Teaching and Transforming Living Beings:
The Art of Skillful Means

By Bhikshuni Jin Xiang on July 11, 2014

Tonight, I would like to explore the question of how a Bodhisattva teaches and transforms living beings with expedient means. If there is any mistake, please kindly correct me...The mention of “expedient means” is quite unique to the Mahayana sutras, especially in the Avatamsaka Sutra; it is what Buddhas and bodhisattvas draw on for gathering in living beings. There are prerequisites to using the expedient methods. That is, one needs to have compassion and wisdom. Compassion is a quality that is at the very root of a Buddha or a bodhisattva’s motivation; seeing living beings sunk in the mire of confusion and ignorance, he feels deep empathy and compassion for them and wishes to rescue them out of myriad miseries. Compassion is the substance and wisdom is the navigator.

A Buddha has ten powers, which are not spiritual powers, but powers based in wisdom. The fourth one is the wisdom-power of knowing the superiority or inferiority of the faculties of all living beings, and the fifth one is the wisdom-power of knowing all of the various understandings of living beings.

In the Lotus Sutra, chapter two is titled Expedient Devices. The Buddha addressed Shariputra, “…the Buddhas of the past by means of limitless,countless expedient devices, various causes and conditions, analogies and expressions, have proclaimed all the dharmas to living beings. It will be the same way for the Buddhas of the future. These dharmas are all for the sake of the One Buddha Vehicle and for all beings to ultimately attain the Wisdom of All Modes, the most supreme level of wisdom.

In chapter ten of the Avatamsaka Sutra, “The Bodhisattvas Ask for Clarification,” Manjushri Bodhisattva asked Wealthy Leader Bodhisattva on the profoundness of the teaching and transforming of the Buddhas, “Why does he accord with their practices; why does he accord with their understandings; why does he accord with their languages; why does he accord with their fondnesses; why does he accord with their expediencies; why does he accord with their thoughts; and why does he accord with their considerations, appearing among them in bodies like theirs, in order to teach and transform, tame and subdue them?”

On the part why does he accord with their expediencies, Venerable Master said, “You should know that the reason one must understand many different expedient methods is just because if one attempted to teach and transform sentient beings by the speaking the Dharma without knowing how to intelligently use expedients, they would not be receptive to one’s teaching and transforming.”

I believe that like the Buddha, Bodhisattvas have the same intention and skills to teach and transform beings. The Avatamsaka Sutra says that the Fourth-Ground bodhisattva, among the Four Dharmas of Attraction, emphasizes the cultivation of the dharma of similar work to gather in living beings. How does a bodhisattva do it? One time, the Venerable Master was asked, “When people make vows to be reborn in whatever form necessary to save sentient beings, it seems to me that they should have some idea of what they are trying to do--obtain a body, or get rid of a body.” Venerable Master answered, “Bodhisattvas know exactly how they come [into this life] and exactly how they go…A real Bodhisattva comes and goes as easily as a rich person can casually travel anywhere he wishes.…they are not at all confused.”1

In the Universal Door Chapter, we can see Guanyin Bodhisattva is described as using many skillful means, which require a combination of compassion and wisdom. It shows how patient and understanding Guanyin Bodhisattva is. The Bodhisattva performed miracles to establish affinities with beings and caused them gradually to develop affinity with the Dharma. One of the ways he established affinities with beings is in his ingenious capacity to appear in thirty-two forms in order to teach them. Taking these forms, though its number is not limited to a fixed number, is a manifestation of the Bodhisattva’s wisdom and vision in bringing beings with different potentials and inclinations closer to liberation. It shows his understanding of psychology and social skills. It also demonstrates his untiring willingness to engage in the mundane world despite his attainment of transcendence.

How does the Bodhisattva use the worldly knowledge of psychology and social skills? The world we live in seems to operate in natural rhythms. Each country in the world has its own seasonal rhythm; rituals in this Buddha Hall are operated through rhythmic beatings of wooden fish and bell and drum in synchrony with the ritual leader. Our own body also operates in rhythms. Each of us has his or her own natural rhythm of behavior known as habits and characteristics. Some people have the nature of being quick, while others are slow. Some speak straightforward while others are polite and tactful. If that natural rhythm or tendency is disturbed, a disagreement or an argument may happen. Even inanimate objects have their own innate rhythmic frequency.

In 1940, a suspension bridge in Tacoma, Washington state collapsed under a 40 miles/hour wind, which happened to match that bridge’s natural structural frequency, which was considered an undesirable resonance (or vibration).2 Likewise, a bodhisattva or anybody who wants to persuade or teach others needs to learn how to conduct in tune with others’ natural rhythm or character. If we look at the thirty-two forms that Guanyin Bodhisattva can manifest, we can see that they represent the ten Dharma realms or simply all classes of living beings. Within the thirty-two, the category of humans has the biggest percentage: 41% or 13 out of 32. The classification of humans ranges from youth to elder, female to male, common class to royalty, householder to monastics, and Buddhists to non-Buddhists.



In order to teach and transform beings, first we need to build good affinities with them. As it says in the chapter on “Benefiting Both Self and Others” in the Sutra of Upasaka Precepts, the timing for teaching living beings is either when they are happy or when they are suffering. Guanyin Bodhisattva is able to respond to them in both kinds of situations. We have heard many stories of how Guanyin Bodhisattva has responded to those who were in difficult situations, that is, when they are suffering. The Bodhisattva also recognizes that when people are in a happy mood, it is the best timing to teach and transform them.

The different kinds of forms manifested by Guanyin Bodhisattva can also be explained as appearing one time or long-term. The bodhisattva may appear one time as an Indian chief on a highway to warn somebody on a motorbike to slow down and be careful of the slippery road ahead. Or he may appear as somebody in an impure place to teach the beings there for a long time. A long-term undertaking is a method for teaching those with deep-seated unwholesome qualities or teaching those who do not have much affinity with the Dharma. The Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School in China lived among hunters for fifteen years, teaching them in an appropriate manner.3 The Sutra does not elaborate how the Patriarch taught them, except that he did not eat meat like they did and that he would set free the trapped animals that the hunters caught. In applying the dharma of attraction through similar work, it is only to be feared that we get influenced by others whom we are trying to teach and transform.

A study showed that synchronizing with others’ actions and mannerism give people an advantage in influencing others in a positive way, such as receiving a favorable comment or a cooperative action.4 In other words, a person who wants to help others must learn to connect with them, by being familiar with their jobs, their habits and tendencies. One of the ways is to be in the same occupation as they are or one who has had the same experience or background as they have. For example, there is a man named Ron Glodoski from Michigan. He joined his first gang when he was only 12 years old. He used to sell marijuana and cocaine every week. He eventually left those habits behind and now encouraging kids to avoid this kind of destructive behavior. He is drug-free for over 30 years now. Because he has survived this kind of experience, he is in a position of authority or credibility to persuade young people to follow his model. Since he is in synch (in tune) with the tendencies of the teenagers, he is in the best position to motivate them. On the other hand, if a person without this kind of experience were to tell them what not to do, they might say indignantly, “What do you know? You don’t understand us, so why should we listen to you!”

Living beings are characterized by a sense of identity. Those who speak the same language gather together and form their own towns; those with same interest form their own clubs. That’s why if two people come from the same town, country, or culture, most likely they can associate with each other more easily. If you become one of them, then you can easily persuade or influence them.

Building rapport with others is an important part of teaching and transforming beings. Without the connection of the right affinity, others may just walk out while you’re speaking. When we come up on stage, we often say that we are here to tie affinities. This is not an insignificant matter. I say the right affinity, because it’s an affinity without stickiness, an affinity that will not cause an increase in desire or affliction in oneself and in others, and it’s an affinity done at the right time. From my experience, it is not easy to transform others, especially relatives, using just language and without virtue, because the closeness of a family is an obstacle itself. At one time, I found out from one of my sisters that my father recited a certain sutra to help my mother recover from sickness. I was surprised that my father, who was not really doing any Buddhist practice, was actually practicing something. Over the phone, I asked him to recite for me a bit of that sutra. It turned out that it was the Heart Sutra and he learned about its efficacious power from one of his friends. From this, I realized that it was easier for my father to accept a teaching-advice from his friend than from his children.

I hope people here will take advantage of this opportunity already set up by the Venerable Master and tie affinities with the community members here and learn to speak Dharma. If you want to teach and transform living beings in accord with the Buddha-dharma, then I wish that you will all accomplish in your endeavor.

1 Master Hsuan Hua, Flower Adornment Sutra (Burlingame: BTTS, 2008), 98-99.

2 Robert Duncan Luce, Sound and Hearing: A Conceptual Introduction (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1993), 57.

3 The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra (Burlingame: BTTS, 2002), 108. http://www.cttbusa.org/6patriarch/6patriarch4.asp (July 8, 2014)

4 Lawrence D. Rosenblum, See What I’m Saying (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010), 233-5. The study is cited in Ibid., Notes, p. 322 and is found in S. S. Wiltermuth & C. Heath, “Synchrony and Cooperation,” Psychological Science 20 (2009): 1-5.


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