Three Yanas - Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana


Classical Buddhist literature mentions several systems of theory and practice called by a Sanskrit name “- yanas”, which means “Vehicles”. Yanas might be considered as “views” or teachings supported by certain types of people that “moves” them forward. There are many such vehicles for people and deities and Buddhist vehicles among them:

1. Vehicle of personal liberation (Hinayana)
2. Vehicle of universal salvation (Mahayana)
3. Vehicle of Tantra (Vajrayana).

In this context “Vehicles of people and deities” means systems of training and methods to accomplish the most important tasks of current incarnation and also methods to ensure a beneficial future reincarnation in a form of a person or deity.

Buddha has mentioned one more type of vehicle, namely – a vehicle of Brahma, which mostly consists of those meditation methods for which the objective is to reach the highest possible incarnation in samsara – the cyclic wheel of existence, determined by karma. This meditation types teach to turn away attention from all external objects, which leads to a state of concentration or samadhi. When this type of meditative concentration is reached, the result brings altered states of consciousness that precisely corresponds to conditions of existence in realm of forms and non-forms, i.e. material and non-material realms of existence.

From the Buddhist viewpoint all these different systems deserve respect, because all of them have a capacity to bring enormous benefit to many living beings. However, that doesn’t mean all of them can show the path leading to a full liberation from sufferings and cycle of rebirths. True freedom and liberation may be reached only when our confusion, our wrong conception of nature of reality will be completely dissolved. This confusion that causes all emotional and mental processes is the main cause that binds us to the eternal cycle of birth and death within samsara. Theoretical and practical system which points to the path of liberation from this dependency is called the vehicle of Buddha (or Buddhayana).

Within Buddhism there are two main systems of theory and practice - an individual Vehicle or Hinayana and the general Vehicle, or Mahayana. The first of them includes Theravada system, which is the most spread form of Buddhism in many Asian countries as Shri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and others. According to description in classical Buddhist literature, the individual vehicle can be divided in two main categories – the vehicle of listeners and vehicle of individually awaken ones.

The main difference between individual vehicle and general vehicle is a view on Buddhist doctrine of non-self and the way it is applied. While in individual vehicle the view on selflessness is only applied to an alive being and their personality, but not to things and phenomena in general, in Mahayana it is considered that the principle of selflessness is not limited to personality, but encompasses everything that exists, all phenomena without an exception.

In other words, in the Great Vehicle absence of I is understood as universal principle. In this interpretation this principle acquires greater depth. According to Mahayana teachings, only when realization of principle of absence of I is based on this universal interpretation, selflessness will lead to elimination of defilements and the underlying state of confusion. Only abolishing the underlying ignorance one can cut the root of samsara. Deeply experienced practice of absence of I can even lead to full awakening, the state of complete liberation from subtle imprints in consciousness and deeply set habits and ideas rooted in the wrong conception of nature of reality. System of theory and practice that supports this view on selflessness is called Mahayana.

Tantric vehicle or Vajrayana, which in Tibetan tradition is considered the highest vehicle, is a part of Mahayana. Except of meditation methods, used to attain highest levels of awareness of emptiness and Bodhichitta, this system is using also several more advanced meditative techniques involving different elements of physical body in practice. This level of attainment becomes possible due to practice of complicated yogic exercises, characterised by conscious insight to important channels inside a body, energetic centres of the body or chakras. By means of very accurate training of the mind and body, practitioners are able to reach the highest levels of inner wisdom and awareness and reach the full awakening. Meditative exercises which involves very subtle coordination of all mental and physiological processes in path to Enlightenment is a feature of tantric vehicle.