Some people hear Hinayana as a slur against Theravada.

Modern Mahayana believers may be eager for peace and harmony, but the original Mahayanists were drawing a distinction between two lines of thought and had strong opinions about their relative merits. The Bodhisattva path's alternative is the Hinayana path.

Many modern Mahayana texts use the word Hinayana without any particular sense of slur or sneer.

Should we update Hinayana to Theravada? Theravada didn't necessarily exist or look like modern Theradava back when people started using the word Hinayana.

Should we let it stand if it is used in context, i.e. a question about how historical believers saw the Bodhisattva path and its differences from the alternatives?, but not allow it in say, a question about robe colors in various sects (where the theological implications of Mahayana vs Hinayana are irrelevant).

This related question isn't quite the same, that question is just asking what alternative words could that questioner use. I'm asking, as someone with moderator rights, should I go around fixing people's usage of the hinayana word and tag & if so how.

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    I found quite a few uses of the word, but few that I think need editing. Given that you want to ask this question before editing, would you like to add to this question some list or identification of the posts which you think should be edited? Then the answers here could discuss specific instances. – ChrisW Dec 17 '15 at 12:10
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    Recommended reading: The Hinayana Fallacy by Bhikkhu Analayo – user382 Dec 26 '15 at 15:55
  • Hinayana and Theravada are not synonymous. Warder does not even use the word "Theravada" in Indian Buddhism. In my book, Conversations with the Buddha, I use the phrase "the Eighteen Schools" instead of "Hinayana." Elsewhere where I use the word "Hinayana" I put it in parentheses. Hinayana might also be interpreted to mean "Basic Buddhism" without any pejorative connotation, but the conceit that Theravada = basic (or original) Buddhism is based on an historical error. See my blog post, "The Early Buddhist Schools" at palisuttas.wordpress.com/2016/08/27/the-early-buddhist-schools. – user4970 Nov 18 '16 at 17:17
  • @AlexanderDuncan that should be an answer, not a comment. – MatthewMartin Nov 18 '16 at 18:56
  • Really? It doesnt answer the question at all, it comments on it. – user4970 Nov 18 '16 at 19:57

10 Answers 10


Below, I summarize Bhikkhu Analayo's conclusion in his work "The Hinayana Fallacy", which might be useful for this discussion:

As far as I can see, the term Hīnayāna is best confined to discussions of Mahāyāna polemics. The problems of continuing to deploy it as a classificatory concept for studying the history of Buddhism are, in brief:

  1. Referring to Buddhism in India at least until the reign of Aśoka as Hīnayāna is meaningless, since neither Mahāyāna nor its opponents had so far come into existence and their main issue of contention — the option to follow the bodhisattva ideal — was still in the making. A better term for this period would be "early Buddhism".

  2. Hīnayāna as an umbrella term for the Buddhist monastic schools is mislead- ing, because Mahāyāna was not confined to laity. Terms that can be used instead would be "Buddhist schools" and/or "nikāya Buddhism"; a way of designating the period in question would be "Buddhism of the middle period"

  3. The use of Hīnayāna for the traditions of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia is incorrect, because the respective Buddhist traditions recognize the assumed distinctive characteristic of the Mahāyāna – the bodhisattva path – as a viable option of practice. A better term would be "Theravāda".

Unfortunately, he kept his analysis (and thus, conclusion) of the usage of the term in respect to the distant past, not considering the current uses by Tibetan schools.

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    I'm marking this as as "correct" just to give it some visibility. I think in the above 3 cases, moderators changing from Hinayana to "early Buddhism", "nikaya" or "Theravada" would/should be something that helps people focus on questions & not value judgement. I would recommend everyone looking at the other answers as well, which cover more scenarios. – MatthewMartin Dec 28 '15 at 21:30

A very good question MatthewMartin.I really appreciate this question,thank you.

I am a Srilankan Theravada Buddhist (I am supposed to call myself a hinayana Buddhist as to this word) and here's what i have to say that will simply be accepted by anyone who know the language that this word "hina" belongs to.

"Hina" means - Lower,less,below,low quality,bad,dumb,


"Maha" means - higher,high,above,higher quality,good,wise,great

So when you say "Maha+yana" that means a/the great path.

But when you say "Hina+yana" that means a/the lower,lesser path.

You can argue about the practicalities but this is essentially the meaning of the two words and it is clearly insulting. Not to be rude but i would like to see no man here tutoring my own language to me.And please if you can tell me who was brave enough to draw this line and say this here is great and that there is dumb.

I request this word to be banned from this site. I have no quarrel with fellow Mahayana Buddhists, what i am saying is that i wish to be called a theravada Buddhist not a Hinayana Buddhist.

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As one of the main users of this word on this site, here is my position on this again:

I don't use (lower-case) "hinayana" to refer to Theravada, I use it to mean "primitive/basic level of understanding" whether in Theravada or in Mahayana! See my answer here for more details.

It's not just any weak understanding, it is a specific style of understanding that is simplistic, naive, black-and-white, literal, and characterized by reification. (As opposed to an understanding that is nuanced and sees beyond metaphors). It has a very specific flavor to it, which is why I think it needs a distinct word.

In my opinion, the use of (upper-case) "Hinayana" as a synonym to Theravada should be banned. Because even in Theravada when we examine carefully what the advanced students and the teachers say, we will see that there is no real disagreement between different schools. And even in various Mahayana schools when we see what beginners think about elements of Buddhism, we'll see typical "hinayana"-flavor mistakes.

But I still think we need a word to refer to the black-and-white understanding characteristic of beginner students, and whether we call it "hinayana" is entirely a matter of convention. I use "hinayana" because that's what my teacher(s) used. Lately I try to suffix it with "-level" to make it absolutely clear in what sense I use it.

Besides negative connotations ("black-n-white understanding of the beginner"), the way it was presented by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche I feel "hinayana" also has positive connotations: "fundamental basic teaching" and "spartan discipline".

Here's how Trungpa praised hinayana in his famous short talk, Never Forget Hinayana (edited for readability):

Good evening. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a very profound time and profound experience for us to realize how important is the hinayana teaching.

The hinayana teaching should not be regarded as something that you can just carry out and then get rid of, or discard. The hinayana teaching is the life force that carries our practice and discipline, which goes on continuously. From that point of view the hinayana should be regarded as life’s strength.

It is [important] for us to understand that basic life [force], that basic strength. It is very important to us, and inseparable from our lives and our existence as individuals. It is the life force that carries [you] on whether you are going through the hinayana, mahayana, or vajrayana [levels]. It is our substance and our sustenance.


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  • This claims that Śrāvakayāna is "more politically correct and much more usual". If or when you use "hinayana-level", is it (as) a synonym of "shravakayana"? – ChrisW Dec 17 '15 at 22:37
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    I don't know... I feel, the way it is used in context, Shravakayana is exclusively used in the "non-Mahayana-therefore-inferior" meaning. Shravakayana does not seem to have the "fundamental basic teaching" and "black-n-white understanding of the beginner" and "spartan discipline" connotations that hinayana has... – Andrei Volkov Dec 18 '15 at 15:49

I am not particular about being called Hinayana or Theravada, but Hinayana has a derogatory connotation as viewed by some.

As highlighted in the answer of Theravada this word is in the Sinhala language also, meaning lesser or lower.

So not to offend and drive away potential users from the site perhaps when someone sees the word used perhaps they can edit it replacing it with Theravada where appropriate and perhaps re-wording it where possible and appropriate.

We should try to be welcoming and attracting new users at this point to grow the community.

Sometimes I did not know until today at the 100th birthday of Most Ven. Davuldena Sri Gnanissara Thero - Supreme Mahanayaka of Amarapura Nikaya which was attended by the President and many ministers. One of the cited achievement was 30 years of Diplomacy spear head by the Ven Sir and other prominent monks, with Mahayana countries on not to use the term in referring to Theravada monks especially in international gathering and events. Because of this effort another Chief monk (Maha Nayaka) cited that they attend these events without being looked down or call Hinayana. From this I gather there is a lot of stigma around this word than I knew before. It will help being moderate or not using this term at all, since there many feel uncomfortable with the word due to historic use.

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Personally, I do not mind the use of Hinayana. Its often translated as "Lesser Vehicle", but these are just translations made by human beings. It is merely conventional language.

What is important is to not look at the "container" but at the "content", i.e. the Dhamma.

I think one risks misunderstanding the goal of the teachings if one becomes too caught up in conventional words and their meaning.

The different Buddhist traditions all lead to the same goal, i.e. Freedom from Suffering.

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I feel some sympathy towards Andrei's use of the word. Andrei (for one) isn't intending to use as a synonym for "Theravada" (and so the counter-argument in @Theravada's answer doesn't apply to it).

According to Andrei's comment here the word has no exact synonym (it cannot simply be replaced with another word like "shravakayana" without altering and losing some of the intended meaning).

Given that the word can be used in an expert way, perhaps you should hope to "police" (i.e. inspect) its use but not to "ban" or to "forbid" its use: i.e., ensure that if and when it's used then it's used 'correctly'.

Should we update Hinayana to Theravada?

Not necessarily (because they don't mean the same thing). If the OP means "Theravada" then they should write "Theravada"; if they mean "Hinayana not Theravada" then we shouldn't edit it to "Theravada".

I agree with Thiago's saying, "if there's an easy synonym to "hinayana" in the post, just replace it", with an added proviso that there isn't always an easy synonym.

Should we let it stand if it is used in context, i.e. a question about how historical believers saw the Bodhisattva path and its differences from the alternatives?

I suspect that Andrei has heard it and wants to use it in a modern (not just a historical) context.

Some people hear Hinayana as a slur against Theravada. ... Many modern Mahayana texts use the word Hinayana without any particular sense of slur or sneer.

I'm inclined towards allowing (and welcoming) its being used in an expert way.

The right speech guidelines include, "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them."

I hope that "In an expert answer on this Q&A site" can be counted as a proper time for saying something true and beneficial, even if "some people" initially find it unendearing or disagreeable.

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  • i mean no harm towards Andrei, i just wanted to say that it is a wrong practice. I personally contacted Andrei and told him our side of it. If i caused any harm i am sorry. – Theravada Dec 19 '15 at 12:22
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    That's my view as well, if there is a use of it in a context that makes sense and is legit, we can't readily assume it is an offense. But there are other uses of it that are not offensive as well. Since i think we can spot an offense, we can always moderate those and in other cases, ask for clarification of the usage – user382 Dec 19 '15 at 15:40

"How should we police the use of the word Hinayana?" If you like to follow a way of thoughts SOAsian people often thinks if confronted with wrong deeds, just use the thought: "If he/she/they would know, they would not do it." and you can practice a lot of metta in this case, for just the actor will receive the fruits, and its not a matter of doing knowingly or unknowingly. The second is even more hurtful.

As for the matter correcting wrongs, its more relevant to think about the precept of taking what is not given, which is actually a very blatant matter in the case of going into ones quote or text. And no, no TOS's are able to make this fact ineffectable and invalid.

There is nothing wrong in rebuking and criticizing wrong deeds, such as "apuñña", thinking on the less practiced way of merit Apacāyana.

But, and that is the "jumping point", such has no beneficial place, if it is not simply out of compassion for the doer, so that he could abstain in future or even take up the change to confess his transgression.

One needs to be aware, that people who use such, may it be knowingly or unknowingly, actually cut them off in a good manner, from having the possibility to get the good teachings ever known.

If you search for a discrimination between that what is used common under Dhamma and Adhamma, it's not worong to use the label Dhamma-Vinaya (Buddhas name of his "religion") and Buddhism. And there, under this label Buddhism, there is no way to find a beneficial classification of certain views, since this label is so broadly used. The most "neutral" way is for sure "northern" and "southern" Tradition or Buddhism, is one likes to classify in a way of certain opinions. But don't forget, like the Buddha told: "The most insecure measure of judgement is the own opinion."

And don't forget, you have no, really now task to police, or course there is a certain duty to help, entertaining/maintaining one self inside of a certain community. So as you might see, most faults are made of those "good intentions" (based on assessments, one can prevent others from the "bad guys" or their ripping fruits).

When ever you are able to be most mindful and able to keep it alive, do never police but try to help in ways which are not causing mostly much heavier misdeeds.

Don't forget! At least such a usage is for others a good hint, that the use is not informed about the Buddhas teachings, which is one information you would cut of, even for the support of the user him self.

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You cannot properly use Theravada in place of Hinayana, because there were traditionally 18 or 20 Hinayana schools (in actuality, probably more), not all of which shared the same doctrines, especially the Theravadin views that the Pali Canon is complete and perfect and that the arhants are (or were) perfect and infallible. Although Hinayana was historically used in a pejorative sense, the root meaning could be extrapolated in English from "base" to "basic," thus eliminating the pejorative connotation. This is how I use the word in my book, Fundamental View: Ten Talks on the Pali Canon. Some might use the term "early or presectarian Buddhism," but Hinayana is not "presectarian." Hinayana was already sectarian, so presectarian Buddhism is something else yet again, which is why I continue to use the word "Hinayana," usually adding a footnote to the first use of the term to explain that I am not using the term pejoratively. Although some might continue to find that offensive, it is no more offensive than the Theravadin claim to exclusivity, to identity with the Hinayana and, therefore, with Buddhism itself. Alternatively we could get rid of both terms and refer to the sravakayana and the bodhisattvayana, as is done in Tibetan lists of the vehicles (yanas) constituting the path, for example, except lots of people wouldn't know what you're talking about. Unfortunately, perhaps, Hinayana and Mahayana have become terms that connote real meanings to people and are probably unreformable.

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  • You also write, "The realization of the unity of Hinayana and Mahayana culminates in the doctrine of the ekayana, the “single vehicle.”" – ChrisW Dec 29 '15 at 22:11

I haven't met a single text that I could immediately grasp what "hinayana" stands for with any reasonable confidence.

There's the popular notion that "hinayana" is simply the "arahantship path" (should it be equivalent to "pratyekabuddhayana"?), an attack which is contrasted as a low alternative to "mahayana", presumably the attackers (and "mahayana" seems to have more diverse meaning than simply those on the "bodhisattva path").

...then, there's some mahayanists (?) who seem to adopt the term "hinayana" to mean just a certain stage of the path.

...then, there are people who simply equate "hinaya" with the 18+ early schools (which may or may not include Theravada, depending on who you're talking to).

...then, there are those who say that "hinayana" are those who taught and accepted a theory of atman in disguise.

...then there are those who draw a distinction based on sutra style and dating rather than doctrine or goal.

...then there are those who say that "hinayana" is equivalent to "srāvakayāna", which again, could be seen as an attack to:

  • Those unwilling to accept certain sutras or doctrines into their canon; (and?/or?)
  • Those unwilling to be as "socially participative" as another group would like them to.

...and so on.

The above are just a few of the different uses I remember reading. So, I'm always confused when I see this term used without much explanation.

But I guess we can identify a derogatory use of it in a Q/A. And if it's not being used in a derogatory way, I guess we can ask the poster more details about what they mean?

From the link to the other question, @catpinosis says: "But if used as blind synonym for 'early schools' or 'Theravada'—in that case why not replace.". I think that's something we could do: if there's an easy synonym to "hinayana" in the post, just replace it.

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The word 'hīno' appears in the 1st sermon to describe sensual pleasures as being 'low' & inferior. That said, I think the word 'Hinayana' should not be policed because it represents a core doctrine in Mahayana.

Christianity, for example, holds the view there is only one true God (John 17.3). It would be quite bizarre to police Christians for expressing a doctrine inherent & central to their belief system.

The Pali Buddha taught:

And what are the fermentations to be abandoned by tolerating? There is the case where a monk, reflecting appropriately, endures. He tolerates cold, heat, hunger & thirst; the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun & reptiles; ill-spoken, unwelcome words....

Sabbasava Sutta


Monks, if you should keep this instruction on the Parable of the Saw constantly in mind, do you see any mode of speech, subtle or gross, that you could not endure?

Kakacupama Sutta

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