Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism

Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism

Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism

Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism


'Skilful means' is the key principle of Mahayana, one of the great Buddhist traditions. First described in the Lotus Sutra, in originates in myths of the Buddha's compassionate plans for raising life from the ceaseless round of birth & death.


During the last twenty-five years the idea of 'skilful means' has become quite widely known to students of Buddhism, and on many occasions I have been encouraged to think that my own study of the concept has played some part in this process. Some people prefer to use the Indian word upāya, meaning simply a 'means' or a 'strategem', whether employed by oneself or by others. Others prefer the longer expression 'skilfulness in means', which focuses on the special ability of an enlightened being, a buddha or a bodhisattva. Such great beings are believed to be especially competent in the use of appropriate stratagems to rescue others from ignorance and the entanglements of karma. The compact term 'skilful means', corresponding to the East Asian usage of Mahayana Buddhism, brings these aspects together in various ways, as is explained in the pages below.

The idea of 'skilful means' was developed during the formative period of Mahayana Buddhism in India at a time corresponding approximately to the emergence of Christianity in the western world. It was Mahayana, the 'Great Vehicle', which came to dominate the Buddhist culture of central and eastern Asia, following the Silk Road to China, and being carried further to Korea and Japan. Mahayana Buddhism is the basis for Chan, Zen or Sŏn Buddhism and also of faith-oriented devotion, for example to the bodhisattva Guānyīn (Kannon-sama in Japanese) and the mythical buddha Āmítúo (Amida in Japanese). Indeed, all the major schools of Buddhism in the countries mentioned, as also in Vietnam, Tibet and Mongolia, are related in some way to leading texts of early Mahayana Buddhism in which the concept of skilful means plays a key role.

At the same time it has come to be widely accepted that the idea of 'skilful means' or 'skilfulness in means' sums up thought patterns which were also found in early Buddhism. Indeed it appears to reflect the impact of the historical Buddha himself. Thus the study of 'skilful means' is the study of the internal dynamics of Buddhist thought in general. The significance of this has not been lost on various writers who have approached Buddhism from the context of the dialogue between different religions. Once it becomes clear that religious concepts and rites, even central ones, are not fixed entities, but provisional constructs with a temporary function in the various spiritual paths which are followed by human beings, then questions about the interpretation of various religions and the interactions between them can be taken up in a new and creative way. The Buddhist idea of 'skilful means' is therefore a most important clue for the further development of this discussion, which is now in process.

Although research into the history of Buddhist texts and ideas has made considerable progress since Skilful Means was first published, the leading ideas presented in this book have not fundamentally changed. The work is

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