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Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Gift of Upaya

There are many elements of the Buddha’s teaching, both in its philosophy and its practice (which truly should amount to the same thing) that can be of great benefit to all people, no matter what their religious beliefs. In fact, a recent book by Father Kennedy is called Zen Gifts For Christians. Most of these “gifts” are in such practices as Mindfulness Meditation, Loving Kindness Meditation and the like.

One gift of the teaching that I feel can be of great interest and importance for Interfaith Ministers is the concept of upaya. The Sanskrit word means “skill in means and methods” and is usually translated simply as “skillful means.” The idea is that the Buddha taught in accordance with the capabilities of his students, so that he stressed different things to different people, and what he taught was always related to particular situations that particular people found themselves in.

This idea extends to all of the Buddha’s teachings and is exemplified by the famous parable of the raft. The Buddha said that his teachings on suffering and the way to end suffering are akin to a raft. You use a raft to cross the river, but you then leave the raft behind as you proceed on your journey. It would be foolish to hoist the raft onto your back and cart it with you just because it had been helpful to get you where you wanted to go.

In the Zen tradition there is the famous saying that you must “Look to the moon and not the finger pointing to it.” And yet, this is exactly what many spiritual seekers – in all religious traditions tend to do. Rather then focus attention on what the great teachers and sages have pointed to, we reify the teachings and devote ourselves to their promulgation. Of course, since the teachings themselves are always different, reflecting various cultures and times, those who fixate on teachings then begin to contend with each other over who is right – whose religion is best and true. And in doing this they lose sight of the whole point of the teachings! It may very well be that this understanding among Buddhists that the teachings – the “sacred doctrines” themselves – are upaya and not dogmatic truth is what has kept Buddhism as a whole from ever becoming involved in religious or “holy wars.”

The following is the First Mindfulness Training of the Tiep Hien Order (known in the West as the Order of Interbeing) founded by the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 1966, during the tulmult of the Vietnam War. It epitomizes this understanding of upaya:

“Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.”

When I first read these words, I was filled with awe and deep appreciation and respect. This is a “lion’s roar” piercing the shell of attachment to views, opinions and notions. It is the finger pointing beyond our narrow perspectives, opening us to the vastness of reality itself. Following this roar comes yet another:

“Aware of the suffering caused by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to other’s insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment. ready to learn throughout our lives.”

The Buddha told the Kalama people when they said they were confused by the various competing teachings, that it was perfectly understandable that they be confused. He advised them not to simply accept and believe what they are told by their teachers, including himself, nor to accept the scriptures or tradition just because they are the traditions, but to see for themselves what leads to the cessation of suffering and if that aggress with the wise, then to commit to such action, and conversely to avoid action that leads to increased suffering.

Many moralists condemn what they see as “relativism” in such a teaching, yet how can we be true to life if we adhere rigidly to any external code? For instance, all religions teach not to lie. Yet if I were harboring Jews in my attic during the Holocaust, I hope I would have had the wisdom, compassion and courage to lie when asked by the Gestapo if I knew of any Jews who were in hiding! A rigid adherence to the code of truthfulness would have me give directions immediately upon being asked! The Buddha encouraged us to stay awake – to diligently practice awareness so that we can learn from life itself what is skillful and what is unskillful. The defining criteria being that what is skillful relieves suffering in the world and that what is unskillful adds to suffering in the world.

Fundamentalists of all stripes are just those who are convinced that their knowledge is indeed changeless and absolute truth. And with such an understanding, truth becomes alienated from life itself and life is all too often destroyed on the altar of their “absolute truth” in persecutions, pogroms and various ethnic cleansings. This takes us to the Third Mindfulness Training:

“Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through compassionate dialogue.”

This training can help us resist the tendency to attempt to impose our views, while reminding us that it is our responsibility to keep dialogue open with those who are enthralled with their views rather than try to annihilate them or alienate them.
The Buddha is often called “The Great Physician.” His teachings are the prescription and medicine for healing the sickness of self-centeredness that ails us. But he did not intend us to then become addicted to the very medicine designed to break us from the addiction to self! One cannot help but wonder what the world would look like if adherents of all the various faiths could see their respective teachings as models or maps of behavior leading to the realization of truth rather than as the embodiment of truth itself.

May all beings dwell in peace and happiness and be free from the suffering of fear, anger and ignorance.

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 8:30 PM

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