Philosophy East & West Volume 59, Number 2 April 2009 125-141
© 2009 by University of Hawai'i Press
Skillful means is usually used by scholars and Buddhists to denote the following simple idea: the Buddha skillfully adapted his teaching to the level of his audience.1 This very broad and somewhat oversimplified definition tries to incorporate the whole range of Buddhist views on the subject. However, it does not help to explain why there is an extensive use of the term in central Mahāyāna sūtras while pre-Māhayāna texts are almost completely silent on this issue. I suggest that skillful means has not always been an all-Buddhist concept; rather, it was developed by Mahāyānists as a radical hermeneutic device. As such, skillful means is a provocative and sophisticated idea that served the purpose of advancing a new religious ideology in the face of an already established canonical knowledge. The Māhayāna use of the concept exhibits an awareness, not found in pre-Mahāyāna thought, of a gap between what texts literally say and their hidden meaning.
In 1978 Michael Pye wrote that “‘skilful means’ has scarcely been attended to at all.”2 Since then, some attention has been given to the ethical, practical, and religious implications of the concept.3 Nevertheless, no one has ever asked why an idea that is considered to be so central to Buddhism in general did not become widely recognized before the arising of Mahāyāna. The compound skillful means – upāyakauśalya in Sanskrit or upāya kusala in Pāli – is not entirely a Mahāyāna creation; however, in Mahāyāna sūtras it has become widely used and has been charged with a special and novel meaning. The Mahāyāna interpretation adds a new and crucial layer to the pedagogical meaning of skillful means. It is aimed, eventually, at convincing those at whom it was directed that a new religious path (yāna) was greater than the old one. Critical reading of relevant portions of two early Mahāyāna sūtras – the Lotus Sūtra and the Skill in Means Sūtra – shows how the idea of skillful means is used to achieve this end: it explains how the old doctrine was at the same time not entirely true and not entirely false. This peculiar position is achieved by inventing an interpretive methodology, skillful means, that treats facts as nothing but educational literature. It allows Mahāyānists to challenge central Buddhist paradigms and offer a reorientation of the facts. The idea of skillful means allows a rejection of old literal statements about the life of the Buddha in order to charge them with new meaning. The old ideology is treated as skillful means; that is, it was offered for a specific purpose and is not completely true. On the other hand, as educational fiction, it had its good purpose.
The idea that the doctrine is some kind of a purposeful fiction is one step further from what is sometimes understood by skillful means: the idea that the dharma is designed to serve a purpose. It is based on the explicit idea that what has been said by the Buddha had a different and concealed meaning. The Pāli canon, for example, contains no such distinction. In the Pāli canon the words and actions of the Buddha are taken literally, and are treated as if the Buddha really meant them. There is no recognition of a gap between words or actions on the one hand and their meaning on the other. There is no recognition, for example, that religious goals were put forward only for the sake of achieving different (or, worse, contradictory) goals. On the other hand, in the early Mahāyāna teaching of skillful means, a gap is recognized between what the Buddha said or did and the meaning of his actions and words. The words of the Buddha then stop being taken literally and begin to be treated as textual entities as if they had been originally put together with concealed intentions. Indeed, Mahāyānists came up with a novel and radical idea: in early Buddhist teaching the literal level was different from the intentional level.
Why did Mahāyānists come up with such a radical idea? Primarily, I speculate, because it solved a well-known religious problem: how to suggest a significant doctrinal change without appearing completely heretical. Being part of an already more or less established tradition, “Mahāyānists” (probably not referring to themselves as such) had to consider carefully the relationship with what has already been established as the ruling paradigm. Whether this position was adopted for political reasons or because of real sentiment for the old, they could not criticize the existing body of religious facts by completely ignoring or rejecting it. The idea of skillful means is therefore an ingenious exercise in religious reformation through reinterpretation. In this sense, it is a hermeneutical device.
- 1 – See, e.g., Williams 1989, p. 143; Pye 2003, p. 1; and Gombrich 1996, p. 17.
2 – The quote is from Pye 1978, p. 2.
3 – Schroeder 2002, Schroeder 2004, and Hick 2004.