Thursday, October 14, 2010

this is your chance to speak up, Mahayana practitioners!

Dr. Vallicella, who's on his yearly Kerouac kick, quotes this paragraph of Kerouac's that demonstrates the man's pro-Hinayana* bias:

Hit the makeless null. Whether or not individuality is destroyed now, it will be complelely destroyed in death. For all things that are made fade back to the unmade. What's all the return-vow hassle, but a final metaphysical clinging to eternal ego-life by Mahayana Thinkers. An intellectualized ego-attachment to taskhood. Hinayana, nay Ecclesiastes, is best.

The "return-vow hassle" refers to the Mahayana notion of the bodhisattva ideal. A bodhisattva is a fulfilled being that, instead of disappearing into the bliss of parinirvana, turns around at the holy threshold and vows to save all suffering sentient beings.

Is Kerouac's understanding of the bodhisattva ideal correct or complete? Would any of my Buddhist readers (or readers who are students of Buddhism, to whatever degree) care to comment on Kerouac's remark? I'm especially curious to hear from the Mahayana contingent.

*In 101-level Buddhist studies, one often hears that the term "Hinayana" (Little Vehicle, 小乘 in Chinese) is to be avoided because the term is insulting or denigrating to members of that set of traditions. Further study, though, reveals that the issue is more complicated than it first appears. The idea that the term "Theravada" (Way of the Elders) should be used in place of "Hinayana" may be something of a scholarly artifact: the tradition-strains to which the term "Theravada" refers are themselves part of the larger set of traditions to which the term "Hinayana" refers. Theravada is thus not a proper synonym for Hinayana.

It's true, of course, that Big/Little Vehicle mudslinging is an unfortunate part of Buddhist history. "Hinayana" has indeed been used by many Mahayana practitioners as a pejorative. However, enough Hinayana practitioners possess a sufficiently secure self-understanding that it's not entirely warranted to claim, narrowly, that "Hinayana" is a pejorative. The Hinayana ideal is that of the arhat (roughly, saint). The difference between the Big and Little Vehicles might be thought of as the difference between using one giant boat or millions of little boats to cross the water to the far shore. In either case, the boat(s) eventually must be abandoned. The bodhisattva is the boatman who must wait until everyone gets aboard before he can launch his great ship. The arhat climbs into his little craft and starts rowing; others see him do so, and climb into theirs.



Rhesus said...

Jack presents a duality in the passage, "made/unmade." There seem to be others as well.

Maybe Mahayana types would see this as demonstrating Jack's ignorance, or at least hindering his progress.

Sperweractual said...

One way of looking at the seeming Hinayana/Mahayana is to regard them as mutually corrective perspectives, each designed as a sort of psychological tool for avoiding or rectifying the sorts of intellectual and behavioral traps into which attachment to the ideas of either as doctrines purporting to offer some sort of conclusive truth or technology of enlightenment so apparently tend.