We were learning about the true usage of the term Hinayana, the black-eye of Buddhist terms. Often it is used derogatorily to refer to Theravada Buddhism under the false assumption that it is a selfish practice concerned solely with individual Awakening. Hence the name, Hinayana, which means "Lesser Vehicle," as opposed to the Mahayana, or "Greater Vehicle," devoted to the universal Awakening of all beings. This is a very narrow, sectarian, and incorrect usage of the term Hinayana.
What Rev. Jiun Foster, my instructor, offered was a much broader and richer understanding of the word. Hinayana, viewed through this new lens, is the beginning stages of any Buddhist practice--including, dun, dun, dun, Mahayana. Hinayana practice is when a person is concerned with his or own salvation. Theravada Buddhism does not fall into that category at all. In fact, the Buddha himself dedicated the last forty-five years of his life to helping others, so how could any Buddhist school, which uses him as a spiritual ideal, be Hinayana?
Seen in this light, Hinayana is a stage that we all need to work through. For in order to progress we must internalize and embody the understanding that self and other are the not separate. We cannot develop spiritually if we cut ourselves off from the rest of the universe. That, I imagine, would only breed egotism and self-absorption--the exact opposite of the Buddhist goal.
So Hinayana is a stage that can be found in any spiritual practice, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. Correctly used, it does not refer to Theravada any more than it does to Zen or Vajrayana.
I really enjoyed this perspective of the term Hinayana. It has motivated me to practice hard and to re-engage the Bodhisattva's vow. I hope it does the same for you.
Thanks to Rev. Foster at Five Mountain Seminary for this lesson. Hapchang.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: El Caganer.