Buddhism Upāya
Jeff Schroeder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0282


Upāya is a Sanskrit term meaning “means” or “strategem.” In a Buddhist context, upāya generally carries connotations of upāya-kauśalya (Pāli: upāya-kosalla), or “skill in means.” In English, upāya (T. thabs, Ch. fāngbiàn, K. pangp’yŏn, J. hōben) and upāya-kauśalya have also been translated as “skillful means,” “expedient means,” “appropriate means,” “skill in liberative technique,” “tactical skill,” and “adaptability.” Barely attested in the Pāli Canon, the term takes on great importance in Mahayana sutras (e.g. the Prajñāpāramitā, Queen Śrīmālā, Lotus, Vimalakīrti, Nirvana, and Flower Ornament sutras) and in commentaries by Asaṅga, Śāntideva, Candrakīrti, and others. The term has a wide semantic range. Most commonly, it refers to the Buddha’s skillful adaptation of his teaching methods to specific audiences or to a buddha or bodhisattva’s skillful transgression of moral principles for the sake of benefiting others. Closely related to the doctrine of the two truths (satyadvaya), the notion of upāya has served as a basis for doctrinal classification systems in which lesser teachings are deemed provisional upāya that prepare people for higher truths. Buddhists and Buddhist studies scholars have disagreed over whether use of upāya is restricted only to buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas or is employable by all; how upāyic and non-upāyic teachings or actions can be distinguished; whether all Buddhist teachings ought to be defined as upāya; whether upāya is a Mahayana innovation or a feature of Buddhism since its founding; and whether morally transgressive acts of upāya can be ethically justified. Upāya has also been an important theme in East Asian folklore, literature, and theater.

General Overviews

The most influential and widely cited work on upāya is Pye 2003 (originally published in 1978). Pye’s wide-ranging study argues that upāya is an indispensable, essential aspect of Buddhist teachings deserving greater attention from scholars. Preceding Pye’s work, Conze 1968 discusses upāya as enabling Mahayana Buddhists to adapt Buddhism to new environments, and Matsunaga and Matsunaga 1974 explores upāya in relation to a variety of Buddhist texts and practices, distinguishing two meanings of upāya: enlightened beings’ methods of communication and unenlightened beings’ methods of practice. Lamotte 1984 is an excellent introduction to early Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions that discusses the Buddha’s use of skillful means in his teaching. Schroeder 2001, the second English-language monograph on upāya, provocatively argues that all Buddhist teachings are upāyic in the sense of being practical means of guiding people toward awakening (rather than statements about the nature of reality). McGarrity 2009 offers a counterargument to Schroeder 2001, warning against using upāya as a catch-all explanation for doctrinal difference. Federman 2009 critiques both Pye and Schroeder and argues for a narrower definition of upāya as a radical hermeneutic device introduced by Mahayanists. Williams 2009 is a classic, academic introduction to Mahayana thought that discusses upāya extensively in its chapter on the Lotus Sutra. Leighton 2012 is an accessible introduction to Mahayana by a scholar-practitioner that discusses use of upāya as an attribute of various bodhisattvas and bodhisattva-like figures. Miller 2000 discusses the importance of upāya as a theme in East Asian folktales.

  • Conze, Edward. “Mahayana Buddhism.” In Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies. By Edward Conze, 48–86. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968.

    Essay with subsection on upāya. Conze highlights the doctrine of upāya as giving rise to flexibility among Mahayana Buddhists when adapting Buddhism to new environments—for example, rejecting vinaya rules regarding monastic clothing, medicine, or diet. Conze argues that the ensuing dangers of moral laxity or doctrinal distortion were kept in check by various factors, including a sense that upāyic breaking of vinaya regulations would still result in negative karma.

  • Federman, Asaf. “Literal Means and Hidden Meanings: A New Analysis of Skillful Means.” Philosophy East and West 59.2 (2009): 125–141.

    DOI: 10.1353/pew.0.0050

    Federman’s article critiques scholarship on upāya by Pye, Schroeder, Keown, and Hick before proceeding to an analysis of upāya as found in the Lotus Sutra. Contra Pye’s claim that upāya was present in pre-Mahayana Buddhism, Federman argues for a narrower definition of upāya as a radical hermeneutic device introduced by Mahayanists to distinguish between literal and hidden meanings and thereby justify significant doctrinal changes.

  • Lamotte, Étienne. “The Buddha, His Teaching and His Sangha.” In The World of Buddhism. Edited by Heinz Bechert and Richard Gombrich, 41–58. London: Thames & Hudson, 1984.

    Introduction to the three jewels of Buddhism by a famed scholar. Lamotte details the Buddha’s use of skillful means in adjusting his teachings to different audiences, which sometimes resulted in seeming contradictions. It is noted that the Buddha frequently used the terms “being,” “person,” or “self” out of convenience, in spite of teaching the doctrine of no-self, and he made use of miracles to convert skeptics, in spite of generally abhorring miracles.

  • Leighton, Taigen Daniel. Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression. Rev. ed. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012.

    Accessible introduction to Mahayana teachings and practice by a Zen teacher and scholar. Chapter 3 on the ten perfections discusses upāya as reflecting the ideal of non-attachment to particular practices or teachings. Later chapters discuss particular bodhisattvas and modern-day exemplars of bodhisattvahood. Upāya is discussed in connection with Avalokiteśvara’s many forms and implements, the Dalai Lama’s engagement with modern science, and Mitsu Suzuki’s use of the tea ceremony to teach Zen.

  • Matsunaga, Daigan, and Alicia Matsunaga. “The Concept of Upāya (方便) in Mahāyāna Buddhist Philosophy.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1.1 (1974): 51–72.

    DOI: 10.18874/jjrs.1.1.1974.51-72

    Wide-ranging article that relates the concept of upāya to Śākyamuni Buddha’s teaching methods, the Madhyamaka doctrine of the two truths, Tiantai interpretations of the Lotus Sutra, and the honji suijaku theory of kami as traces of buddhas. They explain upāya as both enlightened beings’ methods of communication and unenlightened beings’ methods of practice.

  • McGarrity, Andrew. “Using Skilful Means Skilfully: The Buddhist Doctrine of Upāya and Its Methodological Implications.” Journal of Religious History 33.2 (2009): 198–214.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9809.2009.00794.x

    McGarrity’s article is a rejoinder to Schroeder and others who use the concept of upāya broadly to explain contradictions within Buddhist thought. Using examples from Tibetan philosophical debates, McGarrity warns against the danger of scholars using upāya as a catch-all explanation for doctrinal difference, ignoring philosophical complexity.

  • Miller, Alan L. “Spiritual Accomplishment by Misdirection: Some ‘Upāya’ Folktales from East Asia.” History of Religions 40.1 (August 2000): 82–108.

    DOI: 10.1086/463617

    Analysis of Buddhist and non-Buddhist folktales that contain motifs of misdirection, where superhuman beings manipulate people’s worldly desires (especially sexual desires) to guide them toward spiritual goals. Miller interprets these tales as illustrating the Buddhist idea that impure beings can be led to enlightenment only through upāyic misdirection by liminal bodhisattva figures who straddle the worlds of desire and nirvana. Comparisons to scriptural accounts of the Buddha’s use of upāya are included.

  • Pye, Michael. Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

    Classic, well-reputed study of upāya. Chapters cover terminology (arguing for “skilful means” as the preferred English translation), pre-Mahayana roots of upāya, its meaning in the Prajñāpāramitā, Lotus, and Vimalakīrti sutras, and understandings of upāya in modern Japan. Pye argues that upāya are an indispensable, essential aspect of Buddhism related to core teachings of non-attachment and compassion. Includes appendix cataloging occurrences of the term in Mahayana sutras. Originally published in 1978.

  • Schroeder, John W. Skillful Means: The Heart of Buddhist Compassion. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001.

    Besides Pye, this is the only English book-length study of upāya. Schroeder’s brief but wide-ranging book offers an upāya-based analysis of early nikāya texts, Abhidharma texts, the Vimalakīrti Sutra, Nāgārjuna, and Chan and Pure Land traditions. Schroeder argues that most Buddhist thought is “metapractical”—pertaining to claims about which practices most effectively lead to liberation—and that the upāya doctrine was developed to oppose the creation of a fixed orthopraxy.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

    Classic introduction to Mahayana thought that contains a chapter on the Lotus Sutra. That chapter reviews the doctrine of upāya as found in the Lotus Sutra and as developed in the Upāyakauśalya Sūtra. Also included are references to popular stories, poems, and historical events reflective of belief in upāya.

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