Practice on the path of hinayana — or sutrayana as it’s called nowadays — is based on self-discipline. Through awareness, discipline, and the ability to discern what is useful and what is harmful, we abandon useless and harmful activities. We could say that the hinayana path of practice is about morality, or self-discipline.
Practice on the Mahayana path, the “path of transformation,” not only keeps us from harming others, it allows us to develop the potential for helping them. Having developed self-discipline, we can expand a disciplined attitude towards the world and begin to involve others on our path. In this way, we can tap into qualities that might actually be helpful and allow us to be of some use to others. Such practices are referred to as the Mahayana path.
Practice on the vajrayana path, the “path of transcendence,” is about training the mind in such a way that transcendence arises. It is training the mind by knowing the nature of mind; and it is knowing the nature of mind by developing awareness of what the mind is. Simply put, the vajrayana trains in awareness of the true nature, such that all falsity collapses. When the true nature is revealed, the ability to transcend our constant attachment to “self” spontaneously arises — thus allowing genuine compassion to spontaneously pervade. This is the vajrayana path of practice.
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