In Zen Mind, Beginners Mind Shunryu Suzuki says

observing the precepts in a Hinayana way is violating the precepts in a Mahayana way

Can an one give an explanation of way he is getting at here and perhaps a concrete instance of when that might occur.


3 Answers 3


To avoid confusion - I base my understanding of the term 'Hinayana' on Andrei's answers to two different questions - this and that.

Hinayana way (or as Andrei puts it - level) refers to basic/elementary/foundational aspects of Buddhism. On this level precepts are central and students learn to follow basic discipline. The main idea is to work with one's own Karma - having a simple life protects one from difficult situations and clear-cut rules help in achieving that. However, this is not all that Buddhism offers. Once the foundations are understood, one can move on to more advanced teachings which can be called Mahayana-based (as Andrei pointed out, this can also happen in Theravada).

The main difference, as I understand it, is that it is the Bodhisattva Vow that is central in Mahayana level. Here, one is no longer worried about one's own Karma (like on the Hinayana level), but recognizes that there are countless beings who suffer and one wants to benefit them in the first place. One does not need a precept to know that killing or lying is bad. In every situation one has to be mindful and decide which action will bring more happiness or suffering to other beings. Sometimes lying is the right way to protect someone's life, sometimes eating enormous amounts of roast beef is the best way to make our auntie happy after she spent the whole day preparing this dish for her beloved family. No clear rules, rather guidelines and constant wish to benefit others.

I believe it all boils down to motivation - if you observe the precepts in fear of spoiling your own Karma - it is Hinayana level. If you are mostly interested in benefiting others - it is Mahayana. One view violates the other one.


(To add to Rabbit's answer, which is almost perfect as far as I can see...)

This refers to good old Spiritual Materialism.

"Observing the precepts in a Hinayana way" while "violating the precepts in a Mahayana way" is refraining from negative action with the egoistic intent of becoming a more spiritually advanced person.

In Mahayana, attitude is of utmost importance. Hinayana's attitude of purity is subsumed into Mahayana's attitude of altruism, and then again into Zen's attitude of non-duality.

Check out "Treasury of Precious Qualities" by Jigme Lingpa. Pages 294-316 cover this topic ("Transmutation of vows") in great details.


"I've a feeling that the way we are asking about precepts in these questions might not be from a Mahayana perspective" I am a Zen practitioner and I agree that i find many of the other questions you mentioned to be meaningless. To me as a Zen practitioner those questions are all about labels and the dharma is more about letting go and freeing oneself from these labels.

I have actually started frequenting these boards less because in my perspective I feel that many of the questions asked skirt around the dharma or at least focus in on the labels and names that have attached itself to the dharma over the years.

I do know however that this is merely my perspective as a Zen practitioner and many people might disagree with me.

  • "Freeing oneself from labels" - I guess when you say "I am a Zen practitioner" you mean this figuratively. I think words are fine but the association we have with them is somewhat questionable. We can't know the degree of believability someone has in their words.
    – user17652
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 19:23

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