Skillful means (upaya-kausalya) refers to an enlightened person’s ability to tailor their message to a specific audience. The concept emerged in Buddhist texts such as the Lotus Sutra, written hundreds of years after Buddhism began, but it also characterizes the historical Buddha’s style of dialogue and teaching. Teachers today may use skillful means to deliver the right teaching to a student in the most effective manner.
The Buddha went to great pains to adapt his teaching to his students. His teachings were conveyed in the local language and used familiar imagery and metaphors. His dialogues are similar to those of Socrates, who accepted his questioners’ opening propositions and conducted the discussion on their terms.
The Buddha likened his teachings to a raft—once the river was crossed and the far shore of liberation reached, the raft should be abandoned. In other words, the words or forms used to reach the goal aren’t intrinsically valuable but are valuable to the extent that they help us attain awakening.
A famous parable from Buddhist literature, recounted in the Lotus Sutra, is that of the burning house. A fire breaks out in a many-roomed house. The father escapes, but his children are still inside, distracted by games and other pleasures. The father must lure the children out using what would attract each—one kind of gift for the youngest, another kind for another child, and yet another for the third. Once they escape the burning house each child receives an even better reward: liberation. In the same way, teachers will guide each student differently, in accordance with their unique needs and disposition, though for all the goal is the same: awakening.
Skillful means is one reason why there are so many different kinds of Buddhism. The teachings of various traditions look and feel different, but all have the same goal, same “taste,” just as in the vast ocean, the water, whether on the surface or in the deep, has only one taste: salt.
Skillful means also explains why some teachings are unconventional or seem to contradict established doctrine. The gurus of Tibetan Buddhism and masters of Zen Buddhism who hit disciples or destroyed Buddha statues may have been using skillful means because that was the right teaching for that time, place, and student. But all teachings must be grounded in wisdom and compassion and have liberation as their ultimate goal. In recent years, issues with teachers abusing students and taking advantage of their devotion have emerged in multiple communities. Whether a teacher considered to be enlightened is using skillful means or simply behaving badly is a question Buddhist communities continue to grapple with to this day.
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