Skillful Means: The Buddhist Teaching on How to Share Your Wisdom

Skillful Means: The Buddhist Teaching on How to Share Your Wisdom

The Buddhist concept of “upaya,” expedient or skillful 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. The Lotus Sutra, written about 2000 years ago, describes six things to consider when we’re trying to get our message across, and suggests the best ways to proceed.

Note: I focus, here, 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.


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.[i] 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.”[ii]

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. 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).


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.


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,”[i] 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?

[I’ll continue this subject on this blog next week… ]

[i] Reeves pg. 295 (Chp. 16: The Lifetime of the Tathagatha)
[i] See Episode 12 – Buddhist History 4: Life of Shakyamuni Buddha Part 2 – Before and After Enlightenment
[ii] “Ayacana Sutta: The Request” (SN 6.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,


The Middle Way Between Self-Centered and Do-Gooder

The Middle Way Between Self-Centered and Do-Gooder

Most Zen teachers I know will readily admit to you that when they offer a teaching, it’s usually something that they need to remember as much as anyone. With that disclaimer, then, I can write this post without sounding like I’m criticizing everyone else for being self-centered while I’m so nobly free of self concern!

The Buddhist path, from the beginning, has been called the Middle Way. What that means is we try to avoid extremes, which are generally paired and dualistic, such as asceticism versus sensual indulgence, ceaseless striving versus complacent laziness, or being too caught up in concepts versus being too caught up in rejecting all concepts.

When it comes to self-centeredness, the extremes are:

  1. Being so consumed with our own individual lives and experience that self-centered matters take up the vast majority of our time and energy.
  2. Being so determined to prove we don’t care at all about ourselves but only about others, we become a do-gooder – which means our efforts to help are often less beneficial than we’d like to think, and we exhaust ourselves (usually becoming bitter and resentful at some level, despite our intentions).

Now, when we devote ourselves to Zen training, we understand that we need to do a fair amount of internal work. We need to turn the light to shine within, and learn to see through our delusions. We need to work with the precepts in order to live in a less harmful, more compassionate way. This part of our practice is described by the first two pure precepts: cease from harmful action, and do only good. Sometimes this work seems pretty endless. It’s easy to get pretty wrapped up in ourselves – our efforts, struggles, flaws, suffering, and insights, not to mention our daily responsibilities, joys, and challenges.

But then there’s that third pure precept: do good for others. Plus our bodhisattva vow to free all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and embody the Buddha Way. How do we enact this part of our practice in order to avoid the first extreme of self-centeredness, but without going to the other extreme of being an oblivious do-gooder?

If you’re anything like me, when you think of doing good for others, you think of additional activities and responsibilities you should add to your life in order to do more stuff that’s explicitly focused on helping others. That’s certainly an important part of this effort, but when our lives are already so busy, there’s only so much stuff you can add. But maybe we overlook some important things when we immediately fixate on literal service?

Maybe our to-do list doesn’t have to get longer. Maybe, instead, we can recognize in what ways our daily life and practice can be done on behalf of others, instead of just for ourselves? When we show up at Sangha practice, it’s not just about what we’re getting out of it; our presence supports and strengthens others, and the Sangha as a whole. When we sit zazen, we’re not just relieving our own stress and making our life more manageable, we’re also touching a great mystery the world desperately needs in order to heal. When we eat well or exercise, we’re not just doing it because we fear ill-health and death, but because other people love and value us and our life brightens theirs. When we read a book or take a course that challenges our views in a way that makes us uncomfortable, we aren’t just educating ourselves, we’re freeing other beings from the negative results of our ignorance.

I think it matters, though, that we consciously include benefiting others in our intention as we go about these various activities and practices. In an open-handed, non-self-centered way, of course. (It’s not about You going around helping all Those Poor People.) Still, including others in your motivation shifts the whole dynamic; activity and results are engaged in a completely different, brighter way than when it’s all about you.

It also matters that you interact with others so they have a chance to experience benefit from what you do. What’s important is to share ourselves. After all, that’s one of our precepts as well: Do not be mean (stingy) with Dharma or wealth; share understanding, give freely of self. Many of us neglect to do this generously because we suffer from low self-esteem and assume no one really wants what we have to share, or that we don’t have anything of value to share. Both of these assumptions are terribly untrue and damaging, and if you feel this way, learning to share yourself and challenge these assumptions needs to be a big part of your practice.

Others of us refrain from sharing ourselves because we’re afraid we’ll be diminished by doing so, and won’t have enough resources left to maintain our health and sanity. But maybe, if we think we’ve had that experience in the past, we weren’t sharing in quite the right way? I’ll leave you with that question, and some words from Zen master Dogen’s essay “The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance:”

“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”[1]


  1. Dogen, Zen Master. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo (Kindle Location 10262). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
A Handy Chart for Understanding Absolute and Relative

A Handy Chart for Understanding Absolute and Relative

Zen talks about absolute and relative alot – which each one is, how to wake up to the absolute, and how to reconcile and harmonize the two sides. Sometimes the discussion of relative and absolute can get pretty philosophical and abstract.

To help ground and guide our conversation the other evening, I created a chart describing the relative (ji) and absolute (ri) dimensions of reality. Take a look, and see if some of the terms associated with ji and ri resonate with aspects of your own daily life. (Click on the link for a full-resolution image of the chart.)

A Handy Chart of Absolute and Relative

Zazen: The Incredibly Difficult Practice of Not-Doing

Zazen: The Incredibly Difficult Practice of Not-Doing

Our practice of zazen is also known as shikantaza, a Japanese term that can be translated as “nothing but precisely sitting.” The whole point is to just sit there. Doing nothing. A practice of not-doing.

This is so difficult for us, we can hardly even conceive of it. Instead, we imagine we are supposed to sit there meditating. We’re supposed to concentrate, or be aware of this moment, or something. Anything. Anything but really, really doing nothing.

When I settle into my morning zazen at home, I sometimes try to inspire myself by inviting myself not to meditate. Without even realizing it, I will have taken the seated position and started to do this practice of shikantaza. Then my mind will wander and I’ll think about how I’m not sitting zazen very well, and the whole thing will feel off. Laughing inwardly, then, I’ll remind myself I don’t have to do anything. Just relax and sit there!

For a moment, just sitting there, the whole universe opens up. I’m awake. I’m here. I’m appreciative, intimate, dependently co-arising with everything. My embrace of my life, momentarily, is no longer contingent on this and that. So simple!

Then I’m off again, thinking about things. Often thinking about meditation and practice, ironically.

Or am I really “off again?” Who is “off again?” Who is me? Am I only my self-consciousness, the part that is aware of, “I’m sitting?” Am I not my body as well, which through all of my mind wanderings, continues to patiently just sit?

Still, it’s nice to wholeheartedly sit – to mentally and volitionally just sit, as well as physically just sit. As expedient means, therefore, we “practice not-doing.” A practice is something we do, although paradoxically, in this case, our practice is not-doing. Because human beings are so attached to doing, this is a clever way to get us committed to zazen.

How do you practice not-doing? Basically, you use whatever technique you can find that convinces you, or allows you, to stop doing. You might do as I do, and invite yourself to relax. Or you might remind yourself there’s absolutely no legitimate reason you have to think about all that stuff during the 20-30 minutes you’re sitting zazen; you’ll have plenty of time to think later. (If you really need to think about something that badly, you shouldn’t be meditating!) Or you might try to imitate a cat when it’s just sitting there, alert and watching everything, but just letting time go by.

Another classic way to practice not-doing is to gently follow your breath. This is a good way to sustain not-doing for more than a moment – but it’s important, from the perspective of shikantaza, that you don’t make following your breath into doing! Instead, you settle into not-doing, and because you’re not doing anything else, you can follow your breath. Okay, it’s a little bit of “doing,” but it’s a relative tiny and simple “doing.” You might even want to count exhalations 1-10, and then start back at one.

Sometimes beginners are taught breath following or counting as a way to learn to do zazen. If this works for you, great. For many of us, however, we actually have to gradually grope our way towards not-doing in a less straightforward way before we can follow or count the breath! It’s taken me 20 years of diligent sitting practice to be able to reliably count my breaths 1-10 and start back at one. This isn’t because it’s taken me 20 years to develop a skill, or 20 years to figure out how to do zazen! It’s because I’m really attached to doing, and it’s taken me 20 years to let go enough – to be still, simple, and spacious enough – to allow my breathing to be the most exciting thing that’s going on.

Whichever gateway into not-doing works for you – concentration or relaxation – the process of finding that gateway, entering it, and learning what it really means to not-do, is itself the beauty of practice. We continue to learn how to “do” zazen our entire lives.

Missing Kyogen Carlson and His Dharma

Missing Kyogen Carlson and His Dharma

[I wrote this short essay in 2015; Kyogen Carlson passed away Sept. 18th, 2014, and we held our Founder’s Memorial ceremony for him last weekend.]

At my Zen Center last Sunday we read and discussed a beautiful teaching from Kyogen Carlson, one of my Zen teachers. It was from the chapter “Dharma Realm” in a little booklet Kyogen wrote called Zen Roots. I called this excerpt “Kyogen Carlson on the Cosmic Buddha.” We lost Kyogen suddenly last September to a heart attack, and rediscovering this teaching from him made me miss him terribly.

It isn’t so much that I miss him personally, in the sense of regular interactions, although he was generally a fun and interesting person to be around. Since I completed my junior priest training I had not seen Kyogen that often, so I can’t claim to be one of the many people directly impacted by his absence on a daily basis.

What I felt profoundly this last weekend was a longing for his Dharma. This “Dharma” includes his teaching, or his unique way of understanding and expressing Buddhism, Zen, and practice. However, that’s only part of it, because I had that aspect of his Dharma when I was holding his written teaching in my hands. The part that was missing was his living testimonial to the truth and reality of those teachings. His posture, his eyes, his physical expression that grounded the teaching in front of you in a provocative, encouraging, and indisputable way.

Anyone can write or speak teachings that sound pretty good. They may resonate with us, challenge us, or inspire us. But just because they sound good doesn’t mean they are true or effective, and just because we like them doesn’t mean we understand them. And then sometimes we don’t like teachings and we want to avoid them.

Then we encounter a true teacher like Kyogen – someone who verified for himself, through direct experience, what he taught. And someone who had achieved the spiritual maturity to abide peacefully in his understanding without needing to convince or convert others in an effort to feel more secure. Such a teacher gives you the opportunity to experience a full, embodied encounter with That-Which-You-Do-Not-Yet-Know.

Kyogen Carlson on the Cosmic Buddha” is his take on the Zen encounter with what Huston Smith calls “The More,” and what Kyogen’s teacher Roshi Kennett called the “Lord of the House.” Vaguely theistic imagery is often troubling to Zen students, and when I first encountered it in Zen I was definitively ambivalent. On the one hand I was intrigued by the idea of having some kind of transcendent experience, but on the other I was worried that this “woo-woo” stuff was a sign Zen was going to prove itself to be based on B.S. in the long run.

I went to Kyogen with my ambivalence, hoping he would tell me to ignore all of the references to the “Lord of the House” and the “Cosmic Buddha” in Roshi Kennett’s writings because they were irrelevant to Zen practice. He didn’t. He compassionately tried to explain the presence of devotion and theistic imagery in Zen (as he does so well in his essay), but he didn’t back down. There he sat, a thoughtful but slightly wry expression on his face, a concrete testimony to a reality I had not yet experienced.

There is much more I don’t understand, and much more Kyogen could have taught me just by living his truth.

Let’s value our living teachers!

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