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Michael Duff

Can this be fit into the Hinayana/Mahayana distinction? My memory is no doubt very faulty as to what the distinction really means (I have in my head only vestiges of Alan Watts, I'm afraid) but might it be argued that the lesser vehicle is still a vehicle? In other words if the "vulgar" imagery leads somehow to spiritual growth does it matter that the profiteers have bad motives? Or to put it another way, does the greater vehicle/high road get hurt if we assume that those on the razor's edge would never notice any of it?

Patrick S. O'Donnell


This has nothing whatsoever to do with the Hīnayāna/Mahāyāna distinction, in fact, the former word is now out of favor among most Buddhists, who prefer to use the term Theravāda (from the Sanskrit sthaviravāda, ‘Teachings of the Elders’) instead, the older designation considered pejorative and needlessly sectarian (and not a tad condescending). Although the Theravāda tradition is only one of the early schools that came to be labeled this way by adherents of the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna (or Tantric) traditions, it is the sole surviving school and, as such, is understood as a necessary “turning of the Wheel of Dharma,” and therefore accorded due respect, even if the later schools believe they have transcended, in the Hegelian sense of Aufheben (sublation), the philosophical, psychological, and spiritual articulation of the earliest doctrinal expressions of Buddhism.

I suppose someone could concievably make a rather tortuous argument that this is somehow an exemplification of of “skillful means” (upāya-kauśalya), but I’d be suspicious of the merits of such an argument. Upāya has to do with the use of means or strategies that may be considered otherwise unethical or inappropriate (e.g., being duplicitous) but when “skillfully” used by a bodhisattva (or other Buddhist of considerable spiritual attainments, including embodiment of the pāramitās, the six or ten ‘perfections’ or Buddhist virtues), can motivate the ignorant and deluded to turn toward actions more conducive to the spiritual path of awakening or liberation. But only those of a requisite level of spiritual development or accomplishment, like the bodhisattva, are qualified, and then only on occasion and often as a last resort, to call upon such means, for it is thought that only they possess the requisite pure motivation (say, to act out of compassion) to perform such acts for the right reasons and ends: “The implication is that even if a technique, view, etc., is not ultimately ‘true’ in the highest sense, it may still be an expedient practice to perform or view to hold.” There is a basic introduction to upāya at Wikipedia, and an entire book on the topic by Michael Pye: Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism (London: Routledge, 2nd ed., 2003).

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I should not have said "nothing whatsoever to do with the Hīnayāna/Mahāyāna distinction," as the notion of upāya itelf did arise, after all, by way of the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna schools justifying their differences with the earlier schools.

Michael Duff

I see. Well, it is a very interesting question to me. And in an odd way it reminds me of these debates I used to follow between "pure" Marxists and Euro-Communists over whether it made sense for Marxists to run for public office given the official line on "the capitalist state." Some would argue, "Well, the movement can't really progress that way, but maybe it's ok as a consciousness raising device." If one accepts that premise (and obviously one need not) I just wonder if the same might be said of the religious icon and, if it might, where the line between "healthy" and "unhealthy" dissemination might be drawn.


As long as the religious and superstitious make life difficult for atheists, religion needs to be made to suffer attack on every possible front.

We atheists may well stop our assaults on religion when and if a scientist ascends to the Presidency, when we get an atheist on the Supreme Court, and when folks can run as atheists for Congressional office.

I just last week had to threaten a lawsuit to force the removal of a string of Buddhist prayer flags from a public building of my town here in Colorado.

The religious show no shame in their centuries-long persecution of non-believers.

Michael Duff

I agree with your last sentence though the time frame seems compressed. Because I'm an unofficial student of Hume I could never be an atheist. (It's all too big to think). The burden shifting mechanism is good enough for me. Still as I used to say to my devote blue collar brethren: "I can't get this a priori out of my eye . . ." So that means (I think) there remains lots to talk about.

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