Upaya: Lessons from Buddhist Tradition about Skillful Teaching

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Sarah K.

Whereas Theravada tradition allegedly concerned its arhats with only their personal enlightenment, Mahayana tradition avowed to awaken and save all sentient beings. Thus, it is clear that Lotus Sutra’s emphasis is not on achieving wisdom, concentration, and nirvana merely for and within one’s own selves, which may be seen as arrogant or self-centered, but complete enlightenment entails that one strives to teach in order to awaken all beings. Now, one might wonder how to carry out this teaching effectively?

In this context I have been particularly fascinated with the idea of upaya or skillful means. Bhagavat Buddha explains that after attaining buddhahood he expounded the teaching extensively with various “explanations and illustrations using skilful means (upaya)” (970) to lead sentient beings to abandon their attachments. The necessity of upaya in teaching the Buddhist doctrine can be understood in the light of i) the unintelligibility of Dharma for a layperson, as Buddha explains Dharma is profound and hard to understand and ii) the varying capacities of humans in that “not all of sentient beings can accept it (Dharma)” (975). Humans suffer from various limitations such as “sentient beings are not aware, shocked, startled, or disgusted nor do they seek release” (973); “they have no wisdom” (979); “people have little knowledge” (981); and they have deluded sensory attachments. However Buddha teaches nirvana to all of them and everyone has a potentiality to become a Buddha. Hence, because of the abstruse nature of dharma and nirvana, and people’s varying capabilities to understand, the principles must be taught in terms in which the listeners can understand them. In the parable of burning house, being immersed in playing the children refused to listen to the exhortations of the elder man and leave the house on fire. The elder man, employing skilful means, enticed the children with the allure of chariots outside and succeeded to draw them out. Buddha entreats all his heirs, or boddhisatvas, to treat attached sentient beings as their children stuck in fire, where fire appears to be a symbol of worldly desires and attachments, suffering, or the samsara.

Within this parable, I found the multiple deeper meanings of skilful means extremely interesting: i) some individuals may find it difficult, owing to a different spiritual temperament, to grasp or believe the metaphysical expositions of Reality, in which case, in order to be fruitful, the preliminary teaching ought to ideally begin with straightforward yet striking ideas rather than true but complicated descriptions of Reality, ii) the elder man did not use his physical strength even when he had it (973) to drag the children outside and render them safe, rather he devised means out of which they leave the house, and their ill-informed attachments, out of their own volition. It may be taken to mean that strident sermonizing may not be useful in effecting a change of hearts from the outside, and an enduring change in humans is motivated mostly from within (even when personal reasoning inside one’s mind is triggered by an external stimulus), iii) the elder knew the children closely and thus was aware of those children’s fascination with chariots; so he could come up with such an effective strategy. Thus, a good teacher or boddhisatva does not teach with a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all approach, rather he, being familiar that every student/disciple will have different dispositions, inclinations, and capacities, will cleverly frame his teaching whereby he will appeal to the different needs of different individuals, even when the eventual goal is the same.

The initial temptation after reading the parable is to characterize as patronizing or infantilizing, the tone of Buddha Bhagavat towards the laity in terms of some individual’s prospective lack of capacity or comprehension to understand or internalize the Dharma doctrine. However, it is perhaps more helpful to view upaya as a pragmatic tool to begin working with people where they are presently at and then gradually work the way up in unfolding the Ultimate Truth. If a tradition is presented starting from the end, it will probably attract little appeal and acceptance.