Skillful Means: Navigating Life

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

It takes skill and flexibility to positively engage your life. Each moment brings with it unique situations to respond to, and unique experiences to learn from. You know from experience that you can’t act the same way around each person; and, that you can’t respond in the same way to every situation even when they seem remarkable similar. To live in this ever-changing world among ever-changing people takes skill and flexibility. In Buddhist practice this ability is known as skill-in-means (Sk., upaya).

The Buddha would first assess the nature of his audience and then use a variety of tactics and strategies in order to guide them out of suffering and unsatisfactoriness. In the Mahayana tradition this is known as the Skill-In-Means Doctrine: “. . . taken to entail an apparently infinite flexibility in adapting the teaching of the Buddha to suit changing circumstances.” [Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Paul Williams, page 151] Skill-in-means, or skillful means is simply learning to “know your audience” and in addition, to “know yourself”. The life and teachings of the Buddha are a testament to his ability to speak in the language and worldview of his listeners. Was Siddhartha born with this skill? No, no one is born able to understand and adjust to any situation; it is a skill that must be learned and practiced.

The Buddha was able to transmit the message of the Dharma equally well to Brahmin or householder, King or thief. Siddhartha studied with the learned masters of his day and culture. Through them he came to know the languages and worldviews of the various mendicants that roamed and taught around India. As a child and young man he already had experience with the more royal strata of his culture. Traveling and teaching as the Awakened One he improved his ability to speak directly to all manner of people from every caste.

The Doctrine of Skill-In-Means is not only valuable when talking to people. It can be of great value when dealing with all aspects of your life. The trick is . . . learning how to develop it.

For an Engaged Buddhist the ideal of skillful means reminds us that the Dharma is not a static set of dogmas and rules. It is a dynamic offering of guidelines and lessons that you can apply to whatever situation you find yourself in culturally, personally and socially. You must practice skillful means moment-to-moment so that the application of the skill becomes second nature, it becomes spontaneous. You act situationally, not routinely.

The late Venerable Shi Shen Long, Ryugen Fisher Sensei, expanded on the Buddhist ideal of employing skillful means when dealing with the changing situations we all face. He recognized that along with a teacher needing flexibility in teaching the Dharma, the layperson needed to practice flexibility when applying the teachings in their everyday experiences. In order to ensure that each situation could be engaged in the most positive manner he taught Three Characteristics of Skillful Action. These are meant to be intentional practices that gradually become a spontaneous way you engage your world. In a given situation you must look to: 1) preparation, 2) permission, 3) resources. Ignoring or discounting any one of these actions could lead to taking inappropriate actions, actions that may prove harmful to ourselves or others.

Preparation

Preparation is the act of learning all you can about a situation before taking action. Take whatever time is available and think deeply, investigate when you can, and ask questions when possible. Determine the best you can what factors contributed to the situation. Preparation also involves determining what solution to the problem would be the most effective in creating and maintaining harmony. Realize that these actions must be taken in each situation because even situations similar on the surface are unique at their core.

You prepare yourself for the challenges of life in a variety of ways. Early in your life others did their part to help you prepare . . . parents and teachers at the top of that list. Now that responsibility is totally on your shoulders. No one else can do this for you. You must engage in life-long learning, always open to discover new things about yourself and new knowledge about the world. In this fast paced, fully interconnected world you can’t afford to be ignorant.

Permission

Permission to act comes both from without, the permission of others – and from within, your own agreement to act. Think of the times you have debated with yourself on whether to take a particular action.

You need to ask yourself if what you are planning will have a negative effect of the integrity of the people involved. For example, how many parents, with the best of intentions have helped their children with a science project, or even actually completed it for them? A honest appraisal must be made on whether help is needed or wanted.

An important question to ask is, “Am I doing this for the ultimate benefit for myself or for the encompassing benefit for others.”

You’ve also got to give yourself permission to make mistakes. Without that permission you won’t engage fully with life because of a fear of doing it wrong. So what? Like suffering, being wrong sometimes is part of human existence. There is nothing to fear from being wrong. There is much to fear from not learning from those mistakes and doing better the next time. Buddhist vows like the Three Refuges, Three Pure Precepts, Ten Precepts are taken with the full knowledge that mistakes will be made; and with the full knowledge that those will be learning experiences so that the same mistakes are avoided in future situations.

Resources

You can’t jump in the lake to save someone from drowning if you don’t know how to swim. You shouldn’t donate hundreds of dollars to charity if you can’t pay your rent. You wouldn’t join a Fantasy Football League not knowing the first thing about football. You’ll drown too. You’ll be homeless. You’ll lose. Each negative consequence arising as a result of inappropriate view and use of resources. To have a clear view of your resources you must be able to admit what you have and don’t have whether it is material goods, money, skills or knowledge.

Your resources don’t only come from within . . . your knowledge, your money, your skills. Knowing where to find what is needed, who does have the skills, and who can answer the questions is just as valuable a resource as having these things yourself.

Engaging the Three

The stress and anxiety you might feel in some situations can be relieved or even eliminated by practicing the Three Characteristics of Skillful Action. Being prepared is not just having as much information as possible, it is also being prepared with your awareness of impermanence and causality. You are not only ready for the situation as you understand it; you are ready to react positively when the unexpected happens.

Practicing the Three Characteristics of Skillful Action will gradually train you to be skillful-in-means when approaching any situation you may face.

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