Upaya

upaya social ventures

Audience analysis

Upaya [oo-pah-yuh] (Sanskrit: ‘expedient means’) is a term used in Buddhism to refer to an aspect of guidance along the Buddhist Paths to liberation where a conscious, voluntary action is driven by an incomplete reasoning around its direction. Upaya is often combined with ‘kaushalya’ (‘cleverness’) to form ‘upaya-kaushalya’ meaning ‘skill in means,’ a concept emphasizing that practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques that fit the situation in order to gain enlightenment. The implication is that even if a technique, view, etc., is not ultimately ‘true’ in the highest sense, it may still be an expedient practice to perform or view to hold; i.e., it may bring the practitioner closer to the true realization in a similar way.

The exercise of skill to which it refers, the ability to adapt one’s message to the audience, is of enormous importance in the ‘Pali Canon’ (some of the oldest texts in Buddhism). The most important concept in ‘skill in means’ is the use, guided by wisdom and compassion, of a specific teaching (means) geared to the particular audience taught. Edward Conze, in ‘A Short History Of Buddhism,’ says ”Skill in means’ is the ability to bring out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension.’

This doctrine is sometimes used to explain some of the otherwise strange or unorthodox behavior or ‘crazy wisdom’ engaged in by some Buddhists and exemplified in the conduct of the Tibetan Mahasiddha. Skillful means may theoretically be used by different buddhist groups to make many seemingly proscribed practices, such as violence, theft, and sexuality be employed as skillful. The use of harsh violence to one’s disciples has occasionally been used as a way of opening their eyes to the nature of self and suffering; an example is the story of a Zen priest who ended a conversation with a disciple by slamming shut a door on the disciple’s leg, fracturing the leg and, according to the story, causing a deep insight in the disciple. There are a number of other stories of Buddhist saints and bodhisattvas taking part in fairly eccentric and unusual behaviors in the practice of skillful means.

The practices and rituals of Vajrayana Buddhism are also often interpreted as a process of skillful means. They are understood to be means whereby practitioners use the very misconceptions and properties of mundane existence to help themselves reach enlightenment. Buddhist texts metaphorically explain the upaya concept through illustrations such as a burning house. The Lotus Sutra contains a famous upaya story about using the expedient means of white lies to rescue children from a burning building. Another common metaphor for upaya is an ’empty fist’: A father holds up his empty fist saying there is something inside it to get the attention of the crying children. Sometimes the fist is holding golden leaves to give the impression that something made of gold is held inside. This is a favorite image of Zen teachers as it eloquently expresses in image the reason behind the necessity for upaya, that is, ‘sunyata,’ all component things are empty. From the Zen point of view an essential teaching of Buddhism is that all assertions of any kind, even the highest concepts of Buddhism itself such as the ‘Trikaya,’ are simply expedient means to bring the hearer to the realization of emptiness. But because many people are afraid of emptiness or disdain the idea of emptiness, various upaya must be used to get the student’s attention to focus on the essence of mind rather than upon the distractions of mind.

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