“Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Textual analysis and comparative discussion on early Buddhist sects and texts.

“Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby ancientbuddhism » Mon Nov 12, 2012 8:28 pm

Literal means and Hidden Meanings: A New Analysis of Skillful Means, by Asaf Federman

Philosophy East & West Volume 59, Number 2 April 2009 125-141
© 2009 by University of Hawai'i Press


    Introduction

    Skillful means is usually used by scholars and Buddhists to denote the following simple idea: the Buddha skillfully adapted his teaching to the level of his audience.1 This very broad and somewhat oversimplified definition tries to incorporate the whole range of Buddhist views on the subject. However, it does not help to explain why there is an extensive use of the term in central Mahāyāna sūtras while pre-Māhayāna texts are almost completely silent on this issue. I suggest that skillful means has not always been an all-Buddhist concept; rather, it was developed by Mahāyānists as a radical hermeneutic device. As such, skillful means is a provocative and sophisticated idea that served the purpose of advancing a new religious ideology in the face of an already established canonical knowledge. The Māhayāna use of the concept exhibits an awareness, not found in pre-Mahāyāna thought, of a gap between what texts literally say and their hidden meaning.

    In 1978 Michael Pye wrote that “‘skilful means’ has scarcely been attended to at all.”2 Since then, some attention has been given to the ethical, practical, and religious implications of the concept.3 Nevertheless, no one has ever asked why an idea that is considered to be so central to Buddhism in general did not become widely recognized before the arising of Mahāyāna. The compound skillful meansupāyakauśalya in Sanskrit or upāya kusala in Pāli – is not entirely a Mahāyāna creation; however, in Mahāyāna sūtras it has become widely used and has been charged with a special and novel meaning. The Mahāyāna interpretation adds a new and crucial layer to the pedagogical meaning of skillful means. It is aimed, eventually, at convincing those at whom it was directed that a new religious path (yāna) was greater than the old one. Critical reading of relevant portions of two early Mahāyāna sūtras – the Lotus Sūtra and the Skill in Means Sūtra – shows how the idea of skillful means is used to achieve this end: it explains how the old doctrine was at the same time not entirely true and not entirely false. This peculiar position is achieved by inventing an interpretive methodology, skillful means, that treats facts as nothing but educational literature. It allows Mahāyānists to challenge central Buddhist paradigms and offer a reorientation of the facts. The idea of skillful means allows a rejection of old literal statements about the life of the Buddha in order to charge them with new meaning. The old ideology is treated as skillful means; that is, it was offered for a specific purpose and is not completely true. On the other hand, as educational fiction, it had its good purpose.

    The idea that the doctrine is some kind of a purposeful fiction is one step further from what is sometimes understood by skillful means: the idea that the dharma is designed to serve a purpose. It is based on the explicit idea that what has been said by the Buddha had a different and concealed meaning. The Pāli canon, for example, contains no such distinction. In the Pāli canon the words and actions of the Buddha are taken literally, and are treated as if the Buddha really meant them. There is no recognition of a gap between words or actions on the one hand and their meaning on the other. There is no recognition, for example, that religious goals were put forward only for the sake of achieving different (or, worse, contradictory) goals. On the other hand, in the early Mahāyāna teaching of skillful means, a gap is recognized between what the Buddha said or did and the meaning of his actions and words. The words of the Buddha then stop being taken literally and begin to be treated as textual entities as if they had been originally put together with concealed intentions. Indeed, Mahāyānists came up with a novel and radical idea: in early Buddhist teaching the literal level was different from the intentional level.

    Why did Mahāyānists come up with such a radical idea? Primarily, I speculate, because it solved a well-known religious problem: how to suggest a significant doctrinal change without appearing completely heretical. Being part of an already more or less established tradition, “Mahāyānists” (probably not referring to themselves as such) had to consider carefully the relationship with what has already been established as the ruling paradigm. Whether this position was adopted for political reasons or because of real sentiment for the old, they could not criticize the existing body of religious facts by completely ignoring or rejecting it. The idea of skillful means is therefore an ingenious exercise in religious reformation through reinterpretation. In this sense, it is a hermeneutical device.

    1 – See, e.g., Williams 1989, p. 143; Pye 2003, p. 1; and Gombrich 1996, p. 17.
    2 – The quote is from Pye 1978, p. 2.
    3 – Schroeder 2002, Schroeder 2004, and Hick 2004.
Last edited by ancientbuddhism on Mon Nov 12, 2012 8:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Katamo ca bhikkhave asaṅkhatagāmī maggo: samatho ca vipassanā ca. Ayaṃ vuccati bhikkhave asaṅkhatagāmī maggo.

“And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Calm and insight. This, bhikkhus, is called the path leading to the unconditioned.” SN. 43.2 – Samathavipassanāsuttaṃ

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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby ancientbuddhism » Mon Nov 12, 2012 8:29 pm

Text as Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahāyāna Buddhist Literature – by Alan Cole

    Introduction

    In the curious space of arguments before the arguments, let me introduce this book by acknowledging that some readers might at first find it strange: What could “text as father” mean, and what do fathers have to do with Buddhism in the first place? The suitability of this topic will become clearer in the course of these chapters, but let me promise here at the outset that sifting through early Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtras leaves little doubt about how important textually produced paternal figures were for organizing authority and legitimacy, in at least a portion of these texts. What is crucial in organizing my reading is that I take these Mahāyāna sūtras to be knowingly fabricated by wily authors intent on creating images of authority that come to fruition in the reading experience. That is, I do not read the voices of authority—the Buddha’s and others’—that fill out these texts as reflections of prior oral articulations or similarly innocent statements about truth and reality. Instead, I see them as carefully wrought literary constructions that assume their specific forms precisely because they were designed to inhabit and function in the literary space where one encounters them. Hence the title Text as Father was chosen to represent the dialectic in which texts created and presented images of “truth-fathers” who, among other things, speak to the legitimacy of the textual medium that contains them and, within this circle of self-conformation, draw the reader into complex realignments with the Buddhist tradition and prior representation of truth and authority.

    To explore the form and content of these textual truth-fathers, and the narratives that support them, I have selected four interesting and diverse Mahāyāna texts: the Lotus Sūtra, the Diamond Sūtra, the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, and the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (a work that isn’t technically a sūtra but nonetheless comes to refer to itself that way by its final chapters). In close readings of each of these texts, I show how their narratives first gather up authority, legitimacy, and sanctity, as they would have been previously constituted in the Buddhist tradition and then relocate those items within their own textual perimeters. Hence, in all four texts, the narrative offers a new figure of the Buddha who, once established in the flow of the narrative, explains to the reader that the sum of tradition is exclusively available in the reading experience and in the sheer physical presence of the book. In a brilliant maneuver that fully exploits the physicality of textuality, the narratives pretend to represent the living and supposedly oral aspect of the Buddha, while that “orality” explains that the sheer physicality of the text—on palm leaves, presumably—represents the presence of the Buddha. Thus, by creating plots that delicately balance the Buddha’s presence on either side of the textualized form of the narrative—in its genesis and in its reception—these sūtras were designed to serve as the singular vehicle for Buddhist authenticity, promising to actualize truth and legitimacy for any reader, in any time or place. ...
Katamo ca bhikkhave asaṅkhatagāmī maggo: samatho ca vipassanā ca. Ayaṃ vuccati bhikkhave asaṅkhatagāmī maggo.

“And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Calm and insight. This, bhikkhus, is called the path leading to the unconditioned.” SN. 43.2 – Samathavipassanāsuttaṃ

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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby ancientbuddhism » Mon Nov 12, 2012 8:35 pm

Katamo ca bhikkhave asaṅkhatagāmī maggo: samatho ca vipassanā ca. Ayaṃ vuccati bhikkhave asaṅkhatagāmī maggo.

“And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Calm and insight. This, bhikkhus, is called the path leading to the unconditioned.” SN. 43.2 – Samathavipassanāsuttaṃ

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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby James the Giant » Mon Nov 12, 2012 11:42 pm

When I first learned about "Skillful Means" I was appalled and aghast:
"You're saying the Buddha DELIBERATELY LIED for 45 years of teaching!?"
After a bit of study I understand the idea of Upaya better, but it still seems a bit icky and dishonest to me.

To be honest, (and without a shred of evidence offered by me) it seems like exactly the kind of thing a new sect would fabricate in order to discredit the old school.
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby Dan74 » Mon Nov 12, 2012 11:58 pm

James the Giant wrote:When I first learned about "Skillful Means" I was appalled and aghast:
"You're saying the Buddha DELIBERATELY LIED for 45 years of teaching!?"
After a bit of study I understand the idea of Upaya better, but it still seems a bit icky and dishonest to me.

To be honest, (and without a shred of evidence offered by me) it seems like exactly the kind of thing a new sect would fabricate in order to discredit the old school.


This notion of a "new sect" is not borne out by evidence.

As for Upaya, it seems to me a very basic notion of all Buddhist schools. When the Buddha spoke of people with "but a little dust in their eyes" and those "with much dust in their eyes", "easy to teach" and "hard to teach", this is the birth of upaya. When he spoke of his teaching as a raft to be discarded once one has crossed to the other shore, this is upaya.

If people like their doctrines and dogmas, then of course upaya is heresy. But for those of us who practice to relinquish delusion, the teachings are skillful means rather than absolutes, I think.

As for the history, yes, I am sure adherents of competing schools (once they crystallised as distinct schools) used various devices to claim (more) legitimacy, more attainment, more profound, etc. But these political developments should not be confused with the core teachings, IMO.
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby Kamran » Tue Nov 13, 2012 3:36 am

"As such, skillful means is a provocative and sophisticated idea that served the purpose of advancing a new religious ideology in the face of an already established canonical knowledge."

I don't see the connection between a new perspective or interpretation and the creation of a new ideology.
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby m0rl0ck » Tue Nov 13, 2012 4:21 am

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Good advice for approaching any textually encoded ideal i think. In coming to grips with the pali canon and what it teaches doesn't everyone necessarily have to approach it differently due to individual conditons? The mahayana idea of skillful means just seems to me an exoteric expression of something that has to take place for each of us, to some degree or other, anyway.
"Even if you've read the whole Canon and can remember lots of teachings; even if you can explain them in poignant ways, with lots of people to respect you; even if you build a lot of monastery buildings, or can explain inconstancy, stress, and not-self in the most detailed fashion ... The only thing that serves your own true purpose is release from suffering.

"And you'll be able to gain release from suffering only when you know the one mind."

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai ... eleft.html
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby Sylvester » Tue Nov 13, 2012 5:26 am

Perhaps an example of skill in means in the Pali Canon can be found here -

Angulimala - "Stop, recluse! Stop, recluse!

The Buddha - "I have stopped, Angulimala, you stop too."

MN 86
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby m0rl0ck » Tue Nov 13, 2012 5:50 am

Sylvester wrote:Perhaps an example of skill in means in the Pali Canon can be found here -

Angulimala - "Stop, recluse! Stop, recluse!

The Buddha - "I have stopped, Angulimala, you stop too."

MN 86


:D
"Even if you've read the whole Canon and can remember lots of teachings; even if you can explain them in poignant ways, with lots of people to respect you; even if you build a lot of monastery buildings, or can explain inconstancy, stress, and not-self in the most detailed fashion ... The only thing that serves your own true purpose is release from suffering.

"And you'll be able to gain release from suffering only when you know the one mind."

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai ... eleft.html
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby Nyana » Tue Nov 13, 2012 4:45 pm

Also related:

Skillful Means: The Heart of Buddhist Compassion by John Schroeder.

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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby DAWN » Tue Nov 13, 2012 6:27 pm

It's funny, because Mahayana argument of their "superiority" towards Theravada by "Skillful Means" , shows that actualy is not Mahayana that is "superior" school, but Theravada.

Why?

Because some beings have just to see anicca dukkha and anatta, just some ethical rules and simple meditative technics to get free,
and others need much more complicated explications and methods

Truth is simple, more something is simple, less it is conditioned, and so less dukkha and anicca
Lie is complicated, more something is complicated, more it's complex, more it is conditioned, and so more dukkha and anicca

If we watch closely what The Blessed One said to "The Elders" (SN 22.83-93), like Ananda sutta, Tissa sutta, Yamaka sutta, Vekkali sutta... what we see? We see that, if i rememer, all of these Elders are Arahants, and Buddha said them some very simple Dhamma, what is this Dhamma? Just that fenomena are anicca, dukkha and anatta, that they are conditioned, thats all.

Some knots are simple, some knots are complicated. I feel compassion to these last ones.
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby DAWN » Mon Nov 19, 2012 1:06 pm

Just about "Skillfull Means"

Lord Buddha is often expressed with his hand wich shows a Lotus Leaf to Mahamoggalana (if i remember good it was Mahamoggalana), like this:
Image

And Jesus is also expressed with the same hand:
Image

There is some link, or not? If someone knows?
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby beeblebrox » Mon Nov 19, 2012 1:58 pm

The handshapes that the Buddha and Jesus showed are different... just look more carefully. Avalokitesvara also has a similar mudra... but with thumb connected to the middle finger, instead of the index like Buddha's, or ring finger like Jesus. To someone who uses ASL (American Sign Language), those are very noticeable.

Coincidentally, the "debate" mudra looks similar to the "preaching" sign in ASL... and the dharmachakra mudra looks similar to the "interpret" sign. (ASL is around 200 year old.)

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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby DAWN » Mon Nov 19, 2012 2:13 pm

beeblebrox wrote:The handshapes that the Buddha and Jesus showed are different... just look more carefully. Avalokitesvara also has a similar mudra... but with thumb connected to the middle finger, instead of the index like Buddha's, or ring finger like Jesus. To someone who uses ASL (American Sign Language), those are very noticeable.

Coincidentally, the "debate" mudra looks similar to the "preaching" sign in ASL... and the dharmachakra mudra looks similar to the "interpret" sign. (ASL is around 200 year old.)

:sage:

Thank you
It's true it's different, but it's mudra.
Do some one know what each finger means (if there is some meaning), and why Jesus make mudra. :spy:
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby beeblebrox » Mon Nov 19, 2012 2:37 pm

The Buddha's hand is showing a debate (or teaching) mudra... and Jesus' handshape is more complicated to explain... I think it's basically an abbreviation of the Greek's spelling of his name, when seen from a certain angle (as shown in this painting for example). I think it's pretty much an invention of the iconographists, not Jesus'.
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby DAWN » Mon Nov 19, 2012 3:45 pm

beeblebrox wrote:The Buddha's hand is showing a debate (or teaching) mudra... and Jesus' handshape is more complicated to explain... I think it's basically an abbreviation of the Greek's spelling of his name, when seen from a certain angle (as shown in this painting for example). I think it's pretty much an invention of the iconographists, not Jesus'.


Oh yes, i see.
I think is for theaching too, because you see he have a book.

Anyway...
Just a question that arise in my mind. Thanks you a lot. :anjali:
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby Raksha » Mon Nov 19, 2012 11:12 pm

DAWN wrote:Mahayana argument of their "superiority" towards Theravada by "Skillful Means" , shows that actualy is not Mahayana that is "superior" school, but Theravada


Lord Buddha did not teach an inferior vehicle. Everyone is different hence there are a variety of paths. Upaya kausalya actually refers to an adaptive methodology, so both Buddhist art and Buddhist music are considered skillful means.
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby DAWN » Tue Nov 20, 2012 4:36 am

Raksha wrote:
DAWN wrote:Mahayana argument of their "superiority" towards Theravada by "Skillful Means" , shows that actualy is not Mahayana that is "superior" school, but Theravada


Lord Buddha did not teach an inferior vehicle. Everyone is different hence there are a variety of paths. Upaya kausalya actually refers to an adaptive methodology, so both Buddhist art and Buddhist music are considered skillful means.


It's true, but i said that specialy to show that this logic is not good.

Actualy Mahayana is wery usefull to Dhamma, because peoples wich mind is much aflicted can not enter, and accept directly Buddha words of renonciation, so they comes to Mahayana, and after they mind is able to accept and see Buddha Dhamma.
I saw many peoples come from M. to T., but never saw enverse.

Anyway, some knots are complicated, other less, and each knot must be desuntangled
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby Dan74 » Tue Nov 20, 2012 4:58 am

DAWN wrote:I saw many peoples come from M. to T., but never saw enverse.


Anagarika Govinda, John Blofeld, Phra Khantipalo, Paul Breiter... are some that I know of.
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Re: “Skillful Means” and the rhetoric of Mahāyāna proselytism

Postby DAWN » Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:00 am

Dan74 wrote:
DAWN wrote:I saw many peoples come from M. to T., but never saw enverse.


Anagarika Govinda, John Blofeld, Phra Khantipalo, Paul Breiter... are some that I know of.


Oh, yes. Now i know :smile:
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