Newcomers to our lectures invariably ask: “What is the difference between Hinayana (Small Vehicle) and Mahayana (Big Vehicle) Buddhism?”
Buddhism in general is about developing wisdom through lifestyle choices. The Hinayana practitioner awakens to one’s OWN suffering and chooses to end it by developing the Sage’s wisdom (called Fourth Stage Arhat).
On the other hand, the Mahayana practitioner also realizes that life can also be full of suffering and decides to end it by concentrating in developing wisdom to end suffering for ALL living beings.
In other words, the Hinayana wisdom is quite a bit narrower as compared to that of Mahayana. The Mahayana mindset is based on the four Unlimited Minds of Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Renunciation.
I’ll take this opportunity to elaborate a little bit on the first one: Kindness. We first and foremost start with developing a mind of kindness.
In Mahayana Buddhism, kindness is called Unconditional Kindness, 無緣慈 in Chinese or "Vô Duyên Từ" in Vietnamese. Kindness is to give joy; unconditional means that we attach no conditions or affinity to those whom we offer it.
How do we create affinity or conditions with others? We do it by giving something to them or by receiving something from them. Why is this called affinity or conditions? Think about it, when you give something to someone, like a bribe, it naturally makes that person more favorably predisposed towards you.
How about taking from someone? It has a similar, but reverse effect: the recipient feels an obligation to repay. In addition, if you are like most people who give, you would like to hang around so that others recognize your generosity and you can bask in their admiration and adoration.
Mahayana stresses unconditional kindness because it is more challenging to practice kindness on those with whom we have little or no affinity.
Kindness’ Salient Characteristics
Why do we Buddhists start with giving joy? I’ll briefly offer a few reasons:
1. In contrast to the typical approach of seeking personal happiness, that “unalienable right”, we understand the importance of making others happy. How long can you stay happy when your husband is unhappy? Similarly, when you make your kid happy, doesn’t it invariably make you happy too? As you can see, the secret of happiness is to focus on making others happy rather than pleasing yourself.
Now, let me ask: what have you done today to bring a smile to your mother’s face?
2. Unlike common wisdom, Buddhists don’t fall in love with “being right”. Instead, we prize kindness to others. Wait a minute, the reason we get an education and keep our knowledge up-to-date, isn’t that for the purpose of recognizing and doing the right thing? Let’s think about it, when you courted your wife, was it based on showing your intellectual prowess or was it based on making her laugh and feel that she was the only person in the world for you? OK, OK, now that you’ve both awakened to that initial phoniness that was probably motivated by animal impulses and urges, the wise thing is to go back to reason, right?
How often do you argue with your spouse to prove that you are right? Even when you are in the right, is he or she really convinced and converted to your side? Let me suggest that if you win most of these disagreements, you are probably on your third or fourth relationship and have not yet figured out why you are such a loser at love when you are right so often. Or, if you’re on the losing end of most disagreements, don’t you hate it when your significant other is right so often?
But what about doing the right thing? Right is very relative to the individual’s perspective. What is right for a Muslim is not necessarily right for someone with a different religious belief. Does it then make it OK for us to impose ourselves on others? The Iraq war is such an eloquent testament to such foolishness.
In other words, instead of focusing our proving that we are right, we should instead be focusing on what is right for others. Have you noticed that when we make them happy, we are on the right? More importantly, so are they! And they will be the last one to argue against that!
3. It is important to understand that proving that you are right, or insisting that you are, is a form of aggression. No wonder you are so lonely, unpopular, and unhappy!
One of my students is stuck on such an erroneous premise. He feels that he must be on the right so that his young son can know right from wrong. One weekend, he brought his kid to the temple because he could not find a babysitter. Would you be surprised if I told you that his kid was very happy and bounced from individual to individual, but would not go near his dad? Since I was so busy dealing with adults, I hardly had time to spend with the boy. All I could do was to shine my kindness mindset toward him. And, a strange thing happened: the second time that the boy attended the dharma assembly, before the family left, he came to me and adoringly hugged my left leg with all of his three foot frame.
4. At a deeper level, kindness is the basis for all goodness. If you want to know whether or not you are a good person, just look at how kind you can be. Can you do good without kindness? This is why the Mahayanist, whose goal is to help others, starts with kindness.
Finally, let’s not forget that it’s about unlimited kindness.
Why unlimited? Because:
Now you know – kindness is the key to your personal happiness.