The three main approaches in buddhism – An introduction

In Buddhism it is pointed out that our present state of mind is conditioned by previous actions. This is always true, regardless of which realm of existence one is born into. Different kinds of existence come about as a result of the infallible law of cause and effect.

The mind is the origin of all actions. The way individuals behave is based on what they think and believe. Samsara, which is a state of perpetual suffering, will continue to manifest, as long as the mind is conditioned by ignorance. This is the actual state of affairs; it is not true just because the Buddha, Shakyamuni, said so.

The Buddhist teachings are methods that remove ignorance from the mind. Since ignorance is merely a state of mind, Buddhist practice is always a mental process which attempts to bring about an enlightened state. There are two stages: to study and contemplate the way things truly are and to cultivate the resulting understanding, so that one’s perception of reality becomes accurate.

The Tibetan name for Buddha, ‘Sang-gye’, illustrates this approach. ‘Sang’ means to awaken, that is, to awaken from the sleep of ignorance. This awakening is like the sun dispelling darkness. ‘Gye’ refers to the enlightened qualities that are revealed and free to manifest once ignorance is gone. This is like when a flower blossoms displaying all its beauty.

The Buddha presented three levels of teachings, which are called the Three Vehicles or the Three Yanas. The appropriate level for each individual depends upon one’s understanding. These three main approaches have different goals and ways of presenting reality.

In the first approach, the Shravakayana, the two major schools of thought are the Vaibashika and the Sautrantika systems. The Vaibashika and the Sautrantika teach that the cause of conditioned existence is the ignorant belief that the individual is a permanent, lasting entity.

In order to overcome this mistaken notion, one studies the teachings which explain that the ‘self’ is, in fact, without essence, insubstantial, and unreal. Having arrived at a definitive understanding, one familiarizes oneself with this new way of regarding reality to the point where it becomes an integral part of one’s being. This realization is called the state of an Arhat of the Shravakayana, and it is the highest point of this approach.

The second approach, the Pratyekabuddhayana, goes further. It points out that all other phenomena also, just like the individual, are not truly existent entities, that all things are illusory like the images in a dream. As in the Shravakayana, there are two stages of development: intellectual analysis which is followed by cultivating a new way of perceiving reality, so that full realization of this approach is achieved. Practitioners contemplate the twelve phases of the process of dependent occurrence in their order of arising, that is, basic unawareness, actions and the karma they accrue, habitual patterns that colour consciousness, and so on. They also contemplate these phases in the reversed succession, starting with death, going on to aging, birth, and so on. The goal of this approach is the state of an Arhat of the Pratyekabuddhayana. This state involves full realization of the emptiness of the individual as well as a partial realization of the emptiness of external phenomena.

The third approach, the Mahayana, speaks of compassion for all living beings and the emptiness of both the individual and all other phenomena. It teaches that the practice of the ten paramitas must be based on awareness which fully perceives the essencelessness of phenomena. The inseparability of compassion and emptiness is a main teaching in this tradition. The point is that compassion compels one to work for the welfare of others and that perception of emptiness allows one to do so in an enlightened way. Such perception of emptiness brings one to the realization of mind’s true nature which, according to the Mahayana, is the union of awareness and emptiness free from the limitations of conceptual mind.

In this approach, as in the two previous approaches, practice begins with a learning process, so that an accurate understanding becomes the ground for one’s development. One makes effort to benefit others with the understanding that whatever occurs is empty of reality and thus illusory. When practice is based on this understanding, the individual will not have expectations or hopes of reward. The knowledge of the Mahayana viewpoint in all its aspects is the foundation for cultivating states of mind that will gradually result in attaining Buddha, the enlightened state, which is insight into the way things truly are – the fact that any phenomenon is empty of real essence or substance. Such emptiness is not a mere nothingness; it is what allows the enlightened qualities of the three kayas to manifest.

This is a brief overview of the Three Vehicles, which include all the teachings of the Buddha. Anyone who wishes to follow the Buddhist path needs to study the teachings in detail and then put them into practice. The Buddha said that he can show the way, but it is through personal efforts alone that enlightenment is attained.

Published in Knowledge in Action, Volume 3, 1994.
(A journal of the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute (KIBI) in New Delhi, India).