On the honourable shravakas and pratyekabuddhas

I found an interesting short passage in Dorje Sherab’s commentary (on dGongs gcig 4.15) where he deals with Jigten Gönpo’s attitude towards the followers of the so-called ‘lower vehicle’ (which we should really rather call the ‘vehicle of shravakas’), namely the ‘hearers’ (shravaka) and ‘solitary Buddhas’ (pratyekabuddhas). It might be objected that this can only be a ‘theoretical attitude,’ because shravakas and a lower vehicle did not exist in Tibet. But according to Jigten Gönpo’s definition of the difference between the ‘lower’ and the ‘greater vehicle’ (in dGongs gcig 1.21), one might have second thoughts. The definition says: “The difference between hinayana and mahayana is the resolve for awakening that is cultivated.” ‘Resolve’ refers here to the special resolve for awakening for the sake of all sentient beings. The shravakas do also resolve to obtain awakening, yet their primary motivation is their revulsion at samsara, the resultant renunciation, and their desire to obtain liberation for themselves, not their compassion for others. Thus as long as one has not cultivated the bodhisattva’s resolve with the wish to liberate all beings, one is still, according to this definition, on the level of a shravaka.

There seem to be some instances of denigrating images and language against shravakas in the mahayana (calling their vehicle ‘lower’ being just one example). In the Mahayanasutralamkara (13.15) we read for instance:

[For] the intelligent [bodhisattvas] to stay continuously in hell
is not an obstruction of the stainless, vast awakening.
The very blissful remaining [that is taught] in the other [i.e. lower] vehicles, however,
the thought of great ease, and the benefiting of oneself, causes obstructions.

In short, being in hell does not obstruct great awakening, but being a shravaka does. And in tantric literature we might read that the tantric yogi is not allowed to stay “more than seven days among shravakas.” 1 It is apparent that there has been a tangible tension between these groups in India. On the other hand, we have reports from Chinese Buddhist pilgrims in India like Fa-shien (early 5th c.) and Hsüan-tsang (7th c.), who noticed that in many Indian monasteries shravakas continued to live side by side with mahayanists. 2

The tension found its expression also in derogatory statements about the spiritual levels achieved by shravakas and pratyekabuddhas. In our commentary, Dorje Sherab reports that there were people who claimed that “even the first [bodhisattva] level is not seen by shravakas and pratyekabuddhas.” In contrast to that he presents Jigten Gönpo’s vajra utterance 4.15, according to which “up to the sixth [bodhisattva] level, the realisation is in common with the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas.” In other words, no matter how different the two groups might have thought, lived, and practised, a substantial part of their achievements were the same. To illustrate that, Dorje Sherab borrows from the Dashabhumikasutra (Derge vol. 36, fols. 233v ff.) the example of the prince (= bodhisattva) and the minister’s son (= shravaka). He says:

Take, for instance, a prince and the son of a minister, who are of the same age. Are their qualities different? As the young prince outshines even an old minister through his [blood]-line (rigs), whoever possesses the resolve for awakening is of the mahayana Buddha family, and therefore even the beginning bodhisattva outshines all shravakas and pratyekabuddhas through his family.

This goes back to the idea of different Buddha families, as for instance mentioned in Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament: 3

The cut-off family, the dubious-family,
the shravaka-family, the pratyekabuddha-family,
and the family of followers of the mahayana way of life …

Quotes like these are found in mahayana sources that seek to establish that entering into the family of bodhisattvas turns one into a being with much greater potential than the shravakas possess. Thus even a beginning bodhisattva outshines through his sheer potential all others. Yet, as Dorje Sherab continues:

Through realisation they [i.e. the bodhisattvas] are not able to outshine them [i.e. the shravakas] up to the sixth level, like the deeds of a young prince does not outshine the deeds of great ministers. Having reached the seventh level and upwards they are able to outshine them through both family and realisation.

In other words, the superiority of the bodhisattvas over shravakas (and pratyekabuddhas) up to the sixth bhumi is only due to their potential, not through their actual realisation. Nevertheless the bodhisattva must be worshipped and venerated by the others, as Dorje Sherab explains:

Secondly, even if the sons of the king and the minister are of equal age, the prince is exalted through his family. Therefore the minister’s son must pay his respect and venerate him. Similarly, here [shravakas, pratyakabuddhas and bodhisattvas] are of the same realisation, but shravakas and pratyakabuddhas must worship the bodhisattvas and take them as their gurus.

However, Dorje Sherab adds here that the shravaka’s inferior position is no reason for the bodhisattva to denigrate him:

It is also taught that bodhisattvas must speak honourably (zhe sa bya) to shravakas and pratyekabuddhas. Similarly as soon as the prince is born, the minister who has grown old (na tshod tshad du phyin pa) must venerate and worship him. But [the prince] too should not speak dishonourably to the minister. Even though a bodhisattva, who has comprehended the resolve for awakening for the first time, is not particularly distinguished, the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas—even if they have practised the pure discipline for many hundred thousand eons—must pay homage to him and venerate him. [But] it is taught that the bodhisattva, too, must speak honourably to them.

Even though we find in this passage the usual ranking that is based on membership in the Buddha-families, two aspects are remarkable. First, that Jigten Gönpo teaches (in contrast to some other masters) that bodhisattvas, shravakas, and pratyekabuddha have the same realisation up to the sixth bhumi, 4 and secondly, that the bodhisattva should speak honourably to them.

That this latter point is a larger issue for Jigten Gönpo can been gleaned from a passage of his collected teachings, where he says: 5

For someone who, after taking refuge to the three jewels, has entered the gate of the precious teachings of the Tathagata, completely all the practises of the different trainings are similarly ‘Dharma.’ But some people defame the instructions of the Tathagata by claiming “only this teaching of mine is Dharma, what others are practising is not Dharma,” or “Nyingmapa-mantra is not Dharma,” or “the practise of the siddha Vajrapani is not Dharma,” 6 or “amanasikara is not Dharma,” 7 etc. This causes only desire, hatred, and cognitive misorientation for them. The maturation of such activity is the result ‘samsara’ and ‘lower realms.’ Since such results are wailful, you should never denigrate any teaching!

Such an attitude is, no doubt, in sharp contrast to that of some other writers, especially in the philosophical genres. A classical case I have seen is a ‘system of tenets’ (siddhanta, Tib. grub mtha’) text, where one writer accuses another one of not even being a Buddhist—and that while they were both not only mahayanists, but also fellow madhyamikas! The fault of the accused was to belong to the other branch of madhyamaka! 8 Jigten Gönpo, on the other hand—and I hope to provide many further examples in the future—always seems to emphasise the unity of the Buddhist teachings. Thus, to take only a few examples from the first chapter, he teaches that

– while it is true that there are 84.000 teachings, they are still all one as a method of achieving Buddhahood (1.2);
– within each of the three wheels of the Buddha’s teachings, all three are complete (1.5);
– neither mantra nor sutra should be lacking, because complete awakening can only be obtained through a combination of both (1.23);
– all vows, whether of individual liberation (pratimoksha), of the bodhisattvas, or of the mantra practitioners, have the same single vital topic, namely their avoiding the ten non-virtuous actions (1.24).

And at the end of that chapter he summarises all by stating: “The intention of the Buddha is the single family and the single vehicle” (1.29). Hence his teaching is known as “The Single Intention” (dGongs gcig).

He is also prepared to admit that “there exist much that is virtuous by nature to be practised in [the systems of] the non-Buddhists (mu stegs pa) too” (1.19). And not only do the non-Buddhists have many virtuous practises that should be followed by Buddhists, too, but some things are even better understood outside of Buddhism! Here he has in mind for instance the medical specialists, who sometimes have a very profound understanding of how the rough and subtle channels of the body, the primary and secondary winds that move in them, etc., and their vital essences are, and they also know how to bestow life (‘tsho ba’i srog ster ba) in very profound ways (5.13).


1 Alexander Berzin, Taking the Kalachakra Initiation, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1997, p. 110. Berzin explains, however, that here ‘shravaka’ means “anyone who trivializes or makes fun of tantra,” which is a nice explanation, but doesn’t really reflect the actual attitude of the usual tantric towards the ‘lower’ vehicle.

2 Akira Hirakawa, A History of Indian Buddhism: From Shakyamuni to Early Mahayana, transl. Paul Groner, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993, p. 244.

3 The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by sGam-po-pa, translated and annotated by Herbert V. Guenther, Boston and London: Shambala, 1986, p. 3. See also the various books and articles by D. Seyfort Ruegg, such as his dissertation La théorie du tathagatagarbha et du gotra (Paris 1969) and “The Meaning of the Term Gotra and Textual History of Ratnagotravibhaga,” BSOAS 39 (1976) 341-363.

4 The reason for that is chiefly that the achievements on those bodhisattva levels, such as realisation of the four noble truths, of dependent origination, and of cessation, are also taught in the sutras for shravaka-arhats and pratyekabuddhas.

5 This passage can be found in the Dehra Dun edition of Jigten Gönpo’s collected works in vol. 1, p. 181.

6 This refers to those who claim that the tantras are not part of the Buddha’s teachings.

7 This refers to those who claim that mental inactivity is not Dharma. This topic has been debated during the great debate at Samye between the Chinese master Hwashang Mohoyen and the Indian master Kamalashila.

8 See D. Seyfort Ruegg, “The Jo nang pas: A School of Buddhist Ontologists According to the Grub Mtha’ sel gyi me long,” JAOS 83 (1963) 84- f., where Thu’u-bkwan Blo-bzang-chos-kyi-nyi-ma (1737-1802) from A-mdo argues at length that the teachings of the Jo-nang-pa are exactly the same as those of the non-Buddhist sects.

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