The Theosophical Forum – March 1946

UPAYA KAUSALYA: THE DOCTRINE OF SKILFUL MEANS — Harry B. Murphy and Karl Bendroth

According to Har Dayal, Updya Kausalya is "the most important of the four supplementary paramitas" (1). It is explained as "skilfulness or wisdom in the choice and adoption of the means or expedients for converting others or helping them."

A wise and compassionate seer, a bodhisattva, though he perceives the truth of things directly, by direct experience, and nature's inner secrets are to him an open book, yet is not able to correctly express his understanding in words. As the Lankavatara Sutra says, "Words are neither different nor not different from meaning. . . The Tathagatas do not teach a Dharma that is dependent upon letters. Anyone who teaches a doctrine that is dependent upon letters and words is a mere prattler, because Truth is beyond letters and words and books." (2) There is no verbal statement that a wise seer can make about the deeper workings of nature which does not in some way do violence to the reality as he experiences it.

In addition to the fact that a bodhisattva could not express in words the real truth of a metaphysical question even if he wanted to, there is also the consideration that even a too-full approximation to the truth would not be good for many of his hearers. As T. S. Eliot puts it,

. . . . humankind
Cannot bear very much reality. (3)

Too much of truth can set back disciples from the Path and discourage them. Nor would disciples be able even to understand many of the things which the higher wisdom of a guru would be able to tell them.

For each one must hear only what he can hear, what he is able to hear. And thus it is that none of us ever reads the truth or hears the truth from our teachers — but our teachers, for our benefit, give us a modified or "stepped-down" version of the truth which we are able to bear and which we can understand. In doing this, the teachers are exercising updya kausalya paramita (skilful means of helping others). Each people as well as each age has its own world-feeling (4), its own nature, degree and kind of understanding, customs, prejudices. When a wise teacher comes as a messenger of wisdom to a people he attempts to supply them with just that upaya, that version of truth, which is fitted to their nature. This upaya then becomes a religion for the people in question. Thus have the various world religions come to be, though each one has become more or less debased from what the original founder taught.

And with individuals as with nations we find that each one's understanding is different. Some are interested in science. Others are by nature religious. Some prefer philosophical clarity and precision; others are inclined to view such as being hair-splitting or sophistical. Some desire an attempted verbal statement of the details of nature's processes; others want to learn how to meditate, feeling that one should get to know the owner of a garden first, then he will explain about the flowers that grow in it. (5) Theosophy has tried to supply something of value for each of these various types of hearers. One value of understanding the upaya teaching is that it frees us from any narrow or sectarian tendency to imagine that any particular teaching of Theosophy is precisely true as verbally stated, or is the last word in truth. How often our teachers have warned us to "break the molds of mind'!

A practical application of upaya paramita is this: when we meet an inquirer we can make a greater effort than ever to try to enter sympathetically into his way of looking at things and try to present just those aspects of teaching which will be most valuable and meaningful to him. A listener tends to superimpose a concept from his own "thought or experience world" upon the ideas expressed by us. By our own careful observation of his remarks we can grasp this picture. The concept always varies according to the listener's own character.

Once we become aware of this we can observe this state of affairs even in ordinary "secular" conversations. And we in turn superimpose our own thought groupings upon the listener's attitude and inadvisedly assume that our words mean the same thing to him that they mean to us. Our enthusiasm concerning the teachings and our joy in expounding them is likely to be one of our greatest obstacles in trying so to choose our words that the hearer's understanding of them will be similar to our own. These are psychological facts to keep in mind while trying to practice upaya.

FOOTNOTES:

1. Dayal, Har, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanscrit Literature. London. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., Ltd., pp. 248. (return to text)

2. Goddard, Dwight, "A Buddhist Bible," Second Edition, 1938, pp. 310, -1. (return to text)

3. "Burnt Norton" in Four Quartets. (return to text)

4. Vide Spengler, Decline of the West, passim. (return to text)

5. This is an important theme in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans, by Swami Nikhilananda. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1942. Cf. Matthew VI, 33: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." (return to text)


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