During the middle part of my twenties, I studied Buddhism at SOAS, University of London and then at the University of Michigan. A very common phrase found in English translations of Buddhist texts is ‘expedient means’ or ‘skilful means’, from the Sanskrit उपाय upāya. Although I’ve barely read any Buddhist texts for over ten years now, recently this phrase has been coming to mind quite often and it was only when I read the Wikipedia article for upāya that I realised the connection to my current work.
Upaya (Sanskrit: उपाय upāya, “Expedient Means” or “pedagogy”)  is a term in Mahayana Buddhism which comes from the word upa√i and refers to something which goes or brings you up to something (i.e., a goal). It is essentially the Buddhist term for dialectics. The term is often used with kaushalya (कौशल्य, “cleverness”); upaya-kaushalya means roughly “skill in means”. Upaya-kaushalya is a concept which emphasizes that practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques in order to cease suffering and introduce others to the dharma. 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 true realization anyway.
I’d never thought of upāya as ‘pedagogy‘ but this translation does make sense to me. It is a technique, a practice, a method of instruction, that may further one’s understanding of something, or taught to further the understanding of others. It’s also interesting that the Wikipedia article refers to upāya as the term for Buddhist dialectics. I don’t think this is strictly true as there are examples of upāya in the literature which use parable or kōan for example, but it’s true that in the early scholarly (monastic) texts, negative dialectics is a preferred method of pursuing truth. Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamaka school of Buddhist thought is a good example of this. The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism still maintains a tradition of negative dialectical debate in its monasteries.
Although, as I learned to both my interest and frustration, the interpretation of ancient religious and philosophical ideas is constantly open to debate, it is conceivable that upāya might be understood and expressed as a pedagogical praxis of negative dialectics, or more simply, a critical pedagogy. It’s also occurred to me that there might be some value in thinking about ‘expedient means’ in light of Holloway’s work on negativity, his No! and Marx’s ‘negation of negation‘.
No opens. It opens a new conceptual world. It also opens a new world of doing… Our no is a negation of the negation, but the negation of the negation is not positive, but a deeper negation, as Adorno points out.1
The negation of the negation does not bring us back to a reconciliation, to a positive world, but takes us deeper into the world of negation, moves us onto a different theoretical plane.
There’s clearly a lot to clarify and flesh out but, broadly speaking, I think the idea of ‘expedient means’ is a useful way of organising and developing my thinking. In pedagogical terms, what is technology’s dialectic? How might it be used as an expedient or skilful means, which leads to a better understanding of ourselves and our predicament?
To reflect this new approach to my work, which has been emerging since the start of this year, I’ve changed the title of this blog. The previous ../learninglab/joss title no longer made much sense anyway, as the blog is no longer hosted on the Learning Lab.
- Adorno, Theodor 1990, Negative Dialectics, London: Routledge. The quote is from Holloway, John. No. Historical Materialism, Volume 13. Number 4. pp. 265-285. [↩]