The Teachings and Three Vehicles

The Three Baskets of Buddhist Teachings

Buddha’s teaching were transmitted orally from one generation to the next, as was the custom in India.  Only centuries later were they gathered together and written down to form ‘The Three Baskets’ (Tripitaka) or collections of Buddhist teaching:

  • Sutras – The collection of Buddha’s oral teachings.
  • Vinaya – The rules of ethical behavior for monks, nuns and lay people.
  • Abhidharma – Philosophical teachings on the true nature of phenomena.

In addition, there is the collection of esoteric Buddhist teachings given by the Buddha in the tantras.

The Three Vehicles

The teachings of the Three Baskets and tantras can also be grouped as the ‘Three Vehicles’:

  • The Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) – The collection of practices that lead to nirvana and freedom from personal suffering.  We enter the Hinayana by taking refuge at which point we become a Buddhist.
  • The Mahayana (Great Vehicle) – The collection of practices that lead to buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.  We enter the Mahayana by taking the bodhisattva vow.
  • The Vajrayana (Indestructible Vehicle) – A special collection of mahayana practices taught in the tantras that lead more swiftly to buddhahood.  We enter the Vajrayana by taking initiations.

They are called ‘Vehicles’ as their practice will take us to a particular destination: nirvana (hinayana) or buddhahood (mahayana and vajrayana).  Subsequently the great Indian and Tibetan Buddhist masters composed explanatory teachings that summarize and elaborate on specific topics to help students study and practice.  These are known as ‘shastras’.