39 - Buddhist History 7: Indian Buddhism After the Buddha – The First 200 Years
41 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 4: Moon in a Dewdrop and Views of the Ocean

 

The Buddhist concept of “upaya,” skillful or expedient means, arose around the dawn of the common era – about 2,000 years ago. It emphasizes that even if we possess wisdom, when we want to share it with other beings and help them, it’s not so easy to do so. We need to be patient, creative, and compassionate so they will be able to hear, accept, and act on what we have to share.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Even the Buddha Knew Teaching Was Hard
Unskillful Means
Six Things to Consider When Trying to Get People to Change
A Note About Why Mahayana Buddhism Emphasized Skillful Means
What to Do When People Can’t Even Hear You
What to Do When People Aren’t Ready for the Truth
What to Do When People Don’t Get It
What to Do When People Don’t Care
What to Do When People Can’t Change All at Once
What to Do When People Respond by Attacking
Sources

 

Even the Buddha Knew Teaching Was Hard

From the beginning of Buddhism, it’s been acknowledged it’s a daunting task to communicate deeper spiritual truths and get human beings to let go of their greed, hate, and delusion. It’s said the Buddha himself, after achieving enlightenment, strongly considered never bothering to try teaching anyone what he had discovered.[1] He was convinced few people would even want to hear about it, let alone be able to accept or understand it, so he figured he’d just enjoy the peace of enlightenment by himself. According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha thought:

“Enough now with teaching what
only with difficulty
I reached.
This Dhamma is not easily realized
by those overcome
with aversion & passion.
What is abstruse, subtle,
deep, hard to see,
going against the flow —
those delighting in passion,
cloaked in the mass of darkness,
won’t see.”[2]

Fortunately for us, the gods pleaded with the Buddha to try teaching anyway, out of compassion, assuring him there would be at least a few people who would understand.

Unskillful Means

The Buddha was very wise in his anticipation that it wouldn’t be easy to teach people about his spiritual practice and insight. Many of us are more confident than he was, and deluded; we’re sure that if we just repeat what we know to be true often enough, we’ll get through to people.

How rarely does this work! We point out what’s true to our children, friends, co-workers, partners, students, and fellow citizens. It’s good to exercise. It’s bad to smoke. If you stay up too late, you’ll be too tired to do well at school or your job. Cutting taxes for the rich doesn’t actually result in a trickle down of wealth to the middle and lower economic classes. If we keep burning fossil fuels, global warming will threaten the existence of life on this planet. 9-11 was not a hoax. Working on yourself through spiritual practice is beneficial for the other people in your life. If you mess with opioids, you risk flushing your life down the toilet.

We keep telling them, but do they listen? If they listen, do they actually change their minds? If they change their minds, do they actually change their behavior?

Faced with such apparent limitations in our ability to help others see the truth, some of us just give up and shut up. Others of us feel compelled to “speak our truth no matter what,” but generally just get louder and more impassioned without improved results. When we aggressively debate others or declare their ignorance, they just get even more entrenched in their positions and behavior (as we tend to do if someone tries to tell us we’re wrong).

Note: In this episode, I’ll be focusing on how to share wisdom with others for the benefit of all. I’m skipping over the issues of how to ascertain truth for yourself, holding that truth with humility, making sure you’re not actually being self-serving as you set about trying to change others, and setting aside your own defensiveness and pettiness when you do so. Those are huge issues and I don’t mean to imply we can just skip over them! However, I want to spend some time talking about what to do when you’ve done your inner work and sincerely feel called to help others.

Six Things to Consider When Trying to Get People to Change

The Buddhist concept of skillful means addresses the difficulty of translating our wisdom and good intentions into beneficial results. In essence, it says that in order to help people change for the better, you need to take a lot of things into account:

  1. Can they even hear you? There are a whole host of reasons people might be completely oblivious to your message. What might get through to them, and wake them up?
  2. If they hear you, are they ready to listen and accept what you’re trying to say? If not, is there anything you can do to make them more receptive?
  3. Even if they’re willing to listen and accept, do they get it? Can you summon the necessary patience to respond without judgment, and do your best to help others understand – perhaps using language or imagery they’re familiar with, or breaking the overall message down into digestible parts? Can you keep offering what you’re trying to share, in the hopes that some amount of it will be absorbed?
  4. If you can’t get people moving toward the ultimate goal of “A,” can you describe a different goal, “B,” that lies in the same general direction but inspires your audience? This can feel a little deceptive, but if there’s no good alternative and you sincerely have people’s best interests in mind, is there a creative way to bring about beneficial consequences for all?
  5. Once people get it and are on board, how much change are they capable of at this time? How can you support them and encourage them to keep moving toward a larger transformation?
  6. If people respond to your efforts by attacking you, can you see this as arising from their own insecurities and avoid taking it personally? How can you sustain your aspiration to help them anyway?

This list of considerations may seem pretty modern, like they’re part of a new communication strategy your boss is going to ask you to implement at work, or somewhat annoying advice from a family therapist. However, apparently people weren’t that different 2,000 years ago, because this list of things to consider when you’re hoping to get people to do something different comes – more or less – from the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra is one of the earliest Mahayana Buddhist texts, composed somewhere between 100 BCE and 100 CE.

A Note About Why Mahayana Buddhism Emphasized Skillful Means

The Lotus Sutra talks a lot about upaya, or skillful means. Part of the reason for this is the text was trying to explain the fact that it presents a new vision of Buddhist practice, while claiming the new vision was taught by the Buddha himself – even though the text appeared 400-500 years after the Buddha died. At this point in Buddhist history, teachings were generally considered legitimate only if they came from the Buddha himself. Mainstream Buddhism had an established canon that was supposed to contain all of the things its founder had ever taught. The canon most definitely did not include the Lotus Sutra, or its teachings about the supremacy of the path of the bodhisattva over the path of the arhat. (A bodhisattva is someone who attains enlightenment, or liberation, but chooses to be reborn in the world of suffering in order to help other beings instead of escaping the cycle of transmigration by entering nirvana, like an arhat does.)

To deal with the criticism from mainstream Buddhism, the Mahayana Buddhists who created the Lotus Sutra said it had indeed been taught by the Buddha, but it hadn’t come to light for several hundred years because people weren’t ready for it. In other words, the earlier teachings found in the established canon were upaya, or skillful means. They were beneficial and helpful at a certain time, and for a certain kind of person. Now, people were ready to hear the message of the Lotus Sutra and aspire to greater things… including those who had attained mastery of the path of the arhat. In fact, the sutra implies that if you really reach enlightenment, you’ll find yourself on the bodhisattva path anyway, so it all ends up being the same path. (This is like encouraging someone to aim for “B” when you know they’ll end up at “A.”)

This isn’t meant to put the teaching of upaya exclusively in a negative, sectarian light, though, even if it was used as a strategy to gain legitimacy by early Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra contains teachings about upaya that are valuable today, entirely apart from sectarian arguments. These teachings are largely conveyed through parables, which I’ll take you through in the order they pertain to our list of six considerations.

What to Do When People Can’t Even Hear You

What about when you have someone’s best interests in mind and are trying communicate to them – verbally or otherwise – a way toward positive change, and they can’t even hear you? (I’ll use the term “hear” in this discussion to mean “perceive,” even though there are many ways to share wisdom besides verbally.) Sometimes people are so caught up in their activities, distractions, views, or addictions, your message, so to speak, “falls on deaf ears.” For one reason or another, the people you care about are completely oblivious to what you’re trying to share.

In the Lotus Sutra, this kind of scenario is illustrated by a parable about a physician with many children. One day, the children drink poison. Because of the poison, some of the children are delirious and refuse to take the antidote their father has prepared. Desperate to save his them, the physician leaves and then sends word back home that he has died. The children are very distressed and feel orphaned. The sutra says, “This continuous grief brings them to their senses,”[3] so they take the antidote and are saved. Joyous, the father returns home.

In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha then asks his disciples whether the physician in this parable was guilty of lying. The disciples say “no” and the Buddha explains that when the power of skillful means is used for the sake of living beings, one isn’t guilty of lying because one is “taking the circumstances into account.” In other words, lying is still against the moral precepts, but it’s acceptable – or even important – to lie, on occasion, for compassionate reasons. If the father in the parable had refrained from lying, his children would have died, and he would be guilty of safeguarding his own moral purity instead of doing something to benefit others.

Now, we don’t need to interpret this Lotus Sutra parable in a limited way, as being only about lying to get people to listen to us. Instead, look at lying as an example of just one kind of unusual, provocative, controversial, or somewhat risky action you might take in extenuating circumstances in order to get people to wake up and listen. Other kinds of wake-up-and-listen kinds of actions might be protests, artistic endeavors, or impassioned speeches. In our personal lives, it might be participating in an addiction intervention, or dramatically altering the dynamics of our relationship with someone. The possibilities are endless… but it does seem that Buddhism is encouraging us not to give up when people don’t hear us. Instead, it points us toward skillful means: What’s actually going to work? When we turn our creativity toward the problem, what ways could we get our message heard while maintaining a sincere desire to benefit others?

What to Do When People Aren’t Ready for the Truth

What about when you’re technically able to get someone to hear what you’re saying, but they aren’t ready to absorb it? What if they get defensive, run away, or perceive things in a skewed way because the truth, or the change that it requires, is too much for them to deal with?

This kind of situation is depicted in the Lotus Sutra in the parable of the lost son.[4] A man’s young son runs away and ends up living his life in poverty and difficult circumstances. In the meantime, the father becomes wealthy and powerful, and moves to a different area. Although decades pass, the father still longs for his son and laments that he lacks an heir.

Eventually, the son’s wanderings bring him to his father’s city. Glimpsing a powerful man from afar, dressed richly and surrounded by adoring subjects, the son doesn’t recognize his father and is filled with fear. He figures such a person will only bring trouble to a vagabond like him, so he runs away. His father, having recognized his son, sends some men after him to bring him back, but this just terrorizes the son even more, so the father lets him go. Using skillful means, though, after a few days the father instructs a couple of his men to dress in rough, dirty clothes, and go offer the son good wages for shoveling dung, so the son comes back. For years he shovels dung, and at times the father goes out, dressed in dirty rags and ready to shovel dung himself, in order to get near his son – never telling him about their true relationship. Eventually, the father gains the son’s trust and gradually promotes him and builds his confidence, until the father is finally able to reveal the truth to the son and everyone else, and designate the son as his heir. After decades of thinking he’s only fit for shoveling dung, the son is finally able to stand up and accept his inheritance.

There are many reasons, of course, why people are unwilling to accept the truth, not just low self-esteem. They might be attached to things like wealth, habits, or relationships they will be asked to give up. Maybe accepting the truth requires them to face past actions they feel ashamed of, or it conflicts with dearly cherished beliefs. Still, at the bottom of all of these reasons is someone’s sense of self. They may think they’re great and infallible, or wrong and ultimately unlovable. They may feel insecure, confused, you name it… the important thing is accepting someone where they are, like the father in the lost son parable, and finding a way to work with that. Is there any way to help this person become more receptive? A way to put them at ease so they can start moving in a direction that will ultimately bring them greater security and happiness, despite their fears?

What to Do When People Don’t Get It

Of course, sometimes people are willing to listen, and even to change, but they don’t really get it. This can be frustrating, and we may be tempted to give up trying to get through to them, or conclude they’re hopeless. Of course, what’s called for is setting aside our judgements, cultivating compassion, and patiently finding ways to help people understand. We need to meet a potential student where they are – using language or imagery they’re familiar with, and perhaps breaking down the overall message down into digestible parts.

The Lotus Sutra compares this situation to rain falling equally, without discrimination, on all the plants in the forest – from the towering trees all the way down to tiny “medicinal herbs.” All these different plants take up whatever amount of water they need, according to their different capacities. After giving this metaphor, the Lotus Sutra goes on to say it illustrates how Buddha, “observing the natural powers of all [the] beings [that came to him to hear the Dharma] – whether they were keen or dull, persevering or lazy – taught the Dharma to them according to their abilities in an unlimited variety of ways, so that all rejoiced and were greatly enriched.”[5] However, the sutra says, while the Buddha may have used an “unlimited variety of ways” to teach, all of his teachings were of “one character and flavor” – that is, he wasn’t giving inferior teachings to those of small capacity, like you would if you disrespected such a person. Instead, all the teachings aimed at the same ultimate goal, to benefit living beings and help them achieve liberation.

Now, an important aspect of using skillful means in this way – adjusting your message depending on the capacities of your audience – is not letting on that you’re doing it. Frankly, being designated a “medicinal herb” can feel insulting. Part of this kind of skillful means is allowing people to absorb what they can without making them think about how their abilities compare to those of others. The Lotus Sutra goes on to explain it’s the Buddha’s job to keep in mind the natures of the beings he’s addressing, while his listeners can just concentrate on learning and practicing, “just as those plants, trees, thickets, forests, and medicinal herbs do not know whether their own nature is superior, middling, or inferior.” In other words, you remain motivated by compassion, respect, and the desire to be of benefit, and avoid giving anyone the impression you think they’re relatively stupid, lazy, ignorant, selfish, etc.

What to Do When People Don’t Care

What about when people understand your message, but just don’t really care? You’re trying get them to move toward a particular result, let’s call it “A,” because you know that will be the best possible situation for all involved. However, “A” doesn’t seem desirable to your audience – or at least not desirable enough to make any real efforts toward it. If you think carefully, though, and “take circumstances into account,” you might be able to convince people to move toward “B” instead – which isn’t exactly “A” but it would get them moving in the right direction.

The Lotus Sutra illustrates this approach with the story of the burning house.[6] A man owns a big mansion, and his many children are playing inside. Unfortunately, the house catches on fire. The father calls to his children, warning them to run out of the house or perish in the flames, but the children are so caught up in their play they ignore him. They don’t appreciate the danger they’re in, and are absorbed in their games or attached to their toys. Finally, the father employs skillful means and tells the children he wants to give them the most amazing playthings ever – they just have to come outside to get them! Excited, all the kids run out of the house. It turns out the dad wasn’t being entirely truthful, but again, he was excused for fudging the truth because it ended up benefitting others.

When employing B-instead-of-A skillful means, we may feel like we’re being less than totally honest. This is like encouraging people to use renewable energy because it will boost the economy, instead of because it’s the only way we’ll be able to sustain life on planet earth. Or like asking someone to meet you at a coffee shop instead of a bar because you’re really in the mood for a scone, instead telling them you’d like them to drink less alcohol. Sure, it seems like you ought to be able to tell people what you’re really thinking and have them agree and go along with you, but that’s just not the way people work.

What to Do When People Can’t Change All at Once

Once people get it and are on board, how much change are they capable of at this time? How can you support them and encourage them to keep moving toward a larger transformation?

The Lotus Sutra tells of a large group of people who wanted to travel five hundred leagues along a very dangerous road in order to reach a place where there were rare treasures to be had. The group found an experienced guide to lead them. Part of the way along, the group grew tired and said to the leader, “We are utterly exhausted and afraid as well. We can’t go any further. Since the road before us goes on and on, now we want to turn back.”[7] The guide knew the road well, and the nature of the rare treasures at the end of it, and thought it was shame for the group to give up now. Through magical skillful means, he conjured up a fantastic “castle-city,” visible not too much further along the road. He promised the group they could rest and find safety there, so everyone continued on their journey. The guide let people relax in the city for a little while before letting it dissolve, and then was able to tell them, truthfully, they didn’t have much further to go before they got to the treasure.

It’s just the nature of human beings that they get tired, scared, frustrated, and discouraged at times. This is also something we have to take into account if we want to benefit them. We may need to get them to focus on a short-term gain, or let them forget about how daunting the entire journey will be. No matter how noble or important their aspirations, people are going to need things along the way to sustain them. All little rest? Some praise? A celebration?

What to Do When People Respond by Attacking

Finally, it sometimes happens that people respond to your efforts to share your wisdom by attacking you. When this happens, can you see their aggression as arising from their own insecurities, and avoid taking it personally? Can you sustain your aspiration to help them anyway? This can be awfully difficult.

The Lotus Sutra offers us the ideal of bodhisattva “Never Disrespectful” to follow.[8] This bodhisattva was a monk who didn’t focus on reading and reciting Buddhist teachings, but instead made a practice of bowing to people. Whenever he saw anyone – man or woman, ordained or lay – he ran up to them, made obeisance, and said, “I deeply respect you. I would never dare to be disrespectful or arrogant toward you. Why? Because you are all practicing the bodhisattva way and surely will become buddhas.”

Not surprisingly, not all people to whom the monk bowed reacted positively. Some grew angry and cursed him for taking it upon himself to let them know he didn’t look down on them, and for predicting their buddhahood, as if he was some high and mighty person. Nevertheless, bodhisattva Never Disrespectful kept on with his practice, enduring abuse. When people tried to hit him with sticks or throw stones at him, he’d run just out of their reach and yell back, “I would not dare to disrespect you. Surely all of you are to become buddhas!” Much later, through his diligent practice, bodhisattva Never Disrespectful attained supreme awakening and gained powers including joyful and eloquent speech, and those who had reviled him came to believe in and follow him.

Given the roughness of political discourse in our day and age, it’s difficult to imagine someone putting the practice of unconditional respect as their priority. And it’s not difficult to imagine such a person being abused and reviled for it. Is this a practical aspiration? Maybe not, and to be fair, while the Lotus Sutra gives us the ideal of bodhisattva Never Disrespectful, it doesn’t label his actions as skillful means. Indeed, patting your opponents on the head and assuring them you don’t disrespect them is likely to just piss them off. Still, could this be our inner attitude, even if we don’t say it? Contrary to angering and alienating others, such an attitude is bound to mitigate ill-will.

Bodhisattva Never Disrespectful said he knew all the people he met were practicing the bodhisattva way and would attain buddhahood. This reflects the fundamentally optimistic approach of Mahayana Buddhism. No matter how awful someone is behaving, we believe there is some will toward goodness and wisdom within them. Human beings act with selfishness and aggression because of their ignorance. Selfishness and aggression lead to suffering for self and others. No one likes to suffer, and we aren’t immune to the suffering of others, so eventually we’ll be so miserable, we’ll look for another way, and move toward wisdom.

It may seem like a naïve view of the human character, but this isn’t so much about holding on to some belief as it is trying out this view as we approach actual people. Is it skillful means? Does it actually help? If so, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s true or “right” in some objective sense.


Sources

Reeves, Gene (translator). The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008.

 

Endnotes

[1] See Episode 12 – Buddhist History 4: Life of Shakyamuni Buddha Part 2 – Before and After Enlightenment
[2] “Ayacana Sutta: The Request” (SN 6.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn06/sn06.001.than.html.
[3] Reeves pg. 295 (Chp. 16: The Lifetime of the Tathagatha)
[4] Reeves pg. 142 (Chp. 4: Faith and Understanding)
[5] Reeves pg. 160 (Chp. 5: The Parable of the Plants)
[6] Reeves pg. 112 (Chp. 3: A Parable)
[7] Reeves pg. 198 (Chp. 7: The Parable of the Fantastic Castle-City)
[8] Reeves pg. 339 (Chp 20: Never Disrespectful Bodhisattva)

 

39 - Buddhist History 7: Indian Buddhism After the Buddha – The First 200 Years
41 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 4: Moon in a Dewdrop and Views of the Ocean
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