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UPĀYA is a Sanskrit and Pali term meaning "device, strategem," or "means." The term has a technical function in Buddhism, especially in the Mahāyāna, where it is frequently used in the compound upāyakauśalya ("skill in means"). In Buddhist usage, it refers to certain manners of teaching or forms of practice that may be employed along the path to final release, and in which a buddha or bodhisattva is especially skilled. Often, these involve the skillful evaluation of the spiritual capacities of beings on the part of a buddha or bodhisattva, and a concomitant revelation of just that degree of truth that is most beneficial to the specific religious needs of the devotee. The usual Chinese equivalent is fangbian (Jpn., hōben ). Although fangbian is an ordinary Chinese word with its own distinct meaning, owing to various terminological conflations its meaning in East Asian Buddhist texts is "(skillfully applied) means." The usage has given rise to the convenient English expression "skillful means." The concept of upāya also figures prominently in other Mahāyāna Buddhist cultures, notably that of Tibet.

Pali Usage

The terms upāya or upāyakusala occur in the Theravāda canon, but only incidentally or in late texts. The Dīgha Nikāya and the Anguttara Nikāya speak of three kinds of skill: skill in entering (aya), skill in leaving (apāya), and skill in approach or means (upāya). Leaving etymological speculation aside, it is clear that this terminology refers to the spiritual attitude of a monk who is supposed to be expert in the management of his practice on the road to Buddhahood. In the Suttanipāta, it is the expert boatman taking others across a swift stream who is described as a "skillful knower of the means."

In spite of the paucity of references in Pali writings, it is remarkable that upāya here assumes a double aspect, referring to the activities both of aspiring monk and good teacher, skilled in the ways of helping others across the spiritual threshold. Variously emphasized, this double usage is frequently found in early Mahāyāna, although not direct textual lineage should be assumed. Other Pali usage is either non-technical or late and incidental. This relative inattention to the term in Pali texts does not mean, however, that the way of thinking assumed in this terminology is foreign either to Theravāda Buddhism in its fully developed form or to the earliest Buddhists in general. Admittedly, there is no direct evidence that the Buddha himself made use of this specific term to explain the way his teaching was to be understood. Nevertheless, there are many indications that his message was presented with conscious, pragmatic skill. In support of this, one need only think of such well known scriptural similes as the raft, the poisoned arrow, the pith, and the water snake, in which the provisional and practical nature of the Buddha's teachings is made clear.

UpĀya in the Lotus SŪtra

The opening chapters of the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra) are an extended reflection on the nature of the Buddha's teaching. This reflection is advanced partly by means of a series of parables and partly by a retelling of the story of the Buddha's decision to teach others the religious path he had perfected (chaps. 2 and 7). The concept of skill in means plays an important role throughout, occurring over eighty times in the first eight chapters.

Traditionally, the story of the Buddha's decision to teach following his enlightenment had portrayed him as hesitant to do so because of the depth and subtlety of the Dharma and the sensuality and ignorance of humankind. In this account, only the urging of the god Brahmā led to the Buddha's decision to teach the four noble truths and the Middle Way. To this hesitancy was linked the Buddha's perception of the diversity of human faculties and dispositions, a diversity that is likened to a pond full of lotuses, only some of which rise undefiled above the water. In the retelling of this story in the Lotus Sūtra, the discrepancy between the Buddha's knowledge and the ignorance of living beings provokes an explanation that the teaching of the Buddha is an upāya, that is, a provisional expedient able to draw people into the Buddha's Dharma. In other words, although the Buddha realizes that the true, ultimate, and indeed originally nirvanic quality of things cannot be precisely stated in words, he nevertheless teaches the doctrine of nirvāa as a "means" to lead people toward detachment.

A parable in the third chapter of the Lotus Sūtra tells how a father lures his children from a burning house by the expedient of offering them three fine chariots for their enjoyment. Only on emerging from the fire do they realize that they have been tricked, as it were, into safety by the attractive inducements offered by their father: their real reward, their lives, far outweighs their original expectations. So too, according to the parable, does the Buddha lure sentient beings from the "burning house" that is sasāra (the round of birth and death) by proposing a variety of apparently distinct religious careers, all of which are in fact reducible to one: the path leading to Buddhahood. Thus understood, the otherwise polemically differentiated "vehicles" (yāna)śrāvaka ("hearer of the Dharma"), pratyekabuddha (self-enlightened Buddha), and bodhisattva are only provisional constructs designed to appeal to persons of different religious capacities. Ultimately, it is only the path of the Buddhas (buddhayāna) that is real.

While the means used to ensure deliverance may thus seem to involve an element of deception, or at least, of withholding the full truth, the discrepancy between the form in which the message is couched and its ultimate meaning is understood to arise owing to the relative ignorance of the living beings who receive it. The sincerity and the consistency of the Dharma regarded from the point of view of the Buddha is considered to be unimpeached. In chapter 5, the simile of a rain cloud, which bestows on diverse plants moisture equal to their needs, explicitly treats this point. Other parables stress that the religious path eventually brings rewards out of all comprehension to those just beginning their practice. In chapter 4, the process of winning enlightenment is compared to that of a son who abandons his father's estate. When the prodigal returns years later, in dire poverty and ignorant even of the fact that he has come to the place of his birth, his father only gradually reveals his patrimony to him, fearing that a premature revelation of the truth would frighten his son away once again.

Finally, not only is the teaching of the Buddha declared by this text to comprise a series of skillfully devised expedients, but the very appearance of the Buddha in this world is declared (chap. 15; chap. 16 in the Chinese) to be a mere strategem to draw beings to the Dharma. The actual Enlightenment is an event that took place, if it occurred in history at all, aeons ago. The Buddha's apparent pārinirvāa at age eighty is a mere simulacrum, comparable to that of a physician who feigns death in order to induce his willful sons to take an essential medicine. Chapter 7 tells of a guide who leads his charges to a magic city he has conjured up as a resting place for the weary. Only when they have rested do the travelers learn that the city is a mirage, not the ultimate goal of their journey after all.

Thus, in the Lotus Sūtra it is not merely a question of particular teachings being regarded as secondary formulations. The very appearance of the Buddha, his setting the wheel of the Dharma in motion, and his winning of nirvāa, have a provisional, dialectical nature related to the needs of living beings in their diversity.

UpĀya in the Perfection of Wisdom Literature

In the early Mahāyāna sūtras, known as the Prajñāpāramitā ("perfection of wisdom") literature, the notion of skill in means is closely linked to that of prajñā, that is, to wisdom or insight into the true character of things. Such insight implies a recognition of the metaphysical voidness or insubstantiality of all phenomena and all factors of experience (dharma s). Insight and skill in means are two of the perfections in which a bodhisattva has to school himself. Hence, this usage (especially in the Aasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra ) complements that of the Lotus. As an adept in training, the bodhisattva must manage the various features of practical religion that articulate his path, but without becoming attached to them in any way. He must, for example, practice dhyāna ("meditation, trance") without being subject to its karmic consequences, that is, without rebirth in the various deva heavens that such meditation entails. These heavens, the teaching holds, are pleasant but religiously irrelevant existences; attachment to them is an impediment to the religious life: "But what is the skill in means of a Bodhisattva? It is just this perfection of wisdom. And he applies himself to this skill in means in such a way that, endowed with it, the Bodhisattva enters into the trances without being reborn through the influence of the trances" (Conze, 1973, p. 250).

Upāya, however, is not only a matter of individual spiritual welfare. The bodhisattva would lose his own way if he abandoned living beings.

If the mind of a Bodhisattva forms the aspiration not to abandon all beings but to set them free, and if in addition, he aspires for the concentration on emptiness, the Signless, the Wishless, i.e., for the three doors to deliverance, then that Bodhisattva should be known as one who is endowed with skill in means, and he will not realise the reality-limit midway, before his Buddhadharmas have become complete. For it is this skill in means which protects him. (Conze, 1973, p. 225)

Thus the bodhisattva is both the adept and the benefactor. In Mahāyāna thinking it is not possible to be the one without also being the other.

A closely related early Mahāyāna text, the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra (Teaching of Vimalakīrti) dramatizes this principle with a narrative centered on an illness feigned by the prajñā- adept Vimalakīrti. In conversation with Mañjuśrī he declares that his illness is without characteristics but arises only through compassion as a skillful means. It will be healed only insofar as all beings depart from belief in self and from dualistic thought. The close connection between upāya and prajñā ("insight") is evident in statements such as: "Again, insight without (skillful) means is bondage, but insight with (skillful) means is release; (skillful) means without insight is bondage, but (skillful) means with insight is release" (T.D. no. 14.545). Applied to the body, that fundamental object of Buddhist meditation, the implications of this are as follows:

Yet again, seeing the body in terms of impermanence, suffering, emptiness and non-self, this is called insight. To stay in birth-and-death even though the body is sick, bringing benefits to all and not getting disgusted or tired, this is called (skillful) means To see that the body is never without sickness and that there is no renovation and no passing away, this is called insight. To recognize that the body is sick and yet not to enter eternal cessation, this is called (skillful) means. (T.D. no. 14.545)


The concept of upāya plays an incidental role in many other Mahāyāna texts, especially in connection with bodhisattva s as savior figures. Its implications are also clearly present, however, in the more philosophical Madhyamika distinction between two levels of truth. Both provisional truth (lokasaṿtisatya) and supreme truth (paramārthasatya) are essential, according to the Mādhyamakakārika (Middle stanzas) of Nāgārjuna, for the proclamation of Buddhist Dharma.

Skill in means, or skillful means, is an idea known to every experienced monk in Mahāyāna Buddhism and has often been used to interpret the function of various aspects of Buddhist teaching or practice. Its role as a regulative principle in situations of accommodation or syncretism should never be overlooked. At the same time, many implications of its use as a principle of interpretation both in Buddhism and in a wider religious sense remain to be explored.

See Also

Bodhisattva Path.


A general discussion of upāya can be found in Sawada Kenshō's "Bukkyō ni okeru hōben no shisō ni tsuite," Bukkyō bunka kenkyū 12 (1963): 97ff. Masuda Hideo's "Hannyakyō ni okeru 'hōben' no imi ni tsuite," Indogaku Bukkyōgaku kenkyū 23 (1964): 112117, discusses upāya in the Prajñāpāramitā literature. Kumoi Shōzen's "Hōben to shinjitsu," in Hoke shisō, edited by Ōchō Enichi (Kyoto, 1969), pp. 321351, concentrates on the use of the term in the Lotus Sūtra. Leon Hurvitz's Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (New York, 1976) and Edward Conze's The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and Its Verse Summary (Berkeley, 1973) are reliable translations of these two seminal texts. Eugène Burnouf's translation of the Lotus, rendered from Sanskrit, contains a discussion of upāya in the appendix: Le lotus de la bonne loi, vol. 2, Appendice, 2d ed. (Paris, 1925), pp. 594ff.

Other secondary sources include Alicia Matsunaga's The Buddhist Philosophy of Assimilation: The Historical Development of the Honji-Suijaku Theory (Tokyo and Rutland, Vt., 1969), which discusses issues closely related to the notion of upāya ; "The Concept of Upāya in Mahāyāna Buddhist Philosophy," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1 (March 1974): 5172, by the same author; my "Assimilation and Skilful Means," Religion 1 (Autumn 1971): 152158; and my Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahāyāna Buddhism (London, 1978), a full-length study with further bibliography. For Pali usage, see the editions of the Pali Text Society, especially Dīgha Nikãya, edited by J. E. Carpenter (London, 1910), vol. 3, p. 220, and Anguttara Nikāya, edited by E. Hardy (London, 1958), vol. 3, pp. 431ff.

New Sources

Franck, Frederick. "Upaya: Stratagems of the Great Compassion." Eastern Buddhist 30, no. 2 (1997): 287293.

Hamlin, Edward. "Magical Upaya in the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 11, no. 1 (1988): 89121.

Miller, Alan L. "Spiritual Accomplishment by Misdirection: Some Upaya Folktales from East Asia." History of Religions 40, no. 1 (2000): 82108.

Pye, Michael. Skillful Means: A Concept in Mahāyāna Buddhism. 2d ed. New York, 2003.

Schroeder, J. W. Skillful Means: The Heart of Buddhist Compassion. Honolulu, 2001.

Michael Pye (1987)

Revised Bibliography