Upaya, ‘skilful mean’s or ‘expedient means,’ is a fundamental aspect of the Buddhadharma (Buddhist teachings). Whatever teachings exist, they are skilful means to use in our awakening to the Dharma (‘the-way-things-are’). In addition, whatever practices are used, they can be applied in a skilful way to inspire & support our awakening.
Sometimes, Buddhists can cling (upadana) to the Buddhadharma just as fundamentalists that are Christian, Muslim, atheist or whatever may also do with their deeply-cherished beliefs. Seeing Buddhist scripture in the same way as a fundamentalist Christian views the Bible is not the purpose of the Buddhadharma. In truth, it is a misuse of it, often leading to arrogance & intolerance. Buddha encourages us to let go rather than to cling; Buddhist teachings & practices can be used to awaken with, but to cling to them as being incontrovertible truths is to miss the point of their skilful use as promoted by Buddha.
This appropriate attitude to the teachings is related to Buddha’s teaching on views (ditthi). Any view can be classified as right-view (samma-ditthi – a view in line with basic Buddhist teachings) or wrong-view (miccha-ditthi – a view that contradicts the Buddhadharma). Buddha, however, advised against clinging to right-view. Not that he promoted a kind of libertinism – to possess wrong-view is way more damaging than to hold right-view, as our views will affect our thoughts, actions & deeds. Nonetheless, understanding life in tune with right-view is one thing; dogmatically-clinging to it as unquestionable doctrine is another. It’s worth recalling that Buddha taught us to question his teachings and accept only those that we could verify for ourselves, or at least complement what we have already understood. He describes the Buddhadharma as having the quality of ehipassika – ‘come-and-see’ or ‘look-for-yourself.’
Understanding skilful means this way, we can open up to Buddhists with different views & practices to our own. They may use various forms of the Buddhadharma skilfully (or not), but recognising all forms of Buddhism as potential expressions of the same spirit of expediency towards awakening at least leaves us open-minded towards them. A Theravada Buddhist can use the teachings & conventions of their tradition skilfully whilst recognising that a Zen Buddhist may do the same with theirs. Ditto, Tibetan & Pure Land, or Nichiren & secular Buddhism. Moreover, it can be seen that non-Buddhists may be awakening to our true nature via their traditions also. This doesn’t mean clinging to the view that ‘all roads lead to Rome’ and that no differences should be highlighted, however. It simply means using one’s own path skilfully whilst being open to the possibility that the same may be so for others walking very different paths. It’s up to each of us to use what we have skilfully. As Buddha says: Walk on!