It is a system of lineages, whereby those who successfully receive an empowerment or sometimes called initiation (permission to practice) are seen to share in the mindstream of the realisation of a particular skillful means of the vajra Master.
Upaya (Sanskrit: upāya, literally "expedient means" or "pedagogy" ) is a term in Mahayana Buddhism which is derived from the root upa√i and refers to a means that goes or brings one up to some goal, often the goal of enlightenment.
The implication is that even if a technique, view, etc., is not ultimately "true" in the highest sense, it may still be an expedient practice to perform or view to hold; i.e., it may bring the practitioner closer to true realization anyway.
The exercise of skill to which it refers, the ability to adapt one's message to the audience, is of enormous importance in the Pali Canon.
The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism notes that rendering the Chinese term fangbian into English as 'skillful' or as 'expedient' is often difficult, because the connotations shift according to the context as
In some Mahayana texts, such as the Lotus Sutra, this is used as a polemic device against prior Buddhist traditions; it is said that the Buddha gave them various upayas rather than revealing the ultimate truth, for which they were not ready.
It enabled them to arrange the teachings in such a way that each teaching served as an expedient measure to overcome the particular shortcoming of the teaching that preceded it while, at the same time, pointing to the teaching that was to supersede it.
In this fashion a hierarchical progression of teachings could be constructed, starting with the most elementary and leading to the most profound.
Edward Conze, in A Short History Of Buddhism, says "'Skill in means' is the ability to bring out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension."
or help them on their road to nirvana.
In chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha describes how the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara changes his form to meet the needs of the student. If a monk is needed, the Bodhisattva becomes a monk for example.
This doctrine is sometimes used to explain some of the otherwise strange or unorthodox behavior or 'crazy wisdom' (Tib.: yeshe chölwa) engaged in by Buddhist practitioners in certain extreme cases and exemplified in the conduct of the Mahasiddha.
Images and examples
Gautama Buddha elucidates upaya to his disciple Shariputra
He had many fields, houses and menservants. His own house was big and rambling, but it had only one gate.
A great many people--a hundred, two hundred, perhaps as many as five hundred--lived in the house.
The halls and rooms were old and decaying, the walls crumbling, the pillars rotten at their base, and the beams and rafters crooked and aslant. At that time a fire suddenly broke out on all sides, spreading through the rooms of the house.
The sons of the rich man, ten, twenty perhaps thirty, were inside the house.
When the rich man saw the huge flames leaping up on every side, he was greatly alarmed and fearful and thought to himself, I can escape to safety through the flaming gate, but my sons are inside the burning house enjoying themselves and playing games, unaware, unknowing, without alarm or fear.
The fire is closing in on them, suffering and pain threaten them, yet their minds have no sense of loathing or peril and they do not think of trying to escape! "Shariputra, this rich man thought to himself, I have strength in my body and arms.
I can wrap them in a robe or place them on a bench and carry them out of the house. And then again he thought, this house has only one gate, and moreover it is narrow and small. My sons are very young, they have no understanding, and they love their games, being so engrossed in them that they are likely to be burned in the fire.
I must explain to them why I am fearful and alarmed.
The house is already in flames and I must get them out quickly and not let them be burned up in the fire!
Having thought in this way, he followed his plan and called to all his sons, saying, 'You must come out at once!"
But though the father was moved by pity and gave good words of instruction, the sons were absorbed in their games and unwilling to heed them. They had no alarm, no fright, and in the end no mind to leave the house.
They merely raced about this way and that in play and looked at their father without heeding him. "At that time the rich man had this thought: the house is already in flames from this huge fire. If I and my sons do not get out at once, we are certain to be burned.
I must now invent some expedient means that will make it possible for the children to escape harm.
The father understood his sons and knew what various toys and curious objects each child customarily liked and what would delight them. And so he said to them, 'The kind of playthings you like are rare and hard to find.
If you do not take them when you can, you will surely regret it later.
For example, things like these goat-carts, deer-carts and ox-carts. They are outside the gate now where you can play with them.
So you must come out of this burning house at once. Then whatever ones you want, I will give them all to you!' "At that time, when the sons heard their father telling them about these rare playthings, because such things were just what they had wanted, each felt emboldened in heart and, pushing and shoving one another, they all came wildly dashing out of the burning house.
He did not commit a falsehood. Why do I say this?
Because if they were able to preserve their lives, then they had already obtained a plaything of sorts. And how much more so when, through an expedient means, they are rescued from that burning house!"
The Buddha explains his similes of the father representing a compassionate Tathāgata who is like "a father to all the world", and the sons representing humans who are "born into the threefold world, a burning house, rotten, and old."
"Shariputra, that rich man first used three types of carriages to entice his sons, but later he gave them just the large carriage adorned with jewels, the safest, most comfortable kind of all. Despite this, that rich man was not guilty of falsehood.
The Tathagata does the same, and he is without falsehood.
The empty fist
A father holds up his empty fist saying there is something inside it to get the attention of the crying children. Sometimes the fist is holding golden leaves to give the impression that something made of gold is held inside.
From the Zen point of view an essential teaching of Buddhism is that all assertions of any kind, even the highest concepts of Buddhism itself such as the Trikaya, are simply expedient means to bring the hearer to the realization of emptiness.
But because many people are afraid of emptiness or disdain the idea of emptiness, various upaya must be used to get the student's attention to focus on the essence of mind rather than upon the distractions of mind.
The realms of the Three Eyes depend on change.
Spikes of water-chestnuts — what juice are you looking for in those dry bones?