UPĀYA

‘SKILL IN MEANS’

The Sanskrit word ‘upāya’, or ‘Hōben 方便’ in Japanese, is translated as ‘expedient means’, or ‘skill in means’, or simply ‘skilful means’ (upāya kauśalya). This teaching features prominently in the Lotus Sutra, and also is a key component in Tendai philosophy.

Simply put, upāya means to use wisdom to teach in a way that the audience will benefit, understand and appreciate, even if it’s not ultimately “true” in the highest sense. Many believe this is akin to lying, which is against the precepts. However, there is a time and place for the “truth”, and sometimes, it is better not to give it. On “the criteria for deciding what is worth saying”;

[1] “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.” (Abhaya Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997)

So we can see here that there is an appropriate time for the truth, and conversely, and inappropriate time.

An example of this can be seen in the Ananda Sutta, in which the Buddha does not answer the questions of Vacchagotta on the nature of the self. Instead, he remains silent, because whether he gave the truth or not, it would have been misconstrued by Vacchagotta and have been an affirmation of Vacchagotta’s previously held wrong beliefs.

In this sense, although examples of skilful means can be seen in the Pali Canon, it’s not specifically stated as such, with the exception of the Jataka tales.

Upāya does feature prominently in the Lotus Sutra, and is stated as such. In Chapter 3, the Burning House Parable, the Buddha tells a story of a father returning home to find his house on fire, but his children still inside. Despite the fathers’ shouts and pleas, the children continue playing in ignorance of the chaos around them. Appealing to the children’s desires, the father offers the children luxurious carts (think Xboxes and Playstations for todays’ audience), hearing this, the excited children run out of the fire and to safety. When out of the burning house, the children ask for their presents, but are given and even more fabulous cart instead, far better than the ones promised. The Buddha explains that, in much the same way as the father in the story, he has devised the different methods so that everyone can be saved from Samsara (ie the ‘Burning House’). This is not the same as lying though, as the different methods are all true in that they all lead one out of Samsara. Like a skilled physician, the Buddha uses different medicines for the same sickness in different people – Why? Because we all respond differently to different stimuli. The way we view things, the way react, and interact with things differs because of our previous experiences (karma) that have shaped who we are. Therefore, what is true, in the relevant sense, differs from person to person.

It was Ven Chih-i’s dream (the founder of Chinese Tientai) that the various Buddhist schools could be united, or at least, accepting of one-another. That a student may be able to attend a single temple but be schooled in a variety of practices and philosophies, so he or she are better able to progress on the path to liberation.

Ven Saicho (the founder of Japanese Tendai) continued this by adding various practices and lineages to his school of Buddhism, with his disciples continuing this trend. For this reason, the Japanese Tendai school continued to change and grow, and now includes zen meditation, esoteric practices, pureland practices, art practices, calligraphy practices, scholarship and many more. All priests receive ‘introductory training’ in all these areas and then are encouraged to pursue and master one area of practice.

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