust of Richard paynes’ argument is (the word ‘Buddhism’: “fails to take into account the ways in which the logic of such grammar structures conceptualization within the discourse of Buddhist studies”.

    So, his argument is not about changing the word on the basis of a ‘grammatical issue’ or stylistic usage’ (which is the substance of my complaint) but rather as a deconstruction technique, to encourage ‘self-critical reflection’.

    I note that he does not advocate a radically under-researched departure from these norms.

    My point about it being cumulative is also justified since a description of ‘Pure Land Buddhism’ it is not invalidated by using the term ‘Buddhism’, in the same way as tipping some water out of a cup into a lake does not mean we can no longer call it water. With the risk of over playing my hand – if we talk about the “Waters of the United States”, we cannot transpose this to the ‘Waters of my Coffee’ because it (normatively) makes no sense – except perhaps to a bad poet.

    Of course, whether normativity is something we wish to take into consideration is an entirely different question.

    Here is Richard Payne on norms:-

    “Such judgments all too easily shift over into exercises of power and authority — who determines what is normal also determines what is abnormal. Normal and abnormal are themselves ambiguous descriptors”.

    But nevertheless, I have found writers that have learned the rules before they choose to break them are at least, more interesting to read… and more convincing.

  8. Ah… hmm… OK… I may be happy to conceded the point! Or not… I’m unsure because I can’t figure out what is at stake here. Can you explain how this matters? What would follow if “Buddhisms” were normative, or not?

  9. *What matters*? Well now that IS a fabulous (as in: fabulosus) question! I would venture that primarily is at stake here (in this thread) is very similar to what is at stake in the wider milieu of ‘Western’ Buddhist discourse, specifically though – 1) whether you want people to perceive you as being implicated in an apologetic movement in the direction of the likes of Stephen F. Teiser, Richard Payne and Tricycle Magazine (and many more are implied in this same direction – Buddhist Geeks / Secular Buddhism / Speculative Non Buddhism / Hard Core Zen / (too many to list in fact) and to a lesser extent perhaps FWBO / Ajahn Chah branches and so on and so forth – again – too many to mention); 2) the community of interests backing these commentaries (generally the Christian/Social Democratic model) and 3) the ideology informing that model (Christian/Secular/Humanist/Spinozan). Much of it takes Buddhism as the starting point, (the object) but I think pretty much all of it is hypo-critical in the sense that the imperative for contextual analysis proceeds from prior, group based psychology growing out from the genesis of ideas I have sketched in this response – not from what each sect or thought leader presumes (and promulgates) as a distinctive and authentic Buddhist position, or view?

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