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The Nine Yanas

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Westerners approaching Buddhism for the first time are often confused by what seem to be contradictions between the assertions and views of one teacher compared with other Buddhist teachers. This is perhaps all the more surprising as they all seem to start from the same premises: The four noble truths. Indeed Westerners are not alone in finding these differences perplexing. Throughout the Buddhist canon there are reassurances to practitioners that "there is no contradiction in any of the Buddha’s teachings".

The basic illness is the same but personalities and capacities differ. Therefor it is said there are as many different approaches to Buddhahood as there are differences of nature and capacities of people. Buddhist teachings are methods or vehicles (yanas) leading towards self-discovery rather than expositions of "The Truth". The methods employed at any time by a teacher will be those appropriate for the individual student depending upon experience, situation etc. What is appropriate in one setting might be ludicrous in another. Buddhist teaching is fluid and infinitely adaptable to the actual needs of every and all sentient beings when given by a realised master.

The Nyingma classifies the teachings into 9 yanas or vehicles for realisation. These are all equally precious and each is complete within itself with a ground, a path and a fruit. Although each can represent a step along a continuum towards the Great Perfection this does not mean that each would necessarily be completed before commencing the next. Some experience or insight at least of the fruit associated with each (if not the full realisation) is a prerequisite or base of the next. Equally each may be practised as a complete path to realisation (though it is normally said by Nyingma practitioners that only the Vajrayana vehicles provide a route to complete Buddhahood and that neither of the first two Hinayana vehicles is complete.) It is also sometimes said that each implies all of the other yanas. Therefore, for example, all the yanas, including Ati yoga, might be taught from within the perspective or the base of the Mahayana. A teacher may suggest a student engages in practices from any of the yanas as appropriate to the developmental needs of the student at the time. A student of dzogchen might therefore practice the twelve ascetic actions and Hinayana view for a while.

They all have the common purpose of overcoming the same problem, that is ‘unsatisfactoriness’ (dukha): When the individual enters into dualism evolving a subjective self experiencing an external world as other, any sense of completeness is lost because all phenomena are temporary. This leads to the process of "ego" continually manipulating the phenomenal world for security or satisfaction.

The Yanas are in three groups. Hinayana and Mahayana which work principally at the level of body; Vajrayana working mainly with voice or energy; Dzogchen the pinnacle or fruit of the inner tantras of the Vajrayana which works at the level of mind. These distinctions can themselves seem somewhat subtle and even as being false if taken purely at face value. For example all Buddhist teachings relate to ‘mind’ and early Buddhists distinguished themselves from the Jain’s by their concept of ‘intention’. It is a matter of where the main experiential ground for practice lies.

"(The four great benefits you will receive from studying the path to Enlightenment as taught in Atisa's Bodhipathapradipa are as follows.) You will understand that there is no contradiction in any of Buddha's teachings. You will be made aware that all the scriptural texts are to be taken as sound advice (as there is no contradiction between the texts and their practice.) You will then easily discover the significance of the threefold theme (dgongs-pa) of Buddha's teachings: (renunciation of the sufferings of samsara, Bodhicitta, and a true understanding of Sunyata.) Moreover, you will be protected from the abyss of the great mistake (nyes-spyod chen-po). Because (the study of the stages of the path to Enlightenment has these four benefits), what intelligent person among the erudite masters of India and Tibet will not have his heart and attention stolen away by this best of teachings, which has been studied by many fortunate ones, and which is taught in a graded path according to three levels of human motivation."

Lines of Experience (Lam-Rim Bsdus-Don) The Main Aspects of the Practice of the Stages on the Graded Path to Enlightenment by rJe Tzong-kha-pa).