According to the article An Explanation of Upaya in Buddhism by Barbara O'Brien:

Mahayana Buddhists often use the word upaya, which is translated "skillful means" or "expedient means." Very simply, upaya is any activity that helps others realize enlightenment. Sometimes upaya is spelled upaya-kausalya, which is "skill in means."

Upaya can be unconventional; something not normally associated with Buddhist doctrine or practice. The most important points are that the action is applied with wisdom and compassion and that it is appropriate in its time and place. .....

In Theravada Buddhism, upaya refers to the Buddha's skill in shaping his teaching to be appropriate to his audience—simple doctrines and parables for beginners; more advanced teaching for senior students. Mahayana Buddhists see the historical Buddha's teachings as provisional, preparing the ground for the later Mahayana teachings (see "Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel").

According to some sources just about anything is allowable as upaya, including breaking the Precepts. Zen history is full of accounts of monks realizing enlightenment after being struck or shouted at by a teacher. In one famous story, a monk realized enlightenment when his teacher slammed a door on his leg and broke it.

Obviously, this no-holds-barred approach potentially could be abused.

Upaya or "skillful means" is a popular concept in Mahayana Buddhism. When the Buddha tells one thing to one audience and another thing to another audience, based on their specific needs, this is considered upaya.

It might be the case that the teaching to one audience is completely the opposite to the teaching to the other audience in Mahayana Buddhism.

In certain Mahayana traditions, the teacher may even break the precepts (for example, drinking alcohol), or shout at or hit the disciples, as part of the skillful means (upaya) to teach them.

  1. Does this exist in Theravada Buddhism?
  2. Please provide examples of upaya from the Pali Canon.
  3. From the Pali Canon or Theravada Buddhism, would the Buddha even tell completely opposite things to different audiences?
  4. From the Pali Canon or Theravada Buddhism, could the Buddha break his own rules, or even do things like shouting or hitting in order to teach his disciples?
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    Quibble: I think many Mahayana practitioners would disagree that the Buddha ever taught “completely the opposite” to different audiences as that implies contradictory teachings. I know my teachers would vehemently insist that there are no real contradictions when understood correctly only apparent contradictions to afflicted minds. Nevertheless, I get your point and great question!
    – user13375
    Apr 22, 2018 at 9:53
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    I'm a bit frightened in the recent monthes when I followed a blog which focuses abuses in some organizations with buddhistics roots: "skillful means" to educate is often cited as to legitimize beating, shouting, violence... For me "skillful means" or "crazy wisdom" are much more actions of love and/or compassion when "the crowd" wants to react bellicistic or simple cruel. I know this as established meme from the christian paedagogic, and also have a handful of experiences with difficult disciplinaric cases when I was representant in the parent's comittee in the school of my daughter....(ctd) Apr 22, 2018 at 10:07
  • ...(ctd) I say frightened because I ask myself: where to shall this lead, when "upaya" is so prominently used as to legitimate hardness, brutality, sexual abuse (for instance, applied by SR, - reported by the eight elder rigpa-students in july 2017). and I do not see one single reflection from my buddhism-fellows, that "upaya" could include compassioness where "the worldly" would beat... Apr 22, 2018 at 10:14
  • I posted an answer once, which quoted a Bhikkhu who wrote that Theravada and Mahayana may be different -- in that Theravada are expected to (or want to, will) follow the Vinaya closely even (or especially) at higher stages of enlightenment -- unfortunately I can't find that answer to link to it.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 22, 2018 at 10:28
  • @ChrisW actually there is something similar in Mahayana attributed to Atisha. Unfortunately, this does not mean that all Mahayana guru's follow it :(
    – user13375
    Jul 9, 2021 at 13:47

2 Answers 2


AFAIK, breaking precepts that result in unwholesome Karma is never excused in Theravada Buddhism. Especially the five precepts.

Here are few examples of the Buddha using Upaya:

  • Showing nymphs to prince Nanada to break his attachment towards Janapada Kalyani.
  • Breaking Khema's infatuation with beauty by showing a beautiful maiden deteriorate in front of her eyes.
  • Teaching the stanzas to old brahmin who was mistreated by his four sons.

There might be teachings that appear complete opposite if you take the literal meaning of the words or disregard the context. But the teachings never conflict when you understand the full picture.

The Buddha would scold a monk to get him disciplined, but he would never use physical force. Such a need wouldn't even arise to the Buddha. Although monks are allowed by Vinaya to strike another in self defence.

The Buddha may decide not to keep to a lesser(non-offensive) Vinaya rule on certain occasions, but the monks do not have this freedom.

  • Just to be clear, some zen teachers sometimes striking students as upaya was not about discipline or having some kind of need to use physical force, the purpose was to help the student at an opportune moment to snap out of whatever habitual fabrications and clinging they were stuck with :)
    – Ilmari
    Jun 30, 2023 at 23:56

Upaya can be found in the 1st Turning, that is, the Nikayas of Theravada or Agamas of Mahayana, roughly.

Examples (please if someone knows and refers the Pali Canon):

  1. Buddha told the woman who's only son died to beg for some mustard seeds from a family who never had anyone died to make medicine to feed her dead son so he could become alive. (Didn't the Buddha know it's futile and absurd? But he told her to do so.)

  2. Rahula when first admitted in the Samgha, taking privilege of he the Buddha's son, always spoke misleadingly to make fun of others. In order to teach him, one day the Buddha told him to wash his feet with a wooden bowl. After done, the Buddha told him to drink the water in the bowl, Rahula gaped. Then Buddha's teaching stroke in, telling him speaking misleadingly was unwholesome like asking someone to drink that water... [in Madhyamāgama]

However, you said, "...would the Buddha even tell completely opposite things to different audiences?". I wonder how that related to Upaya?

Mahayana is a big school, so is Zen a generalized name (despite the word rented from Japanese people always just assumed it covers the entire Ch'an tradition). Like a school, anyone can easily put on the school uniform pretending the student. You said, "...certain Mahayana traditions, the teacher may even break the precepts (for example, drinking alcohol), or shout at or hit the disciples, as part of the skillful means (upaya) to teach them." Upaya comes from wisdom, however, since it may go as far as testing many rules limitations, sometimes one (likely teacher) lack of wisdom or not really enlightened can being mistaken or mistaking (or the worst, pretending) himself wise and enlightened, thus abusing the "breaking rules". It requires the student with a sound mind of discernment to choose and protect himself from being abused or misled. Blindly worshiping a person is very dangerous, therefore the Buddha not only in one place spoke of "abiding to the Dharma, not the person" (依法不依人), especially in the day when he was about to enter Nirvana, he repeatedly giving this teaching as the final words.

As far as my study (of the Chinese Mahayana lineage) covers, there's no record of any teacher drinking alcohol, except the monk Ji Gong. But he wrote a poem on it, "alcohol and meat just passed the stomach, Buddha in the heart sits", with the 2nd part always being disregarded but he warned, "if others imitated, same with Mara are they!" which said this wrong he scolded. Ji Gong didn't die of alcoholism. Ji Gong living at the time when Bodhidharma went to China, both demonstrated supernatural powers in many records that they were at least Arhats. Again, you quoted, ...a monk realized enlightenment when his teacher slammed a door on his leg and broke it... Is this story in the Japanese Zen Koan? In my study, I only recalled one bloody incident, that was Huike chopped off his own arm in front of Bodhidharma. It was definitely not instructed by Bodhidharma; likely Bodhidharma was shocked too, honestly. But Huike's determination was moving.

Upaya with the nature not appealing to any established rules and formats, not only it's often abused in later days, also the term corrupted and hijacked. Upaya founded upon wisdom, but often wisdom is missing in the practice just used it to excuse selfish or unwholesome deeds.

  • can you add some references,they look very interesting
    – user13064
    Apr 22, 2018 at 20:07
  • What references? If the Pali texts I'm also searching for them. The 1st example in fact I memorized from reading this forum a Pali referred but that was without Sutta name @D.'s Apr 23, 2018 at 1:00
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    @D.'s I think the first reference is here: Skinny Gotami & the Mustard Seed -- it's technically "paracanonical commentary (to one of the Therigata verses)", if that matters.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 23, 2018 at 9:55
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    @D.'s The second reference sounds like this one (MN 61) -- but not exactly (the Buddha doesn't tell Rahula to drink).
    – ChrisW
    Apr 23, 2018 at 10:57

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