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Skilful Means: Developments in Indian and East Asian Buddhism

Panel Chairs: Yasutomo Nishi, Rainer Schulzer | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m.

Since the time of Gautama Buddha who was born about 2500 years ago, the teachings of Buddhism have been passed on through generations and have been practiced in numerous different ways. The Buddha began to share his teachings in northeast India, and they were spread throughout India, then to Central Asia, China and to Japan. Here, we focus on “skilful means” (善巧方便: shànqiǎo fāngbiàn), one of the most important Buddhist terms. Our four panelists will discuss the concept of skillful means in the following four different contexts: Early Buddhism (Theravāda Buddhism); the Lotus Sutra, one of the representative Early Mahāyāna Buddhist texts; Japanese Shingon Esoteric Buddhism; and the interpretation of the term by the modern Japanese Buddhist philosopher Inoue Enryō. Through our discussion from several points of view, we will examine the meaning of the concept of skilful means and its possible interpretations.    

Yutaka Kawasaki                    

“Skilful Means” and the Related Concepts in Pāli Literature

“Skilful means” in Mahāyāna Buddhism has been studied extensively. It is one of the most important religious concepts and many Buddhist teachings relate to it. However, it can only be speculated how this idea emerged and whether it was rooted in the original teachings of the Buddha himself. In this presentation, I will, first, discuss the use of the term “skilful means” in the context of early Buddhism, mainly referring to the Theravada Buddhist canon. Next, I will examine how the concept of “skilful means” is dealt with in some “Hīnayāna” Buddhist treatises. Finally, I will use teachings and episodes from the early Buddhist canon to demonstrate that the Buddha made actual use of the idea of “skilful means” in his sermons.          

Yasutomo Nishi                         

On the Skilful Means in Saddharmapuṇḍarīka

The purpose of this paper is to figure out what skilful means is in the context of Saddharmapuṇḍarīka (SP), one of the early Mahāyāna sūtras. Traditionally, the study of the Lotus Sutra has been done based on a Chinese translation. The translation, which has simply been called “the Lotus Sutra”, generally refers to the translation done by Kumārajīva in 406 A.D., the title of which is Miaofa-lianhua-jing. It has been known for its liberal translation that conveys the profound messages of Buddhist thoughts. Here, focusing on the process of the formation of SP, I will find out a fundamental concept of SP. Studies of the formation of SP should be done through a careful philological approach to its texts in Sanskrit. This paper will try to prove that the fundamental concept is the very teaching of skilful means in SP.                                          

Makio Takemura                   

On the Skilful Means in Esoteric Buddhism    

In the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, which is a central text of Esoteric Buddhism, there is a very famous sentence, that says, “Boddhi-citta is the cause, Mahākaruṇā is the base, and Upāya (skilful means) is the ultimate.” The original meaning of “upāya” in this sentence has been understood as the means of ascetic practice. But because of the preceding term Mahākaruṇā (great compassion), many researchers also have interpreted “upāya” here as means for liberating living beings. I intend to analyze how the word “upāya” is used in the canon of Esoteric Buddhism. By clarifying its content and its interpretation as means, I will elucidate the specific meaning of “upāya” in Esoteric Buddhism.                          

Rainer Schulzer                

Soteriological Pragmatism and Buddhist Psychotherapy in Inoue Enryō           

Besides the derogatory usage of upāya in the sense of "only a means, but not the full truth," the Japanese Buddhist modernizer Inoue Enryō (1858-1919) applies the term also in affirmative ways. I will distinguish four interpretations: (1) Upāya as a pragmatic concept of religious truth: A teaching that reduces suffering is a true teaching. (2) Upāya as a Buddhist concept of tolerance: Religious "dispositions" (kikon) are various, therefore the teachings must be various too. (3) Upāya as a hermeneutic tool: Buddhist doctrines inconsistent with the scientific worldview can be interpreted as soteriological devices. (4) Upāya as a psychotherapeutic approach: Faith can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy in healing.                 


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