A Discussion of The Three-Vehicles and
One-Vehicle Practice

The concept of Three-Vehicles practice and One-Vehicle practice, has
been the ground for much debate by Buddhist scholars. Is the practice
of Three-Vehicles an expedient path or the ultimate path? Does the
One-Vehicle mean the practice of Mahayana (greater vehicle) in the
Three Vehicles? Does the One-Vehicle practice take us further than the
Three-Vehicle practice? It appears that researchers have not come to
any conclusions.

Recently I read the Xiu Xing Dao Di Sutra translated by Dharmaraksa,
who is known as Dun Huang Bodhisattva. This author has also translated
the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma pundarika Sutra). I found that there is an
ancient interpretation of the One-Vehicle and the Three-Vehicle
practice. It is simple and clear, and so today I would like to
introduce you to it.

From the view point of aspiration, there are people who are weary of
life and death, while others possess the great Bodhicitta (Bodhi-mind).
Thus, the former will enter Nirvana, while the latter, Buddhahood.
However, since the sentient beings' spiritual foundations differ, the
Buddha taught us many different paths. Consequently there are the paths
of the Three-Vehicles and the One-Vehicle. There are people who
practise the greater vehicle and then degrade to the smaller vehicle
and vice versa.

The Sravakas

There are two types of Sravakas. The first type are the people who
practice the path of the smaller-vehicle and who never cultivate any
bodhicitta. They learn and practise the Dharma from the Buddha for
their own salvation. They cannot put up with a life that seems
meaningless and without ending. Their only pressing problem is to be
free from suffering. As long as they are at peace, they do not bother
about anyone else. This is the attitude they have towards others. When
they hear the worlds of the three realms, they shiver and scare.

Practitioners of this character are weary of not being able to be free
from rebirth, and not being able to attain ultimate liberation. For
these people, the Buddha condemned the suffering of rebirth, and
praised Nirvana. He showed them the abode of the Enlightened Ones and
guided them to understand the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha hoped that
they could be free from suffering. Practitioners of this character
believe that they have reached the ultimate path. They do not
automatically progress to cultivate the path of the greater vehicle.
The Buddha will have to wait for the moment when they are about to
enter into Nirvana to show them the path of the greater-vehicle. They
will then realize that they have not attained the ultimate practice and
be encouraged to develop their bodhicitta.

The second type are those who have compassion but find it difficult to
practice. They practise giving, the precepts, meditation, wisdom, and
aim at freeing themselves from rebirth. They vigorously meditate and
contemplate so that they may attain eternal Nirvana. However, they know
that the attainment of arahantship is not the ultimate goal. Thus they
automatically want to follow the path of the Bodhisattva. They learn
from the teachings of the Buddha and develop themselves to seek the
greater path. They cultivate their great loving kindness and compassion
and the Six Perfections, progressing towards the state of non
attachment and emptiness. They may even choose to be reborn in order to
teach and save sentient beings.


Pratyeka-Buddhas are those who once developed themselves to cultivate
their bodhicitta, but gave up the practice at a later stage. They had
the bodhicitta, but forgot it and lost their aim. They may have also
practised the Six Perfections, and meditated on the Buddha but became
attached to the physical phenomena of the manifestations.

For sentient beings with spiritual foundation as such, the Buddha
taught them the path of the Three-Vehicles. The fact that there was
Buddha born in the world, these practitioners would lead a life of the
hermit, live in a remote mountain cave or hut by themselves,
contemplate and observe the existence of the myriad beings. They would
realize that all existences are subject to causes and conditions and
subsequently gain enlightenment.

The two types of practitioners above, have similar characteristics.
They have initiated their bodhicitta, but did not progress further into
its deeper context. They attach themselves too much to the well-being
of the physical manifestations of the Buddha. However, eventually they
may come back to seek the greater path. When they have ended rebirth
and entered Nirvana, the Buddha will show them "the path of Mahayana
which integrates the Three-Vehicle", and they will detach themselves
from the realms of existence and Nirvana, and progress along the path
of the great vehicle.

The Path of the Bodhisattvas

Bodhisattvas are practitioners who have cultivated their bodhicitta.
Apart from those who later degenerate to become pratyeka-buddhas, we
can further divide such practitioners into two groups.

1. There are those who will follow a gradual and progressive path. They
realize that the three realms of existence are merely illusions and
that all phenomena are void. They practice the Six Perfections
vigorously and accumulate boundless merits. One step after another,
they go forward. Eventually they possess skilful means, and gain
enlightenment via expedient path. They attain the stage of no rebirth,
and their position never recedes.

2. Then there are those who find instant attainment. They gain the
stage of no rebirth, and do not recede as soon as they cultivate their
bodhicitta. They immediately understand the immaterial personality and
voidness of all myriad beings. They realize that all manifestations are
void and are non-obtainable and non-distinguishable

The Awakened Mind Clings To Nothing

Does mental defilement pollute and constrain our mind? Because of our
ignorance, we attach to our ego and possessions. We are constrained by
them. If we are free from attachments, and do not cling to any
belongings, then we will be free from suffering. This is the ancient
patriarch's teaching in guiding practitioners to the stage of no

The teaching continues; "The wise ones observe the three realms of
existence. They realize that the Five Skhandas are illusions. When they
realize that there is no external object to cling to, they attain the
state of no rebirth." There is no fast track nor short cut to the path
of Bodhi. When the mind understands that the source of all is void,
it's like suddenly seeing the light at the end of a tunnel. We do not
feel in a state of gain or loss, past or present, when we attain this
wisdom. The awakened mind clings to nothing. It understands the
absolute truth and the void nature of all things.

It attains understanding of voidness, equality, and great wisdom. It
does not attach itself any longer to the three realms of existence nor
Nirvana. Nor will it attach itself to the fact that it is ferrying the
suffering sentient beings over to the other shore of Nirvana. Neither
will it attach itself to attaining Buddhahood. It will work vigorously
to cultivate the Six Perfections. The awakened mind will utilize the
expedient path to help all beings. These are the ones who have the
Bodhisattva spiritual foundation. (According to the Nagarjuna
Bodhisattva, this spiritual foundation can be further divided into
three different levels.)

The aim of returning to one path allows us to concentrate on attaining
the universal wisdom of understanding the truth of voidness. Generally
speaking, cultivating the path of the greater-vehicle is equivalent to
practising the One-Vehicle. But the teachings of Buddha-Dharma
propagate according to the minds and the conditions of the time and
space. The classification of the Three Vehicle or One Vehicle depends
on the practitioner's mind and aspiration. It is rather common for
practitioners to classify which sutra or teaching is the greater
vehicle, and which is the smaller vehicle. In fact, this is not the
right way of classification. There are people who practice the Mahayana
path, but who do not attain the Mahayana goal. Sometimes they may even
deteriorate to follow other beliefs. This commonly happens.

The point is, practitioners should always examine their motivation of
practice - is it for the sake of freeing themselves from rebirth? Or to
ferry all sentient beings to attaining enlightenment? How do we
practise the Dharma? Are we practising the path of relieving ourselves,
or the path of the Six Perfections? What do we realize? Do we attach
ourselves to phenomena and existence? Have our minds realized voidness
and thus attained the stage of no rebirth? Eventually all sentient
beings will become Buddhas and realize the great wisdom of the
One-Vehicle. But before we come to that stage, we cannot classify
ourselves as the practitioners of One-Vehicle simply because we are
reading the One-Vehicle sutra or learning the One-Vehicle Dharma!

(Translated by Lim Yang, edited by Ke Rong, proofread by
Shi Neng Rong. (6- 7-96))

Buddhism - The Middle Path

Among all religions, Buddhism is one that has withdrawn itself from
theistic thought. To understand why this is so, we need to know about
the other religions in India during the Buddha's time. During the
period of the Vedas to the time of Upanishad, Brahmana influence was
very extensive. The Brahmana believed in the mysterious creation of the
universe. Theirs was a philosophy that believed in the existence of a
time of cosmic origin. A god created mankind, and it was believed to be
the origin of all things. It was called the God of Birth, the God of
Prayer, the Brahman, or "I". Although the title for the creator varied
over time, its implications were the same.

The Brahmana believed that the Brahman was the origin of the universe
and of mankind. Spiritually, mankind had similar characteristics to the
Mahabrahmanas, that was, a permanent, free, and happy "I" or ego. This
was the nature of human life. This spiritual "I" of mankind was the
same spirit as that in which adherents of the popular religions
believed. The spirit had a close relationship with the god.

The Brahmana regarded the nature of the universe and of human life as
permanent, free, and happy. In reality though, the Brahmanas knew that
life in this world, be it normal activities, relationships in society,
or even our own body and mind, always brings dissatisfaction. All
phenomena are impermanent and constantly rising and falling, coming and
going. Why did a permanent, free and happy existence create such an
impermanent and uncomfortable world? This was the great contradiction.
However, the Brahmana's intelligence seems to have been deluded by
their emotion. They ignored the contradiction, and only thought of
ending their suffering in order to regain the permanently blissful
state of the Brahman/god. Hence, the theory of liberation arose.

About the Buddha's time, there was a great change in Indian thought and
ideology. The culture of the Brahmana, which originated in north-west
India near the Five Rivers, became most popular near the upper stream
of the Ganges River, at a place called Kuru. When their ideas travelled
east along the Ganges River, the eastern countries such as Magadha and
Vashali, which were influenced by the culture of the West, opposed the
teachings of the Brahmana. The old religions in Western India were
shaken, and the new religions, with various groups of ascetics in
Eastern India were very extreme, and this created many doubts among the
people. During this transition period where the new Western and old
Eastern ideologies met, the Buddha was born. He introduced a new
religion to the era.

The Buddha incorporated the theories of rebirth and of liberation into
his teachings. But the Buddha denied the Brahmana's imaginative
theistic theory, and set his own foundations upon an intelligent
analysis of reality. He made a thorough change in both theory and
practice from the old religions. Although the cycle of life and death,
and the attainment of liberation in Nirvana were theories that were
accepted by Indian society at that time, the problems lay in the
questions of why was there rebirth and how could one be liberated. The
Buddha gave wise answers to these questions. This was the teaching of
the "Middle Path". The "Middle Path" distinguished the Buddha's
Teachings from other religions.

"Middle Path" may be misunderstood as equivocal. In fact Buddhism is
not as such. "Middle" means neutral, upright, and centered. It means to
investigate and penetrate the core of life and all things with an
upright, unbiased attitude. In order to solve a problem, we should
position ourselves on neutral, upright and unbiased ground. We
investigate the problem from various angles, analyze the findings,
understand the truth thoroughly, and find a reasonable conclusion.

The Middle Path in Buddhism does not mean having a biased view or
superficial understanding only. The "Middle Path" represents a distinct
theory and way of Buddhist practice that is not common to other
religions. Buddhism is a religion with high moral values. It lays great
emphasis on human thought and action in dealing with the natural
environment, society or individual problems. It is concerned with the
relationship between thoughts and behavior, and the relationship
between behavior and its consequences.

By observing the activities of mankind in real life, the Buddha
mastered the principles of human behavior. He then taught the two
characteristics of the Middle Path: The Middle Path of Dependent
Origination and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Law of Dependent
Origination explains the process of human activity. The Noble Eightfold
Path shows the way of practice that enables one to uplift oneself.

"The Tathagatha avoids the two extremes
and talks about the Middle Path.
What this is, that is; this arises, that arises.
Through ignorance
volitional actions or
karmic formations are conditioned.
Through birth, decay, death, lamentation,
pain etc. are conditioned.
When this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases.
Through the complete cessation of ignorance,
volitional activities or karmic formations cease.
Through the cessation of birth, death, decay,
sorrow, etc. cease."
(Samyuktagama, Chapter 12)

"What this is, that is; this arising, that arises" is the principle of
the Law of Dependent Origination; the Conditioned Genesis that says
that, "Through ignorance volitional actions or karma-formations are
conditioned" is the content of the Law of Dependent Origination.

The Law of Dependent Origination based on the Middle Path avoids
attachment to the two extremes. This can be clearly seen in the
Samyuktagama. Based on the Theory of Dependent Origination, in Chapter
12 the sutra says that "It is not one nor different". It also says that
"It is not permanent nor discontinuous." In Chapter 13 it says, "It is
not coming nor going." In chapter 7 it says, "It neither exists nor not
exists." (This is the "Eighth Negation of the Middle Path" in the
Madhyamika Sastra, an abstract from the Samyuktagama). The basic
principle of the Law of Dependent Origination is, "What this is, that
is; from this arising, that arises; when this is not, that is not; this
ceasing, that ceases." It explains the creation, cessation and
existence of all phenomena and all things.

How does human suffering happen? The Buddha said it is not something
that happens without any cause. It also does not arise because of
perverted causes created by a god or Brahmana. It has its own causes.
All things exist in accordance with the Law of Cause and Effect. When
there is a cause there will be an effect. When causes exist, effects
exist. The rising and existence of things are determined by causes and
conditions. This is why the Buddha says "what this is (cause), that is
(effect); this arising, that arises". This is the Circulation Process
of the Law of Dependent Origination. It explains the existence of
worldly phenomena.

We may also see this formula in its reverse order. According to the Law
of Dependent Origination, in order to end suffering, we must stop its
causes. Thus, "When this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that
ceases." When there is a cause there will be an effect; when there is
perverted thought, there will be wrong behavior, and this will
certainly result in evil consequences, i.e. sufferings. On the
contrary, when there is no cause, there will be no effect. Once the
perverted thought is corrected, wrong behavior will stop and sufferings
will also cease.

All things arise due to causes and conditions. As causes and conditions
are impermanent and will cease one day, all things will also cease
correspondingly. When there is rising, there will be falling; when
there is existence, there will be extinction. The rising and existence
of things has its natural tendency towards cessation and extinction. It
is like a wave; it comes and goes. Thus, when one sees the truth of
"what this is, that is; this arising, that arises", one should also see
the truth of "when this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that
ceases". The Law of Dependent Origination pointed out the possibility
of ending worldly suffering. It shows the way of liberation that
corresponds to the Law of Cause and Effect.

"When one is born, one will die.
One who admires high status will fall one day."

This is the natural Law of Cause and Effect. It is also an inner
implication of the Law of Dependent Origination. It can be called the
Cessation Process of the Law of Dependent Origination.

The two complementary processes active in the Law of Dependent
Origination, of the Middle Path, are two processes that are in reverse
or conserve sides of each other. They explain the Laws of Circulation
and Cessation. This rise and fall of causes and effects is still a
worldly principle, and an explanation for superficial phenomena.
Although it was not the final truth, it is from this that the ultimate
truth was realized. The ultimate truth was drawn from the empty nature
of the Law of Dependent Origination. Thus, the Sutra says,

"Tell the Bhikku, the ultimate truth of emptiness,
realized by the Enlightened Ones,
corresponds to the Worldly Law."
(Samyuktagama, Chapter 12)