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.


5 Answers 5


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.

The real truth is the utter emptiness of inherent existence of any existing thing. Because nothing whatsoever has inherent existence that leaves only conventionally existent things. The problem many people have with upaya and understanding how it is not meant to mean a fictional contrivance as opposed to some other more truthful thing is that: there are no things that are inherently existence so in this sense... ALL existing things are fictional contrivances; they only have illusion-like existence.

I'll repeat this because it is hard to understand: take rebirth being described as an 'upaya' that the Buddha uses only to guide people into right behavior. The subtle conceit of many who think this is that the Buddha really didn't believe in rebirth and that in actuality rebirth doesn't exist and it can't be the case that Napolean was reborn as Donald Trump. They believe that the Buddha wasn't being 100% truthful when he told Ananda that he once was Jotipāla in a past life. However, he was being 100% truthful, but this truth is a conventional truth just like the God describing a cup of liquid as ambrosia, a human describing it as water and a hungry ghost describing it as pus. All of these are conventional truths and none of them are false. There isn't some ultimate perspective unbound from the context that will distinguish which one is right. In the Lotus Sutra this is the situation that is being described.

Insofar as all conceptualizations or elaborations are mere approximation of the truth and tainted by ignorance, then you could say they are only illusion-like truths. 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.

  • 3
    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).
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 17:48

Ted Wrigley's answer is the right one in my opinion, and I will just quote an example here.

One person may still have self view and is therefore within the ignorance bubble or "world" of self view.

In SN 44.10, Vacchagotta, who had deeply entrenched self view and who was then incapable of understanding dependent origination or anatta, asked the Buddha whether there is a self or there isn't a self.

The Buddha did not want to mislead him by saying there is a self (i.e. eternalism), and also did not want to confuse him by saying there isn't a self (i.e. annihilationism). The Buddha could also see that Vacchagotta was not capable of understanding dependent origination and anatta at that point in time. So, he just kept silent.

For such persons, the Buddha employed skillful means (upaya) by teaching reflections such as the one below so that they may abandon the habit of misconduct and cultivate virtue.

This is skillful means because thinking "I am", associating self with the five aggregates and pondering a future state of self (such as rebirth), is based on conceit and also self view. However, the Buddha still employed it in a skillful way, despite it being inconsistent with the higher practice associated with anatta.

Telling lies to mislead others for malevolent reasons or for personal gain is just like injuring others with a knife. However, in this case, the Buddha is using the "knife" like a skillful surgeon to remove the tumour of misconduct. This is teaching the right view with effluents according to MN 117.

“And for the sake of what benefit should a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do’? People engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. But when one often reflects upon this theme, such misconduct is either completely abandoned or diminished. It is for the sake of this benefit that a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’
AN 5.57

Meanwhile, for a more advanced practitioner like Bahiya, the Buddha taught anatta. This is teaching the noble right view according to MN 117.

"Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress (suffering)."
Ud 1.10


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
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 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
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 16:01
  • no, i don't think so.
    – user2512
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 16:03
  • it's a disanalogy though because the goal is the one vehicle
    – user2512
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 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
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 13:08

"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.

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