I've tried a few different Buddhist groups and they are quite prescriptive when it comes to meditation practices. They have their own system and everyone does it. But the Buddha used skillful means when teaching which I understand to be tailoring the teachings to his audience - for instance I've heard that the Kalama Sutta is an example.

So did the Buddha teach meditation practices as skillful means? - i.e. give one person one practice and another one a different one. Not so much one person gets the beginner practice and the other one the advanced but people get different practices irrespective of their 'level' i.e. two advanced practitioners get different ones to suit them.

It would be great if you could give references to standard texts for this (i.e. Pali Canon, Diamond sutra etc....)

Many Thanks as always

  • No doubt there are skillful and unskillful approaches to meditation, but I would see skillful means as a consequence of meditation and the acquisition of wisdom, and dependent on this, rather than as including them. ,
    – user14119
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 13:15

4 Answers 4


So far as I know, the Pali canon doesn't teach "skilful means" (or, what might you call it, "provisional truth"), in the Mahayana sense.

DN 16 for example,

Thus spoke the Venerable Ananda, but the Blessed One answered him, saying: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?

I suppose that the Kalama sutta isn't "skilful means" in the sense of being a "lie-to-children" -- rather it's, if anything, part of a single albeit gradual training.

I think the one thing in the Pali canon, which people cite as an example of "skilful means", is the simile of the raft in MN 22, i.e. that the dhamma is like a raft, for crossing the river and not for holding onto on the other side.

In his introduction to MN 22, Thanissaro Bhikkhu says that should be read with the watersnake simile, i.e. ...

Having established this point, the discourse illustrates it with the simile of the water-snake, which in turn is an introduction to the simile of the raft. It is important to underline the connection between these two similes, for it is often missed. Many a casual reader has concluded from the simile of the raft simply that the Dhamma is to be let go. In fact, one major Mahayana text — the Diamond Sutra — interprets the raft simile as meaning that one has to let go of the raft in order to cross the river. However, the simile of the water-snake makes the point that the Dhamma has to be grasped; the trick lies in grasping it properly. When this point is then applied to the raft simile, the implication is clear: One has to hold onto the raft properly in order to cross the river. Only when one has reached the safety of the further shore can one let go.

Taken together, these two similes set the stage for the remainder of the discourse, which focuses on the teaching of not-self. This is one of the most easily misapprehended teachings in the Canon largely because it is possible to draw the wrong inferences from it.

That said, the suttas don't go into a lot of detail about meditation -- or they do, there are whole suttas on it, but whether there's one form or several, tranquillity and/or insight, breathing and/or other 'objects' -- so different contemporary people might have different views which they argue are based on the suttas.

I might have read something in the Vinaya rather than the Sutta, that the person who decides where each monk should be housed ought to maybe group them according to their character -- e.g. those who like to discuss things together in one place, and the ones who like to meditate in silence together in another.

This one of Andrei's answers might be relevant too: it's answering a question about Zen but references a Pali sutta. It implies there's some "skill" or expedience e.g. in assigning a motive to meditation (e.g. for a beginner the motive might be "for tranquillity" or "for liberation").

  • +1. Thanks for that Chris. I forgot - the skillful means stuff was from the Lotus Sutra. I thought it was in the Pali Canon too but I'm sure you are right. The Kalama Sutra was for rebirth where people have said that it's not an saying rebirth isn't right it's more saying that the Kalamas aren't into it so he says something else. Not sure it that is right or it is skillful means Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 21:12
  • :-) I don't think of (don't remember) the Kalama Sutta as being about rebirth. I think of it as their saying, "Different teachers say different things and contradict each other, who are we to believe?" It does mention "If there is a world after death" at the end, but I think of that as saying, "good now and hereafter" i.e. both not either/or ... and as being "free from hostility" (at the end) instead of "they deprecate them, revile them" (at the beginning) -- an argument against arguing, as well as against greed.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 21:37
  • Maybe the Bhikkhuni Sutta is an example of skilful means -- using conceit (relying on it and then abandoning it).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 17:27

It is my impression that the instructions are mostly seen as methods for development of;

  1. Perceptions
  2. Factors of Enlightenment

The perceptions include and are not limited to;

  • Perception of Mindfulness of Breathing
  • Perception of Inconstancy
  • Perception of Not-Self
  • Perception of Danger
  • Perception of Compassion
  • Perception of Altruistic Joy
  • Perception of Unattractiveness
  • Perception of Mindfulness of Death
  • Perception of Old Age
  • Perception of Sympathy
  • Perception of Abandoning
  • Perception of Drawbacks

It is a fact that all these methods are referred to as development of perceptions, this is seen in https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.060.than.html

Apart from the unusual use of the term "perception" one can see that each of these developments sheds light on the overall development of faculties(discernment, concentration, effort, mindfulness and conviction).

As for development of the factors of enlightenment their development is explained as timely and untimely, wherein it is explained that there is a proper and unproper time to develop the enlightenment factor of concentration... of joy... of tranquility... of effort ... of equanimity.

IE when one is restless it is wrong time to develop the factor of energy and a good time to develop the factor of concentration.

The way to develop the various factors is also explained in variety and detail, ie;

  1. There is a development of concentration which leads to Pleasant Abiding in the here & now
  2. There is a development of concentration which leads to Knowledge and Vision
  3. There is a development of concentration which leads to Persistent Mindfulness
  4. There is a development of concentration which leads to leads to the ending of the effluents https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.041.than.html

Returning to the development of perceptions, as it seems to me, they are associated with the various factors of enlightenment and faculties and have their own expected results and timely application, here are examples;

If the monk intent on heightened mind were to attend solely to the theme of concentration, it is possible that his mind would tend to laziness. If he were to attend solely to the theme of uplifted energy, it is possible that his mind would tend to restlessness. If he were to attend solely to the theme of equanimity, it is possible that his mind would not be rightly concentrated for the ending of the fermentations.

Bhikkhus, to the bhikkhu practicing the perception of lacking a self in unpleasantness and abiding much in it, whatever distinctions arise as superior, inferior or equal in the sixfold conscious body and all external signs, are appeased and well released.

Bhikkhus, to the bhikkhu practicing the perception of impermanence and abiding much in it, gain, honour and fame keeps away, it shrinks and rolls away. The mind stretches out and gets established in equanimity or loathing

The comprehensive breakdown of all the perceptions is too much to get into in a post here but it is all encompassing training for all situations for the proper attending to reality as it occurs.

IE consider the Perception of Abandoning;

"And what is the perception of abandoning? There is the case where a monk doesn't acquiesce to an arisen thought of sensuality. He abandons it, dispels it, & wipes it out of existence. He doesn't acquiesce to an arisen thought of ill-will. He abandons it, dispels it, & wipes it out of existence. He doesn't acquiesce to an arisen thought of harmfulness. He abandons it, dispels it, & wipes it out of existence. He doesn't acquiesce to arisen evil, unskillful mental qualities. He abandons them, dispels them, & wipes them out of existence. This is called the perception of abandoning.

To do this there are guides in the Sutta, in particular https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.020.soma.html

wherein there are given 5 steps for mastering thoughts and crushing the unwholesome thought formations as they occur.

Therefore if one has a teacher he would ideally just tell you what to do from time to time but if one was one's own teacher relying on the Sutta one would develop wholesome qualities all of the time in as far as there is an opening and opportunity.

One would develop what is lacking and is favorable, be it to counter some unwholesome tendencies or achieving pleasure not associated with sensuality in order to achieve contentment with the holy life, one would constantly develop the good by "skillful means".


If it is based on right view, yes. One the pth is reached, yes, based on right view most proper means toward fruit.

If based on wrong view, wrong virtue, effort... no. It could actually harm if mistaken. Samma-Samadhi has the path, as condition. Nothing to worry about it when right effort goes into straighten right view, right virtue... livelihood.

The Noble Eight-fold Path is probably read and read often. Maybe right effort again.

"One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong resolve & to enter into right resolve: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong speech & to enter into right speech: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong action & to enter into right action: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter into right livelihood: This is one's right effort."

In the case Samadhi is used as "livelihood" (giving one certain pleasure to go on), such, dwelling in Jhana (actually the 3. is suggested here), is of course right means as long as not growing "addicted". If such can be attained (easy) without right view... there have and will be doubts.

*(Not given for trade, exchange, stacks and entertainment keeping one self and others bound, but for going beyond.)


One of the three bases of merit (puññakiriyā-vatthu) in the Sutta:

  • giving (dāna-maya)
  • virtue (sīla-maya)
  • mental development (bhāvanā-maya)

Also included in the 10 meritorious deed:

  • Giving (Dāna-maya)
  • Virtue (Sīla-maya)
  • Mental development (Bhāvanā-maya)
  • Honoring others (Apacāyana-maya)
  • Offering service (Veyyāvaca-maya)
  • Dedicating (or transferring) merit to others (Pāli:Pattidāna-maya; Sanskrit: puṇyapariṇāmanā)
  • Rejoicing in others' merit (Pattānumodanā-maya)
  • Listening to teachings (Dhammassavana-maya)
  • Instructing others in the teachings (Dhammadesanā-maya)
  • Straightening one's own views in accordance with the Teachings (Diṭṭhujukamma)

This is further expanded in the 89 (short form) / 121 (long form) types of minds in the Abhidhamma of which Fine-Material-Sphere Consciousness (rūpāvacaracittāni) : 15 + Immaterial-Sphere Consciousness (arūpāvacaracittāni) : 12 + Supramundane Consciousness (lokuttaracittāni) : 8 = 35 (short form) / Fine-Material-Sphere Consciousness (rūpāvacaracittāni) : 15 + Immaterial-Sphere Consciousness (arūpāvacaracittāni) : 12 + Supramundane Consciousness (lokuttaracittāni) : 40 = 62 (long form) relate to meditation based mind states.

For completeness what is unwholesome is:

  • In giving up the taking of life, the practitioner will accomplish freedom from vexations;
  • In giving up stealing, the practitioner will find security in life, economically, socially and spiritually;
  • In giving up wrongful (sexual) conduct, the practitioner will find inner peace and peace in the family life;
  • In giving up lying, the practitioner will attain purity of speech and mind;
  • In giving up slander, the practitioner will be protected socially and spiritually;
  • In giving up harsh language, the practitioner's words will be more effective;
  • In giving up frivolous speech, the practitioner will become wise and dignified;
  • In giving up lust, the practitioner finds freedom in life through contentment and simplicity;
  • In giving up hatred, the practitioner will develop kindness and gentleness;
  • In giving up wrong views, the practitioner will not falter in the good and spiritual path.

Source: Merit, kusala, akusala, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma : The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha General Editor Bhikkhu Bodhi Revised and Edited by Allan R. Bomhard

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