Namchak Community Blog

Three Different Paths: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana

The following is an excerpt from Lama Tsomo’s new book, Why is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling?

 

The Buddha saw that we’re all different, with different capacities and styles, so he didn’t lay out just one path for everybody. He laid out the Three Yanas, or vehicles, which are like the boughs of a tree. There are a multitude of branches (twigs, even!) within those. There are three major boughs, or vehicles (yanas), of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Just so you know where you are on that tree, Tibetan Buddhism is the third vehicle, Vajrayana. Each of the vehicles is styled for the different karma, needs, capacities, and proclivities of different beings. In America, with its veritable smorgasbord of spiritual entrees, not to mention side dishes, open bar, and vending machines, we need to feel our way through the tasting. If you find you respond best to one or another path, or come to recognize your teacher from a particular path, that path is probably yours.

One way of distinguishing among the Three Yanas is by looking at the distinct ways in which they each handle the Three Passions, also known as Afflictive Emotions, defined below:

The Buddha grouped the thousands of emotions like fear, worry, longing, etc.,into three basic categories:

1. Ignorance, delusion, laziness, narrow-mindedness, and similar emotions.

2. Desire, clinging, longing, and such.

3. Aversion, aggression, hatred, dislike, fear, and such.

Sometimes these are spoken of as the Five Poisons, with the fourth and fifth categories under the third category, aversion/aggression. The fourth is pride, inflation, and such, and the fifth is jealousy, competitiveness, and such. They are often subsumed under the third category because they are considered to be forms, subsets, of aversion/aggression.

If you come upon poison, you could take one of three approaches to dealing with it. (1) You could avoid it altogether. (2) If you’ve already eaten it, you could take an antidote. (3) If you’ve already eaten it, you could also apply enough awareness that it’s distilled to its purely positive quintessence. (This third approach might work better with emotions than, say, arsenic. In the case of physical poison I’d say, don’t try this at home! Leave that to the masters. :)

Theravada, or School of the Ancient Ones, takes the first approach mentioned above—avoiding the poison.

Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, follows the second approach—taking an antidote.

Vajrayana, or Diamond Vehicle, is actually a subcategory of Mahayana, and it takes the third—distilling the poison to its pure essence.

We probably need to use all three approaches at various times, but each of us has a stronger natural inclination toward one or another of these vehicles. One of the many reasons I like the Vajrayana path is that it actually contains all three vehicles within it. As you can imagine, Vajrayana is a highly efficient path to enlightenment, but also a risky one. That’s why, while you might get away with pursuing the Theravada path without a lama, you really can’t do that with Vajrayana.

Vajrayana meets us where we’re at, with all our attending afflictive emotions, and leads us to our Buddha Nature. It uses the impure parts and helps us to smelt them like gold, to come to the pure essence.