In Buddhism 101 everybody learns that Buddhism is divided into three historical movements. The Buddhism of Southeast Asia is called Theravada, “the teachings of the elders.” Theravadins believe that they preserve the original teachings of the Buddha when they affirm that each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own salvation. The Buddhism of East Asia is called Mahayana. Mahayana means “great vehicle” or “big raft,” and is a symbol for the central innovation of Mahayana doctrine: the belief that the truly enlightened person does not proceed forward in illumined isolation but turns backwards towards the suffering masses, postponing personal perfection in order to help other sentient beings. The Mahayana had their own, dismissive slang for Theravada; in the past, they have called it Hinayana, the “lesser vehicle. ” The third movement is Vajrayana, the “diamond vehicle” of Tibet.
I’ve always imagined the Hinayana way as a sea kayak: a sleek, graceful, elegant one-seater of a life. Expanding the metaphor out from the Buddhist context, a Hinayanist is a person who makes narcissism sublime: the poet, the artist, the athlete, and Leonard Cohen in “Tower of Song.” Hinayanists are sexy bastards, so intent on perfecting themselves that they become living icons, mesmerizing performance art shows.
If Hinayana is a kayak, then Mahayana is a ferry: One person hauling a herd of whining incompetents across the river of life. When I first took Buddhism 101, being from Seattle I always pictured the ferry as an enormous, Puget Sound car ferry, crowded with yuppies on their way to Microsoft in their SUV’s, standing at the prow, wind whipping through Gene Juarez salon cuts and fluttering REI parkas. This image of modern-enormous-efficiency-yana was reinforced by readings in Mahayana literature, where the bodhisattvas are godlike creatures with magical powers, always ready to transport two million devotees and their entire households, including yaks, through interplanetary wormholes in the blink of an eye.
My own vehicle, such as it is, resembles neither a kayak nor a modern car ferry. It has more in common with the medieval Indian peasant ferries that the metaphor was originally built around. I imagine these ferries were not unlike contemporary Indian buses. They must have been broken down wrecks, simple rafts, leaking and worm-ridden, and barely afloat under the burden of 22 people, five goats, uncountable snot-nosed children, farm produce, a drunk vomiting over the side, and a leprous, mangled beggar.
That’s how it feels, anyway, as I maneuver through traffic with a toddler, a baby, a small business, a book contract, eight bags of groceries, two dirty diapers, and a migraine. Theravada teaches us to withdraw into ourselves and to be our own light; Mahayana teaches us to give selflessly to others. In my own life, the two poles of individual growth and my commitments to those around me tug and whip at one another, and in a small way I join the greater community of “engaged” Buddhists, American Buddhists, struggling to balance these opposing needs, to create equilibrium out of paradox.
Polly Trout is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle Education Access, a nonprofit that provides tutoring, advocacy, and scholarships to students who want to continue their education but are being held back by financial and social hardships.