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


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