MCTB The Three Yanas



While I am generally a die-hard fan of the Theravada, I have a great appreciation for much of the rest of Buddhism and the world’s other great mystical traditions. In that spirit, I offer the following. Traditional Tibetan training is broken down into Three Yanas or vehicles: the Hinayana, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana. These correspond very nicely to the needs of practitioners at various stages of the Simple Model presented above.

The Hinayana is a set of techniques and practices that closely resembles many of the traditional trainings of the Theravada, and these are often confused for this reason. (There are some historical relationships between the two that I do not wish to go into.) The Hinayana’s emphasis is on basic morality, stabilizing the mind, and looking into the Three Characteristics, i.e. all of the fundamental practices and emphases that I mentioned in Part I. It is designed to get a person to the first stage of awakening, i.e. first path, which the Tibetans would call third path in the Tibetan Five Path Mode, or attaining the first bhumi.

Getting to the next stage of the simple model or third path involves a deep appreciation of interconnectedness in real time and a willingness to surrender to it. The Mahayana path provides methods for understanding this in abundance with its strong emphasis on helping others and on the intrinsic emptiness (“shunyata”) of phenomena. The Bodhisattva Vow, a fundamental part of the Mahayana path, not only expresses a deep willingness to surrender to and understand interconnectedness, but its emphasis on not becoming a full buddha can help people get away from the temptation of purely future-oriented goals and grandiose visions of perfection that can still be quite a challenge at this stage.

To get to the next stage, one must completely understand the intrinsic luminosity of all phenomena without exception. The Vajrayana path, with its emphasis on intrinsic luminosity and Tantric techniques that work with the awakened nature of the fullness of the emotional range, fits very well with the needs of one trying to gain the final understanding that emptiness is form. Dzogchen teachings also explicitly emphasize inherent luminosity and that all things are of the nature of truth.

I am still a big fan of the Theravada, obviously, but I have a strong appreciation for the tailored beauty of the Three Yana system of the Tibetans. It has an uncanny sophistication to it and is part of what happens naturally even if you are following Theravada techniques. I am also a big fan of Zen, particularly its strong emphasis on keeping things down to Earth, e.g. “After enlightenment, the laundry.” If you learn any of these traditions well, you will come to see that they each contain the others. As always, it is not the tradition that is important, but that it work for you.

In short, the non-duality models are the only models of awakening that hold up without apology, qualification or exception. The rest of the models have serious problems, though each may contain some amount of truth in it, however poorly conveyed. Given sufficient experience of the real world, those who believe in literal interpretations of such confused models as the limited emotional range models and limited possible action models will either:

  1. Be forced to come to the conclusion that no living being meets their definitions of enlightenment,
  2. Be forced into a dark corner of borderline-psychotic rationalizations of what actually happens, or
  3. Be headed for a very rude awakening indeed, to make a bit of a bad pun.



There is only one thing worse in my mind than students getting caught up in the dogma of the worst of the models, and that is realized teachers getting caught by them. Just as it is disappointing when those with long retreat resumes but no fundamental insight want to encourage faith in their beautiful tradition by appearing to know more than they actually do, it is doubly disappointing when realized beings can get caught in these fallacious models, acting as if they worked in the fantasy-land way that most people think they do. I know exactly where they are coming from and how tempting this is, but I dream of a day when such things never happen. The dharma world would be so much better off if teachers were honest about what realization is and ain’t, both with their students and also with themselves. Don’t think this sort of dishonesty doesn’t occur. I have seen some of my very best and most realized teachers fall into this trap and have also done so myself more times than I can count. Learn from those who have had to learn the hard way and are willing to admit this.

MCTB Ditching our Stuff vs. Ditching the Split

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