Upaya (skillful means)

Doing some research on the differences in Theravada/Mahayana. I’ve reached the teaching of skillful means in the Mahayana and if I’m not mistaken it says it’s ok to break the precept of false speech if it helps someone reach enlightenment. Does anyone have a good resource for a Theravada/EBT/Pali tradition response ??

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Theravada and Mahayana have different ideals, the latter the bodhisattva and the former the arahant. One focusses on one’s own awakening and the other on the awakening of others. A Dell component cannot be put into an Apple computer.

“Dhamma and Non-duality”—Bikkhu Bodhi:


Since this was an idea that came later, I don’t think you will find any response in the suttas, because there was nothing to respond to.

But it’s a good topic and I look forward to seeing if anyone can find anything.

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What do you mean with enlightenment here?

Today the term elightenment is used widely and commonly in various religions and traditions. The meaning can be to feel inspired, find bright ideas, feel there are whispers from gods, to Buddhism in the form of supernatural understanding about reality so that certain mental shackles / stains fall out.

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Hi JoeL,

I’m no expert on this issue, but my comment would be to make sure that if you are investigating Mahayana concepts that you read reputable, knowledgeable sources, not simplistic critiques. For example, you’ll sometimes see people critiquing cartoon versions of Nagarjuna’s statements about nirvana and samsara in the MMK. Bhante Sujato wrote a nice essay about that here:


RE the story of compassionate killing in the Mahayana, Rupert Gethin wrote this response from the Theravāda side:

The quote I often think of w.r.t. such “Bodhisattva” activities is AN 4.95 which says that a person who practices to benefit themselves, but not others is superior to someone practicing for the benefit of others to their own detriment.

Indeed. Many Mahayana teachers say that such actions are reserved for Bodhisattvas attained to the bhumis. Normal, unenlightened people are too clouded by delusions to know if e.g. lying is actually called for in that particular situation (see Rupert Gethin’s article above)


Having quoted Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu’s approach, I am also interested to hear other people’s approach to this situation if anyone cares to share :smiley:

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So is bikkhu bodhi defending the Sanskrit traditions in this video

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Skillful means does not necessarily imply false speech, when the truth value is determined by both intention and technical accuracy. Right speech is included under the aggregate of virtue where the N8FP is acknowledged to be fabricated:

“This is the noble eightfold path, friend Visakha: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”

“Is the noble eightfold path fabricated or unfabricated?”

“The noble eightfold path is fabricated.”

“And are the three aggregates [of virtue, concentration, & discernment] included under the noble eightfold path, lady, or is the noble eightfold path included under the three aggregates?”

“The three aggregates are not included under the noble eightfold path, friend Visakha, but the noble eightfold path is included under the three aggregates. Right speech, right action, & right livelihood come under the aggregate of virtue. Right effort, right mindfulness, & right concentration come under the aggregate of concentration. Right view & right resolve come under the aggregate of discernment.”

As to the “fabricated” nature of the path, it can be either descriptive or prescriptive. As a description, it implies that the path is made up, or put together. As a prescription, and while fabrications come with negative connotations, the path is to be developed/cultivated, keeping in mind that right view is the forerunner. When right view is the forerunner, the nature of fabricated things are known, hence they can be used skillfully without being deceived or deluded by them:

If on the hand there is no wound, one may carry even poison in it. Poison does not affect one who is free from wounds. For him who does no evil, there is no ill.

In Theravada, it is impossible for a noble one to break the five precepts intentionally. The Mahayana PoV probably serves to portray the noble ones as both compassionate without being naive, hence continue to teach knowing that they will most likely be misunderstood.

Note in the story of “compassionate killing” here, The Bodhisattva was fully prepared to go to hell. He accepted that he was doing akusala karma, but driven by compassion to other beings ( the bad guy + 500 others), he decided to do it anyway.

We can’t expect to imitate him and then exempted from the consequences. Are we that compassionate, with pure intention, that it can override the rebirth in hell?

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AFAIK, the earliest mention of upaya (方便 = skillful means) is found in the Agamas, especially Madhyama Agama of Sarvastivada tradition, in which it means “the methods used by the Buddha for teaching Dharma to people with various dispositions”. For example in MA 16, a parallel of the famous Kalama Sutta, it is said:

After they each had sat down, the Kālāma people concentrated as the Buddha taught the Dharma.

He encouraged, roused, and made them rejoice, teaching the Dharma for them with measureless methods.

After he encouraged, roused, and made them rejoice, he waited silently.


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