In our last blog, we spoke of the secret crux that the Buddhas face: how to awaken ordinary, undisciplined people to their “Buddha nature“, or to ataraxia. Here is where we must introduce upayas, which is usually translated as efficient or expedient means. An upaya is more than a virtue. It’s a technique, an artful method of living happily. Sometimes these techniques are religious in nature.
Shariputra, when the buddhas of the future make their appearances in the world, they too will use countless numbers of expedient means, various causes and conditions, and words of simile and parable in order to expound the doctrines for the sake of living beings. And these living beings, by listening to the doctrines of the buddhas, will all eventually be able to attain wisdom embracing all species.
These buddhas too use countless numbers of expedient means, various causes and conditions, and words of simile and parable in order to expound the doctrines for the sake of living beings.
The Lotus Sutra, Chapter Two: On Expedient Means
The sutra explains that the Buddhas are all medicine men of the soul, anthropologists, and very practical psychologists, and that they use their knowledge of the nature of people to “gladden and please them all” via upayas. Therefore, these upayas, similes, and parables that they employ must bend to our nature. In Vatican Saying 21, we see that Epicurus must have found himself in the aforementioned “crux of the Buddhas” at some point while teaching sentient beings to be happy, and came to similar conclusions.
Buddhas know they can’t expect everyone to have the same nature or intelligence, therefore they use upayas, both collective and individual. Early Buddhists claimed that the historical Shakyamuni Buddha had 18,000 different teachings, because he taught according to the natures and circumstances of the multiple suffering and awakening people he encountered wherever he went.
The Lotus Sutra derives its very name to the central upaya, simile and parable used in it: human beings are as lotus flowers. They emerge out of the mud, but are able to grow, and reach the surface, and blossom. In spite of their humble origins, they by nature are able to exude a glorious and beautiful aroma. The central teaching of the sutra is that all sentient beings have the potential for true, lasting happiness. The upaya encourages us to ignore our origins, our roots. It tells us that we can overcome whatever kept us from progressing and evolving.
When the lotus flowers blossom, they give their seed and germinate at once, and they therefore represent instant, unmediated cause-and-effect. When we discuss karma, this will be tackled in detail, suffice to say that the upaya encourages people to consider themselves not as the effects of their past lives, but as the CAUSE of their future self, and to therefore take their own destiny and happiness in their own hands through diligent and dynamic practice.
It also stresses, time and again, that there are innumerable amounts of beings in innumerable worlds working toward the same goal, and benefiting from each other’s progress, usually in the image of innumerable bodhisatvas that are led by countless Buddhas.
The Lotus Sutra accentuates that we all have a fundamentally healthy, happy nature, a Buddha seed, tendency or instinct within us. In English, this has come to be known as our Buddha nature. This Buddha nature will make use of whatever our circumstances are, if we nurture it, to teach and awaken us to happiness. Perhaps this is related to what Dan Gilbert termed our “psychological immune system” that helps us cope with difficulties and stay happy? The point is that this is in our nature, and like any muscle, it can be cultivated and optimized.
The natural tendency to awaken is known as bodhicitta. We are again reminded of the lotus flower, for awakening implies that the Sun has risen, and the circadian rhythm that governs the life of a flower revolves around looking up to the Sun. The Buddhas, and Buddha nature, are frequently compared to Suns.
The Lotus Sutra can probably be best described as a path of metaphors and parables, which by use of upayas has the virtue to awaken anyone and everyone. It includes a Buddhist alternative to the Gospel narrative of the prodigal son, but here it is meant to teach that we are naturally wealthy, but we believe ourselves to be poor. Another parable presents Buddha as a doctor who prescribes spiritual medicines and cures, just as we see Epicurus in our tradition.
In the parable of the prince and the burning house, a wealthy man must get his children safely out of a burning house. He does this by appealing to their fancy and making various promises to them, according to their various natures, tendencies and desires. He tells them that there are carts, vehicles, waiting for them outside the house that they can play with.
This metaphor is particularly interesting in that it presents us with one of the methods used by well-meaning and compassionate beings who have throughout history sought to give others consolations to help them cope with suffering: the various religious beliefs and doctrines (represented here as vehicles). It is here that the comparison with Epicurean Scholarchs ends. The use of fables and myths to end suffering is praised in the sutra, but not in naturalist philosophy. The ancient atomists were concerned to keep their feet on the ground of reality and take their guidance from nature, so they diligently sought natural explanations for all ailments, and insisted that where no explanation was available, future scientists and thinkers might one day illuminate useful answers.
The moral issue of whether a spiritual leader should allow himself to entertain the religious fantasies of his followers out of compassion, to bring them joy and innocence, is tackled more than once. In the sutra, the answer is invariably in the affirmative: it is legitimate to entertain their fancy if they’re suffering enough.
Another parable used is the Phantom City: there was once a Buddha whose followers went on an awful road to a great treasure. Because their journey was so awful and they were suffering, this Buddha produced for them an upaya, a temporary refuge which was imaginary, as a distraction meant to bring relief, an oasis. He conjured up this Phantom City with many pleasures and joys out of compassion for their suffering.
Elsewhere, we hear of a Buddha who convinced his followers that they had reached nirvana (the final extinction of all the roots of suffering), but later revealed that their nirvana was not the real thing. That true nirvana awaited them still. While this is meant to teach that previous (non-Mahayana) teachings were only provisionary teachings, ultimately it raises one’s eyebrow to think that a Buddha would lie, or play childish games with childish disciples, in order to keep them happy like a storytelling babysitter. But the sutra would argue that if the disciples are of a childish tendency, what can we expect? How can they be awakened to true bodichita? This is the crux of the Buddhas: they must approach people of different natures and tendencies in their language.
In this way, we can look at our past religious experiences of both bliss and disillusion with some compassion and understanding. Someone in the past, perhaps moved by our ancestors’ vulnerabilities, decided to tell these fables and build these Phantom Cities for suffering beings as provisionary stations on the way to true happiness, because people were not ready to happily awaken to reality.
Lucretius seems to partially apply the logic of upayas in De Rerum Natura when he compared the use of poetry to teach dry subjects like science, anthropology, and philosophy, to the use of honey to make medicine more palatable. But he had a much more hostile attitude towards religion than Epicurus did. On the other hand, Epicurus said that we are religious by nature, and our Reasonings on Philodemus’ Scroll On Piety indicate that religious upayas are acceptable within naturalist philosophy. Here are the seven conclusions of the reasonings:
- God(s) can be understood from realist or idealist interpretations.
- Humans imitate the qualities they see in divinity. Therefore, the wise have noble expectations concerning the Gods.
- Worship is an act of self-expression and only benefits the worshiper. It does not affect the object of worship.
- There is good, pure and wholesome religion as well as defiled and unwholesome religion.
- Worship affects reality because it affects character.
- Epicurean doctrines are considered the true cause of our tranquility.
- Piety is a sort of art of divine attunement with the philosophical virtues that produces wholesome, blessed, blissful, therapeutic states of mind.
So we have learned that this problem, this crux, of helping sentient beings to emancipate themselves from suffering is very difficult and complicated business and requires great creativity, including the use of efficient means or upayas which may be incorporated into what ancient Epicureans might have called our art of living (biou techne). In a future blog, we will look at how Nichiren Buddhism (a Japanese lineage wholly focused on the Lotus Sutra) treats desires and compare it with our Vatican Saying 21.