Literal means and hidden meanings: A new analysis of skillful means

Philosophy East and West 59 (2):pp. 125-141 (2009)
The Buddhist concept of skillful means , as introduced inMahāyāna sūtras, exposes a new awareness of the gap between text and meaning. Although the term is sometimes taken to point to the Buddha's pedagogical skills, this interpretation ignores the provocative use of the term in Mahāyāna texts. Treating skillful means as a universal Buddhist concept also fails to explain why and for what purpose it first became predominant in the Mahāyāna. Looking at the use of skillful means in the Lotus Sūtra and in the Skill in Means Sūtra reveals a hermeneutic device aimed at criticizing an existing corpus of Buddhist literature. As such, skillful means is used to demonstrate that the old doctrine and the life of the Buddha contained fictitious features and were nothing but skillful means. This indicates a growing awareness of a gap between literal expressions and their hidden meaning that can only arise after some kind of religious corpus has been established.
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