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February 2023
Vol. 22, No. 5
In Good Company


Skillful Means

by Peter BollandApril 2017

The Buddhists have a concept called upaya: “skillful means.” It grew out of the simple observation that one shoe does not fit all feet, and that we often have to change our approach as the situation around us changes. Principles and rules are fine, but without the freedom to adapt to the realities before us, we fail.

It began in early Buddhism as the acknowledgment that different people employ different techniques to attain enlightenment. Some meditated in solitude, others committed acts of compassionate service, while others devoted their lives to philosophical discourse and intellectual rigor. If enlightenment is available to all, a fundamental Buddhist precept, whether a learned king or an illiterate pauper, then surely the paths to wisdom are many and varied. What matters is the outcome, not obedience to someone else’s path. Upaya simply means: do whatever works.

The Lotus Sutra tells the famous story of the man who saved his children’s lives by luring them out of a burning house by lying to them. They were too young to understand what fire was, and were too engrossed in their play, so yelling “run!” wouldn’t have worked. Instead, he told them that outside the gate of the house were all of their favorite toys, the toys they had been begging their father for. Out the gate they ran, only to discover there were no toys waiting for them. Instead of toys, their gift was escaping a horribly painful death. While in principle it may be wrong to lie, clearly, in this case, it was the right thing to do. The crux of the matter is this–one can waste a lot of time arguing in the abstract about whether or not it is ever morally acceptable to deceive another. Or one can leave such idle musings to the scholars and philosophers and simply forge ahead into the messiness of real life, doing one’s best moment by moment to cooperate with the unfolding chaos of the world and work toward the best possible outcome, knowing that paradox, absurdity, and contradiction dog our every step. Upaya reminds us that sometimes the real question is not what is right and what is wrong? but how can we make things better than they are right now? Progress, not perfection.

The concept of upaya is particularly useful in the realm of spiritual practice. When I teach meditation, I guide participants through a set of suggestions about how to sit, how to breathe, and how to move through the process of deepening into a state of relaxed stillness. But I make it clear that all of my suggestions are just that: suggestions. In any guided process, whether it’s meditation, yoga, or contemplative prayer, one must adapt the process to one’s unique individuality. Only you know the peculiarities of your body, your mind, and your current energy state. This is not to say that we ignore all suggestion and guidance–there’s a reason we go to teachers and give them our trust. They are discipline-experts who lovingly pass down the best practices of all of those who went before us. But blind obedience to past practices is counterproductive to the ultimate goal. Our teachers and all of their valuable suggestions are like the notation on a sheet of music–it isn’t music until we translate those notes with our living, breathing fingers, hands, hearts, minds, and voices into the vibrations of sound. In the end, we are the instruments through which wisdom manifests itself. And no two renditions of a song are ever alike.

Nowhere is upaya more evident than on the fringes of religion and philosophy. In the first book of Carlos Castaneda’s remarkable series, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Castaneda recounts his apprenticeship with the Yaqui shaman Don Juan. In the initial stages of the process, Don Juan used jimson weed and peyote to shatter his apprentice’s habitual, conditioned mode of consciousness. As soon as this was accomplished, he promptly dropped the use of all psychotropic substances. They were simply a skillful means to an end, not an end in themselves. It was never about the drugs. It was about the transformation they afforded. So, too, as generations of seekers, under the influence of Castaneda’s widely-read books, sought their own mystical visions in the deserts of the southwest in the fog of intoxication, many confused the journey with the destination, descending into drug-soaked oblivion. For some of us, the judicious use of psychotropic compounds under the loving guidance of a trusted friend might be an excellent beginning to a deep and meaningful philosophical and spiritual transformation, as it was for Carlos Castaneda. For others it might prove disastrous.

Another example of upaya in the fertile fringe of religion and philosophy is the area known as Tantra. Tantric practices had an enormous impact on both Hinduism and Buddhism. Perhaps as a reaction against the overly controlling rules of some yogic and Buddhist monastic practices, Tantra brought the messy worldliness of folk religion, mythology, and shamanism into the ethereal and otherworldly sensibilities of formal religion. If all is One, as Hinduism and Buddhism teach, then why divide the whole of reality into two disparate realms, the sacred and the profane, celebrating one while eschewing the other? Instead, Tantra suggests that we use all of the dimensions of our mind-body experience to heighten spiritual insight, including sexuality and inebriation. Naturally, these activities are especially prone to abuse and misunderstanding, so they must be practiced under the guidance of discipline experts. But at their best, for some people, Tantric practices can be a powerful path of awakening, even if they embrace behaviors that seem on the surface to contradict the core principles of the religions they claim to embrace. Buddha taught against the use of intoxicants. In the disciplined path of Ashtanga Yoga, the mother-path of all yogas, we are to reduce our enmeshment with the material, sensory world, pulling back into an interior awareness of our inherent, abiding, Universal Self. Yet in Tantra, the very opposite seems to be happening. How does this make sense? It doesn’t. Not everything in this big, messy world fits into neat boxes. Sometimes you just have to find your way through the thicket of competing truth claims and trust your own inner-knowing. Sometimes you just have to do what works, and rules be damned.

While rigid adherence to principle may seem on the surface admirable, in the actual give and take of life, it can lead to outcomes nobody wants. We have to find a way, on one hand, to adhere to principles when the winds of expediency blow, while on the other hand be willing to bend principles to the realities before us. A guiding notion might be this: as long as love is our intention, not naked self-interest, we can’t go wrong. Principles, at their best, help us guard against self-centeredness and harming others. But when principles fail, we always have upaya to lead us through the terrain where there is no path.

Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at

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