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Skillful Means


Adi Gibb
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I run a progressive faith group that meets once a month. We watch a ten minute video, something relevant to what we have been discussing, then we have a guest speaker, usually a person of a particular faith, to explain the basic tenants of their beliefs. This is followed by Q and A and then a book discussion. Last wednesday our guest speaker was a Buddhist, of the Mahayana Buddhism branch, and he introduced us to a concept within his beautiful faith called Skillful Means, or Upaya.

A succinct description of this concept is "...the ability to bring out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension." (A Short History of Buddhism). As Raymond, the speaker, explains it, it is perfectly acceptable within his faith to manipulate and deconstruct messages of faith for the individual hearing it. If it allows the individual to achieve an overarching spiritual truth ultimately, then the teacher can use whatever expedient truth best fits to move the pupil towards that ultimate truth. Raymond also pointed out that if Skillful Means can be used in teaching the Dharma, it seems logical to extrapolate that outwards and see all faiths and religions as aspects of Skillful Means. It is a fascinating concept!

Later on in our discussion I was talking about the differences between more progressive Christians and conservative ones. Part of this included talking about a literal approach to the bible. Raymond commented, "Isn't this a prime example of skillful means? You achieve your ultimate spiritual truth in Jesus through a more metaphorical approach, while others need a more literal approach. Your approaches are right for each of you to achieve that truth. Surely then you can both respect each other as having the necessary skillful means?" Another member of the group agreed that this acceptance would be wonderful, and commented further that he always felt that spiritual paths are often chosen because of a personality type, an introvert will choose one path, an extrovert another.

It got me thinking if, perhaps, instead of 'pluralism', Skillful Means is a wonderful label and concept we should use in our approach to inter and intra faith dialogue. Maybe, for that matter, they are one and the same thing! If we accept that we are all seeking the ultimate spiritual truth of achieving a connection with and emulating the mystery that is the limitless Divine, then each faith, belief system, religion or even philosophy is a manifestation of the Divine teacher giving his pupil 'expedient messages' which are "...adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension." If each of us genuinely allowed that notion to pervade the world, and allowed each person their expedient truth in freedom and with the utmost respect, perhaps we would, ironically, all be moving towards a unity in the ultimate spiritual truth!

Would welcome any thoughts.

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Adi Gibb,

 

Thanks for the post. Sounds like a most interesting meeting that would seem to do much to promote interfaith dialog and unity.

 

It seems to me that Pluralism while it encompasses skillful means is not the same thing. I say this because it seems to me that Pluralism is more an expression of a worldview concerning acceptance of other religions as holding some valid truths and no one as a sole exclusive source of values or truths, whereas skillful means is more the method, activity, skill, experience or practice that helps someone toward the goal of Enlightenment/Truth/etc.

 

Though skillful means can recognize Pluralism in that it applies as you have quoted " 'expedient messages' which are "...adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension", and, Buddhism seems to me supportive of pluralism as is demonstrated by some Buddhists (but not all) I have encountered as pluralistic themselves. Buddhism, from my study, has a history of many different schools of Buddhism and the famous story of a dream where some blind men were trying to figure out what an elephant was which was reported interpreted by the Buddha as a support of Pluralism, at least among different schools of Buddhism.

 

Buddhists as a general rule, in my experience, seems not to be so interested in converting people like some other religions and seems very tolerant of others with different beliefs that seems to me to say there are different ways to Truth. Yet an answer from Justin Choo, an author and practitioner of the Theravada tradition when asked if Buddhism is the only way, is not so direct and answers "The Buddha had revealed the way to liberation. It is up to the person whether to practise it or not. Whether it is the only way, if the person understands the Dhamma, he will know the answer. It is not necessary for anyone to insist that it is the only way , and others are wrong. You see, Arash, we have to melow our mindset a bit to be more flexible and accommodating in our thinking, even when practising the Buddha's teachings. " quote taken from here

Having said all that, it is my view that we are all moving in the direction of spiritual truth even when we detour out of the way and discover we have erred. Truth seems to surface of its own accord best when that which is false is recognized. Though there are Buddhist projects and groups that seem to embrace pluralism, I have met a great number on a Buddhist forum (E-sangha) of those claiming to be Buddhist that have stated their opinion that Christianity is just plain wrong as they understand it from reading the Bible and watching fundamental practicing Christians. It would seem to me that those same people I speak of might be more open to embrace progressive Christianity since it is more loosely defined.

 

Just something to consider related to your question,

Joseph

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I think the monthly meetings are wonderful. I know those in attendance are always challenged and stretched by such meetings. Good work.

 

Skillful Means, . . . A succinct description of this concept is "...the ability to bring out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension."

 

"Isn't this a prime example of skillful means? You achieve your ultimate spiritual truth in Jesus through a more metaphorical approach, while others need a more literal approach. Your approaches are right for each of you to achieve that truth. Surely then you can both respect each other as having the necessary skillful means?"

 

I think there are two topics here.

 

Skillful means

A former pastor of mine said often, "Don't take something away without having something to replace it." Skillful means seems to be a way to lead another person from one step to another without feeling like they have lost anything.

 

Religious Pluralism

It is important to realize that the literalist and the liberal Christians have a truth, but I don't think it is part of "Skillful means." Applying "Skillful means" to religious pluralism is confusing to me. There should be no thought of bringing "out the spiritual potentialities of people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs" in religious pluralism. I think it is important to say we are different as a starting point, to recognize the distance between us. That, I think gives the most potential to learn something different.

 

A possible outline of the development in religious encounter in a pluralistic society I gathered from the thinking of others.

 

Reflecting alone

Diane Eck defines this inner dialog as the internal dialog which is longside any external dialog. Raimund Panikkar sees as essential an out and in and out cycle of interpersonal-intrapersonal dialog.

 

Living together

where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations so it is on that level of everyday life

 

Serving together

in which Christians and others collaborate for action and service

Dialoguing together

seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages and where they appreciate each other's spiritual values.

 

Practicing together

where persons who are rooted in their own religious tradition share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer, contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God in the absolute in an experienced way.

--the attempt to learn from other traditions of prayer and meditation-- This will involve living in the other's religion and then returning to one's own., with significant inner dialog. According to Race, the fruit of this style of engagement is tranformation.

 

Others have written more clearly -- here is my attempt to pull together my understanding.

http://ebenezeride.blogspot.com/2009/03/in...-pluralism.html

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Dialoguing together[/u]

seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages and where they appreciate each other's spiritual values.

 

I agree with everything said. To simplify in my own mind, it takes skill to see God speaking to us in the stream, the flowers and other followers on different paths. If God speaks through me he probably would make a Muslim a better Muslim, a Hindu a better Hindu ect.

 

The skill and joy to see God sparkling everywhere in space and time is difficult indeed so the more help the better.

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