An Explanation of Upaya in Buddhism

Skillful or Expedient Means

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Mahayana Buddhists often use the word upaya, which is translated "skillful means" or "expedient means." Very simply, upaya is any activity that helps others realize enlightenment. Sometimes upaya is spelled upaya-kausalya, which is "skill in means."

Upaya can be unconventional; something not normally associated with Buddhist doctrine or practice. The most important points are that the action is applied with wisdom and compassion and that it is appropriate in its time and place.  The same act that "works" in one situation may be all wrong in another. However, when used consciously by a skilled bodhisattva, upaya can help the stuck become unstuck and the perplexed to gain insight.

The concept of upaya is based on the understanding that the Buddha's teachings are provisional means to realizing enlightenment. This is one interpretation of the raft parable, found in the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Majjhima Nikaya 22). The Buddha compared his teachings to a raft no longer needed when one reaches the other shore.

In Theravada Buddhism, upaya refers to the Buddha's skill in shaping his teaching to be appropriate to his audience—simple doctrines and parables for beginners; more advanced teaching for senior students. Mahayana Buddhists see the historical Buddha's teachings as provisional, preparing the ground for the later Mahayana teachings (see "Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel").

According to some sources just about anything is allowable as upaya, including breaking the Precepts. Zen history is full of accounts of monks realizing enlightenment after being struck or shouted at by a teacher. In one famous story, a monk realized enlightenment when his teacher slammed a door on his leg and broke it. Obviously, this no-holds-barred approach potentially could be abused.

Upaya in the Lotus Sutra

Skillful means is one of the major themes of the Lotus Sutra. In the second chapter, the Buddha explains the importance of upaya, and he illustrates this in the third chapter with the parable of the burning house. In this parable, a man comes home to find his house in flames while his children play happily inside. The father tells the children to leave the house, but they refuse because they are having too much fun with their toys.

The father finally promises them something even better waiting outside. I have brought you pretty carts drawn by deer, goats, and bullocks he said. Just come outside, and I will give you what you want. The children run out of the house, just in time. The father, delighted, does make good on his promise and acquires the most beautiful carriages he can find for his children.

Then the Buddha asked the disciple Sariputra if the father was guilty of lying because there were no carts or carriages outside when he told his children there were. Sariputra said no because he was using an expedient means to save his children. The Buddha concluded that even if the father had given his children nothing, he was still blameless because he did what he had to do to save his children.

In another parable later in the sutra, the Buddha spoke of people going on a difficult journey. They had grown tired and discouraged and wanted to turn back, but their leader conjured a vision of a beautiful city in the distance and told them that was their destination. The group chose to keep going, and when they reached their real destination they didn't mind that the beautiful city was just a vision.

Upaya in Other Sutras

Skillfulness in more conventional teaching methods also can be upaya. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the enlightened layman Vimalakirti is praised for his ability to address his audiences appropriately. The Upayakausalya Sutra, a less well-known text, describes upaya as a skillful means of presenting dharma without relying entirely on words.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "An Explanation of Upaya in Buddhism." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). An Explanation of Upaya in Buddhism. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "An Explanation of Upaya in Buddhism." Learn Religions. (accessed June 2, 2023).