05 March 2010

Hīnayāna reprise.

Abandoned Bicycle now defective
(a hīnayāna). Jayarava
I've mentioned my view that the pejorative term hīnayāna has intimations of caste prejudice to a few people and several have expressed doubts over my interpretation. In this essay I want to reprise my earlier, in fact my first ever, rave 'Don't mention the H word' with a closer eye on the philology of the world hīna and particularly how it is used in compounds. That previous essay was a bit reactionary and the argument not very sophisticated. The argument here is more rigorous and searching. I will follow this with a brief look at how the word is used in the context of Saddharmapuṇḍarika or White Lotus Sūtra.

Hīna is a past-participle from the verbal root of the 3rd class: √hā - which forms stems by reduplication. "hahā" is disallowed, so the reduplicated 'ha' becomes 'ja'. The 3rd person singular present is jahati or jahāti (in both Pāli and Sanskrit) - the rules for reduplication apparently leaving room for ambiguity. The basic meaning is 'to leave, desert, abandon, renounce, forsake'. The past-participle then means 'abandoned, deserted, forsaken.' In practice it also means 'to fall short of, be deficient, or defective'.

Roots in 'h' are often abbreviated from gha and PED suggests a comparison with an Indo-European root *ghē from which we get the Greek words khēros (void), khēra (widow), khora (open space), and khorizo (separate). Compare this with the word kha in Sanskrit which means a space, or aperture; and it seems likely that words 'hole' and 'hollow' from this same root. It is from kha in the sense of 'the hole in the wheel through which the axle goes', that we get the two important terms sukha and duḥkha: the metaphor is a contrast between smoothly (su 'good, well') running cart' and one which gives a lumpy uncomfortable (dus) ride.

Monier-Williams gives more than two dozen compounds using this word. About half of them relate to social grade, or a social role; while the other half relate to something which is defective or absent. In the first category we have hīnakula and °kuṣṭa (low status family), °ja/jati/yoni (low birth), and °varga/varṇa which specifically refer to the śudra caste.

The second category we find °karman/kriya/kratu (someone who neglects the sacrifice), °guṇa/carita/vṛtta (of inferior virtue, base conduct) both of these clusters reflect the Brahminical prejudice against non-Brahmins who did not participate in their sacrificial religion. Another term for a non-believer was hīnapratijña (faithless). A drama with an anti-hero is hīnanāyaka ('whose leader is corrupt'). Finally those who associate with inferiors might be described as °sakhya (friends of the low people) or °seva (an attendant on low people).

The third category refers to something which is missing or defective: hīnakosa (empty treasury), °cakṣu/darsana-sāmarthya (blind), °bala (feeble), °buddhi (stupid), °rūpa (ugly), °roman (bald), hīnaṇga (crippled), hīnāṃsu (dark [an insult in the Brahmin lexicon]); °dagdha (insufficiently burned), °pakṣa (unprotected), °mūtya (a low price), °vāda (defective statement, contradictory evidence), °vyañjana (indistinct consonants), °svara (discordant or silent), hīnārtha (fallen short of his goals, [opposite of siddhartha]). Used abstractly we find: °tva (defectiveness), hīnātirikta (defective), hīnādhika (too few, too much, i.e. the wrong amount), °krama (in diminishing order), °tara (worse, worst).

On this basis of this survey I must temper my statement about hīnayāna and caste. However since there are several related terms which clearly are caste related, we can say that a connotation of caste prejudice cannot be ruled out. Clearly none of the other compounds with hīna as a first member have a positive connotation, and most are related to ways in which people or things fail to live up to (especially Brahmanical) ideals.

The compound mahāyāna is clearly a karmadhāraya compound meaning 'big or great vehicle'; so we could expect hīnayāna to be intended as the same type of compound. From this point of view it would mean 'defective vehicle'. However hīnayana could also be read as a tatpuruṣa - 'vehicle of the defective', or 'vehicle of the abandoned'. Read as a bahuvrīhi we could take is referring to someone who has 'abandoned the way'. Clearly English translators have fudged this term by translating it as "lesser" vehicle, but to be fair it is likely that they were following the influential translator Kumārajīva, who rendered hīnayāna into Chinese as 小乘 'hsiao-sheng, little vehicle'. (See Nattier p.172, n.4). Kumārajīva's translation of the Lotus Sūtra (for instance) is the preferred translation, and except for Kern's translation from the Sanskrit, all of the English translations are from Kumārajīva's Chinese translation (despite there being later, arguably better, Chinese translations).

The Saddharmapuṇḍarika Sūtra (SP) is a locus classicus for the use of 'hīnayāna' as a pejorative. In chapter two after the Buddha announces that he will give a new teaching, a new yāna, a group of 5000 men and women, monks and lay leave before the sermon is delivered. After which the Buddha says to Śāriputra (taking my examples from the verse section):
śuddhā ca niṣpalāvā ca susthitā pariṣanmama|
phalguvyapagatā sarvā sārā ceyaṁ pratiṣṭhitā||41|| 
Pure and free of chaff, my assembly is well established
The worthless have retreated and all the strong are steadfast
Hīnayāna does not seem to apply to the people themselves, though they are 'chaff' and 'worthless'. Curiously the text seems to use the term hīnayāna quite vaguely. Later in Chapter 2 the Buddha says:
ekaṁ hi kāryaṁ dvitiyaṁ na vidyate
na hīnayānena nayanti buddhāḥ ||55|| 
There is only one method, not a second,
The Buddhas do not lead by a defective way.
I think the definite article would be out of place here - it is 'a' not 'the' defective way. If we were to use the definite article it would imply that "the hīnayāna" was not something taught by the Buddha, and this would contradict everything we know about the history of Buddhism. Two verses on, the Buddha continues:
yadi hīnayānasmi pratiṣṭhapeya-
mekaṁ pi sattvaṁ na mamate sādhu||57|| 
It would not be good if even one being
Were to become established in a defective vehicle.
Again my sense here is of 'a defective vehicle', not 'the defective vehicle'. And actually it's not that clear what is being criticised here. It is curious and not at all what I expected to find, but this essay is already quite long, so I will have to explore it more at a later date. I will mention that SP uses the term hīnābhirata which Kern translates as 'low dispositions'. Abhirata means pleased or satisfied, as well as practising. There's every chance that hīnābhirata means 'dissatisfied' or 'lacking contentment' here. There is one other mention of a 'defective way' in chapter 6, but it doesn't add much to the picture. It almost seems as though the association of the people who leave the assembly and the 'defective way' is accidental. I don't see a direct connection between them in the key chapter. I'm reminded of the accidental identification of Lucifer ('the light bearer', an epithet of Nebuchadnezzar) with the Christian Devil based on a misreading of Isaiah 14:12 by Origen.

The argument over a suitable replacement term continues with some (me) using "Early Buddhism"; some opting for "Pāli Buddhism" (since the best known texts are in Pāli); and some "Mainstream Buddhism". All of these are problematic for a variety of reasons. My current favourite comes from Wikipedia and is "pre-sectarian". I'm going to adopt this and suggest other people do as well - it avoids the temporal problems (unlike "early"), it is neutral (unlike Pāli and Hīnayāna), it is a fair description of the subject (unlike "mainstream").


Vaidya, P. L. Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtram. The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1960. Online: Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon. 
Kern, H. Saddharma-pundarika or The Lotus of the True Law. 1884. Sacred Books of the East, Vol XXI. Online: Internet Sacred Text Archive. 
Nattier, Jan. A few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press, 2003.

Extra Notes 

10 Oct 2010: In the Alagaddūpama Suttahīnaṃ 'rejected' is contrasted with paṇītaṃ 'exalted'.
3 Aug 2014. Dhammapada, Chapter 13, vs 167
hīnaṃ dhammaṃ na seveyya pamādena na saṃvase
micchādiṭṭhiṃ na seveyya na sīya lokavaddhano 
Don't associate with a defective teaching,
Don't dwell heedlessly,
Don't embrace wrong views,
Don't indulge the world.
hīnaṃ dhammaṃ - a defective teaching. 
24 Jan 2015. In Pāḷi there is a phrase hīnāya āvattati meaning "to go back to 'the low' [way of life]" (Vin I.17, MN I.460, SN II.231, IV.191) or in the past-tense hīnāyāvatta (MN I.460, SN II.50). The phrase is used to refer to someone who has abandoned being a bhikkhu and gone back to being a householder.
5 Jul 2015. See also Anālayo (2014) The Hīnayāna Fallacy. JOCBS. 6: 9-31.


Kyōshin said...

Thanks for this Jayarava. The danger of using 'pre-sectarian' is that it may feed into the flawed search for a pristine uncorrupted form of tradition which has often plagued Buddhist Studies, and indeed Christian Theology.

Jayarava said...

Hi Kyōshin

Sigh. Yes, I think the 'original' Buddhism thing can be a red herring. Perhaps I am guilty of it, since I am interested in what is essential in the teachings and what is not; although my perspective is, I like to think, pragmatic in that I focus on what seems to have the most practical applications for me.

However I think it would be a rare scholar now that seriously pursued the 'original Buddhism' line, and they would not get their ideas published in the mainstream; certainly not in any academic journal. In fact the opposite line is more popular these days - that the texts tell us nothing at all about history, but only represent the (late) ideals of a minority of monastic specialists. If the line of enquiry is more or less dead, do we really need to worry about feeding it?

Thanks for your comment.

Kyōshin said...

You may be right, I hope so, but these things seem to go in cycles. Perhaps the 'Critical Buddhism' controversy in Japanese Buddhist Studies was a recent example of sorts?

Jayarava said...

I haven't followed the Japanese 'Critical Buddhism' controversy very closely. I though it was more concerned with arguing whether Tathāgata-garbha was Buddhist - which opens up quite an interesting discussion around "what is Buddhism?" (is it what Buddhists think and do; or is it what the texts say; or is it what the scholars say?). If I'm on the wrong track perhaps you could say more?


Theravadin said...

Hi Jayarava,

Thanks for the interesting article. The one verse you quote from the Sp Sutra:

sarvā sārā ceyaṁ pratiṣṭhitā||

...suddenly reminded me of a Pali "parallel":

Yo sāro so ṭhassatī’’ti.

"I won't hover over you like a potter over damp, unbaked clay goods. Scolding again & again, I will speak. Urging you on again & again, I will speak. Whatever is of essential worth will remain." MN 122

Regarding "labels": Sāvakayāna vs. Bodhisattayāna is pretty neutral as well. Or just referring to Nikāya Buddhism might work too...and then there is always the most simple and fitting of all labels for the raft, i.e. Dhamma.

a Theravadin

Jayarava said...

Interesting parallel phrase.

I think in the end the labels are all problematic for one reason or another! I think your last suggestion is the one that appeals to me the most. Dhamma. Aiming at vimokkha, bodhi, amata, nibbāna, brahmavihāra...

jivatu phīto ca bhavatu

Sabio/Jōsen said...

Darn, I was going to leave the same comment of Kyoshin (albeit, less eloquently). If I had to vote of those options, I would have voted for "Earlier Buddhism" as a balance between apt enough and yet not too compromised.

Shiao (in Chinese) also has pajorative connotations, of course.

Thanx for the Sanskrit tally -- very interesting. And fun points.

Is there any standard way of referring to Buddhist texts? I still get very lost knowing where they come from -- so many and all.

Sabio/Jōsen said...

Another thought (acknowledging this is a 5-year old post):

In your comment your wrote:
"I think the 'original' Buddhism thing can be a red herring.Perhaps I am guilty of it, since I am interested in what is essential in the teachings and what is not;"

I think these are intimately connected. For how can you know what is "essential" to "the teachings" if you don't know what the 'original' teachings were?

I am sure you have addressed this over the last 5 years, but I am starting from the old Raves and working my way up.

Curiously, I did a post on a Christian scholar Victor Avalos who claims (like Bart Ehrman) that we can't know the original teachings. Avalos then called for an end to Biblical Studies -- but in a very qualified manner --> using a catchy phrase. His emphasis is that, unlike Buddhism, since we can't know, our scholarly efforts need to take other turns. It seems somewhat the same here. Sure, we can speculate, but every form of Buddhism does that.

So how can we understand what is essential?

It comes down to defining Buddhism -- is it what people practice or what was taught (which we can only glimpse). Secondly, I think you are after "What is the essence of practices that extinguish suffering?" but perhaps that question is much bigger than "What is Buddhism?"
Sorry, rambling.

Meanwhile, I love the philology, the deep understanding of an amazing system of mental hygiene and all the rest and am excited to keep learning from you.

BTW,t is odd talking to the 5-year-in-the-past you and the "real" present you at the same time :-)

I wonder if Kōshin is following this thread still -- he has a fascinating blog too.

Jayarava said...

Hi Sabio

Yes. It comes down to that question - it's been on my mind for a while.

"What is Buddhism?" And of course "What was it?" If we say that Buddhism was primarily textual then we meet textual problems. If we say that it was cultural, that we meet material cultural problem (primarily a lack of evidence). If we say it was sociological, then... you get the picture.

I think a kind of archaeological approach a la Foucault might be interesting. Or use a comparative linguistics style approach.

But we need not confuse the 'original' with the 'essential'. Because essential would be defined by what is helpful. Not all of the essential teachings would be (necessarily) original. Not all of what was original is essential.

I fundamentally think that Buddhism is what Buddhists do - all Buddhists, anyone who calls themselves a Buddhist (though I might value some heavier than others). What we say is less important (though you wouldn't think so from what some Buddhists say). At worst you could say I'm interested in what is essential from what is left, and what is lost is lost - no use crying over spilt milk. We have enough, more than enough.

Yes, I think in 5 years my thinking has definitely changed under the influence particularly of Prof Richard Gombrich (and I'm realising his teacher K.R. Norman who he cites often); and Dr. Sue Hamilton. Greg Schopen is another contemporary scholar who has made quite an impact. The blog has become a lot more sophisticated, and I have a year of Sanskrit study, and started learning Pāli as well.

Best Wishes

Sabio/Jōsen said...

I agree with you --- though again, you say things with more style!

Thanx for the names: I will add them to my list. Are you teaching yourself sanskrit and pali on your own?

As for Buddhism-- my thought, for what it is worth (I will see in 5 years):
The various forms of buddhism propose different methods to limit suffering. The Buddha himself, offered several too. But for me, I see the following two additions to the tradition as the "religion" part:
(1) Making the supposed teachings to THE way (and only effective, complete, efficient ... way)
(2) Mythologizing complete an thorough enlightement

Oooops, there, I laid out my cards. But perhaps like you, I think among the teachings we have wonderful ways to limit suffering --- and for me, that is enough to entail practice. The rest is academics -- which I thoroughly enjoy.

Jayarava said...


I think you are projecting your own scepticism onto the Buddhist tradition. If you are going to be a scholar you have to learn to separate your opinion from what the tradition says. And the tradition says that it offers ways to completely eliminate suffering. You equivocate, but the tradition does not. You need to own your scepticism and not make out that the tradition shares it. It does not. Having stated your opinion as your opinion you then have the job of explaining why you do not accept what the tradition says of itself, and (from my point of view) why it matters that you disagree.

I don't really understand what you are saying in your 2 numbered points - the English is not as good as yours usually is. But again I think we drift into general discussions and I prefer to keep comments on posts relevant to those posts.


Sabio/Jōsen said...

"the tradition says that it offers ways to completely eliminate suffering."
-- I totally agree and did not mean to imply otherwise.

I will post on # 2 sometime. I move on to other posts so as to keep for sidetracking this one. Thanks.

Related Posts with Thumbnails