Comments on “Yanas are not Buddhist sects”

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Johann (Hanzze) 2013-11-25

I did not came across any serious reverence that such as different ways have been taught. I would say its a push of cheating as there is even no logical reason for such.
But being in the tourist agency, a talker with talkers of what could be the best destiny and who might bring you safe there, don’t for get that dreaming is just dreaming and the securest way, without harming anybody, and the fastest, is always to simply walk. Even the Awakened did not use any vehicle at all, but walked the Path to liberation. In thoughts, words and physical deeds.

If you like to use all your perceptions gained by the Buddhisms industry in the best way, trow them away. They are just poison and nourish nothing else than papanca.

Shane H 2013-11-25

In principle I find mapping religious traditions onto one another can be more confusing than clarifying but as I am sitting here on a break and enjoying your blog I wondered if the broad groupings of Christianity - like Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox - aren’t loosely the equivalent of yanas.

Michael Dorfman 2013-11-26

A few historical notes:

I think it is worth pointing out that Mahāyāna is a self-appellation made by Mahāyānists (although it is a somewhat late one; they had other terms they used to refer to themselves earlier on); Hīnayāna, on the other hand, was a disparaging term (meaning “inferior vehicle”) which some Mahāyāna polemicists applied to their opponents. Nobody calls themself Hīnayāna; Śravakayāna is a more neutral term.

I imagine you’ll mention it in a later post, but I think many people would be surprised to read Xuanzang reporting having met large numbers of Mahāyāna Theravādins in the 7th Century CE.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that models such as the Nyingma 9-yāna doxography are much later developments, and summarize and arrange the teachings of chronologically and geographically distant schools in ways they might not recognize themselves.

David Chapman 2013-11-26

Michael — Unfortunately, with “Hinayana” (as with “Mahayana”) there seem to be no good options. It’s true that no one “calls themselves Hinayana,” but some Tibetans will happily say they practice it. And no one says they practice Shravakayana anywhere (as far as I know?). And, Shravakayana isn’t an accurate alternative term for Hinayana, because Hinayana also includes Pratyekabuddhayana, at least in theory. My recollection is that there are quite early texts that say there are three yanas, namely Shravaka, Pratyekabuddha, and Maha—but I don’t know whether those first two were ever real things, or just theoretical categories. (Do you? I’m curious…) Further, while “Shravakayana” has the advantage of avoiding offense, I’m writing for practitioners, not scholars, and practitioners will never have heard of it. So it has the same problem as “Paramitayana.” Another route some writers take is to make up new English terms like “The Foundation Vehicle” which is great except no one has any idea what they are talking about…

Yes, my next post is about Mahayana and Vajrayana in Theravada. It’s not just in the 7th century—they’re still alive and kicking, although maybe not feeling their best.

I agree about the 9-yana system, which is questionable in lots of ways. But pretty much everyone would agree that Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana are real and distinct things—even though the names are all problematic! For purposes of this discussion, that is as differentiated a categorization as I need.

Shane — I think those are sects (or super-sects), not yanas. One sect can offer many yanas, and there is no sect that teaches Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy, along with instructions about which to apply when!

Sabio Lantz 2014-01-15

Carefully laid out as always, informative and a great pleasure to read.
Being clear on terms helps so much.

jayarava 2015-09-25

Sad to see a comment by Michael Dorfman. Almost two years since he killed himself.

yāna does “literally” mean “vehicle”. It comes from the root √yā ‘go’. The suffix -na is for making adjectives. So yāna literally means something like “goer”. And it’s usually used to refer to a carriage of some kind, and not to “vehicles” like horses or elephants.

Just so hīna does mean “inferior” but “defective, discarded, abandoned”. The inferior sense is influenced by Kumārajīva’s Chinese translation.

The Lotus Sutra says: na hīnayānena nayanti buddhāḥ “the Buddhas do not lead by a defective way”. see

The Yāna categories only make sense from a Mahāyāna point of view. Ironically Seishi Karashima has argued that the translation yāna is a misreading of the an original Prakrit jāna corresponding to Sanskrit jñāna (knowledge). Originally mahajñāna was a synonym of prajñāpāramitā and sarvajñā.

Pāramitāyāna doesn’t work either since many of the Mahāyāna sects did not teach or practice the perfections. On the whole we can use the term for those texts which self-identify as Mahāyāna. We know next to nothing about Mahāyāna as it applies to people or sects. The correspondence between what the texts say and what people did only got wider as time went on. So it’s actually a literary genre. Also there is almost no correspondence between the sects of India and those outside India. China probably never had any contact with non-mahāyāna Buddhists, because by the time of the first translations Mahāyāna was mainstream.

What is Zen?

T Stevenson 2023-09-28

Hopefully comments on decade+ old posts are taken as complementary and not annoying - I was a child when you wrote much of this book, and it’s adding great value to my life today as a young adult.

Your Yanas posts throughout Vividness have greatly clarified the whole conversation for me. But one issue (and it’s almost certainly actually a non-issue) is the classification of Zen - and by that I mean the whole of Zen, including Chan, Seon, Thiên, and Japanese Zen.

It seems to me Zen could be considered a yana, developed from dhyana but now its own distinct yana inclusive of dhyana. Zazen is a specific approach to meditation, koan study is a unique method of pointing to, playing with, and integrating the understanding of emptiness, and there are unique rituals and devices that approach and play with emptiness in specific ways (Zen poetry, gardens and sculpture, ritualized living).

If Zen is considered a yana, then sects would be the schools and lineages, such as Sōtō, Ōbaku, Rinzai, Jogyesa - all of which primarily focus on Zen the yana, but also frequently incorporate other yanas, like sutra.

I do see, in my very limited understanding, Zen the yana as a cousin to Dzogchen - similar to your framing in Beyond Emptiness, particularly at the highest level of koan practice… So that begs the question of whether Zen as a yana fits within Mahayana or Vajrayana, or neither.

What unites Dzogchen and Tantra conceptually and mechanically under Vajrayana, beyond aesthetic and sequential development? Is the difference between core yanas purely the aim - Arhat through Hinayana, Bodhisattva through Mahayana, and Buddha through Vajrayana? If so, Zen might constitute a fourth core yana standing outside the traditional three - as often Zen seeks a goalless Buddhism, although this is controversial across practice lineages (the Bodhisattva-ideal runs deep throughout Zen-focused sects).

Zen's classification is unclear (to me)

David Chapman 2023-09-29

Hi T, thanks for an interesting and perspicacious comment! Definitely not annoying.

I was a child when you wrote much of this book, and it’s adding great value to my life today as a young adult.

This is somewhat surreal to me, but yes, it’s been fifteen years… I’m glad you are finding it useful!

It seems to me Zen could be considered a yana, developed from dhyana but now its own distinct yana inclusive of dhyana.

I agree that this would make good sense. I don’t know of anyone having said this (apart from you). Generally, Zen is counted as Mahayana, but it also describes itself as “a special transmission outside the sutras,” and it seems to have a different fundamental attitude than Indian Mahayana. On the other hand, the Pure Land Schools are also counted as Mahayana, but have an even more distinctive principle and function, so the category “Mahayana” is confused and confusing and ideally would be abandoned. The Tibetans continued the Indian academic practice of clearly distinguishing yanas, in theory at least, but East Asia didn’t even try, and the innovations there don’t fit into the Indian scheme.

Zen the yana as a cousin to Dzogchen

Yes. In fact, in their early development, they are historically intertwined. The Wikipedia article on semde (early Dzogchen):

Scholars like Samten Karmay and Karen Liljenberg have also argued that other traditions like tantric Shaivism and Chan Buddhism may have had some influence on this early Dzogchen literature… Liljenberg notes that various documents form Dunhuang indicate that some Dzogchen practitioners were syncretizing Dzogchen with Chan and other early Dzogchen works show that other people disagreed with this trend. This is also supported by the work of the Tibetan scholar Nubchen Sanggye Yeshe. Nubchen attempts to argue for the difference between the two teachings and the superiority of Dzogchen, but he also agrees that much of their terminology is similar. Furthermore, the biography of several Dzogchen masters depict them as traveling to China (Vairotsana) or even having transmitted Chan lineages (Aro Yeshe).

What unites Dzogchen and Tantra conceptually and mechanically under Vajrayana, beyond aesthetic and sequential development?

Yeah, kinda mostly that.

Buddha through Vajrayana?

Also that. Although… Dzogchen basically refuses to take the category “Buddha” seriously. Everyone is beginninglessly enlightened, so there’s nobody here but us Buddhas.

often Zen seeks a goalless Buddhism, although this is controversial across practice lineages

Yup. Nobody here but us Buddhas, so there’s nothing to be gained. “Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.”

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