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Ekayāna is a Sanskrit word that can mean "one path" or "one vehicle". It is used both in the Upanishads and in the Buddhist scriptures, taking on different meanings and notions.
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the word Ekayāna took on special significance as a metaphor for a spiritual journey. Notably, in that text the phrase vedānāṃ vāk ekayānam translates approximately to "the one destination of the Vedas is the spirit of the word".
The Nikayas feature a related term, ekāyana (typically translated as "direct way" or "only way") in the Satipatthana Sutta. That influential text uses the term ekāyana to describe a number of meditation techniques intended for the cultivation of mindfulness. While ekāyana (formed from the words eka and ayana) is not the same term as ekayāna (formed from eka and yāna), both terms express the metaphor of a journey toward the attainment of Buddhist awakening. Past and present East Asian Buddhists have seen the same combination of characters (一乘) signifying ekāyana in the Agamas (Chinese translation of the Nikayas) as well as ekayāna in Chinese translations of Mahayana texts. Nevertheless, in contrast to yāna, whose etymological root is yā, the root of ayana is ya. While both roots connote "going" in Sanskrit, the distinction remains somewhat significant because yā is more likely than ya to also connote a "vehicle".
Indian Mahayana Buddhism
Just as the development of Mahayana Buddhism is obscured in history and legend, the historical appearance of the Ekayana is also unknown.
At some point the term became in use and appeared in the canonical texts of Mahayana Buddhism. The Ekayana sutras of primary influence are the Lankavatara Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Shurangama Sutra. Other Ekayana sutras are the Śrīmālādevī Simhanada Sūtra, the Sraddhotpanna Sutra, and the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.
The Lotus Sutra declares that "the three vehicles of the Śrāvaka (disciple), Pratyekabuddha (solitary buddha), and Bodhisattva are actually just three expedient devices (upayacausalya) for attracting beings to the one buddha vehicle, via which they all become buddhas."
The Indian Sutras of the Ekayana develop the various themes of Buddhism from their unique perspectives, yet share the "One Vehicle" approach to Buddhism. Thus, the Lankavatara Sutra expresses the incisive psychological analysis of the Ekayana, the Avatamsaka Sutra expresses the grandeur of the metaphysical or philosophical all-inclusiveness of the transcendent vision of the Ekayana, and the Lotus Sutra expresses the profundity of the devotional aspect of the Ekayana.
Woven in the Ekayana Sutras are several common themes which may be outlined as: (1) Buddhism is the religious development of the One Buddha Mind, (2) the One Mind is known by many names such as Dharmakaya (the body or essence of Dharma), Buddha-nature, Tathagata-garbha (the Buddha-Matrix, the Fundamental Treasury of the Tathagata, the womb of the One-Who-Comes-Thus), Shunyata (Emptiness), Alaya-vjnana (the Storehouse of Consciousness), etc., (3) since all the teachings of Buddhism, including both Mahayana and the Early Schools, are essentially teachings about the One Buddha Mind they must be taken as an organic whole and this reconciliation of apparent oppositions or contradictions within Buddhist teachings is the synthesis of Ekayana, (4) as all beings share equally the One Mind there is an absolute basis for human equality, (5) realizing this absolute basis of the One Buddha Mind is not accomplished as an intellectual pursuit but must be accomplished by experiential practice, and (6) since all people share this One Mind there is no fundamental distinction between monastics and lay practitioners in the potential for—or actual realization of—awakening in Buddhism.
After the division of the Mahayana from the Early Buddhist Schools, the Mahayana itself began to develop into sectarian tendencies as different philosophical trends developed, notably the Madhyamaka, the Yogacara, the Tathagatagarbha. While the actual historical order of appearance of the various texts is in considerable doubt, the principle common to the Ekayana texts is that they seek to unite the different Dharma teachings into "one vehicle" that encompasses all Dharmas and, in that sense, becomes the supreme Dharma teaching. The central point of this unification process is that it is not a single doctrine that is the "one vehicle" of Buddhism but that the actual experience of awakening, i.e., bodhi, is the one vehicle.
While the "One Vehicle" Buddhism died in India along with the rest of Buddhism, it became a key aspect of the Chinese acculturation and acceptance of Buddhism. The Chinese assimilation of Buddhism met in the vast diversity of Buddhist texts the problem of sorting through them for the core of Buddhist teaching. This problem was solved by the greatest Buddhist minds of China by taking up one or more of the Ekayana Sutras as central to the understanding of the diversity of Buddhism. The doctrines and practices of Tiantai (J. Tendai) and Huayen (J. Kegon) Buddhist sects were able to present a synthesis of the diversity of Buddhism that was understandable and palatable by the Chinese worldview.
Ekayāna in Chan
The Chinese Chan school of Buddhism affected this synthesis in a unique way by focusing on the practice of meditation as taught in the Lankavatara as the core method of personally realizing the Ekayana teachings while at the same time acknowledging the transcendental and devotional aspects represented by the Avatamsaka and Lotus Sutras respectively. The Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma (c. 5th to 6th century), who is considered the founder of the Chan school of China, was said to have brought the "Ekayana school of Southern India" to China and passed it down along with the Lankavatara Sutra to his primary disciple Huike (487-593), known as the Second Founding Ancestor of the Chan lineage. Huike's successors were known by the name of "Lankavatara masters," and it was the missionary work of Huike and his followers that laid the foundation of the Chan school.
Guifeng Zongmi (780 - 841) was an accredited master of both the Chan and Huayan (Avatamsaka) Buddhist lineages. In his treatise, The Original Person Debate (原人論, Yuan Ren Lun), he explicitly identifies the Ekayana teachings as the most profound type of spiritual realization and equates it with the direct realization of one's own nature:
"Buddha's teaching itself goes from shallow to profound. In outline there are five classes: 1. The teachings of human and heavenly beings. 2. The Small Vehicle's (Hinayana) teaching. 3. The Great Vehicle's (Mahayana) teaching of Dharma characteristics (dharmalaksana). 4. The Great Vehicle's teaching of destroying characteristics. 5. The One Vehicle's (Ekayana) teaching of manifesting Nature."
Thus, according to Zongmi who was a lineage master of both Huayan and Chan, he clearly distinguished the Ekayana from the Mahayana, and the Mahayana teachings of Yogacara (his Mahayana class 3) and Madhyamaka (his Mahayana class 4) were eclipsed by the more profound Ekayana teaching of "manifesting nature."
As the various forms of Buddhism influenced by the Ekayana sutras came to Japan, the one-vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sutra also inspired the formation of the Nichiren sect.
- Bṛhadaraṇyaka Upaniṣad in romanized Sanskrit (sanskritdocuments.org)
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, translated by Swami Madhavananda (II.iv.11,p. 363 and IV.v.12, p. 780)
- Maha-satipatthana Sutta Digha Nikaya 22 (PTS D ii 289), The Great Frames of Reference, translated from the Pali with commentary by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2000; translated here as "direct path" (accesstoinsight.org)
- Mahāsatipaññhānasuttaṃ in romanized Pali (metta.lk)
- *entry for ayana (large .png file) in A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (subtitle) Etymologically and Philogically Arranged with Special Reference to Cognate Indo-European languages, Monier Monier-Williams, revised by E. Leumann, C. Cappeller, et al. not dated, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi; apparently a reprint of edition published 1899, Clarendon Press, Oxford
- Nattier, Jan (2007). One Vehicle in the Chinese Agamas, Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University 10, 181-200
- Grosnick, William (1981). Nonorigination and Nirvana in the Early Thatagatagarbha Literature, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4/2, 34
- Buswell, Robert E., Lopez, Donald S. Jr. (2014). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.281
- Kern, Johan Hendrik, tr. (1884). Saddharma Pundarîka or the Lotus of the True Law, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XXI, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Reprints: New York: Dover 1963, Delhi 1968. ('Upaya chapter)
- Vaidya, P. L. (1960). Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtram, Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning. (Romanized Sanskrit)
- D.T. Suzuki in his Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra relates a portion of the biography of Fa-ch'ung on his special relationship with the Lankavatara Sutra: "Fa-ch'ung, deploring very much that the deep signification of the Lankavatara had been neglected for so long, went around everywhere regardless of the difficulties of travelling in the far-away mountains and over the lonely wastes. He finally came upon the descendents of Hui-k'e among whom this sutra was being studied a great deal. He put himself under the tutorship of a master and had frequent occasions of spiritual realisation. The master then let him leave the company of his fellow-students and follow his own way in lecturing on the Lankavatara. He lectured over thirty times in succession. Later he met a monk who had been instructed personally by Hui-k'e in the teaching of the Lankavatara according to the interpretations of the Ekayana (one-vehicle) school of Southern India." (pp. 51-52.)
- Also cited: "In the biography of Fa-ch'ung in the Hsu kao-seng chuan, T50, p. 666b, there is mention of the 'One-vehicle sect of India (Nan-t'ien-chu i-ch'eng tsung)' in reference to Bodhidharma's teaching." Note 87, page 29 of The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, translated with notes by Philip B. Yampolsky. ISBN 0-231-0861-0
- Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India, by Sukumar Dutt. 1962, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., p. 308-9.
- 佛教自淺之深。略有五等。一人天教。二小乘教。三大乘法相教。四大乘破相教(上四在此篇中)。五一乘顯性教 T45n1886_p0708c12(00) to p0708c14(01)