Skill in Means
The Buddha Dharma has always had the unique ability of being able to adapt to the culture in which it is practiced. This may, in part, be because of the “universality” of its teachings, but it is more likely due to the Buddha’s skill or methods of teaching.
When Buddha taught, he utilized upaya-kaushalya (Pali: upaya-kosalla; expedient or skillful means), which refers to strategies or methods that are targeted to the capacities, circumstances, likes and dislikes of each sentient being – thus being able to lead each of them to Enlightenment. This is evident in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta:
“Now there are eight kinds of assemblies, Ananda, that is to say, assemblies of nobles, brahmans, householders, ascetics, of the Four Great Kings, of the Thirty-three gods, of Maras, and of Brahmas.
And I recall, Ananda, how I have attended each of these eight kinds of assemblies, amounting to hundreds. And before seating myself and starting the conversation or the discussion, I made my appearance resemble theirs, my voice resemble theirs. And so I taught them the Dhamma, and roused, edified, and gladdened them. Yet while I was speaking to them thus, they did not know me, and they would inquire of one another, asking: ‘Who is he that speaks to us? Is it a man or a god?’
Then having taught them the Dhamma, and roused, edified, and gladdened them, I would straightaway vanish. And when I had vanished, too, they did not know me, and they would inquire of one another, asking: ‘Who is he that has vanished? Is it a man or a god?’
And such, Ananda, are the eight kinds of assemblies.”
So Buddha would appear at an “assembly” and initiate a discussion with an appearance and voice like theirs. Yet even though he roused their attention, taught them the Dhamma, and edified them, they didn’t even know who he was. As soon as the discussion was over, he vanished. They never knew if he was truly a man or god.
The Lankavatara Sutra clarifies even more that the Buddha appears, teaches and is understood according to one’s own circumstances and capacities:
“The same, Mahamati, can be said of myself, for I come within the range of hearing of ignorant people, in this world of patience, under many names, amounting to a hundred thousand times three asamkhyeyas, and they address me by these names not knowing that they are all other names of the Tathagata.
Of these, Mahamati, some recognise me as the Tathagata, some as the Self-existent One, some as Leader, as Vinayaka (Remover of Obstacles), as Parinayaka (Guide), as Buddha, as Rishi (Ascetic), as Bull-king, as Brahma, as Vishnu, as Isvara, as Original Source (pradhana), as Kapila, as Bhutanta (End of Reality), as Arishta, as Nemina, as Soma (moon), as the Sun, as Rama, as Vyasa, as Suka, as Indra, as Balin, as Varuna, as is known to some; while others recognise me as One who is never born and never passes away, as Emptiness, as Suchness, as Truth, as Reality, as Limit of Reality, as the Dharmadhatu, as Nirvana, as the Eternal, as Sameness, as Non-duality, as the Undying, as the Formless, as Causation, as the Doctrine of Buddha-cause, as Emancipation, as the Truth of the Path, as the All-Knower, as the Victor, as the Will-made Mind.
Mahamati, thus in full possession of one hundred thousand times three asamkhyeyas of appellations, neither more nor less, in this world and in other worlds, I am known to the peoples, like the moon in water which is neither in it nor out of it. But this is not understood by the ignorant who have fallen into the dualistic conception of continuity.
Though they honour, praise, esteem, and revere me, they do not understand well the meaning of words and definitions; they do not distinguish ideas, they do not have their own truth, and, clinging to the words of the canonical books, they imagine that not being subject to birth and destruction means a non-entity, and fail to see that it is one of the many names of the Tathagata as in the case of Indra, Sakra, Purandara. They have no confidence in the texts where the self-standing truth is revealed, since in their study of all things they follow mere words as expressed in the texts trying thereby to gain into the meaning.”