What does “Skillful Means” mean? by Andrew Smith
This has been a really challenging topic for me to prepare. For three weeks in darshan I presented my ideas to what to present to you to Lamala, and Lamala kept shooting all of them down, meaning I wasn’t really getting the concept of skillful means at all. He told me he wants me to be challenged more at this point in my path, so he’s definitely succeeding. He also knows about my tendency to overprepare my talks out of my desire to quell my performance anxiety. Every overpreparing I did he shot down, leading me to this point where I don’t have a whole lot prepared and laying bare my ego before you. In a certain sense this whole process falls into the realm of skillful means, so if I fail miserably in making any sense to you and you judge me for being incompetent I may have succeeded in skillful means, if only to myself. But ultimately there is no you and there is no me, right? Maybe this is what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche means when he talks about cutting through spiritual materialism. I need to get away from my sitting up here and giving this talk and getting your accolades so as to build up my ego about what a good teacher I am.
So here’s the internet definition of skillful means: according to Buddhism A-Z is a teacher’s willingness to adapt to the interests, needs, and level of understanding of others, in order to successfully communicate the Dharma to them. The word for skillful means is “upaya” in Sanskrit. Upaya is often translated expedient means. Kaushalya (pronounced Ko-Shalya) is more cleverness or magical side to teaching.
So my best understanding of skillful means has always been in this skill in presentation to others, that we’re presenting the dharma in this special way. This might be viewed as relative skillful means or conventional skillful means. But there’s a whole other side of skillful means that reaches an absolute level. Skillful means isn’t just that you get this or any talk or reading intellectually, like having some attitude that a teacher is skillful because he makes sense or agrees with you. This is spiritual materialism. It’s a manifestation of ego and arrogance. Just because the other person gets what you’re conveying to them doesn’t mean it’s skillful. Conversely just because we get what a teacher is saying doesn’t mean it’s skillful. You can’t get so worried about the outcome. The more we’re thinking about the outcome, the more we’re going to be caught in the relative world and ego. Again, this gets back to spiritual materialism.
When you are less invested in the outcome of the other person getting it, it takes skillful means out of presenting dharma correctly and puts it in the extraordinary place, like “crazy wisdom” style. But on the OTHER side, skillful means isn’t “If I don’t understand it, it must be profound.”
How many of you have sat in a talk or darshan with Lamala and felt like you’re not “getting” it? Sometimes I have a feeling like I’m leaning forward with him, waiting for him to just give me the teaching that will help me to get it, that will make it all fit perfectly together. I’ll get glimpses that keep me coming back, he’ll throw me the occasional bone of external validation, then just when I’m getting comfortable in my practice he’ll challenge me and knock me off-kilter again. I’m thinking “this all makes sense, just not yet to me.”
Once Lamala said in a teaching that he wasn’t even trying to connect to our relative selves, that he was transmitting to our absolute self, our Buddha natures. I wonder if this in part is what he’s doing when he’ll say something confounding, then smile and laugh and say “It’s easy.” Skillful means?
Skillful means ultimately is presentation of absolute truth, which is very hard to get to just with language or presentation of information. Mahamudra is before me and you, it’s before thinking.
Skillful means is usually presented from a relative point of view, but a deep understanding of Upaya is how the Buddha was able to present ultimate truth.
Skillful means is a Mahayana concept as opposed to a Hinayana concept. It’s often mistakenly seen as “we’ll find means to teach Hinayana dharma to everyone.” But Mahayana is radically different from Hinayana view. Mahayana asserts that everything, everyone, mind, phenomena are empty. Like the Heart Sutra says.
OK let’s check in. Are you getting this? If you’re not, that’s OK. You don’t have to be all-knowing. Be OK with not getting it. That’s kind of liberating, right? Skillful means isn’t dumbing it down so you get it right away. Absolute truth can’t always be gotten to through words, but then again, sometimes it can. Mahamudra is the mind beyond obscuration, the mind beyond error. “Having completely passed beyond error, bodhisattvas reach the end-point of Nirvana”. The heart sutra is also known as the Heart Attack sutra because the story goes it so shook the worldview of some of the arhats who heard it that they had heart attacks and died.
Who here can say they get the heart sutra? It gets to the heart of Mahayana, and it gets there in a way that our ordinary minds can’t get. It’s nuts! Who can make sense of it? It’s so full of “no this” and “no that.”
Here’s a passage from “The Heart Attack Sutra,” by Karl Brunhozzl, a senior Buddhist teacher.
We could also say that it is a sutra about wisdom, but it is a sutra about crazy wisdom. When we read it, it sounds nuts, but that is actually where the wisdom part comes in. What the Heart Sutra (like all Prajnaparamita Sutras) does is to cut through, deconstruct, and demolish all our usual conceptual frameworks, all our rigid ideas, all our belief systems, all our reference points, including any with regard to our spiritual path. It does so on a very fundamental level, not just in terms of thinking and concepts, but also in terms of our perception, how we see the world, how we hear, how we smell, taste, touch, how we regard and emotionally react to ourselves and others, and so on. This sutra pulls the rug out from underneath our feet and does not leave anything intact that we can think of, nor even a lot of things that we cannot think of. This is called “crazy wisdom.” I guess I should give you a warning here that this sutra is hazardous to your samsaric sanity. What Sangharakshita says about the Diamond Sutra equally applies to all Prajnaparamita Sutras, including the Heart Sutra:
…if we insist that the requirements of the logical mind be satisfied, we are missing the point. What the Diamond Sutra is actually delivering is not a systematic treatise, but a series of sledgehammer blows, attacking from this side and that, to try and break through our fundamental delusion. It is not going to make things easy for the logical mind by putting things in a logical form. This sutra is going to be confusing, irritating, annoying, and unsatisfying—and perhaps we cannot ask for it to be otherwise. If it were all set forth neatly and clearly, leaving no loose ends, we might be in danger of thinking we had grasped the Perfection of Wisdom.
—Sangharakshita, Wisdom Beyond Words
The Buddhas teachings are all for the purpose of transforming people into bodhisattvas.
The chapter in the Lotus Sutra that follows the Skillful Means chapter is titled “A Parable,” and it is a profound illustration of skillful means. (a passage is read from this chapter)
This is an illustration of how multitudes of sentient beings are trapped in the burning building of samsara, with childlike minds consumed with their playthings and desires, unaware of their suffering and danger, and how it may take extraordinary means to help them out of the burning building. The carts represent the three vehicles of liberation that they cannot have until they make the commitment to escape from the burning building.
This is the part that I’ve been most challenged by in my attempts to understand skillful means: from an absolute level it is ultimately an internal process. The outcome for others is secondary to the process of the bodhisattva to teach it. It is “what do we do when the dharma training isn’t working for us or others aren’t accepting our teachings?”
What do we do when nothing works? What do we do when someone doesn’t want to be helped?
When we believe someone doesn’t want to be helped and we give up on them, then we’ve gone to hell with that person.
Skillful means starts when we’ve run out of options. The primary practice of skillful means is to dedicate our merit to others. Usually we want the results of our spiritual practice to come back to us. True skillful means is “here, you can have it.” Unless you really relinquish the result you can never get it.
Tong-len, the practice of exchanging self and others is true skillful means. Real Tong-len is intended to smash the ego, to break down the distinction between you and I, not just to do tong-len to make oneself feel better.
At some point some of our sacrifices to others need to become literal. Not in a codependent way, to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, but in a bodhisattva way, to put ourselves lowest of all. Think about how a parent would sacrifice himself for his child, how the Buddha in a previous incarnation gave his body to the hungry tigress. We need to generate that passionate aspiration to benefit others, to not give up on them.
So that’s my talk about what I think skillful means means. But Lamala will probably tell me in Darshan tomorrow that I’ve got it all wrong, so take it with a grain of salt.