Practice Skill-In-Means

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; or act the same way with one person every moment. The fact that causality is affecting them in each moment requires you to respond differently in each moment. The same is true for each event in life. While events may, on the surface, seem the same there are always differences and so responses and reactions must arise situationally. To live in this ever-changing world among ever-changing people and events takes skill and flexibility. In Buddhist practice this ability is known as skill-in-means (Sk., upaya).

In Buddhist philosophy and practice the Skill-In-Means Doctrine is the development and application of actions taken with the acceptance that one needs to develop infinite flexibility in adapting the teaching of the Buddha to suit changing circumstances. Skill-in-means, or skillful means is learning to “know your audience” and in addition, to “know yourself” in each moment; it is the practice of deep mindfulness and awareness. The life and teachings of the Buddha are a testament to his ability to speak to the 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 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. As a teacher he was able to transmit the lessons of the Dharma equally well to Brahmin or householder, King or thief. On his path Siddhartha studied with the learned masters of his day and culture and through them he came to know the languages and worldviews of the various mendicants that roamed and taught around India, and how to communicate effectively with all castes. Throughout his life traveling and teaching he continuously improved his ability to speak directly to all manner of people.

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.

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