Skillful Means (The Heart of Buddhist Compassion)

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Item Code: NAE938
Author: John W. Schroeder
Publisher: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2004
ISBN: 9788120819993
Pages: 193
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 480 gm
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Book Description

About The Book

This book analyzes one of the most important ideas in Buddhist philosophy: the doctrine of “skilful means.” John Schroeder presents a fresh analysis of a familiar subject, thus providing a new way of understanding Buddhist thought. He argues that Buddhism is best understood as Philosophy of practice- or a “metapraxis”-and that terms such as “emptiness,” “non-self,” and “nirvana” refer less to metaphysical principles than to skilful teachings that help people cultivate compassion and mindfulness. He begins by examining the unique teaching styles of the historical Buddha and then charts the idea of “skilful means” through early Buddhist texts, the Mahayana sutras, the famous Madyamika philosopher Nagarjuna, and the Ch’an and Pure Land traditions of East Asia. Each section of the book focuses on a debate over philosophical justification and the problem of trying to establish a fixed doctrine in Buddhism and reveals an on-going debate that is central to the various Buddhist traditions throughout Asia.

Skillful Means investigates both the philosophical and religions dimensions of Buddhism. It explores the role of meditation and spiritual methodology in the various schools of Buddhism and offers a critical, philosophical analysis of how liberation is conceived by important Buddhist thinkers. It is therefore useful not only for Buddhist scholars, but also for students enrolled in course in Buddhist philosophy and religion.

About The Author

John Schroeder was born in Los Angeles and received his Ph. D. from the University of Oregon in 1996. He held the Purna Rao Raju Chair of East-West Philosophy at the College of Wooster in 1995, and is currently an assistant professor of philosophy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland where he teaches South Asian philosophies and religions, comparative philosophy, and Buddhist thought. He has travelled throughout South and South East Asia, and has done research on Buddhist and Hindu philosophy in Bodh Gaya, Banares, and Dharmashala, India. He has also published in Philosophy East and West.


This book is an interesting application of Skillful Means, including compassions, to discussions of Buddhism, whether Hinayana of Mahayana. Apparently, it was not held as necessary to know the technical meanings of the Buddhist terms; and persons who find it appropriate to know such meanings may not be able to apply Skillful Means in the manner employed by Professor John W. Schroeder. So, may I congratulate Schroeder on his discussions using this ‘Skillful Means’, and therefore worthy if inclusion in the Buddhist Tradition Series.

Rare is the book that challenges us to rethink what we believe we already know and understand. This is just such a book. One one level, John Schroeder is developing a philosophical interpretation of the Buddhist notion of upaya or “skilful means,” an idea with which any students of Buddhism is probably familiar. Yet, as we read the book, we find that Schroeder has done something more profound and less expected-he has led us to a different way of thinking about Buddhism as not primarily involved in explaining reality and knowledge, but instead as teaching the praxes that lead to such goals as mindfulness or compassion. That is, he argues that what we often take to be Buddhist metaphysics of epistemology are, instead, reflections on and within praxis, thereby justifying the procedure of personalizing the teachings for the particular audience at hand. In this some Buddhist are involved in one way or another. Schroeder’s thesis, in short, is that Buddhists are less interested in teaching about how we are to find awareness and compassion in our practices, in helping us live our lives skilfully.

To many readers, this might seem not new at all. Even the early commentators on Buddhism in the West, people like D.T. Suzuki, tended to say things like “Buddhism is not a philosophy; it is a way of life.” Schroeder’s line of argument shows us, however, a better way of putting this. Although Buddhism is praxis and a way of life, such a way of life does not exclude philosophy. That is, Buddhism is not a philosophy as contrasted with a way of life. Although Buddhism may not be a philosophy as an independent academic discipline, it does not follow that there is no philosophical dimension within a Buddhist way of life. At the base of any religion, Buddhism included, is praxis. Typically, there are multiples praxes within any tradition, sometimes emphasized by different subsects of the same tradition. In explaining and justifying the praxes, various philosophical claims and arguments may be made. Such statements are indeed philosophy, but they are a kind of philosophizing that cannot be separated from the praxes out of which they arise. In my own work, I have labelled this form of philosophizing “metapraxis” to contrast it with theories about the nature of reality, “mataphysics.” Schroeder has, I believe, used the distinction fruitfully in this book.

We can better grasp the point of Schroeder’s emphasis on Buddhist philosophy as metapraxis by considering an analogy from a mundane kind of human experience. As I was walking through the park the other day, I stopped to watch a team of nine-year olds having a baseball practices. The coach was working with the youngsters, helping them in their batting. One girl was very aggressive at the plate, swinging hard and trying to hit a homerun every time. She consistently missed or just barely hit the ball. The coach told her, “Don’t try to kill the ball; just let the bat meet the ball.” On the next swing, the girl hit a nice line drive into the outfield. “That’s it. Now you’re getting it.” The next, kid was a boy who was rather timid at the plate, seemingly afraid of missing the ball and hesitating to take a full swing. The coach yelled out encouragingly, “Don’t worry about hitting the ball; just swing away.” The lad let it rip on the next swing, missing the ball by at least two inches. The coach chimed out, “That it. Good. Don’t worry about missing. Just keep on swinging.” I suspect we can all think of parallel expressions used in various kinds of teaching, whether they be from sports, music performance, dance, crafts, or the arts. They are part of everybody praxis.


There is a famous story in the Buddhist Pali text, the Mahavagga, about the Buddha’s initial hesitation to express his teachings to the world. Arising from five weeks of meditation on the nature of suffering and spiritual bondage, it suddenly occurred to the Buddha that his Dharma, which is “deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond dialectic” might get distorted by a world “cloaked in the murk” of attachments. In fact, given the “habitual tendencies” of most people, the Buddha felt his teachings would only cause more suffering and confusion in world, and, rather than, “treated against the stream” of ignorance and confusion, he thought it would be better to remain silent and not teach about his experiences at all.

If the story stopped here then we would know nothing of the Buddha’s teachings. But the Hindu God Brahma suddenly appeared to the Buddha, urging him to teach. The god knelt at the Buddha’s feet and pleaded, “Lord, let the Lord teach dhamma, let the Well-fearer teach dhamma; there are beings with littles dust in their eyes who, not hearing dhamma are decaying, but if they are learners of dhamma, they will grow”. Brahma repeated his plea three times, and as the Buddha listened he began to see the world in a new light:

As the Lord was surveying the world with the eye of an awakened one, he saw beings with little dust in their eyes, with much dust in their eyes, with acute faculties, with dull faculties, of good dispositions, of bad dispositions, docile, indocile, few seeing fear in sins and the worlds beyond.

In both the Mahavagga and Majjhima-Nikaya, the Buddha’s vision is compared to various lots ponds with different degrees of growth:

Even as in a pond of blue lotuses or in a pond of red Lotuses or in a pond of white lotuses, a few blue or red or White lotuses are born in the water, grow in the water, Do not rise above the water but thrive while altogether Immersed; a few blue of red or white lotuses are born in The water, grow in the water and reach the surface of The water; a few blue of red or white lotuses are born in The water, grow in the water, and stand up rising out of The water, undefiled by the water.

The story then relates the Buddha’s vision to the nature of humanity: just as there are various types of lotuses, so there are various stages of human growth, each with different degree of “dust” and confusion in their minds. Upon seeing these “wondrous” differences, the Buddha knew it would be useless to preach universally or speak as if everyone were the same. He knew that if he wanted to help others he would need to be sensitive to the karmic difference of human beings and mold his teachings to their level. With this new wisdom, the Buddha decided to “Turn the Wheel of Dharma” to his former ascetic companions.

The Mahayana tradition in Buddhism sees this story as pivotal because it expresses an intimate relationship between wisdom and compassion. Rather than saying the Buddha attains enlightenment before he hesitates to preach Dharma, the Mahayanists say his enlightenment culminates in the realization that human beings differ and that he must teach depending on the relative emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dispositions of his audience. They say this not only connects the Buddha’s enlightenment to the “everybody” world but reveals the compassionate wisdom of a great bodhisattva who responds to the concrete suffering of others.

This link between wisdom and compassion, called “skill-in-means” in the Mahayana tradition, is what this book will explore. Very generally, upaya refers to the different pedagogical styles, meditation techniques, and religious practices that help people overcome attachments, and to the ways in which Buddhism is communicated to others. Like the example of the Buddha in the above story, “skilful means” arises from the idea that wisdom is embodied in how one responds to others rather than an abstract conception of the world, and reflects an ongoing concern with the soteriological effectiveness of the Buddhist teachings.

One goal of this study is to chart this view of “skilful means” throughout important moments n Buddhist history. It will focus on the different pedagogical styles that ate used in Buddhism, exploring the various ways in which the Dharma is communicated and taught to others. As Michael Pye notes. Western scholars generally neglect this approach to Buddhism: It is fair to say that the method of thought and practice summed up by the concepts of skilful means s one of the fundamental principles of Buddhism. And yet, strangely enough the matter has never been the subject of extended study… ‘Nirvana’, ‘bodhisattva’, ‘emptiness’, and so on have all been considered in this way and that, but apart from occasional references and brief definitions ‘skilful means’ has scarcely been attended to at all. A concept which has been used to explain the very existence of Buddhism as a functioning religious systems demands closer attention.

Pye’s examination of upaya is primarily a textual analysis of “skilful means” in the Lotus Sutra and the Perfection of insight literature, and, while it does offer some suggestive insights about the philosophical implications of upaya, it offers little in the way of a critical approach to Buddhist philosophy. The focus of this book points to a larger, critical issue in the Buddhist tradition. Simply put, there are some Buddhist traditions that say the Buddha established basic meditative practices for all Buddhists to follow, and that some of his teachings are therefore “absolutely” true; and there are other traditions that say all the Buddha’s teachings are none other than “skill-in-means.” While the Abhidharma Buddhists say the Buddha sometimes taught “conventional” or “skilful” doctrines for the ignorant, they also say he established a universal path, or marga, in his “ultimate” teachings. For the Mahayana, however, to say the Buddha established a definitive soteriological path constricts his teachings into a fixed remedy and drains them of compassion.

The doctrine of upaya mirrors this debate, and refers to a critical, self-reflective movement in the Buddhist tradition. The bulk of Western Buddhist scholarship ignores this critical element by focusing either on the philosophical implications of certain Buddhist terms like “non-self,” “emptiness,” and “Buddha-nature,” or by focusing exclusively on Buddhist religious praxis. This methodological split generally pits philosophers on one side who explore the metaphysical, epistemological, and logical significance of Buddhist doctrine, and religious scholars on the other side who devote their attention solely to religious praxis. Most scholars will agree, however, that, in Buddhism there is no clear-cut distinction between philosophy and religion, and that our tendency to favour one approach over another reflects the rigid boundaries within our own academic disciplines rather than anything inherent in the Buddhist tradition.


Foreword viii
Foreword ix
1The Buddha's Skill-in-Means9
2Abhidharma Buddhism: The Scholastic Tradition38
3Mahayana Buddhism: The Vimalakirtinirdesa62
4Nagarjuna's "Middle Way"89
5Ch'an Buddhism121
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