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Two Sides of Practice Part 3: When We Neglect Samadhi Power, and How the Two Sides are Complementary

When We Neglect Samadhi Power

What about neglecting samadhi power, and overemphasizing karma relationship? This is when we try to get free from our suffering, be a good and wholesome person, have harmonious relationships, and/or aspire to greater wisdom and compassion – and then we struggle in our efforts in same way we struggle with the rest of our ordinary tasks. Approaching things only from the relative perspective, we set goals or adopt ideals, work hard, notice when we’ve fallen short, devise another way, and try harder. Chances are good we also criticize ourselves, compare ourselves to others, and experience a mixture of frustration, pride, and shame. Caught up in the drama of the relative, we fail to see things from a larger perspective, and may succumb to arrogance, depression or despair.

Alternatively, we may think we’re fine just the way we are, and we don’t have much karma relationship or samadhi power work to do, but this is another trap. When we don’t have personal and profound conviction about absolute truth, our sense of self remains front and center – and most of our worldly problems stem from ignorance or neglect of what we touch in samadhi. Unaware of the sense in which we are empty of inherent, enduring self-nature, and how things just-as-they-are participate in one luminous, seamless reality, it’s easy to give in to our greed, fear, anger, judgmentalism, low self-esteem, etc.


Samadhi Power Supports Karma Work

Samadhi power complements, supports, and strengthens our karma relationship work.

First, our meditation practice teaches us to sit still and face reality, not run away or turn away – and this kind of stillness is necessary in order to do karma work. In the spaciousness of meditation, where we let go of all agendas and judgments, we have a chance of seeing our life clearly. Our discriminating mind only helps so much; if we’re facing a complicated life problem, our thoughts will often end up spinning – going over and over the same material, conceiving a million different plans, endlessly weighing pros and cons without coming to a conclusion. In meditation, or in the midst of a daily life supported by regular meditation, an answer, resolution, or way forward will sometimes arise out of our deeper intelligence and intuition.

Second, strengthening our samadhi power gives us a growing appreciation of absolute truth, and that larger perspective keeps us from getting too down on ourselves as we work on our karma relationship. A sense of the absolute balances and sustains us as we do the hard work of facing our karma, changing habits, and learning to take care of others. Over time, we find it easier and easier to remember that Buddhist practice is not a self-improvement project, but an awakening to our true nature, which lacks nothing.


Fake It ‘Til You Make It

From a Buddhist point of view, a fully enlightened person has no need for moral restraints imposed by will. Having freed themselves from grasping, aversion, and delusion, they naturally act selflessly and skillfully. Beware of anyone claiming to be fully enlightened, though, especially if they seem to be acting selfishly and immorally. The Buddhist precepts, as I have discussed in the episodes on the precepts, can be said to describe enlightened behavior – so, bad behavior is a sign of incomplete understanding and integration.

Until we gain a direct and personal understanding of reality – of absolute truth, as well as how relative and absolute are not two separate things – the practice is to “fake it ‘til we make it.” In other words, we act as much like a buddha – or a fully enlightened person – as we can, even though it takes some effort to do so. Through our karma relationship work, we put the relative aspect of our lives in harmony with the absolute aspect. This gets things in order for the integration of insight, so we can quickly manifest whatever we learn. It also makes insight more likely to happen, because our lives are more peaceful, and our minds and hearts more open.

Ultimately, when we “make it,” we recognize how all of our efforts around both samadhi power and karma relationship, all along, have been the manifestation of enlightenment. No practice is wasted. It’s nice to consciously awaken to reality and have your doubts resolved, but even before that point enlightenment is there. In a moment of realization, you can look back at your struggles as confirmation of your awakened nature.


Two Sides of Practice Part 2: When We Neglect Karma Relationship

Two Sides of Practice, but Only One Reality

I’ve heard people say karma relationship work is about the “relative world,” while samadhi power is about the absolute. There’s some truth in this statement, in the sense that relationships between beings and things are part of the relative aspect of reality. From the absolute perspective, there are no inherently-existing, separate beings and things that can be said to interact, and discriminations such as good and bad, right and wrong, don’t apply.

Still, it’s problematic to speak in a way that implies we can do some work in a “relative world,” which exists separately from some sublime, if confusing, “realm” of the absolute. Relative and absolute are two levels of truth about the exact same reality. Therefore, our work on karma relationship must be informed by, and reflect, absolute truth; this is what results in compassion, selflessness, and equanimity, because we’re empty of any inherent, separate self-nature, and all phenomena arise and pass within one, seamless, luminous reality. And our awakening to absolute truth must never be disembodied and removed from the relative reality of life. If our samadhi power feels disconnected from the mundane experience of everyday life, our work isn’t done. We have to learn to manifest our insight about the absolute, or the insight is incomplete and of limited usefulness.

What we’re ultimately looking for in Buddhist practice is integration of absolute and relative, or samadhi power and karma relationship. Our practice is maturing when these no longer appear to be two separate things. However, we can’t just skip to that point because we intellectually know absolute and relative aren’t separate! We have to walk our own path of practice, and – as my teacher was fond of reminding me, to my chagrin – it will take as long as it takes. No use comparing ourselves to others, or to ideals. As we practice, then, it’s extremely useful to keep in mind that we need to devote ourselves to samadhi power and karma relationship.


When We Neglect Karma Relationship

If we neglect either samadhi power or karma relationship, our practice will stagnate or go awry.

When we neglect karma relationship and focus on samadhi power, there’s a strong possibility we’ll become rather cold – emotionally distant, rejecting our own human limitations as well as those of others. We may be obsessed with spiritual insight or meditative experiences, as if they’re more important than anything else, or will solve everything.

Based on whatever understanding we have of absolute truth – even if it’s primarily intellectual – we may draw conclusions about life that cause pain and suffering from a relative perspective. For example: Ultimately, everything is “just-as-it-is” and precious, so there’s no compelling need to address injustice or work for positive change in the world. Because, in an absolute sense, distinctions between right and wrong don’t exist, you can do anything you want. It’s possible to be free from suffering by just letting go of attachment, so the people you hurt can just get over it. This kind of delusion – springing from an overemphasis on samadhi power and neglecting karma relationship – is part of what lies behind the problems you may have heard about happening in some Buddhist communities, where male teachers suddenly figure the rules about not getting sexually involved with students don’t apply to them. Trying to apply absolute truth at the relative level of reality is like cutting a finger off the hand we discussed earlier because in an absolute sense fingers don’t inherently and independently exist. Ouch!


Attachment to Absolute Truth

In addition, when we neglect karma relationship, we may become attached to whatever insights we have had about absolute truth. We dream longingly of our past sublime experiences, and resent the necessity of responding to the demands of daily life. Karma relationship may seem like an irrelevant drag, or a practice for beginners who lack the profound understanding we have. Many Zen stories about interactions between teachers and students involve the teacher provoking the student in order to get him or her to let go of attachment to the absolute and come back to earth. This isn’t just about making sure students don’t hide out in enlightenment experiences and avoid their mundane responsibilities; as long as there seems to be a separation between enlightened and mundane, your insight is still dualistic and not complete.

It’s certainly possible to overemphasize samadhi power even if you don’t think you’ve had any special insight or meditative experiences. Then you’ll probably either keep hoping something really cool will happen during your meditation, or you’ll feel inadequate and discouraged, and conclude samadhi power isn’t in the cards for you. It’s tempting to idealize spiritual insight and the people who have supposedly “awakened” to some degree or another – imagining that a direct experience of absolute truth gives you access to an alternate reality where everything is beautiful and easy. It’s good to resist this temptation to idealize insight as much as possible. Basically, if you don’t think you’ve had a personal experience of the ultimate aspect of life, such an experience isn’t what you think it is.


Trying to “Skip Over” Karma Work

Finally, some practitioners of Buddhism hold on to hope that if they can just get enough spiritual insight, the problems in their daily lives will resolve themselves – so there’s no need to waste time working with karma relationship directly. Karma work gets complicated and messy – much better to skip over it and fix everything by sitting in meditation or studying profound teachings! Unfortunately, this isn’t how spiritual practice works. If you’re making a mess of your life by acting carelessly and selfishly – indulging in anger, greed, or addiction; stealing, lying, etc. – you’re extremely unlikely to be able to cultivate the stillness of mind and body required for samadhi power. All those self-centered activities, and their consequences, are too agitating, and reinforce the delusion of an inherently-existing self-nature.

Even if you’re really good at meditative concentration and able to push the circumstances of your life out of your mind in order to achieve some kind of spiritual insight, you still have to learn how to apply that insight to your actual, daily life in the relative sense. Skillfully navigating the relative truth of our existence requires a whole different skill set. This is a brutal surprise for people who strive hard for awakening experiences and then have to face their messy lives after the experience fades. How to face this challenge is the subject of Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. On the other hand, if we’ve done our karma relationship work all along, we’ll already be living in a way that’s more consistent with absolute truth – so any insight we achieve will be more easily integrated and manifested. Then we’ll just have the satisfaction of personal insight to back it up and inspire us further.

Next week: When we neglect samadhi power, and how the two sides of practice complement each other

Two Sides of Practice Part 1: Samadhi Power and Karma Relationship – Definitions

Buddhist practice can be seen as consisting of two parts, and both are essential. The first part is cultivating “samadhi power,” or our ability to perceive – or be awake to – the absolute aspect of reality. We do this through practices including meditation, mindfulness, and studying teachings such as impermanence and emptiness. The second part of our overall practice is working on “karma relationship,” or learning to live our daily lives in an enlightened way. We do this by working with our karma, keeping precepts, honoring relationships, and understanding how the absolute aspect of reality corresponds to the relative aspect.

In this episode I’ll explain more about what I mean by “samadhi power” and “karma relationship,” but I won’t go into great detail about how we cultivate each side of practice. Instead, I want to concentrate on how it’s important to recognize each side, and not neglect either one. Most people have the tendency to dwell on one aspect more than the other, and consequently face difficulties in their practice.

The terms “samadhi power” and “karma relationship” are ways my Dharma grandmother, Roshi Jiyu Kennett,[i] described the two sides of Buddhist practice. I’m not sure whether she more or less made them up, or whether they have their origin in Japanese terms. (If you happen to know, please send me a note!) I suspect Roshi Kennett innovated in using these particular terms to get across an important message about Japanese Zen practice to an English-speaking audience. However, even though these particular terms may be relatively new, or aimed at westerners, they refer to aspects of Buddhist practice that have been present from the beginning.


Defining “Samadhi Power”

Samadhi is an ancient Sanskrit word, and according A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, it literally means “establish, [or] make firm.”[ii] The Concise Dictionary then goes on to define the term as a “nondualistic state of consciousness in which the consciousness of the experiencing ‘subject’ becomes one with the experienced ‘object’ – [and therefore] this is only experiential content.” The dictionary also explains that while samadhi is often translated as “one-pointedness of mind,” “samadhi is neither a straining concentration on one point, nor is the mind directed from here (subject) to there (object), which would be a dualistic mode of experience.”[iii]

I agree with the Concise Dictionary’s definition. Samadhi is about a direct, real-life experience of the nondual aspect of reality. In Zen, we refer to this as the absolute, or ultimate, nature of existence, as contrasted with its relative, or phenomenal nature. The absolute and relative aren’t two different realities, or even two different experiences of one reality; they’re two simultaneously-true levels of truth.

Here’s an analogy that might help you understand how absolute and relative truths apply at the same time: at the one level of truth, analogous to the relative, each finger on your hand exists. Each one is different, and separate, which is what allows them to function. At another level of truth, the fingers are inseparable from one another, or from the hand of which they’re a part. Each finger only exists in order to function relative to other fingers, and therefore each finger’s existence is in part defined by the existence of the other fingers. And where does a finger actually begin and end? What about the muscles that are necessary for the finger to function, but extend into the rest of the hand? It’s meaningless to conceive of a finger existing utterly independently of a hand; even if removed, a finger is identified by the relationships it used to have. At the larger level of truth – analogous to the absolute – things are considered as a whole. This hand analogy is, of course, very simplistic. However, it points to how absolute and relative are just two truths about one reality.

(If you want to study more about absolute and relative, there’s a link in the show notes on the website to a chart I made, which lists and defines a bunch of terms used to describe the two sides of existence, including principle and phenomena, equality and difference, and emptiness and form. I also discuss the “two truths” teaching in depth in my episodes on Dogen’s Genjokoan.)

Buddhism offers many ways for us to deepen our direct experience of absolute truth, or cultivate samadhi power. We meditate, or sit zazen, learning to let go of our discriminating thinking and just be. The more still our mind becomes, the less we differentiate self from all things “other” than self, and the sense in which we aren’t separate from anything else in the universe becomes palpable. We meditate regularly, but may also seek to deepen our meditation in a profound way by participating in silent, week-long meditation retreats. In addition, we practice mindfulness throughout our day, letting go of our mental commentary and narrative in favor of directly experiencing the fullness of this moment. We challenge our beliefs that relative objects, concepts, and relationships are inherently real by studying Buddhist teachings about the absolute side of reality.

When we manage, even for a moment, to drop the conceptual filter we usually hold over our experience of life, we wake up to the absolute aspect of reality. This isn’t a far-out, transcendent, event we force to happen by working ourselves into a rarefied spiritual state; rather, it’s waking up to a truth that’s always there, but we can’t usually see it because we’re so busy thinking, and looking out for ourselves. Our impression of absolute truth, when we experience it, isn’t always the same, but it can usually be described by words like infinite, boundless, luminous, precious, complete, full, or unconditional. Learning to perceive the absolute aspect of things, and strengthening our ability to perceive it at will, gives us great solace and strength.

The “power” in Roshi Kennett’s “samadhi power” doesn’t refer to power in the sense of control or dominance, or to supernatural abilities you could use to impress people. Instead, “power” refers to the ability to drop your dualistic thinking, allow subject and object to fall away, and experience the absolute aspect of reality. The term “power” also points to the energy, strength, and effort required to cultivate samadhi – which is ironic, because samadhi is more about not doing than doing. It actually takes great effort to allow ourselves to settle into a nondualistic state of consciousness, because our habits of clinging to discriminative thought, and pushing for self-centered agendas, are very strong.


Defining “Karma Relationship”

Any experience of the absolute aspect of reality passes, and we become more aware of relative truth again. Even profound and astonishing experiences of samadhi don’t instantly transform us into saints. Frankly, this fact is, perhaps, one of the more surprising, confusing, and initially disappointing parts of human spiritual practice. Once you see clearly how all is One, or how luminous and precious all of existence is, or how all beings have Buddha nature, or how God is present in everything, you’d think you’d subsequently spend the rest of your life walking around blissed-out and sublimely compassionate. But you don’t. At least, not forever, and usually not for long. Which is why we have the other side of practice: Karma relationship.

Karma is another Sanskrit term, and it literally means action or deed. Over time, however, it has come to refer to the universal law of moral cause-and-effect – so, in other words, in encompasses not just a deed, but the effects of that deed. According to Buddhism, the effects of any action are determined a large part by the intentions behind the action. So, for example, if you accidentally cause a death, the results are very different than if you commit murder. Traditionally, Buddhists believed in the cycle of transmigration, or rebirth, and figured that even if you didn’t reap the negative or positive consequences of your actions in this life, you’d experience them in a future life. Because of the disruption and problems harmful actions caused for self and other, the Buddha was very clear: moral behavior was a prerequisite for any progress on the path to liberation. Appropriate action, speech, and livelihood were included in his first teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The idea of karma relationship as an essential aspect of Buddhist practice doesn’t require a belief in rebirth, of course. What’s important is an emphasis on paying attention to our actions and their consequences, and aiming to minimize suffering and maximize wisdom, true happiness, and compassion for ourselves and others. Working on karma means taking responsibility for our behavior, cultivating an intention to do better, and carefully observing the process of cause and effect so we develop an understanding of how to do better.

I suspect Roshi Kennett added the word “relationship” to karma in order to make it clear she wasn’t suggesting we need to study the law of karma in some abstract sense. Instead, working on our karma relationship is all about real-life relationship – with other people, other beings, objects, roles, effort, ideas, our sense of self, and even law of karma. There are many parts of our Buddhist practice where we work on karma relationship, including following moral precepts, the practice of vow, and interacting with other people in the Sangha, or Buddhist community. We also work to strengthen our mindfulness so we can be aware of our own mind states, intentions, and behaviors, and notice their consequences. This awareness is a prerequisite for us to undertake any kind of change.

Next week: How samadhi power and karma relationship are really just two aspects of the same reality, what happens when neglect either side, and how the two sides of practice support each other.

[ii] Fischer-Schreiber et al. Samadhi definition.
[iii] Ibid


Skillful Means: The Buddhist Teaching on How to Share Your Wisdom – Part 3

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. Click here to read Part 1 of this series to see the list of six things, or click here to read Part 2.


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.


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

[7] Reeves pg. 198 (Chp. 7: The Parable of the Fantastic Castle-City)
[8] Reeves pg. 339 (Chp 20: Never Disrespectful Bodhisattva)


Skillful Means: The Buddhist Teaching on How to Share Your Wisdom – Part 2

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. Click here to read Part 1 of this series to see the list of six things.


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.[i] 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.”[ii] 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.[iii] 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.

Click here to read Part 3.



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

[i] Reeves pg. 142 (Chp. 4: Faith and Understanding)
[ii] Reeves pg. 160 (Chp. 5: The Parable of the Plants)
[iii] Reeves pg. 112 (Chp. 3: A Parable)


Skillful Means: The Buddhist Teaching on How to Share Your Wisdom – Part 1

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?

Click here to read Part 2.



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

[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,