How Buddhist Doctrine of Skillful Means Supports Transnational Buddhist Expansion and Adaptation

John Makransky
Boston College

Date: March 12, 2003

Event Recap

On March 12, 2003 the Boisi Center hosted a lunch seminar with Professor John Makransky of the Theology department at Boston College. Makransky, who teaches comparative theology and Buddhism, is also an associate teacher, or lama, with the Lama Surya Das’Dzogchen Foundation, and directs the program for Vajrayana Studies at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. His talk, titled “How Buddhist Doctrine of Skillful Means Supports Transnational Buddhist Expansion and Adaptation” focused on the doctrine of Skillful Means in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, a tradition that also encompasses Zen, Pure land, and Tibetan forms of Buddhism.

Buddhists seek to help people enter a path of discernment that will ultimately bring them to wisdom and compassion. A central belief is that most people are caught in a state of continual suffering because they are trapped in desires that focus on an unchanging self in relation to nature, as opposed to a more realistic view of nature that is always being created in each moment. The process of discernment for Buddhists involves realizing how one is caught up in those desires, and in so doing, catching glimpses of the emptiness that is inherent in the nature of things. The realization of this emptiness is necessary to objectively see one’s own suffering in a way that brings wisdom and compassion.

The doctrine of Skillful Means justifies the adaptation of Buddhist principles to the needs of various cultural contexts in order to help people enter a path that will lead to greater discernment. According to Makransky, this doctrine helps account for the proliferation of popular Buddhist-related forms and practices such as Zen gardening, meditation centers, the growth of Buddhist themes in self help books and mental health forums, and the popularity of yoga videos. Makransky sees the doctrine of Skillful Means as authorizing various means of bringing people into a relationship with Buddhism which will hopefully lead to a curiosity about its sources and a deepening of understanding. At its foundation, it emphasizes responding to individual and cultural needs with wisdom and compassion, as an exemplar of Buddhist principles.