In order to lead living beings to understanding
I taught all the different yanas…
—Shakyamuni, the Buddha (Lankavatara Sutra)
Sakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), the historical Buddha taught sutras (exoteric) and tantras (esoteric) for disciples of varying levels of understanding. Jesus and the great Chinese and Hindu mahasiddhas also taught in this manner. In the First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma (at Sarnath) the Buddha elaborated The Four Great Truths and The Eightfold Path. It is generally agreed among Buddhist schools that the Buddha’s teachings are properly classified into The Three Vehicles (yanas) of enlightenment: 1) the great foundational Shravakayana whose extant exemplars are the Theravada of Southeast Asia (the Pali Canon/Tripitaka), and Shojo zen; 2) the Mayayana (greater vehicle, that includes Daijo and Saijojo zen); and 3) the Vajrayana (diamond vehicle). Of these three vehicles, the Nyingma (“Ancient Ones”) of the Vajrayana or Tibetan tantric tradition classifies these three teaching vehicles into The Nine Vehicles. The key point of all nine vehicles is the tacit or express teaching of shunyata or luminous emptiness/boundlessness. Thus the essential nature of all of the arising phenomena of the spacetime dimension of Relative Truth (samvriti satya) is, broadly construed, Ultimate Truth (paramartha satya), shunyata, dharmakaya, kadag, the basal primordial reality ground of all appearance. “There is a refinement of understanding that becomes progressively more subtle through the vehicles” (Tulku Urgyen).
The Foundational Vehicle (Hinayana): The first three vehicles of the Nine Vehicles of the Nyingma School consist of (1) the Shravakayana, the Vehicle of the Listeners, or Disciples, (2) the Vehicle of the Solitary Buddhas, (Pratyekayana) the way of solitary meditation, and 3) the Bodhisattvayana. In the luminous firmament of Buddhist saints, the Pretyekabuddha abides somewhere between the Arhat and a fully awakened Buddha.
The goal of the Shravakayana is to become an Arhat (saint), one who has accomplished liberation for oneself from the passions and ignorance of samsara through practice of the “three baskets”, the Tripitaka (Pali Canon), namely the Vinaya (monastic life), Sutra study, and the metaphysics of the Abhidharma. It is through such practice, with its shamatha/mindfulness meditation and the introspective penetrating insight of vipashyana that the wild horse of the mind is gradually brought to rest. On the accord of Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche (1995), and many others, the Shravakayana, or so called Hinayana is not at all a “lesser vehicle” but is indeed the very foundation of all the later vehicles.
The Mahayana: The Third Vehicle, the Great or Causal Vehicle, the Bodhisattvayana (Vehicle of Enlightened Beings) is the way of those who seek or attain enlightenment for the sake or intention of liberating not just oneself, but all sentient beings from the suffering (dukkha) of samsara, the wheel/cycle of conditioned existence. Thus it is known as the Mahayana, or greater vehicle to enlightenment. The goal of the path here is not individual salvation or Arhathood, but the development of the bodhisattva attitude or intention, compassionate service in healing the suffering of all sentient beings, and thus the aspiration to save all beings from the ignorance (avidya) and suffering of samsaric existence. The bodhisattva passes through nine stages or bumhis before accomplishing full Buddhahood. The ultimate “goal” of the Mahayana path is nothing less than Buddhahood.
The Mahayana Sutras (Vulture Peak Transmission) represent the 2nd and 3rd turnings of the Buddha’s Dharma Wheel (prajnaparamita/perfection of wisdom, and Buddha nature teachings). Herein arose the Madhyamaka (the Middle Way) that through the wisdom of Shantarakshita (his Madhyamakalamkara) unified the middle way Madhyamaka Prasangika and Yogachara (mind-only) schools. Thus did the wisdom of emptiness of Madhyamaka and the Buddha nature of Yogachara became a unified Madhyamaka teaching. And this unified Madhyamaka is, according to H.H. the Dalai Lama, the very foundation of nondual Dzogchen, the pinnacle of all Nine Vehicles. Here the intrinsic nature of all reality is shunyata (luminous emptiness). And the inherent nature of all beings arising through this basal emptiness ground is Buddha nature (Tathagatagarbha, Jap. Bussho). “Through the primordial wisdom of emptiness we realize our inherent Buddha nature. Through our indwelling Buddha nature we realize the compassionate wisdom of emptiness” (H.H. the Dalai Lama). These two together—the wisdom of emptinesswith its spontaneous compassionate activity, and our inherent Buddha nature—are the causes of both relative, and in due course, ultimate human liberation/happiness.
This great teaching of the Mahayana “Causal Vehicle” appears in slightly different forms as the nondual Madhyamaka of the Definitive Meaning, and in nondual Saijojo Zen (mujodo no taigen). In China the Mahayana flourished in the Ch’an (transported to Japan as Zen by Eisai and Dogen, circa 1200), and Pure Land (ching-t’u, Jap., jodo) schools.
The Shravakayana/Hinayana and the Mahayana together comprise the Sutra System.
The Vajrayana (Mantrayana), or acausal “Fruitional Vehicle”, the collective (outer/lower and inner/higher tantras) teachings of the Indo-Tibetan tantras (tantra system or mantra system) are said to have been transmitted to us by Vajrasattva (Sambhogakaya Buddha through that very aspect of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha). The vajra (Sanskrit) or dorje (Tibetan) means diamond and symbolizes the adamantine, radiant, indestructible inherent nature of all beings. The realization of this primordial wisdom (gnosis, jnana, yeshe) presence (vidya/rigpa/shekina/epinoia/christos) is liberation from the ignorance and suffering that this mortal flesh is heir to.
The Outer/Lower Tantras comprise the 4th 5th and 6th of the nine Nyingma Vehicles. The 4th Vehicle, Kriya Tantra is exoteric. Charya Tantra (Yogachara/Chittamatra Mind Only, the 5th Vehicle), is esoteric. The 6th Vehicle, the Yogatantra practice is esoteric but still dualistic. It is said that the lower tantras were transmitted to those of lesser capacity, the higher tantras to those of greater capacity.
The Inner/Higher Tantras of the old Nyingma tradition are the three highest vehicles (vehicles 7, 8 and 9): Mahayoga (development stage), Anuyoga (completion stage), and Atiyoga (Dzogchen, perfection stage). More recent Vajrayana traditions (9th and 10th centuries), namely Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug utilize the Anuttara Tantras: Father tantras (lunar, upaya, clarity), Mother tantras (solar, prajna, clear light, kundalini energy, emptiness) and the non-dual Advityayoga tantras. The highest or most subtle of the Anuttara tantras is nondual Essence Mahamudra of the Kagyu School. The highest and most direct nondual vehicle of the Nyingma tradition is Atiyoga, (Dzogchen or Dzogpa chenpo, [Skt. Mahasandi], the Great Perfection).
The nondual view of Dzogchen is, we are told, nearly identical to nondual Essence Mahamudra teaching of the Kagyu school, and to the nondual Supreme Vehicle of Zen (Saijojo), and to the nondual teaching of the Great Madhyamaka of the Definitive Meaning. It is taught by Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyn Rinpoche (1995) and other non-sectarian (rime) masters that this great Madhyamaka teaching is the ultimate nondual view of the Nirmanakaya; Essence Mahamudra is the ultimate nondual view of the Sambhogakaya; and Dzogchen (Ati yoga) is the ultimate nondual view of the Dharmakaya. Further, the Base (gzhi, source, ground) is the Mahamudra, the Path is the Great Madhyamaka of the Middle Way, and Dzogchen is the Fruit or result (liberation, enlightenment and Buddhahood).
With the advent of this ecumenical non-sectarian rime movement of the 19th century many Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug as well as Nyingma masters practice and teach Dzogchen, the Great Perfection. And many Dzogchen masters are lineage holders of the Mahamudra of the Kagyu school. In Dzogchen, shamatha (quiescence) and vipasyana (introspective penetrating insight) meditation are united. The mind awake is the unity of shamatha/mindfulness and vipasyana/penetrating insight.
In the Mahayana, in the supreme vehicle of Saijojo Zen this same unity is practiced as shikan-taza, the zazen of the unity of stillness with insight (direct seeing/kensho/satori). Sectarian bias in the beginning or advanced practitioner of any of these great nondual paths may derail the practice. Yet, one must commit to and practice a specific path, under the guidance of a master lineage holder.
This non-sectarian rime intention that arose within Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism is now occurring in all of the great wisdom traditions. The recent and living masters of this Great Tradition of humankind have agreed to transmit the secret nondual teaching of their various traditions to all of those willing to prepare, then receive. Without this, the great primordial teaching will be lost. Indeed, the transmission of this supreme teaching from the living lineage holders of our entire Great Wisdom Tradition is the fundamental process and result of what I have elsewhere termed the emerging global Noetic Revolution in religion, science and culture (“Being the Whole: Toward the Emerging Noetic Revolution”, www.davidpaulboaz.org).