According to upaya, the doctrine of 'skillful means', as it appears in the Lotus Sutra, was the Buddha lying when he said that there are three vehicles? Presumably he knew there was only one: so why wasn't his deception evil?

I am referring to the claim in e.g. the parable of there being three chariots, when there is in fact only one. Or Shariputra's claim that he thought he was "deceived" when believing he could not be a Buddha.

I believe it's generally characterized as "deception" according to the scholastic tradition that is based on the lotus sutra.


In a very meaningful sense, every action of the Buddha whether of body, speech, or mind was upaya: skillful means. What's more, every utterance of the Buddha was an approximation of the truth when heard, understood, and conceptualized by sentient beings. This is necessarily so because all conceptualizations are mere approximations and are by nature deceptive in that they are tainted by the ignorance of sentient beings.

The only way to the real truth - untainted by conceptualizations and elaborations - is via direct perception of emptiness. This must be experienced, not just inferred or understood by way of explanation, even if that explanation is coming from an Enlightened One.

Insofar as all conceptualizations or elaborations are mere approximation of the truth and tainted by ignorance, then you could say they are lies. But have no doubt the Buddha's actions - all of them - are Noble and motivated purely for the benefit of sentient beings.

Evil does not enter into it. That is a category error. Karma is a universal law much like universal physical laws. There is no great scale or moral arbiter dispensing justice or punishment based on moral judgements of karmic actions. This is just a wrong conception of what the Buddha was after when describing karma and dependent origination. Often western peoples who grow up with the cultural traditions and religions of monotheism where moral absolutes are a result of judgement by a higher power struggle with this. The Buddha never understood or intended to describe the law of karma as a form of universal justice or punishment for moral laws given from on high.

You can judge karmic actions based on the fruits they produce. Do they lead to suffering? To happiness? Do they have benefit? Do they harm? What has been empirically found is that actions that are undertaken out of pure motivation - cherishing others in combination with wisdom - are of benefit and bring happiness. Similarly, actions undertaken out of selfish motivation - cherishing oneself in combination with ignorance - are harmful and bring suffering. The Buddha is the personification of perfect motivation and perfect wisdom.


The starting point of Buddhism is the idea that everyone begins in a state of ignorance. It is our ignorance that creates tanhā and dukkha, and it is the cessation of tanhā and dukkha that brings about wisdom and enlightenment. But ignorance, by its nature, comes in a multitude of forms. Your ignorance is not the same as my ignorance, his ignorance is not the same as hers, theirs is not the same as ours...

Upaya is an acknowledgement that we are all working out of different bubbles of ignorance, and that — so long as we are trapped in our own bubble — different tools might be 'skillful' for the context of ignorance we happen to be trapped in. Even tools that are not entirely correct might be sufficient for the state we are in. For instance, someone deeply attached the sensual world, filled with urges and cravings and jealousies, might find a more structured, disciplined environment useful (sravakayana); someone more critical and mind-oriented might find it hard to accept and embrace doctrine, and might find an independent path useful (pratyekabuddhayana).

There's no value judgement to this; it makes no sense to think that your ignorance is right and my ignorance is wrong. And we don't want to commit to a one-size-fits-all policy that helps some more than others. In that sense, upaya is a form of compassion, because it allows for the differences in our misunderstandings so that all can see progress.

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    Very good answer. To this I would only add that upaya is usually a simplification. For example, Santa Claus is a simplification of ethics. It's used as a stand-in for something more complex that the student is not ready to understand yet, designed to function similarly to the real thing (e.g. good behavior leads to good results etc). – Andrei Volkov Dec 10 '19 at 17:48

"The “Expedient Means” (second) chapter of the Lotus Sutra says, “The Buddhas, utilizing the power of expedient means, apply distinctions to the one Buddha vehicle and preach as though it were three.” It also says, “In the Buddha lands of the ten directions there is only the Law of the one vehicle, there are not two, there are not three.”

Nichiren Buddhism Dictionary

It's a question of tailoring the teaching to be most useful to the person given their stage of realisation. Thus in Mahayana there are the 'Three Turnings of the Wheel' - each suitable at their level. But it's all one process and one teaching.


His upaya wasn't a deception, not evil, and definitely not a lie. Say, one takes up Taekwondo, Judo, and Karate. Are they 3 different vehicles? yes (meaning there're different forms, methods, and techniques). Are they one vehicle? yes (meaning the ultimate goal is the same, maximizing one's survivability in combat and perfecting one's character).

  • not my downvote, but this just reads like an opinion and is -- imho -- a mischaracterization of the one vehicle – user2512 Dec 10 '19 at 15:46
  • But saying that the Buddha lied when mentioning the 3 vehicles, or it's ok to lie just for the sake of Upaya, IS a mischaracterization. Do you think that the Buddha lied in the Lotus Sutra? I don't think so, as per the analogy mentioned in my post. – santa100 Dec 10 '19 at 16:01
  • no, i don't think so. – user2512 Dec 10 '19 at 16:03
  • it's a disanalogy though because the goal is the one vehicle – user2512 Feb 7 '20 at 3:57
  • no, the goal is not the vehicle, it's where it leads you to. The raft is not the goal, the shore is. – santa100 Feb 7 '20 at 13:08

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