The World of Tibetan Buddhism

1. The Divisions of Vehicles

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The Divisions of the Vehicles

Various systems of thought and practice are mentioned in classical Buddhist literature.1 Such systems are referred to as yānas or “vehicles.” There are, for instance, the various vehicles of humans and divine beings in addition to the Buddhist vehicles: the vehicle of individual liberation (hīnayāna), the vehicle of universal salvation (mahāyāna), and the vehicle of tantra (vajrayāna). In this context, vehicles of humans and divine beings refer to systems that outline the essential training and methods for both fulfilling the major aspirations of this life and, in addition, obtaining a favorable rebirth as either a human or a divine being. Such systems emphasize the importance of maintaining an ethically sound lifestyle—grounded in refraining from engaging in negative actions—since leading a life of righteousness and good behavior is perceived to be the most crucial factor for ensuring a favorable rebirth.

The Buddha also spoke of another category of vehicle, the Brahma Vehicle, comprising principally those techniques of meditation that aim at achieving the highest possible form of life within samsara, the karmically conditioned cycle of existence. Such meditative techniques include, among other things, withdrawing the mind from all external objects, which leads to a state of single-pointedness. The meditative states experienced as a result of having generated single-pointedness of mind are altered states of consciousness that, in terms of their phenomenological aspects and also their mode of engagement with objects, closely correspond to states of existence in the form and formless realms.2


From a Buddhist point of view, all these diverse systems are worthy of respect since they all have the potential to bring about great benefit to a large number of sentient beings. However, this does not mean that all these systems are complete in themselves in presenting a path leading to full liberation from suffering and from the cycle of existence. Genuine freedom and liberation can only be achieved when our fundamental ignorance, our habitual misapprehension of the nature of reality, is totally overcome. This ignorance, which underlies all our emotional and cognitive states, is the root factor that binds us to the perpetual cycle of life and death in samsara. The system of thought and practice that presents a complete path towards liberation from this bondage is called the vehicle of the Buddha (buddhayāna).


Within the Buddha’s Vehicle there are two major systems of thought and practice: the Individual Vehicle, or Hinayana, and the Universal Vehicle, or Mahayana. The former includes the Theravāda system, which is the predominant form of Buddhism in many Asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and others. In classical Buddhist literature, the Individual Vehicle is described as having two main divisions: the Hearers’ Vehicle and the Solitary Realizers’ Vehicle. A principal difference between the Individual Vehicle and the Universal Vehicle exists in their views on the Buddhist doctrine of selflessness and the scope of its application. The Individual Vehicle expounds the view of selflessness only in relation to person or personal identity but not in relation to things and events in general, whereas in the Universal Vehicle, the principle of selflessness is not confined to the limited scope of the person but encompasses the entire spectrum of existence, all phenomena. In other words, the Universal Vehicle system understands selflessness as a universal principle. Interpreted in this way, the principle of selflessness acquires greater profundity. According to the Universal Vehicle teachings, it is only when a practitioner’s experience of selflessness is rooted in this universal interpretation that the experience will bring about the elimination of the delusions and their underlying states of ignorance. It is by eliminating these underlying states of ignorance that we are able to cut off the root of samsara. Furthermore, a profound experience of selflessness can also lead, ultimately, to full enlightenment, a state of total freedom from the subtle imprints and the obstructive habitual tendencies created by our misconception of the nature of reality. The system of thought and practice which presents such a view of selflessness is called Mahayana, the Universal Vehicle.

The Tantric Vehicle, or Vajrayana, which is considered by the Tibetan tradition to be the highest vehicle, is included within the Universal Vehicle. In addition to meditative practices for enhancing one’s realization of emptiness and bodhicitta,3 this system also includes certain advanced techniques for utilizing the various elements of the physical body in one’s meditative practice. Such feats are accomplished on the basis of sophisticated yogic practices that principally involve mentally penetrating the essential points within the body where the cakras, or energy centers, are located. By means of this subtle and refined coordination of mind and body, the practitioner is able to accelerate the process of getting at the root of ignorance and completely overcoming its effects and imprints, a process that culminates, finally, in the realization of full enlightenment. This feature—of engaging in meditative practices involving the subtle coordination of both mental and physiological elements within the practitioner—is unique to the Tantric Vehicle.


I shall now briefly explain the historical background of Buddhism as we now know it. According to the Kashmiri pandit Śākya Śrī, who came to Tibet in the early thirteenth century, the Buddha was born in India about 2,500 years ago. This accords with the standard position of the Theravāda tradition, but according to some Tibetan scholars, the Buddha appeared in the world more than 3,000 years ago.4 There is also a third opinion that dates the Buddha’s birth to sometime in the eighth century B.C.E. When reflecting on these conflicting opinions regarding what is perhaps the most crucial date in Buddhist history, sometimes I feel that it is quite embarrassing that still no consensus exists on the key question of when the teacher Śākyamuni Buddha actually lived! I seriously think that it would be helpful if, with due respect, scientific tests were carried out on the various relics that are believed to be genuine relics of the Buddha. These relics can be found in countries like India, Nepal, and Tibet. Perhaps scientific experiments on those relics using sophisticated modern technology and chemicals could establish with greater accuracy the dates of the Buddha’s existence. This would be very helpful. In the past, erudite Buddhists tried to prove their own version of the historical facts surrounding the Buddha’s life mainly through logic and argumentation. Given the nature of the question, however, I think such types of proof can never be conclusive.

Despite conflicting assertions regarding the historical reckoning of his birth, there is a general consensus in the literature as to the key events of the Buddha’s life. We know that the Buddha was originally an ordinary person like ourselves, with all the basic faults and weaknesses of a human being. He was born into a royal family, married, and had a son. Later, however, he came into contact with the unsatisfactory suffering nature of life in the form of unexpected encounters with people afflicted by sickness, old age, and death. Deeply disturbed by these sights, the prince eventually left the palace and renounced his comfortable and sheltered princely way of life. His initial reaction to these experiences was to adopt the austere lifestyle of an ascetic, engaging in a spiritual path involving great physical penances. Later, he discovered that the true path out of suffering lies in a middle way between the extremes of strict asceticism and self-indulgent luxury. His single-minded spiritual pursuit ultimately resulted in his full awakening, or enlightenment: buddhahood.


I feel that the story of the Buddha’s life holds great significance for us. It exemplifies the tremendous potentials and capacities that are intrinsic to human existence. For me, the events that led to his full enlightenment set an appropriate and inspiring example for his followers. In short, his life makes the following statement: “This is the way that you should pursue your spiritual path. You must bear in mind that the attainment of enlightenment is not an easy task. It requires time, will, and perseverance.” Therefore, right from the beginning, it is crucial to harbor no illusions of a swift and easy path. As a spiritual trainee, you must be prepared to endure the hardships involved in a genuine spiritual pursuit and be determined to sustain your effort and will. You must anticipate the multiple obstacles that you are bound to encounter along the path and understand that the key to a successful practice is never to lose your determination. Such a resolute approach is very important. The story of the Buddha’s personal life, as we have seen, is the story of someone who attained full enlightenment through hard work and unwavering dedication. It is ironic that sometimes we seem to believe that we, who are following in the footsteps of the Buddha, can somehow realize full enlightenment with greater ease and less effort.

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