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:

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:

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.