The Lotus Sutra codified and popularized the concept of Skillful Means (also called Expedient Devices). It is difficult to imagine the flourishing of Mahayana without the notion of Skillful Means. The Pali Canon established the ultimate goal of Buddha’s followers to be the achievement of Arhatship. The Arhat, having achieved Nirvana and escaped the cycle of rebirth, has achieved a singular goal. Nirvana is a solitary activity in the framework of the Pali Canon. Nirvana cannot be given. Each of us merely has to choose to accept the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, among the Buddha’s other teachings, to achieve our own private transcendence. Cosmic cycles, universal truths, and divine forces are of little importance on a personal path to liberation.
Enter Skillful Means.
The Lotus Sutra introduces the idea that the Buddha delivered a message that cannot be fully expressed through reason; instead the Sutra claims that the “lesser vehicles” of the Arhat, Sravaka, Pratyekabuddha are only ways of delivering the message of the “one vehicle” or “Great Vehicle” in terms that certain people will understand.1
The Lotus Sutra has no explicit definition or theoretical account of the Buddha’s expedient devices. Rather, it simply uses the notion primarily to explain and justify the fact that what the Buddha says in the sutra seems so different from what he has previously taught.”2
Avalokiteshvara (also called Guanyin) is the bodhisattva of compassion. Avalokiteshvara is depicted with a “thousand” arms, each outstretched in generosity to all beings. Avalokiteshvara features heavily in the Lotus Sutra as the embodiment of skillful means, appearing in his bodhisattva form to extend compassion to all.
One might be reminded of Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the longstanding Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television program on the Public Broadcasting System. The man was a devout Presbyterian who delivered his sermons through each episode in the form of monologue, puppetry, and song. He expressed Christian ideas like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity through the medium of television, which, at the time, was a fresh and pliable medium for new ideas and innovative methods. However, to the children of his studio and nationwide audience, he was merely a humorous and compassionate authority figure making them feel comfortable.
Sanskrit: Upāya, Upāya-kaushalya
1Bielefeld, Teiser, & Stone, 2009, 15-16.
2Bielefeld, Teiser, & Stone, 2009, 64.