The Three Methods to Reach Enlightenment
The late Los Angeles-based spiritual teacher George Falcon used to talk about the methods that have been developed over the eons that we can use to wake up to our true nature and remember that "right here, right now, we are free." The arc of the talk follows an outline of the three traditional Eastern methods of reaching a state of enlightenment. George breaks these methods into three types: The Good Method (or Vehicle), the Superior Vehicle, and the Supreme Vehicle.
Frontispiece, Diamond Sutra from Cave 17, Dunhuang, ink on paper. Printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty, i.e. 868 CE. Currently located in the British Library, London.
The way I understand these three categories is that they are unique to George. He uses nomenclature normally associated with various Buddhist teachings but my recommendation would be to not try to tie what George calls the Superior Method, for example, with Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” Buddhism (which is sometimes referred to as the Superior Method). As a teaching technique he is categorizing at least 2500 years of religious thought into these three buckets so by definition they are not going to be precise or all-encompassing.
I will disclaim what I am about to write by saying that I am a bit tentative in this discussion because 1) I am not an expert on comparative religion and 2) the talks George gave were not academic seminars or sermons based on a specific religious doctrine. So what follows is what I have pieced together between what George said in his talks and our various private conversations and what I understand of the various religious sects, which I freely admit, as a non-expert on these matters, is limited. With that in mind, here goes:
The Good Vehicle George would sometimes call the “gradual method.” In this system, the focus is on accumulating understandings, skills, information, realizations, physic abilities, and/or physical attributes. As best as I can work out, you could put the Thereveda (or, as it is sometimes, somewhat pejoratively it seems to me, referred to: the Hiniyana or Small Vehicle) Buddhist School into this group. In India, there developed another variation on this concept where there is the idea that an individual needs to collect various physical marks of excellence on the path to enlightenment, often over many lifetimes.
George would sometimes say that the Good Vehicle is a broader term than simply a branch of Buddhism. He would say that religion in general falls into this category of the Good Vehicle, as does the Western secular belief of rewards coming to those who put in the hard work. A fundamental objective or use of every religion is to help human beings behave less like animals and, using the rules and practices of that particular religion, tame our lower selves. The Good Vehicle is meant to subdue or transform the animal tendencies, the animal nature in us which can manifest as anger, fear, depression, greed, lust and so on.
George was always careful to acknowledge that this is a proven method. Faithfully following the instructions from these various religions will tame these animal spirits, can lead to a better, happier life and, ultimately, can lead to a realization of one’s freedom. The challenge is that to achive this last part with this method takes a really long time. It is likely to require effort probably over not just one lifetime but a great many. This is, by far, the longest of the three paths.
The next method is the Superior Vehicle. I believe George would put Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” Buddhism into this category. Mahayana is the largest Buddhist tradition today, with over half of all Buddhists falling into this category.
And finally you have the Supreme Vehicle. I believe George would place the Vajrayana or Diamond Vehicle Buddhist school into this category. It is probably best articulated in the Buddhist text The Diamond Sutra, Lao Tzu’s the Tao Te Ching, the Hindu text The Bhagavad Gita, and in Christianity, by the words of Jesus. (More about these books and links to them can be found here.)