— Psychological Archetypes on the Way to Enlightenment —
Historically speaking, the Buddhist tradition has evolved over three distinct phases, namely Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. The base natures of the three traditions hold interest far beyond matters of history and schools of philosophy. They represent three sequential archetypes of psychological evolution.
Hinayana - The Small Journey
In the immediate centuries following the Buddha, his teachings were embraced by eighteen schools, filed under the collective Hinayana-heading. Sautrantikas, Sarvastivadins, Pudgalavadins and the rest are now little but marks on the leaves of history. Vibhajjavada, later identified as Theravada and preserved in Sri Lanka, is the only surviving school of old Buddhism.
The Hinayana-school, or Southern Buddhism, is primarily concerned with the eradication of individual suffering. Loathsomeness of the body, death-contemplations, understanding of impermanence and non-self, and diverse meditational methods for concentration and introspection, are some of its founding pillars.
This path or phase is primarily concerned with strong individual discipline, relying on the individual's efforts to ensure his own salvation. The least religious form of Buddhism, and quite possibly in its earliest days more of a psychological than a spiritual system, Hinayana represents the stage of isolating and gaining control.
On a journey towards god or enlightenment, each individual - regardless of the tradition - must first cross the small journey, transforming anarchy and chaos into control and tranquility. It is essentially a phase of withdrawal and implosion, an elimination of the field of experience and a dive into nirvana the tranquil, a state of eternal peace.
Mahayana - The Grand Journey
Its roots in the early schisms between the Sthaviras (Theras) or elders, and the Mahasamgikas or the greater assembly, Mahayana or Northern Buddhism grew to be the prominent among the two offshoots of Shakyamuni's establishment. Its emphasis was deeper on the ethereal and illusory nature of existence, with Nagarjuna presenting his Madhyamika-philosophy and refining the concept of emptiness (shunyata), and his rivals from the Yogachara-school and the teaching of one mind (citta-matram).
This path or phase is, in contrast to the individual salvation of the Hinayanists, more concerned with compassion and universal salvation. Mahayana is characterized by acts of extensive kindness and the Bodhisattva-way of seeking to liberate all sentient beings. Contrary to the self-reliant Hinayana, it recognizes a multitude of heavenly Buddhas with their own enlightenment-heavens or pure lands, featuring even schools where salvation is attained merely by calling out for the Buddhas with unswerving faith.
Having gained control of anarchy and established a serene platform, one embarks on the greater journey of a sacrificing the ego on the altar of the universe, eliminating the trouble-maker not with infinite, concentrated implosion, but rather through infinite and unconditional expansion. The subsequent vastness of open space provides a platform on which reality can finally be confronted and experienced still - rather than running away from it or towards it.
Vajrayana - The Diamond Journey
A later growth from the Mahayana-tradition amalgamating tantric and shamanistic elements, Vajrayana was introduced to Tibet in the eight century by Padmasambhava, a tantric master from India. The tradition employs a multitude of esoteric and magical deity-practices and visualizations as its methods of transcending the human ego.
This path or phase, contrary to classical Hinayana and Mahayana, neither runs away from or towards the world. Vajrayana embraces the base nature of the world, removing fear of interaction by a skillful reconciliation of plurality and action with the base of emptiness. An entire pantheon of enlightened archetypal deities is utilized for inner cultivation.
Having gained control through contraction and expanded infinitely through compassion, one now finds an open field of stillness on which the flavors and textures of the manifest world can be experienced, and indeed even indulged in, without a sense of ego-identity and the subsequent bondage. At this stage, the world is no longer an alien domain calling for positive or negative reaction - it has transformed into an enlightened field of infinite play.
Three Paths, Three Archetypes
These three traditions, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, represent three archetypal stages everyone will have to cross in reconciling their relationship with perceived reality. Initially, there is the running away. Then, there is the running towards. Finally, there is the stillness in which reality is experienced in its own saturated, yet plain nature - a state described as vajra-sattva by some, a crisp and pristine level of penetrating diamond-clarity.
Even if the three stages are sequential and inherently interconnected, they represent very distinct emphases. An unprepared leap from one to the other, lacking a sufficiently matured psychological platform, will easily lead to an internal dead end. On a journey, one considers not the distance traveled as a measure of success - motion and evolution define the success of an ongoing journey, regardless of the specific distance crossed in the ongoing process of advancement.