Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Skillful Means

Skillful Means, upaya-kaushalya कौशल्य
Pointedly emphasized in Mahayana Buddhism, this concept emphasizes discovering our own, personal best widom-ways in each unique situation rather than relying on external ethics, moralities, and commandments. Applied to Eastern spiritual practices for thousands of years in all cultures, this approach also extends to the politics of ancients like Sun Tzu, European philosophers like Machiavelli and Balthasar Gracian, even to modern Christian approaches like the theologies of people like Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich.

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Quotes (68)

“When it is a man’s fate to undertake new beginnings, everything is still unformed, dark. Therefore he must hold back because any premature move might bring disaster.”

Fu Xi 伏羲 c. 2852–2737 BCE via Richard Wilhelm, Hexagram 3, "Difficuty at the Beginning"
Emperor/shaman progenitor of civilization symbol
from I Ching

52. Cultivating the Changeless

“As surely as bandits hate their chief so do the people of a country resent whatever is over them… (the wise) knowing that a kingdom cannot be mounted get under it; knowing that the people cannot be led he keeps behind them.”

Huangdi 國語 2698 – 2598 BCE
(The Yellow Emperor)
Taoist patron saint, founder of Chinese civilization
from Internal Book of Medicine

48. Unlearning

“The highest form of goodness is like water... In making a move, know how to choose he right moment.”

Lao Tzu 老子 604 BCE - via John Wu, chapter 8
(Lǎozǐ)
from Tao The Ching

8. Like Water

“Never does a sage go ahead of other men, but always follows in their wake.”

Yin Xi 關尹子 536 – 596 BCE via Watson, 1968
Lao Tzu’s first disciple and Taoist patriarch

“I have shown you the methods that lead to liberation but you should know that liberation depends only upon yourself.”

Buddha गौतम बुद्ध 563 – 483 BCE via Matthieu Ricard
(Siddhartha Shakyamuni Gautama)
Awakened Truth
from Journey to Enlightenment

Themes: Skillful Means

38. Fruit Over Flowers

“Therefore, 100 victories in 100 battles is not the most skillful. Subduing the other’s military without battle is the most skillful.”

Sun Tzu 孙武 544 – 496 BCE via Denma Translation Group
(Sun Zi)
HIstory's supreme strategist
from Art of War 孙子兵法

Themes: Skillful Means

66. Go Low

“Only a person who can refuse to act in inappropriate situations is capable of acting at appropriate times.”

Mencius 孟子 372 – 289 BCE via Daniel K. Gardner, Shan Dao
(Mengzi)
from Book of Mencius 孟子

“Nowadays I see with my whole being not with my eyes. I sense the natural lines, and my knife slides through by itself… I stand there and let the joy of the work fill me.”

Chuang Tzu 莊周 369 – 286 BCE via Stephen Mitchell
(Zhuangzi)

from Zhuangzi

Themes: Skillful Means

28. Turning Back

“Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.”

Archimedes 287 – 212 BCE
(of Syracuse)

Themes: Skillful Means

“The difficulty in speaking to a person is not that of knowing what to say but in knowing the mind of the person spoken to and fitting the best approach to it.”

Hán Fēi 韓非 280 – 233 BCE via Lin Yutang, Shan Dao
from Hanfeitse

“Too many deals impoverish the merchant, too much artistry exhausts the craftsman. When the span of a tree is great, its height is compromised. When the flow of a river is wide, its depth is compromised. If you have knowledge but not skillful means, you will never accomplish anything.”

Liú Ān 劉安 c. 179–122 BCE
(Huainanzi)
from Huainanzi

“They are free and do nothing, yet there is nothing they do not do… All thing have their outcomes, but only sages know how to keep to the root… they respond like echoes without wearing out.”

Liú Ān 劉安 c. 179–122 BCE via Thomas Cleary
(Huainanzi)
from Huainanzi

Themes: Skillful Means

6. The Source

“The skillful employer will employ the wise, the brave, the covetous, and the stupid because the wise delight in establishing merit, the brave in showing their courage in action, the covetous in seizing advantages, and the stupid in having no fear of death.”

Sima Qian 司馬遷 145 – 86 BCE via Burton Watson, Shan Dao
(Ssu-ma Ch'ien)
from Shiji, Records of the Grand Historian, 太史公書

“If the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.”

Anonymous -800 to present via Carl Jung
Freedom from the narrow boxes defined by personal history

Themes: Skillful Means

“Watch a man in times of adversity to discover what kind of man he is; for then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off.”

Lucretius 99 – 55 BCE
(Titus Carus)
from De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)

“He has half the deed done who has made a beginning.”

Horace 65 – 8 BCE

Themes: Skillful Means

64. Ordinary Mind

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

Seneca ˈsɛnɪkə 4 BCE – 65 CE
(Lucius Annaeus)

Themes: Skillful Means

38. Fruit Over Flowers

“What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

Plutarch 46 – 120 CE
(Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus)

Themes: Skillful Means

29. Not Doing

“The wise create enlightened vision with modesty and grace.”

Lakshmincara ལཀྵྨཱིངྐ་རཱ།། c. 8th Century CE via Keith Dowman
(“The Princess of Crazy wisdom”)
from Masters of Mahamudra

Themes: Skillful Means

80. A Golden Age

“How to act like a Buddha? With total abstention from action never letting passion, aggression, ignorance, or belief that things exist or don’t exist influence how you act.”

Hui Hai 大珠慧海 788 – 831 CE
from Essential Gate for Entry Into Sudden Enlightenment (Tun-wu ju dao yao-men)

“So minute it enters where there is no gap, so vast it transcends dimension. A hairsbreadth’s deviation, and you’re out of tune.”

Dongshan Liangjie 洞山良价 807 – 869 CE
(Dòngshān Liángjiè; Tōzan Ryōkai)
from Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi

Themes: Skillful Means

“A good sentence is a stake to which a donkey can be tethered for ten thousand aeons.”

Huating Decheng 華亭德誠 820 – 858 CE via Charles Luk

Themes: Skillful Means

“Like a tightrope walker with perfect balance, journey on the high rope joining skillful means and wisdom.”

Bhikṣanapa བྷི་ཀྵ་ན་པ། 940 CE – via Keith Dowman, Shan Dao
("Siddha Two-Teeth")
Mahasiddha #61

“The essential way is to focus on one thing and in action find absolute peace with no desire; impartial, straightforward, tranquil, and all-embracing.”

Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 1017 – 1073 CE via Shan Dao
(Chou Tun-i)
from Penetrating the Book of Changes

“Knowledge without action is wastefulness and action without knowledge is foolishness.”

Al-Ghazali أبو حامد محمد بن محمد الطوسي الغزالي 1058 – 1111 CE
(Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali)
Philosopher of Sufism

Themes: Skillful Means

“Operating without self they cannot be buried in the cocoon of past conditioning.”

Hóngzhì Zhēngjué 宏智正覺 1091 – 1157 CE
(Shōgaku)
from Cultivating the Emplty Field

Themes: Skillful Means

41. Distilled Life

“Realize that not a single thing exists and respond unencumbered to each spec of dust without becoming its partner.”

Hóngzhì Zhēngjué 宏智正覺 1091 – 1157 CE
(Shōgaku)
from Cultivating the Emplty Field

Themes: Skillful Means

21. Following Empty Heart

“Only by carefully considering each set of circumstances, and following what’s called for by those circumstances can one act in accord with the appropriate course of action.”

Zhu Xi 朱熹 1130 – 1200 CE via Daniel K. Gardner
(Zhū Xī)
from Four Books

“There must be knowledge before there can be will. Extensive study must come first, earnest practice last.”

Lù Jiǔyuān 陸九淵 1139 – 1192 CE via Chan
(Lu Xiangshan)

Themes: Skillful Means

“Like a dream, our actions seem to not be very meaningful or important; but, they bring about all the variety of happiness and suffering.”

Longchenpa ཀློང་ཆེན་རབ་འབྱམས་པ། 1308 – 1364 CE via Herbert V. Guenther, Shan Dao
(Longchen Rabjampa, Drimé Özer)
from Kindly Bent to Ease Us, Trilogy of Finding Comfort and Ease ངལ་གསོ་སྐོར་གསུམ་

“Begin helping sentient beings by first finding their determination to be free.”

Tsongkhapa ཙོང་ཁ་པ། 1357 – 1419 CE via Shan Dao
(Zongkapa Lobsang Zhaba, "the Man from Onion Valley")

Themes: Skillful Means

“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

Machiavelli 1469 – 1527 CE
(Niccolò Machiavelli)
from The Prince

“If we are to achieve things never before accomplished we must employ methods never before attempted.”

Francis Bacon 1561 – 1626 CE

Themes: Skillful Means

59. The Gardening of Spirit

“Flattery is more dangerous than hatred... A wise person gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Joseph Jacobs, #84
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Skillful Means

“The chief rule of life is to keep a double store of good and useful qualities.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Joseph Jacobs, chapter #134
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Skillful Means

“Always act as if others were watching… know that walls have ears and that ill deeds rebound back… know that sooner or later, all will be known.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Skillful Means

73. Heaven’s Net

“Do not always do things the same way.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Joseph Jacobs, #17
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

Themes: Skillful Means

“Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.”

Isaac Newton 1642 – 1726 CE

Themes: Skillful Means

“Great people, while being very wise, appear to be ignorant; while being very skillful, they appear inept… they cannot be influenced by circumstances… they are not concerned with externals… they find good fortune wherever they are.”

Liu Yiming 刘一明 1734 – 1821 CE via Thomas Cleary
(Liu I-ming)
from Taoist I Ching, , Zhouyi chanzhen 周易闡真

Themes: Skillful Means

41. Distilled Life

“The greatest happiness is to transform one's feelings into action.”

Madame de Staël 1766 – 1817 CE
(Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein)
"The greatest woman of her time"

Themes: Skillful Means

“when you bring bad news, rouse me instantly for then there is not a moment to lose!”

Napoleon Bonaparte 1769 – 1821 CE via Will Durant

Themes: Skillful Means

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.”

Disraeli, Benjamin 1804 – 1881 CE
(Earl of Beaconsfield )
Political balance between mob rule and tyranny

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.”

Henry David Thoreau 1817 – 1862 CE
Father of environmentalism and America's first yogi
from Walden or Life in the Woods

Themes: Skillful Means

53. Shameless Thieves

“Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends.”

Friedrich Engels 1820 – 1895 CE
Businessman-philosopher, political theorist

“Denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.”

William L. Watkinson 1838 – 1925 CE
Well-known and accomplished Christian preacher

“It's a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover ability in others is the true test.”

Elbert Hubbard 1856 – 1915 CE

Themes: Skillful Means

62. Basic Goodness

“The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn.”

Bertrand Russell 1872 – 1970 CE
“20th century Voltaire”

Themes: Skillful Means

“in the past as well as in the present, an... increase of skill has not, of itself, insured any increase of human happiness or well-being.”

Bertrand Russell 1872 – 1970 CE
“20th century Voltaire”
from Unpopular Essays

Themes: Skillful Means

“Everything depends on the man and little or nothing on the method.”

Carl Jung 1875 – 1961 CE
Insightful shamanistic scientist

Themes: Skillful Means

“in order to attain any definite goal it is imperative that one person should do the thinking and commanding.”

Albert Einstein 1879 – 1955 CE

Themes: Skillful Means

42. Children of the Way

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein 1879 – 1955 CE

Themes: Skillful Means

61. Lying Low

“Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation.”

Teilhard de Chardin 1881 – 1955 CE via Bernard Wall
from Phenomenon of Man

Themes: Skillful Means

39. Oneness

“No time, no devotion, can be too great, therefore, which makes the vehicle of our message less distorting. We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts [and] Thoughts are divine.”

Virginia Woolf 1882 – 1941 CE
from Orlando: A Biography

“You prefer to use Pavlov for brainwashing, Pavlov for selling cigarettes and vodka and patriotism. Pavlov for the benefit of dictators, generals and tycoons… but Pavlov could be used for good purposes, for friendliness and trust and compassion.”

Aldous Huxley 1894 – 1963 CE
from Island

“As long as you are conscious of yourself, you can never concentrate on anything.”

Walpola Rahula Thero 1907 – 1997 CE
“Supreme Master of Buddhist Scriptures”

Themes: Skillful Means

“Humor is essential to a successful tactician, for the most potent weapons known to mankind are satire and ridicule.”

Saul Alinsky 1909 – 1972 CE

Themes: Skillful Means

“To meet someone who really hurts you is to meet a rare and precious treasure. Hold that person in high esteem, and make full use of the opportunity to eradicate your defects.”

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche དིལ་མགོ་མཁྱེན་བརྩེ། 1910 – 1991 CE
"Mind" incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo

Themes: Skillful Means

31. Victory Funeral

“We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.”

John Holt 1923 – 1985 CE
from How Children Fail

Themes: Skillful Means

38. Fruit Over Flowers

“Through skillful means we are able to conserve subtle energy by expressing it carefully in small amounts with pauses... When we express ourselves excessively with excitement... our energy is lost and we feel anxious and depressed... it is best to keep energy contained without expressing it until we get results, until we develop confidence.”

Thinley Norbu གདུང་སྲས་ཕྲིན་ལས་ནོར་བུ 1931 – 2011 CE
(Kyabjé Dungse)
from Magic Dance (1981)

“The secret to success is thinking things through before acting. The cause of failure is thinking things through before acting. Holding this dichotomy is the beginning of ’skillful means.’”

Shan Dao 山道 1933 CE –

Themes: Skillful Means

“Act the way you'd like to be and soon you'll be the way you act.”

Leonard Cohen 1934 – 2016 CE

“Just fully being skillful involves total lack of inhibition. We are not afraid to be. We are not afraid to live… like a tiger in the jungle.”

Chögyam Trungpa 1939 – 1987 CE
from Myth of Freedom

57. Wu Wei

Rosa Parks triggered the civil rights movement and proved you can be an activist by sitting down.”

Mary Catherine Bateson 1939 CE –

“He subdues what needs to be subdued, he destroys what needs to be destroyed and he cares for whatever needs his care.”

Chögyam Trungpa 1939 – 1987 CE via Nalanda Translation Committee
from Sadhana of Mahamudra

“The longer you practice nonviolence…, the more likely you are to do something intelligent”

Joan Baez 1941 CE –

“Successful organizations, including the Military, have learned that the higher the risk, the more necessary it is to engage everyone's commitment and intelligence.”

Meg Wheatley 1944 CE –
Bringing ancient wisdom into the modern world.

Themes: Skillful Means

“Best self-interest lies in achieving universal well-being… When the goal of self-=interest is seen to be perfectly isomorphic with universal well-being, bad people will do what it takes to get universal well-being.”

Kim Stanley Robinson 1952 CE –
from 2312

30. No War

“Best self-interest lies in achieving universal well-being… When the goal of self-=interest is seen to be perfectly isomorphic with universal well-being, bad people will do what it takes to get universal well-being.”

Kim Stanley Robinson 1952 CE –
from 2312

30. No War

Sources

Analects

by Confucius

History's most influential "failure"

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