Spinsters and Hinayana Buddhism

Right now I am readng Paul Baker’s excellent book Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. A corpus or corpora are linguists’ tool to uncover hidden agendas within language use. I was particularly interested in the chapter about collocation where Baker focused on the use in English of the words bachelor and spinster. But it wasn’t so much how these words are used but rather who uses these terms that caught my attention.

Spinster is almost always used by someone else who is usually not a “spinster” to refer to someone who is. An unmarried person would almost never use this term to refer to herself. The same could be said of bachelor but it has a more positive meaning. Depending on factors like age and social status being referred to as a bachelor does not necessarily have a negative connotation. But the term spinster invariably is negative.

So you may be wondering what does Hinayana Buddhism has to do with the term spinster? Bare with me for a moment. My introduction into Buddhism was through Zen. I actually became a lay monk. Zen has some very good aspects about it. But like most religions or sects it constructs itself to be the norm. It was years later before I would take a step back and look at Zen from the “outside”.

When one looks at Buddhist history one will definitely come across the terms Hinayana and Mahayana. Hinayana literally is the “lesser vehicle” and Mahayana is the “greater vehicle”. The type of Buddhism practiced in Japan comes under the umbrella term of Mahayana. Historically it is a kind of Buddhism developed later. As the term suggests it is “superior” to the Hinayana.

But this is really strange. Why would anyone – the Hinayana – want to make derogatory their own practice. This is fact is not the case. The Hinayana Buddhists never use the term to refer to themselves. They usually use the term Theravada. Theravada Buddhism is the only surviving Buddhism of the early form. They pride themselves in being the closest to the original teaching of the Buddha (and whether this is a necessarily a good thing or not is another debate). So like spinster it is a term used to refer to The Other. This of course has a lot to do with power play and legitimation of one’s own discourse. The term Mahayana really has no meaning other than in contrast to its binary – Hinayana.

I have had dialogues with Zen Buddhists who think these terms are not an issue. But I believe they are and they need to be looked at in order to understand what their own beliefs are because to not question one’s position is to be blinded by it. I would hate to think what would a spinster Hinayana Buddhist would think of all this?

4 thoughts on “Spinsters and Hinayana Buddhism”

  1. Exactly. Most people just do not realise how much a single sentence they utter or write can reveal about their ideology. Raising awareness in language definitely will make people more attuned to subtle messages by people like George W Bush (or perhaps the person used to this example is too simple).

    And it will also make them see their own unconscious ideologies that have been subtly instilled in them since birth. No person is free from the influence of their environment.


  2. people often seem to misunderstand the importance of language in constructing the self. -like people who mockingly use ‘gay’ as an insult, and defend themselves by saying they have gay friends, or something equally petty. it’s subtle, but facinating.


  3. Arhatship is of course one of the differences between Northern and Southern Buddhism. But that is no reason to consider oneself superior or others as inferior.

    Scholarship also shows that Northern Buddhism developed their own set of sutras. The style and content are different to the older sutras, which suggest an different agenda.

    In short if we take things for face value we will be blinded by it. Buddha himself said it was necessary to confirm for yourself what is “truth” and what is not.


  4. When I was Buddhist I was Theravadin myself and always thought Hinayana to be very derogative. Some scholars think the Mahayanas called the other sect tho because of arhatship, that it was more important for the individual to reach enlightenment more than trying to help others. (The theory goes somewhere along that line I think.) Most people in the West anyways uses Theravada anyways to refer to Southern Buddhism.


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