Upaya (Sanskrit: upāya, expedient means, pedagogy) is a term used in Mahayana Buddhism to refer to an aspect of guidance along the Buddhist Paths to liberation where a conscious, voluntary action is driven by an incomplete reasoning about its direction. Upaya is often used with kaushalya (कौशल्य, "cleverness"), upaya-kaushalya meaning "skill in means".
Upaya-kaushalya is a concept emphasizing that practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques that fit the situation in order to gain 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 the true realization in a similar way. 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 (1) the teaching being something to marvel at — the fact that the Buddha can present these difficult truths in everyday language (thus, skillful), yet that (2) they are teachings of a lower order as compared to the ultimate truth, and are far removed from reflecting reality, and are a kind of 'stopgap' measure (thus, expedient).
One consequence of this is that it is possible to endorse a form of Buddhist practice as viable while simultaneously critiquing its premises or contrasting it unfavorably to another, higher practice. 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.
Gregory frames the hermeneutical classification of Buddhist schools (Chinese pànjiào 判教 "doctrinal classification") as an "expedient means:"
The doctrine of expedient means provided the main hermeneutical device by which Chinese Buddhists systematically ordered the Buddha's teachings in their classificatory schemes. 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.
The most important concept in skill in means is the use, guided by wisdom and compassion, of a specific teaching (means) geared to the particular audience taught. 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."
The concept of skillfulness is prominent in Mahayana Buddhism with regards to the actions of a bodhisattva. The idea is that a bodhisattva or practitioner may use any expedient methods in order to help ease the suffering of people, introduce them to the dharma, 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 some Buddhists and exemplified in the conduct of the Tibetan Mahasiddha. Skillful means may theoretically be used by different buddhist groups to make many seemingly proscribed practices, such as violence, theft, and sexuality be employed as skillful. The use of harsh violence to one's disciples has occasionally been used as a way of opening their eyes to the nature of self and suffering; an example is the story of a Zen priest who ended a conversation with a disciple by slamming shut a door on the disciple's leg, fracturing the leg and, according to the story, causing a deep insight in the disciple. There are a number of other stories of Buddhist saints and bodhisattvas taking part in fairly eccentric and unusual behaviors in the practice of skillful means.
The practices and rituals of Vajrayana Buddhism are also often interpreted as a process of skillful means. They are understood to be means whereby practitioners use the very misconceptions and properties of mundane existence to help themselves reach enlightenment.