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Upaya (Skt. upāya; T. thabs; C. fangbian; J. hōben; K. pangp’yŏn 方便) is translated as "method" or "stratagem".[1] The term is used in the following contexts:[1]

Skillful means (of the buddhas)

In this context, the concept of skillful means is used to explain why some of the Buddha's teachings seem to contradict other teachings. It is said that the Buddha taught on different levels, according to the capacity of the students. Thus the different levels of teachings were a skillful means (upaya-kaushalya), in which the Buddha tailored his teachings to the needs of a specific situation.

The concept of skillful means (upaya-kaushalya) of the Buddha is used in both the Pali[2] and Sanskrit (Mayahana) traditions.

Skillful means on the path of the bodhisattva

Essential quality

In the bodhisattva path, the terms upaya and upaya-kaushala are used to describe the qualities that must be developed by the practioner on the path to buddhahood. For example Upaya-kaushala paramita is one of the ten paramitas on the bodhisattva path.

Skillful means and wisdom

The path of the bodhisattva is often described as the path of "skillful means" and "wisdom". For example, in regards to the six paramitas of the bodhisattva path, the first five paramitas are said to correspond to the development of skillful means (upaya), while the six paramita corresponds to the development of wisdom (prajna).

Upaya in tantric Buddhism

From the Buddhist tantra (aka Vajrayana) point of view, one of the unique qualities of the tantric path is the use of various skillful means (upaya) such as: mantra, visualizations and empowerments. According to the tantric texts, these practice methods enable a practitioner to progress more quickly on the path to Buddhahood, when compared to the methods of other traditions.

Thus, while the Buddhist tantric texts generally share the same ultimate view as the Madhyamaka school, the skillful means of the tantric path is said to make this path more powerful when compared to other traditions.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. upāya.
  2. "It is true that the term translated 'skill in means', upaya-kausalya , is post-canonical, but the exercise of skill to which it refers, the ability to adapt one's message to the audience, is of enormous importance in the Pali Canon." How Buddhism Began, Richard F. Gombrich, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997, p. 17.


Further reading

  • 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