Question: How should we relate to the Great Vehicle (大乘: Mahāyāna) and the Small Vehicle (小乘: Hīnayāna)?
Answer: The Great Vehicle’s teachings contain the complete path to Buddhahood (佛果: which is complete liberation). Voluminous and with profound depth, they are capable of guiding all to the same goal. The Small Vehicle’s teachings contain the path to Arhathood (阿罗汉果: which is self-liberation). All were taught by the Buddha, with the universal flavour of freedom (i.e. liberation), although with capabilities of different degrees.
Unfortunately, some adherents of each vehicle might disparage those of the other vehicle due to lack of harmonious and interconnected perspectives. For example, some from the Small Vehicle might feel that there should be self-liberation first, before even thinking about liberating others. As another example, some from the Great Vehicle might feel that there should be aiming to liberate all together, now and quickly.
On the first example, it is actually possible, to some extent, to guide others to complete liberation while guiding oneself too – such as by practising and introducing the Pure Land path. (Upon reaching Amitābha Buddha’s [阿弥陀佛] Pure Land [净土], swiftest Buddhahood for helping all beings is guaranteed in that lifetime.)
On the second example, some are indeed more inclined in aptitude to self-liberation first. (Of course, the Pure Land can also be reached with focus on self-liberation first, with complete liberation later.) In our defiled land here, while those learning the Great Vehicle might spiritually backslide to the Small Vehicle, those learning the Small Vehicle can spiritually advance to the Great Vehicle too. (In the Pure Land however, there is only non-retrogressive progress to Buddhahood.)
As it is also possible to have ‘Great’-minded learning but with ‘Small’-minded practice, or ‘Small’-minded learning but with ‘Great’-minded practice, it is not healthy to overly harp upon superficial differences. Although it is natural for individuals to have preferred scopes of focus, if all are to humbly study and practise each vehicle’s teachings in depth, it will be realised that both are much more profound and substantial than imagined.
As taught by the Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yìnguāng (净土宗十三祖印光大师), ‘Those learning, although then focusing mainly on the Great Vehicle’s teachings, they also must not have disdain and abandonment of the Small Vehicle’s teachings. With the Small Vehicle’s teachings, they were originally for entering the Great Vehicle’s teachings then established. Thus, they are with the Thus Come One’s deliverance of sentient beings’ wonderful function, truly for those of lower roots, as their exiting of suffering’s great plan.’ (学者虽则专主大乘，亦不可轻蔑弃舍小乘。以小乘原为进入大乘而设。乃如来之度生妙用，实下根之出苦宏猷。)
To be truly great, the Great Vehicle’s teachings (geared towards the complete liberation of one and all) have to encompass and transcend the Small Vehicle’s teachings (geared towards one’s liberation). Since the Great Vehicle’s teachings are thus inclusive, they cannot in principle exclude the Small Vehicle’s teachings. At the same time, as it is clear upon detailed study, that the Small Vehicle’s teachings are incomplete for Buddhahood, this is where the Great Vehicle’s teachings come in, to complete the Buddhas’ perfect vision, of how to attain our greatest spiritual potential.
Those Of The Great Vehicle Must Not Look Down On The Small Vehicle’s Teachings (And Vice Versa)
How Are Arhats, Bodhisattvas, Pratyekabuddhas And Buddhas Different?