Buddhism – Hinayana (Theraveda) And Mahayana Branches of Buddhist Philosophy and Metaphysics

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Buddhism has two major branches, the Hinayana or Theraveda Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.

Hinayana is the orthodox school of Buddhism. It believes itself to be the true adherent to the principles set forth by Gautama Buddha. It is the older of the two schools. Its texts are written in Pali, a common language of India which Gautama Buddha also used in his teachings. At present, it is found mainly in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, etc.

Mahayana is considered the heterodox (non-orthodox) school of Buddhism. It arose later than the Hinayana branch. Its texts are written in Sanskrit. At present, it is found in China, Japan and much of the Western world.

There are fundamental differences in the core philosophy of these two branches in their very approach to Metaphysics.

Gautama Buddha was opposed to metaphysical speculation. His heart was filled with pity for the suffering of mankind in the world, and he wanted to preach a path which would help us all in overcoming this suffering. He compared this to a man who had an arrow in his chest – what the man needed at this moment was not to know the length and diameter of the arrow or what wood it was made of but to get it out.

But soon after the Buddha had died, questions arose regarding the exact metaphysical position and beliefs of Buddhism. During these discussions, it was recognized that there were two distinct branches of thought, and this resulted in the split of Buddhism into its two main branches.

Hinayana is the orthodox school and is considered to be truer to the Buddha’s teachings. Hinayana follows Realistic Metaphysics/Ontology. In this, the existence of the world is recognized. But the world is said to have only relative reality. The phenomena of the world have no true reality, they have no independent ground of existence. One phenomena supports another, and there is no base at the end which supports it all. This is called Dependent Arising. Thus there is no true reality in the world, and hence although the world does exist, in that it cannot be called non-existent, it does not exist with full reality. In this way, the world lies between full existence and non-existence, between full reality and non-reality. Hence the suffering in this world is temporary only and we can get rid of this suffering by realizing this truth of non-reality of the world and following the Right Path.

Mahayana is the heterodox school. It was later than the Hinayana school, and its texts are mainly in Sanskrit. Mahayana follows Idealistic Metaphysics/Ontology. In this, the existence and reality of the world is denied. The only thing to have existence is the observer, our consciousness. We have no way of proving that the world we experience is anything more than a dream of our consciousness, hence the reality and existence of the world is said to be nothing more than that of a dream. There are three schools of Mahayana depending on the amount of reality they are willing to concede to this ‘dream’.

Sautantrika: in this, it is conceded that we cannot prove the reality of the world, but because we do see the world and all other human beings, it is ‘inferred’ from practical experience that the world exists. And so even though we cannot prove it, we should take the world to have existence. The rest of the philosophy follows Theraveda reasoning.

Yogachara: In Yogachara, the world is denied as a dream. But the reality of the observer is accepted, and the importance is of this observer, our consciousness. The world is said to exist like clouds against the sky, by deep meditation we can still these thoughts which float across our consciousness and thus achieve the state of Nirvana. The main school of Yogachara that is extant today is the Zen school.

Madhyamika: Madhyamika is the nihilistic school of Mahayana Buddhism. In this, it is said that since the world is a dream, all our thoughts and sensations are imaginary. Our consciousness also is shaped by our thoughts and sensations, there is no consciousness apart from thoughts-sensations. So once we quell our thoughts-sensations, we would find a void, Shunya. This Shunyata is the final truth.

In this way, Buddhism, though usually considered to be a single religion, is actually composed of many different schools of thought. But all these schools are unified in leading upto the final goal of Nirvana defined by Buddhism.

Source by Palash Mazumdar

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