Upaya: Skillfulness of non-clinging

Upaya or “skillfulness” or “skill in means” is a term that has been much misunderstood and misused, particularly in Japanese Buddhism, where upaya or “hoben” has been understood in the sense of “convenient; expedient; make things convenient (for somebody)”, tantamount to “the ends justifies the means.”

This is not a term that was used much, if at all, in early Buddhism, essentially it is a Mahayana concept. The Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, defines upaya as “Convenient to the place, or situation . . . a mode of approach, an expedient, stratagem, device. The meaning is – teaching according to the capacity of the hearer, by any suitable method . . .”

Mahayana used this as a way to legitimize its sutras, which were not taught by the historical Buddha, a fact that they were well aware of. They claimed that the Buddha taught different teachings to different audiences based on the people’s capacity and the correctness of the time. That is why he preached so many different sutras, and since the people of the world were not ready to grasp the full meaning of the “Mahayana” sutras, that is why they were hidden at the bottom of the sea and guarded over by sea-dragons until Nagarjuna, who apparently possessed the ability to breath underwater without a breathing device, traveled to the bottom of the sea to retrieve them.

It’s a story. A fable. A myth. To put it more bluntly, the Mahayanists lied. They lied about their sutras and a number of other things. They believed that the end, in this case legitimizing their teachings, justified the use of lies. I do not, or will I ever, believe that this conception of upaya or skills in means, is proper Buddhism. And I consider myself to be a Mahayanist.

The apex of this misuse of upaya appears in the Lotus Sutra where the Buddha says:

Shariputra, ever since I attained Buddhahood I have through various causes and various similes widely expounded my teachings and have used countless expedient means to guide living beings and cause them to renounce attachments. Why is this? Because the Thus Come One is fully possessed by both expedient means and the paramita of wisdom . . .

Shariputra, I too will now do the same, I know that living beings have various desires. Attachments that are deeply implanted in their minds. Taking cognizance of this basic nature of theirs, I will therefore use various causes and conditions, words of simile and parable, and the power of expedient means and expound the Law for them. Shariputra, I do this so that all of them may attain the one Buddha vehicle and wisdom embracing all species . . .

Now I, joyful and fearless, in the midst of the bodhisattvas, honestly discarding expedient means, will preach only the unsurpassed Way.

In the next chapter, the Buddha relates a parable to demonstrate the expedient means of using white lies to rescue children from a burning house. The most extreme example of this sense of upaya is expressed by Nichiren when he says all “the other sutras represent expedient means and the Lotus Sutra represents the truth.” In other words, the teachings found in sutras other than the Lotus are little more than “white lies.”

Now, it is important to remember that the words of the Lotus are not the words of the historical Buddha, but those of the persons compiling this sutra several hundred years after the Buddha’s death.

There is another connotation of upaya, a deeper one, and what I think is the original connotation, which is “skillfulness at non-clinging.” In the Great Transcendent Wisdom Sutra (Maha-prajna-paramita), also not the words of the historical Buddha but of the sutra’s authors, we find a more sophisticated and mature understand of upaya.

Subhuti asks the Buddha, “What is the skill in means, endowed with which the Bodhisattva reaches the knowledge of all modes?” The Buddha replies,

Here a Bodhisattva, a great being, beginning with the first thought of awakening, coursing in the art of giving, gives gifts, with attentions associated with the knowledge of all modes . . . Possessing the attentions associated with the knowledge of all modes, he has with regard to the gift no notion of a gift, with regard to the recipient no notion of a recipient, with regard to the donor no notion of a donor. And why? Because he cognizes all dharmas [things] as empty of own-marks, and sees them as not really existing, not totally real, uncreated. He enters into the dharma-mark of dharmas. Seeing that ‘all dharmas are incapable of doing anything’, he enters on the mark of the ineffectiveness [asamskara]. Possessing this skill in means he grows in wholesome dharmas, courses in the perfection of giving, matures beings and purifies the Buddha-field. But he does not aspire for any fruit of his giving which he could enjoy in Samsara [the mundane world of suffering], and it is only for the purpose of protecting beings, of liberating them, that he courses in the perfection of giving.

To Nagarjuna, “skillfulness of non-clinging” meant “non-exclusive understanding.” While he recognized that the Buddha taught one and the same truth differently to different people, for him, to be aware of the possibility of differently formulations of on and the same truth from different standpoints is to rise above the exclusive clinging to any one of these formulations as absolutely true:

In the teachings of the Buddha, the ways that lead to Nirvana are all equally one pointed; there are no divergent paths . . . Of these different teachings all are true, and yet none is true . . . Even to cling to emptiness as itself absolute would be a case of exclusiveness, and hence of blindness, dogmatism . . . If one does not cling to the emptiness of all things, one’s mind does not give room to quarrel; one just abandons all limitations. This is the true wisdom. But if one clings to the emptiness of things and thus gives rise to quarrel, his bonds are not cut; then one would lean on and cling to this knowledge. But this is not true knowledge.

As the Buddha has said, all his teachings are intended to help all people to cross the ocean of birth and death. There is nothing in these that is not true. Whether any teaching is true or not depends solely on whether one is non-clinging or clinging in regard to it.

That the absolute truth is not itself anything specific is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, and what makes the teachings true or not depends solely on our understanding. To cling to one teaching and proclaim it alone as truth and all other teachings as untruth renders the teaching being proclaimed false. This may be a difficult point to understand.

Dogmatism, then, and the notion that the ends justify the means, is not upaya. They are not skillfulness, they are the exact opposite. To see different teachings from the same source as “expedient means” may be fine in the relative view, but they do not open to the ultimate truth, which must be apprehended through skillfulness of non-clinging or non-attachment.


3 thoughts on “Upaya: Skillfulness of non-clinging

  1. So just to play devil’s advocate, why is it that even while believing that the Mahayana suttas weren’t the words of the Buddha, do you still consider yourself a “Mahayanist”?

    1. Adam, thanks for your comment, or question rather. Mahayanist is just a label. I am just a Buddhist, really, although if pressed I would probably say I am a “progressive” as opposed to a “conservative,” meaning that Mahayana resonates with me to a greater degree than earlier Buddhism does. Ironically I am somewhat hoisted by my own petard by using an expedient means, the term Mahayanist, to convey the fact that while I am cognizant of the fact that Mahayana used un-truth to promote themselves, I am sympathetic to their overall point of view.

      Just because the Mahayana sutras are not the “actual” words of the Buddha, that does not negate their value as teachings. I see them as an evolution of the Buddha’s dharma. In some places, that evolution went haywire and in others, I think it points more directly into the spirit of what Buddha was teaching. It’s a judgment call, I guess, but one I feel competent to make based on many years of practice in a number of traditions, including Theravada.

  2. Thanks for the response. I’ve come to similar concluscions regarding the Mahayana vehicle. I feel that even if not the true words of the Buddha, they have been used as a tool by many to “reach” enlightenment/nibbana. I think knowing that they Mahayana sutras aren’t the historical Buddha’s teachings doesn’t devalue them, but simply places them in their proper context.

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