Catherine Jetsun Yeshe October, 2013
Buddhist teaching expanded and changed even during its early history. As it altered its emphasis from Theravadin teachings on uncovering the true nature of self to the interactive and interdependent teachings of Mahayana, the recognition of the Bodhisattva way of life came to be dominant over the thrust of the earlier form, which was to personally awaken to a stage where there would be no further return to human form.
Inherent in the Mahayana/Bodhisattva way of life is the vow to step back from full awakening in order to help all beings emerge from suffering, leaving none behind. Thus, how we live our lives becomes vitally important. In order to live without self-reference, however, it is vitally important to understand the teachings on Sunyata, often translated as ‘emptiness’, though really the term refers to an open, spacious state of mind that has no pre-conceptions. As we deepen in practice, this openness becomes an experience of boundless space and the concepts of space and time collapse.
But then, as Bodhisattvas, we must return to the world. This is where the Vajrayana practices excel. They offer us a variety of pathways to develop and travel, so that we can tailor our very being to most efficiently help others. The foundation practices work to clear up any misconceptions we may have about our place in the world and through a set of odd, but efficient exercises give us the way to journey through the world.
There is a Vajrayana teaching story that articulates the differences between the awakened nature of those who practice through each of the 3 vehicles. It goes like this:
An awakened Hinayana practitioner is like a king who shows his subjects how to emerge from suffering.
An awakened Mahayana practitioner is like a boatsman who ferries his fellow passengers across the river.
An awakened Vajrayana practitioner is like a shepherd who sends his sheep through the gates before him.
This teaching story seems to equate Theravadin work with Hinayana work, which causes error, confusion and sectarianism. Hinayana is where we all begin our path, trying to relieve and understand our personal suffering. I have met many Theravadins who have travelled far beyond the Hinayana levels. However, it is still true to say that early Buddhism placed an emphasis on self-relinquishment for the purpose of awakening and that the later forms of Buddhism expanded that emphasis to include such a deep understanding of the inter-connectedness of all life that personal awakening was no longer the primary goal.
So, to my mind, Mahayana is the real jewel within the Buddhist lotus and Vajrayana foundation practices show us a swift way to clear the obstacles that block our awakened nature from shining through.