The term Hīnayāna, inferior vehicle, is derogatory, and in terms of the way it is used in Mahāyāna sütras, intentionally so.
Since all Tibetan Buddhists are Mahāyānis, they don't feel slighted by the term and even go to some lengths to try and give "hīnayāna" props.
However, Tibetan Buddhists are notoriously ignorant of the actual content and context of many of doctrines to which they adhere. Why? Because they rely on abstracted commentaries on India sutra material, such as Sutra-alaṃkara etc., rather than actual sutras.
A quick read of the Sutra-alaṃkara will quickly demonstrate to any clear thinking person that the author of that text had a definitely low opinion of non-Mahāyāna schools.
The question is, is the Mahāyāna use of the term justifiable?
Well, if you turn away from intending to achieve full buddhahood [as defined by Mahāyānists], then you are turning to an inferior yāna, from a Mahāyāna perspective. There are a number of other reason why the doctrine the Buddha taught in the Agamas/Nikayas are regarded as inferior as well. Not in the sense that any of the Buddha's teachings are inferior, but in terms of the intended audience. Mahāyānists use the term to describe an inferior motivation, cessation, arhatship, etc., in an effort to dissuade those who might abandon the heroic eons long mission of attaining full awakening.
On the other hand, it is also important to bear in mind that Vajrayāna texts are similarly critical of those who avoid or do not have faith in Vajrayāna -- for example, the Hevajra Tantra refers to those Buddhists who follow lower tantra and ordinary Mahāyāna as "tirthikas", a term usually meant for non-Buddhists.
So when these terms are used, they are not meant to be categories for ranking teachings overall (and this is the great Tibetan Buddhist hermeneutical error). Instead, the term hīnayāna should only be used with Mahāyāna audiences when the teacher in question is describing the inferiority of the desiring to attain the result of an arhat or a pratyekabuddha as opposed to full buddhahood.
In terms of the whole of Buddhism, however, we are only the fourth largest religion of the planet. In ecumenical Buddhist gatherings it is skillful to avoid using the term "hīnayāna" because it is intentionally derogatory and because there are those who find it offensive, understandably so. We also run the risk of insulting aryas by using the term carelessly.
It does not mean however that when we are discussing with other Mahāyānists where Theravāda would be placed in the Mahāyan̄a scheme of things, that we should pretend that Theravāda is something other than a Hīnayāna school.
This being said, just because someone has ordained in Theravāda does not mean that they are necessarily a hīnayāna practitioner. Just as there were Mahāyānis in other Hīnayāna schools, likewise there have been and are Mahāyanis in Theravada.
But Theravāda itself, like Mulasarvastivada, etc. is a hīnayāna school when considered from the perspective of Mahāyāna.
Last edited by Malcolm
on Tue Jul 19, 2011 5:53 am, edited 1 time in total.