The concept of “yanas” is a major source of confusion about Buddhism for Westerners. We get them muddled up with sects, which are a completely different thing.
The relationship between yanas and sects is easy to understand by analogy with the automobile business. A yana is category of vehicle, like SUVs. A sect (or Buddhist “school”) is a brand, like Ford.
Yanas are like automobile categories
“Yana” literally means “vehicle.” You can think of yanas as being like categories of automobiles: passenger cars, SUVs, pickups. Depending on what you want to do, different yanas are useful. A passenger car is best for commuting to work; an SUV is best for a ski trip; a pickup is best for taking construction debris to the dump.
Most often, the Buddhist yanas are listed as Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. These, too, have different purposes, and are each best for different tasks.
Automobile categories have sub-categories. Passenger cars include sports cars, sedans, and station wagons. Sports cars include roadsters and coupes.
You can categorize vehicles in several different ways. For example, sometimes SUVs and pickups are considered together as “light trucks”; but sometimes SUVs are considered passenger vehicles, combined with sedans, and contrasted with “commercial vehicles,” including pickups. Some vehicles could be categorized as either “luxury cars” or “sports cars.” Different categorizations are useful for different purposes. This is rarely a cause of controversy or confusion.
Yanas have sub-divisions too. Hinayana contains Shravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana, for example. As with automobile categories, there are several different ways of classifying yanas and their subdivisions; Wikipedia has a pretty good write-up.
A different classification (not mentioned there) is into Sutrayana, Tantrayana, and Dzogchen. In this scheme, Sutrayana includes Hinayana and Mahayana.
These alternative classifications, like auto classifications, are only meant to be useful in context, as ways of pointing out particular similarities and differences. They aren’t Holy Truths, and rarely cause controversy.
Sects are like automobile brands
Buddhism, like Christianity, has sects. They are usually called “lineages” or “schools” or “traditions,” but these amount to the same thing as “denominations” or “sects” in the Christianity.
Sects are, roughly speaking, brand names, like “Ford,” with institutional ownership. As in Christianity, groups often break off from Buddhist sects to create new sub-sects. (The analogy with car brands is imperfect, due to trademark law. Disgruntled Ford employees can’t leave to start The New Reformed Orthodox Order of Fordism, and sell their own version of the Ford® Mustang®.)
Most Buddhist sects offer several yanas
Some car brands have narrow range. Porsche sells mostly only sports cars, although they recently added an SUV.
Other car brands include many categories of vehicle. Ford offers sedans, a muscle car, crossovers, SUVs, and pickups.
Pure-Land Buddhist sects are Mahayana-only. Single-yana Buddhist sects are uncommon, though.
The Nyingma tradition (to which I belong) has a product line of nine yanas. These include Hinayana (with its two subdivisions), Mahayana, and six categories of Vajrayana (five tantric vehicles, plus Dzogchen).
Confusing yanas with sects
Buddhism has both sects and yanas. This means there are two different kinds of sub-divisions of Buddhism to keep track of. It’s not difficult to keep them straight, but you need to know that they are different, cross-cutting types of distinctions. No one would suppose that “Porsche” was a type of automobile, nor that “SUV” was a brand.
Christianity does not have yanas. It does have sects: Catholic, Baptist, Mennonite. So when Westerners first started trying to understand Buddhism, they assumed Buddhist yanas were sects. Mostly this confusion has persisted, and even many scholars still get this wrong.
Starting with the understanding that Buddhism comes in three categories, Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, Westerners tried to make these into sects.
Westerners decided that Theravada must be the same thing as Hinayana. Since “Hinayana” is derogatory in some contexts, Theravadins objected to this. It is now considered politically correct to refer to the three major yanas as Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana—although people think “Theravada really means Hinayana, it’s just not nice to use that word.”
This is totally confused. Theravada is a sect, and Hinayana is a yana. As I’ll discuss in an upcoming post, Theravada offers all three major yanas, including tantra. This fact is not often mentioned, and therefore not well-known, simply because it is too confusing to people who don’t understand the sect/yana distinction.
Westerners also thought Vajrayana must be a sect, and they first noticed it in Tibet. So they decided “Vajrayana is the fancy word for Tibetan Buddhism.”
This is also totally confused. Vajrayana is taught by several sects that have no connection with Tibetan Buddhism. For example, Shingon teaches Vajrayana in Japan. Also, every Tibetan sect teaches Hinayana and Mahayana as well as Vajrayana.
One Dharma, sectarianism, and the yana principle
The differences and conflicts between Asian Buddhist sects are mostly irrelevant to Westerners. “Consensus Buddhism” is based on the idea that therefore we can assume all Buddhisms have the same essential ideas and practices; so in the West these should be merged into “One Dharma.”
I think this idea is disastrous, because it fails to recognize that differences between yanas are critical—even though differences between sects are not. For instance, One Dharma, supposedly the unification of Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism, entirely omits Vajrayana. Joseph Goldstein, who invented One Dharma, could only do this because Vajrayana was misunderstood as the same thing as Tibetan Buddhism.
Likewise, I believe Theravadins are right to criticize Consensus Buddhism for deliberately suppressing the differences between Hinayana and Mahayana. Those differences matter greatly for both view and practice.
Mahayana is a confused category
Often, in Tibetan Buddhism, “Mahayana” means the same thing as “Bodhisattvayana” and “Paramitayana.” All three refer to the yana whose aim is to become a bodhisattva by practicing the paramitas (virtues).
Elsewhere, “Mahayana” is a confused and confusing category. (Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations has a helpful discussion of this.)
In India, many sects taught both Hinayana and Mahayana, and Mahayana was genuinely a yana, as it still is in Tibet. But sometimes conflict between advocates of the two resulted in sectarianism, and “Mahayana” operated more as a sect.
Mahayana was more compatible with Chinese culture than Hinayana, and was more practiced there, although both were imported. East Asian Buddhism is often described as “Mahayana,” with the assumption that Mahayana is a sect. This is not altogether wrong.
China developed a series of sects, each based mainly on a single Mahayana sutra. In some cases, they gradually diverged from what would have been considered Mahayana in India. These are still classified as “Mahayana” sects, but don’t teach Bodhisattvayana or Paramitayana.
So, now, “Mahayana” refers to numerous dissimilar sects, not all of which teach Mahayana considered as a yana. This is seriously confusing.
As an additional headache, Vajrayana is sometimes included in “Mahayana,” and sometimes contrasted with it as an almost-opposite. When Vajrayana is included, Mahayana is divided into Paramitayana (which is part of Sutrayana) and Mantrayana (which is equivalent to Tantrayana and Vajrayana).
What to do?
I want to ditch the word “Mahayana” altogether. We could use “Paramitayana” to refer to the yana instead. If there had to be a word covering all the sects now called “Mahayana,” we might say “Northern Buddhism.” But, unfortunately, I can’t make this move on my own. “Mahayana” is too well-established in popular usage, and “Paramitayana” looks unpronounceable and alien.
Each time I say “Mahayana,” I’ll try to be clear whether I mean the yana or the group of sects. And, I will use “Mahayana” only in the narrow sense, as not including Vajrayana.