Upaya is an old ass word that means skillful deception, and it’s one of my all-time favorite things about Buddhism. In fact, it’s pretty much what sets Buddhism apart from every other religious/philosophical/metaphysical/psychological school I’ve encountered.
Unlike most teachers, prophets, and sages, the B-Man didn’t formulate one static truth, view, or method and belch it out equally to everyone. He adapted to his audience, to whomever asked for his help.
If someone needs a house, you don’t give them the schematics for a toilet. If someone needs a toilet, you don’t give them the blueprints for a house.
People will come to you in life needing different things from you. The Bodhisatta gives people what they need. Sometimes that even means renouncing Bodhisattahood and living as a Paccekabodhisatta, working for and with loners and renegades rather than large communities and the status quo.
Sometimes it means glossing over, or even denying, enlightenment for oneself or playing down its importance when asked about it by other people.
Upaya means that we don’t have the luxury of a static belief or way of doing things, because in order to help people, we have to believe what they do—even if it’s just for a little while.
So even though I might, in general, not believe in something like rebirth, I have to suspend my disbelief if I’m sharing the teachings on rebirth in order to help someone. When I’m alone and no one needs me for anything, that’s when I can set down all the views and practices I’ve been using and focus on whatever vibes with me on a personal level.
The irony is that ignoring my own practice to take on the practices and views of those I’m trying to help actually benefits my personal practice so that when I do find a chance to return to my own method, it’s easier to do than before.
The traditional reason behind that is that it’s because of merit which is like karma, but different. Merit has to do with clarity and capacity. Meritorious actions (like offering the Dharma) increase our own clarity and capacity to understand. Demeritorious actions (like refusing to offer the Dharma as it can be understood by a specific person) decrease our own clarity and capacity to understand.
Merit and demerit are also an upaya, they can be picked and used whenever they’re relevant and dropped off whenever they aren’t.
Valuing and practicing upaya also helps with my anger and frustration when it comes to people challenging my views and methods. If I don’t take them as my views and my methods, then what do I care if someone shits all over them?
Literally speaking, only a Buddha can use upaya with 100% effectiveness. A Buddha can get through to anyone, regardless of their background, goals, or beliefs. That’s another reason why I think we’re in the reasonably predicted Dharma Ending Age. I’ve never met or known of a person who has a 100% success rate helping others. Also, the written teachings are also succumbing to misunderstandings, meaning that they are not 100% effective upaya.
This slow decline in comprehension will go on until even the simplest teachings are debated, and their original intentions completely lost. Then, who know, maybe another Buddha will show up who’s mastered upaya, who can get through to anyone, break through any cognitive barriers a person might have.
In the meantime, there’s still a lot of benefit in the teachings and methods.