The Mahayana Buddhist Doctrine of Skilful Means and Buddhism in Australia

Speech by 

Buddhism in Australia comes in two different forms. One of its forms the Buddhism practised by members of communities who have settled in Australia, usually from Asia, with the Estonian Nyngma representing an exception (though its members are led by a person who was trained in Tibet, Vello Vaartnou, who then brought this form of Buddhism to Estonia and then to Australia). I refer to this form of Buddhism as imported Buddhism. I do so because, in many cases, migrants to this country have brought it with them; while, in other cases, people (including Anglo-Australians and other Euro-Australians) who have learnt their Buddhism in Buddhist communities in other, usually Asian, countries and brought it to Australia with them.

The second form of Buddhism in Australia is Western Buddhism. While this is sometimes practised in groups, it is mostly something that people in Australia have learnt from books and online resources. While those who practise this form of Buddhism (necessarily) trace its ancestry to Guatama Buddha (Shakyamuni) who, according to most accounts, was born in (what we now call) Nepal and taught around the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. While Buddhism had been brought to Europe by scholars (including ecclesiastical scholars) much earlier, the origins of Western Buddhism can be traced to the 1960s and the works of Allan Watts and D.T. Suzuki who sought to introduce Westerners to Buddhist principles and, in doing so, modified it to make it more compatible with Western culture. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hahn might also be thought have made important contributions to the development and emergence of Western Buddhism.

This second practice is the more important one for this paper, as it introduces questions associated with the employment of ‘skilful means’ (technically, upayakausalya in Sanskrit or upaya kusala in Pali (Federman 2009: 125), but often rendered simply as upaya) in the spreading of Buddhism in Australia. Western Buddhism has been criticised by those who see it as having moved too far from the forms of Buddhism practised for centuries in Asian countries (especially, India, Tibet, China and Japan). I myself have offered critical reflections on Western Buddhism in a paper delivered at the first of the Buddhism in Australia conferences organised by the members of the Estonian Nyngma community in Perth. But, whether we are critical of Western Buddhism or not, it represents an attempt to address questions associated with the possibilities associated with Buddhism in Australia.

I must make it clear, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, that I am interested only in a discussion of possibilities and have no particular attachment to the spreading of Buddhism in Australia. It is merely something upon which I have chosen to focus my attention for a time. I have sometimes toyed with the idea of writing a short book in that would represent an Australian Buddhist text, but I have never gotten further than making a few notes with respect to this (and often wonder whether the book would be possible). Indeed, the second half of this paper is an exploration of ideas concerning the spreading of Buddhism in Australia.

This paper is in two parts. The first is a discussion of the concept and practice of skilful means. Its principal objective is to identify and introduce the understanding of skilful means that underpins the second part of the paper. There are, as I explain four different conceptions and practices that can the thought to involve the employment of skilful means. Only one is important here. This is the conception of skilful means as the elaboration of Buddhist precepts in a manner that maximises the chances of its reception amongst the members of a community for whom Buddhism is a culturally novel form of spirituality. The second offers some ideas as to the ways that Buddhist precepts might be communicated to the members of a stereotypical Anglo-Australian audience.

On Skilful Means

A couple of matters must be dealt with before we can move to consider possibilities with respect to applying skilful means. The first concerns the validity of the concept and practice itself. One of the early commentators on skilful means, Michael Pye, acknowledged it as a term that only appears in Mahayana Buddhist texts. Whereas Pye argues that the term is implicitly present in works in the Pali canon, this claim has been disputed, and skilful means presented as a ploy by Mahayana Buddhists, who began to emerge around the beginning of he Common Era, to legitimise their claims to represent a new and more inclusive Buddhist vehicle ( I interpret the greater in greater vehicle to means larger, rather than superior, and simply having more space to carry people).

The purpose of this first section is not to defend Pye’s claim that recognition of skilful means is not exclusive to Mahayana Buddhism but also part of Hinayana (and more specifically Theravadan) Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism, which has texts that contain a term (hoben) that might be argued to be an equivalent to skilful mean (upaya). Its role is simply to explain the ideas that underpin the use of the term, to prepare the ground for an elaboration of the concept in the second section, and to acknowledge the possibility that its introduction in Mahayana texts has a political or strategic intent.

This section introduces four somewhat distinct, but obviously related, conceptions and practices that can be construed as meanings for and applications of skilful means. Here I develop four ways in which skilful means can be understood. The first is as methods that conduce to the achievement of enlightenment (which might be thought to be the means employed by someone who achieves enlightenment which were obviously Buddha’s means). The second is as a way of teaching about or facilitating others movement toward enlightenment. The third is as an adaptation of Buddhist precepts so that they make sense to and can help the members of specific audiences to begin or continue on a path that leads them to understand the value of and, as a result, seek Buddhist enlightenment. The fourth is as an adaptation of Buddhist precepts so that they make sense to and can help the members of specific cultures to begin or continue on a path that leads them to understand the value of and, as a result, seek Buddhist enlightenment.

The first form is skilful means as adopted by someone who is further along the path to enlightenment but who must still employ concepts that must be set aside in order for further progress toward enlightenment. This includes bodhisattvas and the Buddha. The second form is skilful means in the teaching of enlightenment. The third and fourth forms are related to the second form. Here, however, the character of the people to which it is directed more directly orients the teaching. This might relate to the age, occupation and educational level of the audience (the third form); or it might relate to the culture to which the members of the audience belong. The third and fourth form could have been addressed in either order or collapsed into one form. For this paper, however, it seemed more useful to differentiate them and to discuss culturally specific teaching as skilful means because the Buddhism in Australia imagined in its second part is culturally specific.

Mahayana Buddhism

Most scholars who discuss skilful means recognise it as central to Mahayana Buddhism. While he seeks to identify its implicit presence in the Pali canon and, as a result, in Hinayana Buddhism, the sub-title of Pye’s book, Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism (1978), is an acknowledgement of its Mahayana lineage. His sees I as the equivalent of the concept of hoben in Japanese Buddhism and fang-pien in Chinese Buddhism (Pye 1978: 14) adds additional force to his claim that skilful means is understood and practised in all forms of Buddhism. Pye’s main point remained that, once the tradition was sufficiently extended, it was possible for individual Buddhists, at various speeds, to come to an understanding of the historical diversity within the tradition in terms of skilful means” (Pye 1978: 161).

The Lotus Sutra

The texts in which skilful means is most regularly and overtly employed, according to Pye, is the Lotus Sutra. Indeed, it is a sutra devoted to explaining Buddha s conception and use of skilful means. For, Pye

the very theme of the Buddha s discourse in The Lotus Sutra is supposed to be his skilful means, which is intimately connected to his Dharma and which he shares in common with all the buddhas. Apart from this theme there is no particular content’ to the teaching given. It is a sutra therefore not so much about the doctrines in an assertive sense, but rather about the inner method of the Buddhist religion. For example there is little concern about whether there is an ultimately attainable goal, Nirvana, or not, but there is much concern about the whys and wherefores of such a goal being held out for people to entertain and about what they should do with it. (Pye 1978: 20)

This is why Buddha tells Sariputra that, “ever since I became the Buddha I have widely discussed and taught with various karmic reasonings and various parables, and I have led living beings to the abandonment of all attachments with innumerable skilful means” (Pye: 1978: 23)

A Strategic Move?

Skilful means will be explained further in the second section of this part. Before I do so, however, what I think of as, the politics of the concept of skilful means needs to be discussed. As Pye acknowledges, the concept plays little role in the texts of the Pali Canon, “and only then incidentally and in later texts” (Pye: 1978: 188). Indeed, this is central concern of his book, as Pye seeks to address the fact “that there is no evidence that the Buddha himself ever used the terminology of skilful means” (Pye: 1978: 188). Despite “the fact that we cannot say that the Buddha used the term,” Pye asserts that ” at the same time the terms themselves say something about the nature of his teaching to which it would be very difficult to dissociate from the initiator of the Buddhist tradition” (Pye: 1978: 188).

Asef Federman refuses Pye’s position and denies that skilful means has “always been an all-Buddhist concept” In his view, the concept was “a provocative and sophisticated idea that served the purpose of advancing a new religious ideology in the face of an already established canonical knowledge. The Mahayana use of the concept exhibits an awareness, not found in pre-Mahayana thought, of a gap between what texts literally say and their hidden meaning.” 125

Federman doesn’t claim that skilful means is an entirely Mahayana creation, but that it was developed for polemical (for me political) purposes. So, according to Federman, the concept alredy existed but in Mahayana sutras “has been charged with a special and novel meaning” and was “aimed, eventually, at convincing those at whom it was directed that a new religious path (yana) was greater than the old one.” Thus, the Mahyana use of skilful means explained “how the old doctrine was at the same time not entirely true and not entirely false.” For Mahayana Buddhists, skilful means, for Federman, introduced “an interpretive methodology that treats facts as nothing but educational literature” that allowed them “to challenge central Buddhist paradigms and offer a reorientation of the facts. … The old ideology is treated as skilful means; that is, it was offered for a specific purpose and is not completely true. On the other hand, as educational fiction, it had its good purpose” (Federman 2009: 125)

The result, according to Federman, is not just the “profound and deeply disturbing” suggestion that “the teaching of the Buddha is provisional – a mere means to an end”, which implies that “the Buddha’s teachings can be replaced with new and better teachings when the conditions change, or, better, they can be abandoned altogether” (Federman 2009: 128). The Lotus Sutra went further, according to Federman, to suggest “that the Buddha actually played tricks and deliberately deceived his followers in order to help them achieve goals that were actually concealed from them at the time” (Federman 2009: 128).

I’ve no intention of becoming directly involved in the question of whether skilful means is a necessary part of Buddhism or part of a Mahayana Buddhist political agenda and carries the implications Federman suggested. I discuss it here in order to ensure that this paper cannot be criticised for failing to note the existence of this question. I recognise that, in taking the concept of skilful means seriously, I may be accused of turning my back upon Buddhadarma and that, in entertaining the idea of an Buddhism in Australia, I am implicitly siding with Pye and engaging in the sort of project Federman asserts of the advocates of Mahayana Buddhism.

Even if it is a Mahayana Buddhist doctrine, I follow John Makransky in thinking that it is consistent with what we have been told about Gautama Buddha’s personal conduct. “The Buddha was remarkably skilful at triggering in others,” Makranksy wrote, “right through their own worldviews and modes of thought, the distinctive insights of his path to freedom” (Makranksy 2003: 344). The result of “Gautama’s skilfulness at triggering others’ insights through their own worldviews (skilful means) became a central tenet and inspiration for the emergence of the Mahayana movement of Buddhism that became dominant in East Asia and Tibet” (Makranksy 2003: 345). This, of course, does not end the matter and represents a particular, and personal, understanding of possible and, more importantly, legitimate Buddhist practice.

My defence to Federman’s charge that, in taking skilful means seriously I am siding with Mahayana Buddhists, is that I agree with Makranksy. But I also think Schroeder is right to deny the (typically Western) view that any conceptualisation of something like salvation can be understood in general terms, rather than in a lived way. This means refusing a tendency within traditional Western metaphysics to conceive of liberation (or salvation) apart from personal practice and denying the assumption “that the Dharma can be abstracted from its soteriological rhetorical context and that Buddhism can be preached without any particular audience in mind” (Schroeder 2000: 559).

Thus while contemplation of and meditation on Buddhist precepts are important, the problem of living a life cannot be addressed other than through living that life. Most importantly non-Buddhists are already living a life through the values and ideas they acquired during their socialisation. Pretending that this isn’t so is to deny that people are already dealing with their suffering in ways that they have been trained to deal with that suffering. To think that a Buddhist is dealing with a clean slate, or even that the slate has to be wiped clean to begin a process of ending suffering implies, as Schroder pointed out, that metaphysical problems have to be solved before a life is to be led. In his view, and I agree with him, we must refuse “the assumption that these problems need to be solved in order to live a meaningful life.” For, “what distinguishes the doctrine of [skilful means] (and perhaps the entire Buddhist tradition) is that upaya rejects the idea that metaphysics precedes praxis or that liberation requires theoretical speculation. It is therefore profoundly philosophical and represents a critical, self-reflective movement in the Buddhist tradition” (Schroeder 2000: 560).

Different conceptions and practices of Skilful Means

If skilful means isn’t just a part of Mahayana Buddhist propaganda, then it might be divided into four different practices. The first describes the practices of someone who is close to achieving enlightenment. Here skilful means relate to ways in which enlightenment can be achieved. The second refers to general practices that bodhisattvas employ in bringing others along the path toward enlightenment. The third and fourth forms of skilful means are very closely related. They relate to ensuring that skilful means are appropriate for those to whom they are directed. In the first instance (third form of skilful means), it may be a matter of the attributes of the audience. Here demographic attributes may be important. But just as, if not more, important is how far along the path to enlightenment someone who wants to receive dharma is. In the second instance (the fourth form) Buddhist teachings are to extend from the spiritual practices of people of a specific culture.

Skilful Means as steps toward achieving enlightenment

The allegory of the raft is, for me, useful in approaching an explanation of the first form of skilful means. In this allegory a person makes a raft in order to cross a stretch of water. Once across and about to continue the journey the person wonders whether it would be a good idea to keep the raft. “The Buddha concludes that, although the raft served the [person] well for crossing over, the right thing to do is to leave it on the river’s bank or to set it adrift in the water” ‘So it is shown by me, Bhikkhus, that the Dhamma is like a raft, being for crossing over not for holding onto'” (Federman 2009: 127). Only a few people are preparing to make what we might think of as the final crossing at any one time. If we think of the journey to enlightenment as involving a series of crossings, then the raft that is built for the final crossing is a different raft from that required for earlier crossings. If others might help in the design and construction of previous rafts, they are unlikely to be of much, if any assistance, in creating the raft for the final crossing.

In the same way, the means by which Gautama Buddha achieved his enlightenment represent the skilful means that he used in his journey. His earlier embracing of an ascetic life, which did not involve the self-mutilation in which others engaged, was ended when he accepted a bowl of rice from a young girl. Only after pursuing asceticism with true commitment can the acceptance of the bowl of rice represent a movement to freedom from attachment.

Presented in a more abstract, or general, way skilful means is something that the most highly developed use to achieve a state of perfection (while knowing perfection or freedom or cessation to be concepts). While dwelling for some time in the higher-level concepts of Buddhism (which may include the Four Noble Truths themselves) these must be left behind. Thus, while “it might seem important to maintain most carefully ideas like the five constituents of human experience (skandas) in order to ward off the thought of a permanent soul”, these must be let go. For, the point is “to make use of some such account of things while not settling in it, not striving to maintain it and not rehearsing it. Even emptiness can come to be taken as a ‘characteristic'” (Pye 1978: 109). According to the Perfection of Insight texts, the bodhisattva must know “the emptiness of form while contemporaneously” seeking freedom from “the concept which induces this knowledge. This demands the application of skilful means. truly practising the perfection of insight demands knowing characteristics as means” (Pye 1978: 109). For “a bodhisattva’s great power of skilful means lies in knowing all these discriminated characteristics while not being attached to non-discrimination” (Pye 1978: 110).

SM as way of facilitating others’ enlightenment

Different reasons might be provided as to why the bodhisattva does not simply abandon the world and pass over. It might be seen as a delaying that results from the loving-kindness, associated with the identification with all things (and therefore with no thing) that might be thought to be associated with enlightenment. It might be that promulgating the dharma is part of the journey. Enlightenment might be taken, as Pye takes it, to require the spreading of dharma. In his view, “one might say that it is even while not relinquishing the living that [the bodhisattva] recognizes the voidness of things.” Bodhisattvas don’t relinquish their nirvana. They “steel [themselves] not to aim for it, as it were, prematurely, as if [they] could attain it satisfactorily all by [themselves]” (Pye 1978: 112).

In this case the skilful means that are applied come out of the enlightenment achieved by the bodhisattva, but are not identical to the skilful means employed in achieving that state. Instead, the bodhisattva participates in the enlightenment of all and does so in the ways that are required at the time and for those who require it. To explain this form of skilful means, Pye provides the following quotation from one of the Perfection of Insight texts: “The buddhas have the power of countless skilful means, and the dharmas are indeterminate in nature; so to bring nearer all the living beings, the buddhas sometimes declare the reality of all things and sometimes their unreality, sometimes that things are both real and unreal, and sometimes that things are neither real nor unreal” (Pye 1978: 113). He then adds that “[e]ach of these four logical possibilities is considered to be wrong in itself, yet depending on the occasion each one may provide a provisional true basis for the teaching of release” (Pye 1978: 113).

This is the use of skilful means in facilitating others’ achievement of enlightenment as a compassionate act of assisting them in their freeing themselves from the cycle of samsara. If this means telling particular stories to or making specific demands of those who seek to be freed from that cycle, then this is what it means. This conjures, what Cho Bantly refers to as “a plane of purposeful intent that is best summarized by the Buddhist term skilful-means. Encompassing both infinite wisdom and compassion, the Bodhisattva possesses knowledge of the most expedient means of bringing beings into Buddhist submission. This activity not only includes, but even requires, deliberate ploys to guide individuals to karmic and spiritual fruition” (Cho Bantly 1989: 519).

SM as adaptation to different audiences

If we continue the raft allegory, then we can assume that people face particular rivers at different stages of their journey and will require different kinds of help in building the raft they will use to cross that river. Indeed, each person may need a specific kind of raft to cross the same river. While some instruction in monasteries is presented to the entire monastic community, some is passed on to particular groups of monks, while other instruction passes from Master to pupil. Not everyone is prepared to receive, or is capable of receiving, a particular form of assistance at the same time.

A variety of factors, including age, class and level of education, will constrain what can be done to facilitate progression toward freedom from samsara. (While I understand why the separation of bikkhu from bikkhuni is necessary, I wonder whether sex is a factor in determining the teaching practices most likely to facilitate enlightenment.) As an educator, I know that the different level of academic achievement on the parts of different groups of students has to be taken into account in my teaching. I do not teach, or ask the same things of, my first-year students as I do the students in my (fourth-year) Honours class. I assume that the same principles apply when it comes to assisting people to understand dharma.

If skilful means requires telling a story like that told in the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel known as the Hsi-yu chi, or The Journey to the West (which was retold in the television series Monkey), for example, then this is what it requires. Thus, according to Cho Bantly, “The Journey’s success in both describing and captivating the reader encourages the view that the text itself is a concrete embodiment of the supreme Buddhist virtue of skilful means. The fact that it is a bawdy, irreverent story, rather than a solemn and discursive treatise, would only have delighted the Buddhists even more” (Cho Bantly 1989: 523).

I’m not convinced, though, that Cho Bantly’s assumption that the novel would delight all Buddhists is valid. But I am certain that it would delight some, perhaps, many of them and that it would assist some of them with progression toward freedom from suffering. While he resents the obstacles he encounters when helping Tripitaka to obtain and return sacred Buddhist texts, for Monkey they are the means for his enlightenment.

The tangle of karmic redemption, ordeals, skilful means, and compassion that forms the machinery of Buddhist liberation brings the incontrovertible conclusion that the pilgrimage is not only necessary, it is the whole point. Without it the mechanics of salvation could not operate. This mechanism is needed in turn because of the axial problematic of the discontinuity of truth and knowledge in the novel’s cosmology. The fact that transforming knowledge is gained by active involvement within the world and with religious effort is consistent with our earlier solution of the emptiness paradox, in which even delusions are an effective means for spiritual progress. (Cho Bantly 1989: 520)

Not all of us can undertake pilgrimages (or physical pilgrimages), however. So, to treat this as a sin qua non of, or even prerequisite for, achieving enlightenment is to deny the possibility of enlightenment to all those who cannot become pilgrims. It is also to become attached to the concept of the pilgrimage. Another way has to be found for non-pilgrims, and therein we find the essence of this form of skilful means.

SM as adaptation to different cultures

I appreciate that this form of skilful means might be considered a sub-set of the preceding form. I introduce it because in thinking about Buddhism in Australia I am thinking about introducing it to people of a particular culture. This means ignoring the points made in the previous section concerning important demographic and educational differences that affect the use of skilful means to focus on cultural factors that might play a role in determining the skilful means most appropriate for people of a particular society. Focussing on cultural attributes in selecting the means to bring people of a particular culture to an understanding of dharma, then, is a specific application of skilful means.

According to Makransky, a “Buddhist development in the centuries following Gautama was the ongoing exploration of skilful means to reveal Buddhist truth to others through their own symbols, languages, and world views.” The goal was to convert “others to Buddhism through forms adapted to their own cultures” and the result was “the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism in India and Central Asia, contributing 347 to the development of Zen, Pure Land, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions in East Asia and Tibet” (Makransky 2003: 346-7). In this process “Buddhist thought and practice developed much from the time of the Buddha effected by the entry of many cultures into the Buddhist fold, first within the empire forged by the Indian Buddhist king Ashoka, then through migrations of central Asian peoples into India, then, through the trade routes (“silk routes”) that extended from China through Central Asia to present day Afghanistan and north India” (Makransky 2003: 347).

Adaptations or development of Buddhist texts was necessary for this process. The “appearance of many new Buddhist sacred texts,” according to Makransky, was a sign that “some learned Buddhist monks were increasingly dissatisfied with Scholastic conservatives of their own schools regarding their fixation upon old questions no longer asked, their outdated ontologies, their inability to speak afresh, attuned to diverse cultures of the time, the direct experience of enlightenment which the Buddha had embodied” (Makransky 2003: 347). The result was Mahayana Buddhism, which lead to “a new Buddhist cosmology, consisting of radiant Buddha divinities arrayed in pure, luminous realms, a development supported by the Central Asian cultural matrix and by continuing practice of ancient Buddhist devotional meditations that commune with the qualities of the Buddhas” (Makransky 2003: 347). And, while the Four Noble Truths “were strictly conserved as the doctrinal foundation of these new Buddhist movements, Mahayana texts expressed new shifts in emphasis that had developed over prior centuries” (Makransky 2003: 347).

In a more contemporary vein, I fully understand, for example, why some Buddhist have chosen to substitute “suffering” in the Four Noble Truths with “unsatisfactory” and “dissatisfaction” in spreading dharma in western countries (though I acknowledge doctrinal reasons for this change. See First, it makes sense to avoid the word “suffering” because few people in western audiences whose members want to receive dharma truly suffer. The member of these audiences are usually well off relative to others in their society and world. This doesn’t mean that they are happy and do not suffer. But it is a first-world sort of unhappiness and suffering (their problems are first-world problems). Second, not using “suffering” in presenting the Four Noble Truths makes sense because most people in western societies begin with a materialistic orientation in which life is understood in terms of the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Australians have been said to participate in a Benthamite culture, and the pleasure versus pain calculation is classic Bentham (Collins 1985). So talking to them about “suffering” won’t get you very far with most of them (indeed holding back the Four Noble Truths may well be a good strategy.) “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is part of the US Declaration of Independence, so the same holds true for them.

While the concept and practice of skilful means remain contested, for some of us the adaptation of Buddhist teaching to facilitate progression toward the end of suffering is acceptable among and, for some, necessary for those whose compassion requires that they seek to help others to end their cycle of samsara. It may be that the rafts that are required for the final crossing are much more alike than those that enable earlier crossing. Facilitating progression for those in the earlier stages of the process of achieving enlightenment requires careful attention to the character and culture of those who are to be exposed to dharma. Once that is, the principle that dharma is to be presented in different ways.

SM and Buddhism in Australia

This brings us to the questions related to the reception of Buddhism in Australia. For the most part, as I have explained above, Buddhism in Australia is principally imported Buddhism. This reflects migration by Buddhists from Asian countries and importation by Anglo- and Euro-Australians who have trained in Buddhist monasteries in various Asian Countries. The latter are important for this discussion of Buddhism in Australia, given its emphasis on skilful means. I explain this in the first section of this part. The second section deals with questions concerning skilful means and spreading Buddhism in a Christian country. The third, and final, section is a very preliminary discussion of spreading Buddhism to those whose culture privileges sport and for whom contemplation of the ocean, the sky and the bush might be moments of connection with something greater and provide ever-present resources that might be used by way of the application of skilful means to the spreading of Buddhism in Australia.

The most important absence in this chapter concerns a failure to engage with possibilities with respect to Buddhists promoting dharma to Aborigines. It is absent for a couple of reasons. First, while I know only a little about Christian spirituality, I know close enough to nothing about Aboriginal spirituality. I simply can’t say anything with respect to engaging with Aboriginal spirituality in practising skilful means. My second reason for remaining silent with respect to skilful means and the promotion of Buddhism amongst members of the Australian aboriginal community, is that there has been a long history of Anglo-Australians seeking to draw Aborigines away from their spirituality. I don’t want to write or do anything that might be taken to be yet another moment in this history.

SM and imported Buddhism in Australia

The adoption of imported Buddhism by Anglo- and Euro-Australians is important here because it manifests a rejection of, or failure to engage with, the dominant spiritualities available in Australia (though it might also manifest a failure to locate any spiritualities). The spiritual emptiness that might be thought to characterise Australian society, and most western societies (hence Western Buddhism), is an ongoing spur to look elsewhere on the parts of those seeking spirituality here. Those who reject Australian (western) culture are likely to do so because the reject the materialism and selfishness that is promoted by major media and social institutions in this country. I’m confident that this application of skilful means is already being undertaken.

My main concern is that a turn to imported Buddhist practices could represent a desire for a superior form of spirituality and may reflect a capture through an attachments to concepts and, perhaps, being caught in a perfectionist trap. That is, that the pursuit of imported Buddhisms represents a quest for fullness, rather than emptiness. I also worry, though this is a more minor concern, that imported Buddhism promotes a becoming-Asian as part of its spiritual agenda. I accept Kamstra’s point, though, that “Mahayana Buddhism without the intimate communication with these local beliefs exists exclusively in the books and minds of some western buddhologists. This exclusive kind of Mahayana Buddhism does not exist at all in the minds of Chinese and Japanese Buddhists!” (Kamstra 1980: 272). Thus, I also accept his conclusion that apart from folk-Buddhism in China and Japan there never has been another type of Buddhism than sectarian Buddhism. The importance of the sutras depends wholly on their place the life of millions of believers in sectarian Buddhism” (Kamstra 1980: 273-4). So this is more of a minor doubt than any full-blown critique.

Buddhism and Christian Theology

While it is an increasingly irreligious country, Christianity remains the dominant form of spirituality in Australia. While, most Australians do not engage in formal Christian rituals, a high proportion of them continue to believe in something like the Christian God (i.e., a single self-conscious designer/creator being). Even some of those who claim to refuse God invoke a Universe that has the attributes of the Christian God. Such a view has a variety of flaws, as do entreaties to God for divine intervention. This does not mean that all Christian principles are without value, and this is where skilful means become important.

For, as Makransky pointed out, Gautama Buddha had two responses to those from other spiritual traditions: The first was to subject those traditions to “critique insofar as they might contribute to the very problem he had diagnosed, by absolutizing their religious objects and concepts of self as objects of clinging or aversion” (Makransky 2003: 335). The second was to use the principles of other faiths to elaborate Buddhist precepts. For, “the Buddha was skilled at speaking his truths in remarkably accessible ways, often communicating them to others through their own (non-Buddhist) modes of thought” (Makransky 2003: 335). This means that one Buddhist response to other spiritual traditions is “to explore how others’ symbol-systems and modes of thought might serve to communicate, in their own ways, the very truths the Buddha had taught. This tendency became formalized in the special doctrine of ‘skilful means'” (Makransky 2003: 335).

My knowledge of Christian precepts is somewhat limited (despite having been raised an Anglican, attending Church services and being confirmed in that faith). But loving-kindness seems a starting point for an engagement between Buddhism and Christianity and the application of skilful means. The metaphor of the camel being unable to pass through the eye of the needle representing the chances of the rich person seeking access to heaven would be a starting-point with respect to older forms of Christianity. Some new forms of Christianity treat the acquisition of wealth as a sign of God’s, though, so they would resist the suggestion that attachments prevent movement to a higher plane of existence, or a plane of non-material existence which makes it clear that some work remains to be done for a Buddhist seeking to square heaven and nirvana.

Adapting Buddhism to Australian Spirituality

Suggesting that there is an Australian spirituality is undoubtedly controversial. But, if I had to nominate three things that might be thought of as at the core of an Australian spirituality, they would be: sport. I accept that many people wouldn’t consider sport to be in any way spiritual. It is an activity, however, to which many Australians are devoted and they represent important moments in many Australians’ lives. Team sports, to which many Australians are drawn, involve moments in which the self must be abandoned to something greater. The arbitrariness of connection to teams and sportspeople that shift according to team allegiance offer other opportunities for the elaboration of Buddhist concepts associated with attachment to illusions (in which a response to team colours represents an empty form of connection a simple change of jersey can transform an athlete from friend to enemy or vice versa).

And, if I had to name three moments during which the recognition of immensity, connectedness and emptiness might manifest, I’d name moments in which we find ourselves simply staring at the ocean or the sky and experiencing the bush. Most Australians live close to the water and many of us find ourselves on the beach looking out upon the ocean. Fewer of us find ourselves in the bush. But those of us who do are sometimes caught in moments in which the smallness of being and its immersion in immensity might come to mind. The next step is to use these moments to communicate fundamental Buddhist precepts. And, on a fine day, looking to the sky can create similar feelings. Under certain conditions, all three offer moments of a sense of tranquillity that an engagement with Buddhism can build upon.

This paper has ended up a lot longer than I’d thought it would be, so I will provide as brief a conclusion as I can. My goal was to reflect on possibilities with respect to spreading Buddhism in Australia. This led me to reflect on skilful means in the first part. This is both a somewhat problematic notion and a necessary one for this paper. Skilful means was important to me because it opens up the possibility of doing something more than simply importing Buddhism from Asian countries. This, the importation of Buddhism, would imply that the answer to spreading Buddhism in Australia is to important culturally alien forms into this country. This will work for those alienated from/by Australian culture. But it won’t work for most Australians. So engaging with them through their Christianity is one option, though it will work for the minority of Australians who a practising Christians. But it won’t work for the others. That’s where sport, the ocean, the sky and the bush come in, though I am not absolutely sure how that would work. So the most important section of this paper (the third one of the second part of this paper) is, sadly, under-developed.



  • Cho Bantly, Francisca. 1989. “Buddhist Allegory in the Journey to the West”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Aug.), pp. 512-524.
  • Collins, Hugh. 1985. “Political Ideology in Australia: The Distinctiveness of a Benthamite Society.” Daedalus, vol. 114, no. 1, pp. 147–169.
  • Federman, Asaf. 2009. “Literal Means and Hidden Meanings: A New Analysis of Skilful Means”, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Apr.), pp. 125-141.
  • Kamstra, J. H. 1980. “Skilful Means as a ‘Germinative Principle’: Some Remarks on a Concept in Mahayana Buddhism”, Numen, Vol. 27, Fasc. 2 (Dec.), pp. 270-277
  • Makransky, John. 2003. Buddhist Perspectives On Truth In Other Religions: Past And Present, Theological Studies 64: 334-361.
  • Pye, Michael. 1978. Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism. London: Duckworth.
  • Schroeder, John. 2000. “Nāgārjuna and the Doctrine of ‘Skilful Means’”, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Oct.), pp. 559-583

Additional Bibliography


Dr Ian Cook
PhD. (UQ) B.A. (Hons.) (UQ)


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