Skillful Means

Dear All,

Reading the Lotus Sutra with its parables, it gives us various examples of skillful means. Take the parables of the burning house for example, the father lies to the children to save them.

In strict sense, from another point of view, what would be your opinion on;

1. Commiting a lie to save lives
2. When is skillful means justifying a potential sin?
3. What would this karma (with the appropriate intentions) yield?
4. Who can justify their actions with skillful means?

This may be a good essay topics. Anyone would want to share their views?


pspitze's picture

Mostly Intention is what matters

This is a great discussion topic - thank you for posting and thanks to those who have responded!

I cast my memory back to an interview I saw with the Dalai Lama, where he was asked about always being peaceful even if someone was trying to harm you. He responded that putting up your fists in defense could be seen as acceptable because your intention was not to harm the other person, but rather to protect yourself. He went on to say that of course working out a conflict through peaceful means would be the preference.

I try and apply this type of wisdom in my daily actions and be mindful of my intention when choosing my actions and choosing my words. I just wish others would do the same. There seems to be a lot of mal-intention all around us every day.



Mostly intention is what matters

Dear Phil,

If the intention is towards the benefit of other sentient beings rather than benefit ourself, that is right thing to do. This is in line with Mahayana Bodhisattva practice toward compassion.

Have a nice day.

with metta,
gaik yen

Denis Wallez's picture

conditioned rules

Skilful means are often introduced as if they contradicted precepts or vinaya rules… I find this surprising.

The vinaya rules have appeared and evolved in response to circumstances. And in Buddhist traditions, we should understand better than most people that "conditions" matter. Rules are conditioned. They arose out of conditions and it would be pretty misguided to follow them blindly by not seeing how conditions in a new situation differ from the conditions when the rule was given. The difference might be seen as insignificant (rightly or wrongly) and the rule might be followed in spite of the difference; but surely we should at least consider the conditions! There is little mindfulness in blindly following a rule, any rule, no matter how good the rule is…

The vinaya rules are not the only conditioned teachings. The precepts might appear at times pretty universal and generic but they are conditioned too! What are they conditioned by? Our weaknesses! The precepts are given to us to help us overcome our weaknesses. And when the weakness ceases, the corresponding precept becomes irrelevant. Nirvana is unconditioned. One doesn't reach nirvana while still being bound by rules. And a buddha is not bound by rules precisely because the common weakness is no longer his weakness. Nirvana is the extinction of delusion i.e. of our most fundamental weakness, the one weakness most strongly leading to suffering…

Finally, precepts are usually inviting us to avoid clinging to them as unconditioned rules! As an example, "refraining from lying" is quite different from "never ever lying"! The call to refrain oneself has two characteristics: a call to be mindful of one's intention, and a compass to what frequently is the wholesome action. 'Frequently,' not 'always.' These two characteristics (mindfulness and direction) mirror insight and concentration, and one should remember that while concentration is a great tool to tame the mind and increase insight, insight is actually what gets us to nirvana. Mindfulness in the application of a rule (or a precept) is key.

So to answer question 4, this is not about justifying oneself! Justifying oneself is feeding a delusion to look good when we know we acted in a suboptimal way (no necessarily bad, but at least not as good as it might have been). It is not about justifying, which is a mental story-making and will most likely be based purely on conventions (moral conventions are still 'only' conventions!). The skilful means are about responding appropriately, thanks to seeing how things truly are. The story-making of the justification (to oneself or to others) is not the 'response', it only is a delusion and a response to the consequences of the initial response.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

No objective perspective

I think Denis hits on some interesting points on how, from a Buddhist perspective, we can invalidate a question like #4, which on the surface seems valid from most other religious or philosophical perspectives.

It seems that in the asking of this question it is implied that we assume there exists some objective perspective by which things can be judged good, bad and "justified."

When the Buddha declares that it is volition that he calls kamma, the implication is that the intention and its intensity are what determine consequences. Kamma is not a judge. The Buddha is not a judge. We do not have to get forgiveness for not having right action, right speech, right intention, etc. but we are heirs to our kamma from these acts of body, speech and mind.

Furthermore, given that all things are conditionally interdependent, all perspectives are conditionally development, all discursive thought is conditionally interdependent, there can be no objective perspective to judge from.

Saying that and knowing that, however, may not be the same as truly understanding that and feeling that, particularly for those of us that grew up with more theistic worldviews than that of Buddhism. For me, until this perspective becomes by view, I will at least strive for it to be my practice.


Thank you

Thank you all for your insight.

Very good point. This would be something of interest, as it going down this would actually reconcile the difference of strict interpretation and leading to a unison of the concept between Theravada/Mahayana.

To give an example, if a

To give an example, if a child having a poisonous sweets. In order to prevent the child get poison, we must tell the child that the sweets is sour and bitter, so that the child will give up taking those sweets. In Buddhism, we believe in law of kamma rather than "sin" which is predetermined.If you understand law of kamma where intention plus action equal to kamma. But, you will not be able to determine what it will yield . This much depend on the total kamma "tendency" of the individual.
Where there is an example given in the notes of Theravada Buddhism, a grain of salt will make a cup of water undrinkable but it will not change the sea. Only the law of kamma will justify their actions but not others. That is why Buddha preached, do only good deeds and avoid wrong deeds so that all of us will enjoy happy life in the present and future.

Skillful Means

Dear LC,

Personally I view the committing a lie to save lives is okay. That is good intention. I don't think there is bad karma generated with this good intention. Saving lives is part of practice of compassion. Compassion is key element for the Mahayana practice.

Same for the parable of the Wise Physician in the Lotus Sutra. After the father went away out of home, he sent a note back to his country telling that he had died in the foreign country. His intention is kind with the purpose of helping his son on the illness. So that his son can be independent.

With metta,
gaik yen

Skillful Means

Dear LC,

The skillful means shown by Buddha is out of the compassion, “Some people who have little dust in their eyes are failing away because they do not hear the Dharma.”

However, the compassion has to be come together with wisdom.

I don't consider the father tell the lies. It is the skillfull mean or wisdom being applied. Finally, the sons went away happily with an unexpected toy, the Buddhaya vehicle.

In fact, it is a good karma because the Buddhahood soon or later will be developed among the sons.
with metta,FS