The Lotus Sutra – Chapter Two – Skillful Means

Manjushri has just explained to the gathered assembly the meaning of the marvel they have just witnessed: this Buddha, like those of the past, will now teach The Lotus Sutra, the ‘treasured lore of the Buddhas’. This long chapter introduces several notable features. The first, of course, is reflected in the title ‘Skillful Means’, sometimes translated ‘Expedient’ or ‘Tactful’. The second is that there are now, have been in the past and will continue to be in the future, innumerable Buddhas teaching the Dharma. The third is that everyone will at some point become a Buddha.

At this point it becomes useful to begin to introduce some Buddhist (usually Sanskrit) terms. Initially, these unfamiliar words can be off-putting if they are sprinkled heavily throughout a text with no explanation. While it might be appealing to do without them entirely, some have no neat English equivalent and those English words that are often used as substitutions for the Sanskrit may be misleading. My solution in this commentary will be to define the word when I initially introduce it and then later to hyperlink it to a glossary to which you can refer. Also, the spelling of the Sanskrit will be simplified: minor adjustments to indicate an appropriate pronunciation and no diacritical marks.  So, for example, ‘Dharma’ has a number of meanings, but suffice it to say here that what is indicated are first, the universal law that underlies all phenomena; second, the teachings that reveal and explain that law; and lastly, the practices that lead one to realization of that law.

Now, back to the sutra. Shakyamuni Buddha emerges from his deep contemplation, extolling the profundity of the wisdom of the Buddhas, proclaiming it is difficult for anyone other than another Buddha to comprehend. Since this wisdom is beyond reason and comprehension he relates that, in the past, he created the skillful method of teaching about Nirvana, the liberation from suffering and sorrow by abandoning attachments brought about by desire, through three ‘vehicles’. The first vehicle is that of the shravaka [one who attains awakening through hearing the voice of the Buddha], the second is the pratyekebuddha [one who attains awakening without a teacher through their own efforts and experience] and the third is the Buddha vehicle [leading to absolute complete awakening–complete Buddhahood, practiced by a bodhisattva,  one who is one step short of complete Buddhahood and who practices for the liberation of others as well as oneself]. The division of the teachings into three vehicles, however, is not the ultimate truth but only ‘skillful methods’ of presenting the teachings and practices in ways that may be understood by ordinary people and lead them to the path of the ‘one Buddha vehicle’—complete Buddhahood.

This causes confusion and consternation among some in the assembly who have followed the first two vehicles (shravaka and pratyekebuddha). Having successfully eliminated all their attachments, liberated themselves from sorrow and suffering and so entered Nirvana they have believed that this was the highest truth revealed by the Buddha. Now he seemed to be suggesting that there is still more to it that is beyond their comprehension. Shakyamuni Buddha is reluctant to speak further on this saying that no one will be able to understand it since true understanding is beyond all ordinary comprehension. Shariputra, his chief disciple, on behalf of the assembly three times begs him to reconsider and at last Shakyamuni Buddha relents and says he will now explain further. Whereupon, 5,000 members of the assembly, deciding that they already know everything and don’t need to stick around to hear what he is about to say, get up and leave while Shakyamuni quietly watches them go. More about them in a future chapter.

Two important messages are contained in this passage, one from the view of the 5,000 disciples and one from the view of Shakyamuni. From the disciples’ viewpoint, they mistakenly believed that they had achieved the ultimate truth and in the face of their own confusion about what the Buddha was about to say, got up and left rather be willing to acknowledge that their understanding was incomplete and perhaps someone else could add to that. This is no different than when we, ourselves, believe that our own viewpoint on any subject is correct and we refuse to listen to anyone who challenges that, often giving rise to conflict over who is ‘right’. This sort of exchange, or really a non-exchange, takes place daily in our politics and news media where many of us listen only to the talking head who supports our views and never seriously listen to and consider what is being said on the other side of the question. Even more so does it take place in our daily interactions with others.

From the Buddha’s point of view, he quietly watched them leave. He put up no resistance to their going, did not try to argue or convince them of their mistake. Often we feel that, like the 5,000, we have the correct view and are impelled to try to convince others to agree with us. Perhaps we may even resort to force to compel them to follow our will, at least outwardly. Here, Shakyamuni Buddha allows them the freedom to follow their own minds providing a model of how we, without causing conflict, can allow others to live differently than ourselves. Essentially, it comes down to having a sense of humility regarding our own thoughts and opinions. Since, as was said earlier, the ultimate truth is beyond words and comprehension by words, anything that is said, on any subject, is only partially true. And this implies that most anything that can be said contains at least some part of the truth, so we may benefit by being willing to hear what is being said, even if it conflicts with our own beliefs. This applies even to the Buddhist teachings themselves. All are ‘skillful means’ that point to the ultimate truth, but the words used are not the ultimate truth itself.

After the 5,000 leave, Shakyamuni begins by saying that all Buddhas of the past, present and future

…teach the Dharma
Which they have attained
Through the immeasurable power of skillful means
for the sake of sentient beings.
Completely knowing their intentions,
Their various ways of practice,
Their wishes and capacities,
And the good and bad karma
Of their previous lives,
The Buddha gladdens all the sentient beings

With the power of words and skillful means,
Using examples and illustrations…
You should know that through the Buddha-eye
I see beings wandering in the six states of existence
Who are poor, deprived of merit and wisdom,

Who are entering into the bitter path of birth and death,
And are suffering repeatedly and without end.
They are deeply attached to the desires of the five senses,
Just as yaks are attached to their tails…
Deeply immersed in false views,
They try to eliminate suffering through suffering.
I feel great compassion
For such sentient beings…

The Buddha teaches nirvana
To people with dull faculties…
And attached to birth and death…
And are perplexed by suffering.
Having devised this skillful means
I enable them to enter the wisdom of the Buddhas.

The Buddhas have recognized that the ultimate truth can be confusing and incomprehensible to many. They observe where people are in their lives, their capacity, their talent, their understanding, their interest and devise stories and practices that will meet their immediate needs while setting them on the path to ultimate realization at some point in the future. For many people experiencing sorrow, suffering or discontent of all sorts in their lives, the entry onto the Buddha path comes through this skillful teaching of nirvana and the promise of providing a way out of all this suffering.

But this teaching on nirvana (the nature of sorrow, suffering and discontent, its causes and the way to be free from all such sorrow and suffering and discontent) is not the ultimate teaching or the ultimate truth. Shakyamuni Buddha goes on to say,

O Shariputra! Now I will explain why I said that the Buddhas…appear in this world for one great purpose. The Buddhas…appear in this world to make sentient beings aspire towards purity and the wisdom and insight of the Buddhas. They appear in this world to manifest the wisdom and insight of the Buddhas to sentient beings. They appear in this world to make sentient beings attain the wisdom and insight of a Buddha’s enlightenment. They appear in this world in order to make sentient beings enter the path of the wisdom and insight of a Buddha. O Shariputra! For this one great reason alone the Buddhas have appeared in this world.

All the ‘skillful methods’ of the Buddhas are for this purpose: to bring everyone, without exception, to complete awakening, complete understanding, complete enlightenment; to attain the complete wisdom of a Buddha and most importantly to attain the unconditional, unending compassion of a Buddha. As all people have this latent capacity there can be no excuse for discrimination against any person or group of people what-so-ever; not on gender, race, income, religion, nationality or any other quality you can think of. Each and every person has the capacity to fully awaken and experience what all the Buddhas experience. At the beginning and close of each service we place our hands together and bow to the person we face in acknowledgement of that quality in whoever stands across from us. In our minds we should do the same for everyone we meet in our daily lives, especially those whom we may see as ‘the other’.

As Shakyamuni has said earlier in this chapter, words fail to express such understanding. So the words of all the world’s great philosophies, religions, sciences are all ‘skillful means’ reflecting but a part of the ultimate truth. And, importantly, this includes these very Buddhist teachings. The words, the teachings, the practices, are themselves ‘skillful means’, they are not absolute truth.

All the Buddhas of the past expounded the teachings for the sake of sentient beings, using incalculable and innumerable skillful means and various explanations and illustrations. These teachings were all for the sake of the single Buddha-vehicle. All these sentient beings, hearing the Dharma from the Buddhas, finally attained omniscience…Having understood the various desires and deep-rooted inclinations of sentient beings, I teach the Dharma according to their capacities through the power of skillful means, using various explanations and illustrations. O Shariputra! I do this in order to make them attain the omniscience of the single Buddha-vehicle. O Shariputra! Since there is no second vehicle in the worlds of the ten directions, how could there be a third!

Within Tendai Buddhism this is reflected in the acceptance of many different practices, each appropriate to the varying capacities, interests and understandings of different individuals. Other schools may claim that there is single method, or a highest method, a true method or an only method, but here it is clearly stated that they are all valid—and all incomplete. Further, because there were Buddhas of the past, are Buddhas in the present and will be Buddhas in the future, each teaching according to the capacities of people they meet, it means that the Buddhist teachings are not static or frozen in form. Firmly rooted in the great tradition of all those who have practiced in the past, the teachings continue to re-emerge in forms and language that is comprehensible to people in their own place and time.

Shakyamuni Buddha completes this chapter with a summary of skillful means and a great prediction that will be further developed in future chapters:

The Buddhas teach the Dharma
With myriads of uncountable skillful means,
According to the capacities of sentient beings;
The inexperienced cannot understand this.
You have come to know with certainty the skillful means
Of the Buddhas, the Teachers of the World,
Which are expounded in accordance
With people’s capacities.
All of you, have no further doubts!
Let great joy arise in your hearts
And know that you will all become Buddhas!

Chapter Three