(Skt.). The concept of ‘skilful means’ is of considerable importance in Mahāyāna Buddhism and is expounded at an early date in texts such as the Upāya-kauśalya Sūtra, the Lotus Sūtra, and the Teachings of Vimalakīrti Sūtra (Vimalakīrti-nirdeśūtra). In chapter two of the Lotus Sūtra the Buddha introduces the doctrine of skilful means and demonstrates through the use of parables throughout the text why it is necessary for him to make use of stratagems and devices. The text depicts him as a wise man or kindly father whose words his foolish children refuse to heed. To encourage them to follow his advice he has recourse to ‘skilful means’, realizing that this is the only way to bring the ignorant and deluded into the path to liberation. Although this involves a certain degree of duplicity, such as telling lies, the Buddha is exonerated from all blame since his only motivation is compassionate concern for all beings.
At the root of the idea is the notion that the Buddha's teaching is essentially a provisional means to bring beings to enlightenment (bodhi) and that the teachings which he gives may vary: what may be appropriate at one time may not be so at another. The concept is used by the Mahāyāna to justify innovations in doctrine, and to portray the Buddha's early teachings as limited and restricted by the lesser spiritual potential of his early followers. In the Mahāyāna, skilful means comes to be a legitimate method to be employed by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas whenever the benefit of beings warrants it. Spurred on by their great compassion (mahākaruṇā), Bodhisattvas are seen in some sources (such as the Upāya-kauśalya Sūtra) breaking the precepts and committing actions that would otherwise attract moral censure. The assumption underlying the doctrine is that all teachings are in any case provisional and that once liberation is attained it will be seen that Buddhism as a body of philosophical doctrines and moral precepts was only of use as a means to reach the final goal and that its teachings do not have ultimate validity. The equivalent term in Pāli sources (upāya-kosalla) is relatively rare and simply denotes the Buddha's skill in expounding the Dharma.