Skt., “Small Vehicle”; originally a derogatory designation used by representatives of the Mahāyāna (“Great Vehicle”) for early Buddhism. The followers of Hīnayāna themselves usually refer to their teaching as the Theravāda (Teaching of the Elders), although strictly speaking, Theravāda was one of the schools within the Hīnayāna; it is, however, the only one still existing today. Hīnayāna is also referred to as Southern Buddhism, since it is prevalent chiefly in countries of southern Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Kampuchea, Laos).
The Hīnayāna enumerates the traditions of eighteen schools that developed out of the original community; however, the texts make reference to many more.
The Hīnayāna school developed between the death of the Buddha and the end of the first century BCE. According to its adherents it represents the original, pure teaching as it was taught by the Buddha. Its doctrines are essentially based on the sūtras, which are said to have been spoken by the Buddha himself.
The Hīnayāna presents primarily the path to liberation. Philosophical speculations have no role in this; on the contrary, they are considered a hindrance on the path. The Hīnayāna teaching provides an analysis of the human situation, the nature of existence, and the structure of individuality, and shows methods for the resolution of suffering (duhkha). The ideal figure of Hīnayāna corresponding to these principles is the arhat, who through his or her own effort has attained release.
Hīnayāna avoids affirming anything about the ultimate goal of spiritual striving, nirvāna, beyond the experiential fact of enlightenment and the concomitant extinction of the illusion of an ego and its cravings.
The Buddha is regarded by these schools as a historical person, an earthly man and teacher, not as a transcendent being.
The essence of the teaching is expressed in the four noble truths, the doctrine of dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda), the teaching of anātman, and the law of karma. The basic practice of the Hīnayāna is described in the teaching of the eightfold path.