Yana (Buddhism)

Yāna (Sanskrit and Pāli: "vehicle") refers to a mode or method of spiritual practice in Buddhism, and in particular to divisions of various schools of Buddhism according to their type of practice.


In form, yāna is a neuter action noun (comparable to an English gerund) derived from the Sanskrit root yā- meaning "go" or "move", using any means of locomotion, by land or sea. Hence it may be translated "going", "moving", "marching, a march", "riding, a ride", "travelling, travel", "journey" and so on.

The word came to be extended to refer to any means used to ease or speed travel: hence such meanings as "vehicle", "carriage", "vessel", "wagon", "ship", and so on, depending on context. "Vehicle" is often used as a preferred translation as the word that provides the least in the way of presuppositions about the mode of travel.

In spiritual uses, the word yāna acquires many metaphorical meanings, discussed below.


In Buddhism and Hinduism, both yāna and mārga (road or path) express the metaphor of spiritual practice as a path or journey. Ancient texts in both religions discuss doctrines and practices associated with various yānas. In Buddhism, yāna often augments the metaphor of the spiritual path with the idea of various vehicles that convey a person along that path. The yāna / mārga metaphor is similar to the Chinese image of the Tao (path or way) but Indian and Chinese cultures appear to have evolved such similar metaphors independently.

Vedic origins of -yāna as a spiritual journey

The use of yāna to use as a name or to refer to a spiritual journey may date to the , possibly composed circa 1500 BCE, whose 10th Mandala makes several references to devayāna, (translators usually render this as the "path of the gods" or similar) and one reference to ("path of the fathers"). The first verse of the 's burial hymn (10.18) translates approximately as "O Death, take the other path, which is distinct from the way of the gods" (). The "other path" is the , referred to in hymn 10.2 and alluded to in 10.14 and 10.16.

The devayāna and evolved from the ancient Rig Vedic concern for immortality to the classical Hindu concern with ending existence. The , which comment on the Vedas, make further reference to devayāna and . Among other distinctions, the pitryana was said to refer the religious practices of villagers, and the devayāna was said to refer to the practices of recluses living in the forest. The (II.iv.11 and IV.v.12) also makes reference to ekayāna, notably in the phrase , where ekayānam connotes "destination". The phrase translates approximately to "the one destination of the Vedas is the spirit of the word", in the same sense that a river's destination is the ocean.

Yāna in the Pali Canon

Yāna is one of ten suggested gifts (dana) that a lay person can appropriately give a monk or recluse, in the sense of providing a vehicle or transportation (e.g., see DN 7.33/PTS: A iv 59 and DN 10.177/PTS: A v 269).

The earliest explicit Buddhist use of -yāna in a metaphorical sense of a journey to awakening may be the term dhammayānam, "dharma chariot" (SN IV.4), where the vehicle itself serves as an extended metaphor for the Eightfold Path. Various parts of the chariot represent aspects of the Path (magga), e.g. axles represent meditation, the charioteer represents mindfulness, and so on.

Thus, metaphorical usage of yāna in the sense of a vehicle (as distinct from a path) emerged from a Buddhist context, and it did so relatively early in the evolution of Buddhism. Nevertheless, while the Pali Canon are very rich in images of wheels (cakka) and paths (magga) as metaphors for the journey to awakening, the Pali Canon rarely uses the term yāna for that purpose.

Enumeration of yānas in Mahayana texts

Mahayana texts are very rich in images of vehicles that serve in metaphors for journeys to awakening. This tradition may have begun with the Upaya chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, which relates a parable of a father promising three carts to lure sons out of a burning building, corresponding to the three types of Buddha. In the parable, the goat-cart represents the practices leading to the attainment of Śrāvakabuddhahood; the deer-cart, Pratyekabuddhahood; and the bullock-cart, Samyaksambuddhahood. The sutra goes on to say these that the teachings of the three vehicles are merely expedient means (upāya). Their purpose is to direct people toward ekayāna, the one vehicle, depicted in the parable as a jeweled cart driven by a white ox.

Yāna has been used subsequently in a number of schemas of the Mahayana Buddhist teachings in which there have been one, two, three, five, six, nine, and more vehicles.

Ekayāna (one yana)

Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra sought to unite all the different teachings into a single great way. These texts serve as the inspiration for using the term Ekayāna in the sense of "one vehicle". This "one vehicle" became a key aspect of the doctrines and practices of Tiantai and Tendai Buddhist sects, which subsequently influenced Chán and Zen doctrines and practices. In Japan, the one-vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sutra also inspired the formation of the Nichiren sect.

Two yanas

Traditionally, the two vehicles in Mahāyāna Buddhism consist of Śrāvakayāna and Pratekyabuddhayāna. These in turn refer to doctrines and practices that supposedly aim at becoming two of the three types of Buddha. Mahāyāna Buddhists take a vow to become the third type, namely bodhisattvas. Therefore Mahayana Buddhist texts sometimes use terms like "followers of the two vehicles" to refer to Buddhists who do not accept the Mahayana sutras.

Some Mahāyāna sutras consider that the two vehicles together comprise the Hīnayāna – literally, inferior vehicle; sometimes, small vehicle. Modern texts sometimes refer to Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna as "two vehicles". But referring to an "inferior vehicle" is often felt to be disrespectful to those Buddhists who do not consider the Mahāyāna sutras to be the word of the historical Buddha. More commonly, Theravāda refers to most non-Mahāyāna Buddhists in today's world.

Three yānas

Mahāyāna Buddhists often express two different schemata of three yanas. First, here are three paths to liberation that culminate as one of the three types of Buddha:

  • Śrāvakayāna: The Hearer vehicle: A path that meets the goals of a Śrāvakabuddha, who achieves liberation after listening to the teachings of a Bodhisattva Buddha. If no Bodhisattva is present in the world, Śrāvakabuddhas do not discover the Dharma for themselves.
  • Pratyekayāna or Pratyekabuddhayāna: The individual vehicle: A Solitary Buddha (Pratyekabuddha) achieves liberation, but does not teach other beings. Pratyekabuddhas do not depend on a teacher and can discover the dharma even if they do not encounter a Bodhisattva. They are sometimes said to remain silent and solitary.
  • Bodhisattvayāna: The Samyaksambuddha attains liberation and wishes to benefit as many beings as possible. In order to aid others, they vow to remain in the world, and defer their chance to end the cycle of rebirth.

A second classification came into use with the rise of the Vajrayāna, which created a hierarchy of the teachings with the Vajrayāna being the highest path. The Vajrayāna itself became multilayered especially in Tibetan Buddhism.

  • Hīnayāna
  • Mahāyāna
  • Vajrayāna

Four yānas

Mahayana Buddhists sometimes refer to four yanas that subsume the two different schemes of the three yanas:

Five yānas

This is a Mahāyāna list which is found in East Asian Buddhism.

  • - the human vehicle. This is the very beginning of the spiritual path
  • Devayāna - the practice of ethics and meditation
  • Shrāvakayāna - the practice of renunciation and the Four Noble Truths
  • Pratyekayāna - practice concerned with dependent arising (pratitya-samutpada)
  • Bodhisattvayāna - practice of the Six Perfections

Six yānas

The five yānas plus the Vajrayāna. This schema is associated with Shingon Buddhism in Japan. It was invented by Kūkai in order to help to differentiate the Vajrayāna teachings that he imported from China in the early 9th century. Kūkai wanted to show that the new teachings were entirely new.

Nine yānas

The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism has nine yanas, a list made by combining the first type of three yanas, and adding the six classes of tantras.

  • Hīnayāna
    • Śrāvakayāna
    • Pratyekayāna
  • Mahāyāna
    • Bodhisattvayāna
  • Vajrayāna, consisting of:

Twelve yanas

Another schema associated with Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna sources:

  1. Śrāvakayāna
  2. Pratyekabuddhayāna
  3. Bodhisattvayāna
  4. Kriyayoga
  5. Charyayoga (or Upayoga)
  6. Yogatantra
  7. Mahayoga
  8. Anuyoga
  9. Atiyoga
  10. Semde
  11. Longde
  12. Mengagde

See also


External links

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