An Introduction to Skillful Means

Taigen Dan Leighton
written 2004, published in "Eastern Horizon," No. 27, January, 2009.

Skillful Means, upaya in Sanskrit; fang-pien in Chinese; hoben in Japanese, is an essential concept in Mahayana Buddhism. Skillful means, sometimes translated as tactfulness, expedients, or ingenuity, is the practice of applying awakening teaching to the diverse variety of students or practitioners. Discussed in a number of Mahayana Buddhist sutras espousing the bodhisattva ideal of universal liberation, the Buddha's application of skillful means accounts for the earlier teachings of the arhat ideal of individual self-purification. The Buddha teaches skillfully in a variety of modes recommending different practices and teachings, because suffering beings have various different capacities, and must be led to the path toward awakening through appropriate approaches.

The idea of skillful means became crucial to the adoption of Buddhist ideas into China, and thereafter in all of East Asia. Skillful means is fully expressed and elaborated in the Lotus Sutra, probably the most influential Buddhist text in East Asia. Several colorful parables depict aspects of skillful means. In the parable of the burning house, a man comes home to find his house in flames and his children playing inside. When he tells them to flee the house they refuse, as they would rather play with their toys. The father finally entices them from the house with descriptions of many colorful carriages waiting outside. They exit to find only one ox cart, symbolizing the One Vehicle of Buddha's Way that can carry everyone. The One Vehicle includes all the various skillful teachings for saving beings from the flames of worldly suffering. The sutra emphasizes that the father in the parable was not lying, as he lured the children from the burning house to save them.

Another Lotus Sutra parable tells of a caravan leader encouraging those he guides with the vision of a phantom city in the distance. When they have rested after reaching this city, which represents the early idea of nirvana as escape from sufferings of the world, the caravan leader informs them that the true goal, the universal liberation of all beings, remains ahead, and they must now proceed.

In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha uses skillful means based on his all-knowing eye that accurately discerns the capacities of different beings and the teachings that would benefit them. But in the Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) Sutra, skillful means is one of ten paramitas or transcendent practices engaged in by all bodhisattvas, not only by fully awakened buddhas. These practices are often in a list of six, ending with prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom or insight. But the Avatamsaka offers four more practices beyond prajna, including upaya as one of the endless modes of liberative activity for use by all Mahayana devotees.

The idea of many teachings and practices applied skillfully to the single aim of spiritual awakening is an appealing approach for a modern Western understanding of the sometimes confusing abundance of Buddhist schools. Moreover, skillful means might be a way of respecting the pluralism of all religious traditions in our contemporary global interconnectedness. All traditions may be equally respected for the value of their teachings as they apply to different peoples' particular approaches to ultimate religious truth, and to primary principles such as kindness and compassion.

Skillful means was historically the approach that allowed Chinese Buddhism to incorporate and make sense of all of the Indian Buddhist teachings. The various synthesizing Chinese Buddhist schools developed systems for classifying the whole range of teachings, called p'an-chiao in Chinese. However, the Chinese schools all used the idea of skillful means hierarchically, with their own favorite sutras at the pinnacle of their sectarian classifications, for example the Lotus Sutra for the T'ien-t'ai school and the Flower Ornament Sutra for the Hua-yen. Thus skillful means could be misused in a patronizing manner toward so-called "lesser" schools.

Western practitioners sometimes have challenged the idea of skillful means as a slippery slope in which the ends justify the means. But the overriding importance of the bodhisattva practice of vow or commitment to benefit all beings, another of the later paramitas, informs any application of skillful means, and mitigates against any harmful activity except under the most urgent and unusual circumstances.

One of the most colorful and illuminating representations of skillful means in Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva of compassion, called Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, Chenrezig in Tibetan, Kuan-yin in Chinese, Kwanseum in Korean, and Kannon or Kanzeon in Japanese. As the bodhisattva who hears and responds to the cries of the world, the great variety of iconographic forms of this bodhisattva exemplifies skillful means responding to diverse suffering beings. One of the most memorable of the numerous forms of this bodhisattva has a thousand arms and hands, many of the hands with implements such as flowers, vases of ambrosia, musical instruments, ropes, daggers, hatchets, and wish-fulfilling gems. Each of these tools may be useful in specific situations with different beings. In addition to multiple hands, some forms of the bodhisattva have eleven heads, to observe beings from different viewpoints and respond effectively with different guises.

The practice of skillful means reminds us to listen to others respectfully, honor their differences, and recognize that others may have different needs and benefit from different teachings and practices. Following the model of the bodhisattva of compassion, we must not self-righteously cling to any particular method. We can learn various useful approaches, and as we learn to trust and respond with whatever is at hand, our skillfulness can develop.


Taigen Dan Leighton, 2004