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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)


The Importance of Sangha Part 5 of 5 – Sangha As Service

Part 5 of the Importance of Sangha (see Part 1Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4):

There are many, many more benefits of Sangha I could go into, but I’ll end this series of posts with how Sangha can become a practice of generosity and service to others. Let’s say you’ve been part of a Sangha for many years and your Zen or Buddhist practice is strong. You have a pretty good understanding of the Dharma, you can see your Dharma friends outside of Sangha events, and you’ve experienced a fair amount of polishing from potato practice (whether within Sangha or elsewhere in your life). Why keep participating in Sangha?

A short answer is this: as a strong practitioner, you strengthen the Sangha with your mere presence, and thereby make it a better refuge for others. Putting aside the relatively superficial differences between Sanghas in terms of overall flavor and style, healthy, mature Sanghas tend have a certain energy or tone. They feel stable and resilient as a group – and therefore able to accept new members and endure upsets and changes without fracturing. Strong Sanghas have a clear sense of their purpose and their commonly-held practice or tradition, so newcomers are less likely to be able to hijack Sangha discussions or events (this sometimes happens when new people bring particular agendas with them).

A strong Sangha will also feel – and this is a little difficult to describe – sane. Individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can sometimes feel to others, energetically, as if they’re vibrating at a higher or a discordant frequency, or, alternatively, as if they’re a drain on the energy of others. The more sane, strong practitioners there are in a room, the more the overall energy of the Sangha will feel sane – grounded, tuned in to reality and the experience of others, and able to behave appropriately.

This is why it’s important us to keep participating in Sangha even if we don’t feel so much of a personal need to do so: our sane presence grounds and strengthens the Sangha so it can hold people even when they’re new, uncertain, anxious, neurotic, on a soapbox, oblivious, obnoxious, or struggling with tragedy or mental illness. In other words, people who are really suffering need our support. A teacher or priest can’t provide a wholesome, stable, safe container for vulnerable or vibrating individuals all by themselves, so – ironically – the stronger and older your practice is, the less you may feel you need Sangha, but the more you have to offer the Sangha – the more Sangha needs you. Even when you don’t have a special role to play at a given practice event – or even especially when that is that case – you make a substantial contribution with your steady and enthusiastic participation.

I’ll close with some words about Sangha from revered Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Taking refuge in the Sangha means putting your trust in a community of solid members who practice mindfulness together. You do not have to practice intensively – just being in a Sangha where people are happy, living deeply the moments of their days, is enough. Each person’s way of sitting, walking, eating, working and smiling is a source of inspiration; and transformation takes place without effort. If someone who is troubled is placed in a good Sangha, just being there is enough to bring about a transformation.”

– Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, from Cultivating the Mind of Love


The Practice of a Healthy Media Diet

Most of us try to find some kind of balance between too much media consumption and too little, particularly when it involves exposing ourselves to bad news. Too much negative information – about war, injustice, global warming, poverty, you name it – and we get overwhelmed, anxious, depressed or jaded. Too little and we risk losing touch. We may ignore things we actually care deeply about, or fail to see how we are contributing to the suffering.

I try to think of my media consumption as a diet. Media nourishes me and helps me grow as a person, even if much of it also makes me sad. It informs me about what’s going on in the world. It can educate me, broaden my perspectives, and allow me to make better choices. It can arouse my compassion, awaken my conscience, and fuel my determination to support change.

On the other hand, if I expose myself to too much negative information, media can start having a harmful effect. I can start to shut down, go numb, or feel aversion to any story or commentary that seems to be trying to educate me or make me feel guilty. I can cling even more strongly to my opinions and habits because it feels like they are under attack, or because I need to take solace in something familiar or pleasant. I can turn away from my compassion, conscience, and determination because it seems I will be sucked dry of any positivity before anything really changes.

If I look at my media consumption as a diet, I can mindfully monitor the state of my mental and physical health in order to know what to expose myself to, how much, and when. I don’t have to abstain completely because media consumption is pointless or harmful. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I also don’t have to read, watch, or listen to everything.

I know I need more exposure to news and challenging information when I get complacent. That’s when it feels like the stories about war, injustice, global warming, poverty, etc. are impeding on my space, and seem irrelevant to my life – as if they’re happening in some parallel universe and my compassion can’t quite reach across the space between worlds. Then I need to watch one of those heart-rending documentaries and remember in a visceral way it’s all my world. I am intimately connected to all of it. To forget that means to forget part of myself, to shut down a whole dimension of my experience as a human being.

It also helps to think of my media consumption as a diet because I am well aware a healthy diet isn’t easy to maintain!

Photo by Spencer E Holtaway (creative commons)

Three Practices for Buddhists in Troubled Political Times

A priest and leader of a congregation needs to be thoughtful about when to speak up about “political issues,” but I want to offer three practices for Buddhists in troubled political times.

Why now? At a certain point, things happening in political spheres become moral issues, and our Zen Buddhist practice becomes directly relevant. We need our practice to maintain sanity and perspective, but our practice also calls us to Right Action and the path of the Bodhisattva. And let’s not forget, the central champion of Zen is Truth itself.

Right now, those in power are denying the fact of human-caused climate change and rolling back environmental protections that were already too little, too late to prevent worldwide suffering and chaos. Five million people are facing starvation in Africa, but the U.S. is planning to cut aid in order to place America First. People of color are once again being scapegoated as we target Muslims and undocumented Latino immigrants, as if excluding them from our country will be able to prevent terrorism and fix our deep, systemic economic problems. The U.S. has just given North Korea – one of the most dangerous and volatile countries in the world – an ultimatum, while our Commander in Chief is someone who reacts angrily to parody and determines foreign policy by Tweet in the middle of the night. If the current administration’s budget gets accepted, seniors will go without meals and infants without formula so we can build an incredibly expensive wall on the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration just when such immigration has fallen to the lowest levels in nearly 50 years. Facts don’t seem to matter, and compassion seems to be out of fashion.


What can we do, as Buddhists? Three things.

First, we keep our Buddhist practice strong: sitting zazen, spending time with Sangha, practicing mindfulness in our everyday life, studying the Dharma, periodically renewing ourselves in the space of a meditation retreat. We have to take care of ourselves and our lives in order to do the next two things to the best of our ability.

Two, we keep ourselves informed. This is the practice of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who “perceives the cries of the world.” Sure, it can be overwhelming and depressing. Sure, we need to take a break sometimes, consider carefully what news sources we consume, and find the dynamic middle way between bad-news-overload and putting our heads in the sand. But this is our obligation as bodhisattvas and citizens of the world. It’s not always easy to witness! (Click here for a post I wrote about what happened to Avalokiteshvara when he was overwhelmed by the suffering of the world.)

Three, we do something to change our world and come to the aid of suffering beings. Anything! But the more active the doing, the more it brings us into contact with others, the better! Why? Not only because we might benefit someone else, but because it’s the best medicine in the world for denial, overwhelm and despair. As Buddhists, we are not limited to a doctrinal playbook. We observe what relieves suffering, increases wisdom, and strengthens compassion – and then we do it. If exercise relieves your depression, then exercise needs to be part of your practice. If writing poetry increases your sense of appreciation for your life, than make writing poetry part of your practice. If gardening keeps you present in your body, your gardening is Zen practice.

Activism expands your focus beyond your own life, and directly counteracts passivity and a sense of helplessness. Once you find something to do, you can put aside grief and worry in order to devote yourself to your task. Periodically, of course, you need to ask yourself if you can do more, or whether your time and energy would be better spent elsewhere. But only periodically. The rest of the time you can find some solace in knowing you’re doing what you can, and supporting others in the fight for compassion and justice.

A lovely side-effect of activism? Community building! It lets you get to know people outside of your regular circles. I’m new to activism myself, and was delighted to find my local Indivisible Group – a bunch of concerned and defiant neighbors of mine who gather regularly to learn, support one another, and enjoy beverages, snacks, and humor!

Photo credit: By Kathryn Kendall, of a #SomosPortland action in November 2016.

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