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Upāya is a central term in Buddhist hermeneutics, soteriology, and ethics, especially in the MahĀyĀna tradition, where it refers to methods skillfully employed by buddhas and bodhisattvas to assist sentient beings toward enlightenment.

In TheravĀda and Śrāvakayāna texts, upāya generally denotes a means or stratagem, and only occasionally refers to techniques employed by teachers on behalf of disciples. Still, the Buddha clearly was regarded as a masterful guide for sentient beings, adapting his message to the capacity of his audience, and encouraging promulgation of his doctrine in various languages.

Upāya gained prominence in early Mahāyāna sūtras, often as part of the compound upāya-kauśalya, which translates as skillful means, skill in means, or expedient. In many Prajñāpāramitā sītras, skillful means refers to the multiple techniques used by buddhas or bodhisattvas to help worldly beings, and is explicitly linked with perfect wisdom as a requisite on the path. In the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra, immoralities attributed to bodhisattvas and weaknesses displayed by the Buddha are explained as the skillful means of beings whose compassion and insight preclude any immorality. In the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, the layman VimalakĪrti uses "inconceivable skillful means" to convert Vaiśal 's townsfolk. He enters such places as gambling halls and brothels to wean their denizens from vice, and he feigns illness so as to converse with śrāvakas and bodhisattvas, who fear his stinging rebukes, and puzzle at his insistence that passions be utilized rather than avoided. The Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra) uses both exposition and parables to describe the Buddha's skillful means for drawing beings to the One Vehicle (the Mahāyāna), including his promulgation of provisional truths that do not represent the "true" situation, but are appropriate to the capacities of certain disciples in certain contexts.

As Mahāyāna was systematized, upāya became increasingly central. In hermeneutics, the term explains apparent contradictions among the Buddha's teachings as rooted in his skillfully teaching his listeners what they needed to hear at a particular time, so that they would persevere on the path and eventually see things properly. Thus, Mahāyānists regarded HĪnayĀna teachings (and those of other traditions) as mere preludes to the definitive greater vehicle, and the Mahāyāna itself as containing more and less definitive doctrines. One source of this view was the SaṂdhinir-mocana-sŪtra (Sūtra Setting Free the [Buddha's] Intent), which divides the Buddha's teachings into provisional and definitive. The scripture claims that, exercising skillful means, the Buddha turned the dharma-wheel thrice: provisionally in Hīnayāna scriptures (which incline to eternalism) and the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras (which incline to nihilism), and definitively in the Saṃdhinirmocana (which balances negation and affirmation). The three-wheel scheme became widespread in India and Tibet, though opinions varied as to the contents of the third turning (e.g., as YogĀcĀra, tathĀgatagarbha, or Tantra). In East Asia, the most influential hermeneutical scheme was that attributed to the Tiantai master Zhiyi (538–597), whose panjiao system identified five progressively higher stages of the Buddha's teaching, culminating in the Lotus Sūtra.

In mature Mahāyāna soteriology, upāya is, with wisdom, one of the two "sides" of the path perfected by bodhisattvas en route to buddhahood. Here, upāya refers to nearly any religious method not related directly to wisdom, and so includes the perfections of generosity, morality, patience, and effort; the practice of multifarious ritual and meditative techniques; and, above all, the development of the compassionatelymotivated aspiration to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings (bodhicitta). As perfecting wisdom or gnosis leads to attainment of a buddha's dharmakāya, the perfection of method results in the two "form bodies" that manifest for the sake of beings, the saṃbhogakāya and nirmāṇakāya. In some tantric traditions, where one "takes the result as path," wisdom and method were practiced simultaneously, for example as an cognition of emptiness appearing as a deity, or as a gnosis that sees emptiness while experiencing great bliss.

In Mahāyāna ethics, skillful means generally refers to compassionately motivated activity that benefits others, and corresponds well with traditional Buddhist morality. Certain texts suggest, however, that an advanced bodhisattva or buddha not only may, but must, break conventional precepts (including monastic vows) if doing so will be beneficial. Thus, sex, violence, lying, and stealing are sometimes claimed to be permissible. This "situational" ethic leaves moral decision making less rule-bound and more flexible, and defines virtue in terms of motive rather than conduct, thereby hinting at relativism and complicating judgments regarding one's own or others' behavior. Nevertheless, it was widely influential throughout the Mahāyāna world, where it was used to justify a range of actions, including trends toward laicization, particular political and military policies, erotic and terrifying elements in Tantra, and the behavior of spiritual masters. Especially in tantric and Chan traditions, training sometimes contravened standard morality and disciples were advanced using unorthodox techniques that sometimes included violence.

In contemporary Buddhism, upāya remains a crucial concept, helping to shape ongoing debates about how the dharma is to be expressed and transmitted, what range of practices is appropriate for Buddhists, how ethical decisions are to be made and judged, where war and politics fit into Buddhism, and what constitutes proper behavior by teachers toward their disciples.

See also:Pāramitā (Perfection); Prajñā (Wisdom)


Keown, Damien. The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Buddhist Hermeneutics. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.

Pye, Michael. Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahāyāna Buddhism. London: Duckworth, 1978.

Tatz, Mark, trans. The Skill in Means (Upāyakauśalya) Sūtra. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994.

Thurman, Robert A. F., trans. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti: A Mahāyāna Scripture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Watson, Burton, trans. The Lotus Sūtra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Roger R. Jackson

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