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Upaya-kaushalya (Skt. upāyakauśalya; P. upāyakosalla; T. thabs mkhas; C. fangbian shanqiao; J. hōbenzengyō; K. pangpy’ŏn sŏn’gyo 方便善巧) is translated as “skillful means,” “skill-in-means,” “expedient means,” etc.[1] The term refers to the extraordinary skill of the buddhas and bodhisattvas in teaching the Dharma according go to the needs of sentient beings.

Simile of the raft

In the broadest sense, all of the Buddha's teachings can be considered as skillful means that can be discarded when the dharma practitioner reaches enlightenment. This view is presented in the Simile of the Snake Sutta, in which the Buddha uses the metaphor of a raft to describe his teachings.[1] In this context, the Buddha states that his teachings are like a raft that can be used to cross a river; once the practitioner has crossed the river, the raft is no longer needed.

Teaching according to the needs of the student

The concept of upaya-kaushalya is also used to refer to the Buddha's ability to teach according to the needs of beings of different capacity. In this context, the Buddha taught higher level teachings to those capable of understanding them, and more simple teachings to those with less capacity. In this context, the Buddha is compared to a doctor who prescribes a treatment based on the needs of the patient.[1]

Contemporary scholar Edward Conze states: "'Skill in means' is the ability to bring out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension."[2]

One vehicle doctrine

The concept of upaya-kaushalya is also used as the basis for the Mahayana doctrine of One vehicle (ekayana). In this context, the teachings on the three vehicles of the bodhisattva path are said to be expedient means, used to help people who are not yet ready to comprehend the higher truth of the "One Vehicle".

The concept of One Vehicle is described using the parable of the burning house.

Acting according to the needs of beings

The concept of upaya-kaushalya also applies to the actions of a bodhisattva. In this context, a bodhisattva or practitioner may use any expedient methods in order to help ease the suffering of people, introduce them to the dharma, or help them on their road to nirvana. For example, in chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha describes how the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara changes his form to meet the needs of the student. For example, if a monk is needed, the Bodhisattva becomes a monk.

Justification for bodhisattva's to perform prohibited acts

The concept of upaya-kaushalya has also been used to justify the ability of bodhisattva's to perform actions that are prohibited to ordinary beings. This aspect of upaya-kaushalya is presented in the Upaya-kaushalya Sutra.

Significance in East Asian Buddhism

The concept of upaya-kaushalya played an important role in the classification of teachings within East Asian Buddhism. Contemporary scholar Peter Gregory states:

The doctrine of expedient means provided the main hermeneutical device by which Chinese Buddhists systematically ordered the Buddha's teachings in their classificatory schemes. It enabled them to arrange the teachings in such a way that each teaching served as an expedient measure to overcome the particular shortcoming of the teaching that preceded it while, at the same time, pointing to the teaching that was to supersede it. In this fashion a hierarchical progression of teachings could be constructed, starting with the most elementary and leading to the most profound.[3]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. upāyakauśalya.
  2. Conze, Edward. A Short History Of Buddhism.
  3. Gregory, Peter N. (1999) Chinese Cultural Studies: Doctrinal Classification. Source: [1] (unpaginated), accessed: January 28, 2008


Further reading

  • Snellgrove, David (1987). Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists & Their Tibetan Successors (2 volumes). Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-87773-311-2 (v. 1) & ISBN 0-87773-379-1 (v. 2)
  • Matsunaga, Daigan and Alicia (1974). The concept of upāya in Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy, Japanese Journal of Buddhist Studies 1 (1), 51–72
  • Pye, Michael (1978). Skilful Means - A concept in Mahayana Buddhism. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. ISBN 0-7156-1266-2
  • Schroeder, John (2001) Skillful Means: The Heart of Buddhist Compassion. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-2442-3

External links