The Three Vehicles in One Sitting
by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
Some people regard themselves as exclusively Mahayana or Vajrayana practitioners. Others say they follow only Theravada, that they don’t know anything beyond that. But talking in this way only exposes one’s lack of understanding. The three vehicles are not meant to be separated at all. We can practice all of them simultaneously — in fact, we need to in order to have a solid foundation. Without really applying ourselves to the four mind-changings and taking refuge, we have no real foundation from which to connect to the Buddhist teachings. Similarly, if you want to drink tea, you need a place to put the cup. You need a table, which is the same as the foundation of the Shravaka or Hinayana teachings. You also need the cup to contain the tea, which is the Mahayana attitude. And you need the tea as well — otherwise there is nothing to drink, and you do need a drink. Vajrayana teachings are like the liquid poured into the cup.
In the same way, in order to become enlightened we first need to connect to the Three Jewels. Taking refuge involves entrusting ourselves; this constitutes the Hinayana teachings. After that, what is the use of being the only one who is enlightened while all our mothers roam about in samsara? That would be totally shameless. It is said that the Hinayana orientation is like the little puddle of water contained in the hoofprint of a cow, while the Mahayana attitude is as vast as the entire ocean. Everyone needs to be enlightened — not only ourselves.
Third, without the very profound teachings of Vajrayana, including deity, mantra, and samadhi, there is no way we can achieve full enlightenment in this same body and lifetime. Thus, we need all three vehicles together: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. There is no point at all in regarding oneself as some kind of superior practitioner who doesn’t need “low” or “inferior” teachings. Such an attitude would be very unrealistic.