The Buddhist principle of skill in means and theorising communication

I was struck recently that my teenage encounter with the Buddhist principle of skills-in-means was the start of an interest in communication which has increasingly defined my research over the last decade. As Edward Conze puts it, this refers to “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”. If I understand correctly, it foregrounds effective communication (in the sense of bringing about the realisation of spiritual potentials of others) instead of ultimate truths which may not be easily communicable. It highlights the purposes of communication rather than simply the content of communication, opening up a space in which this can be modulated to better suit the specific character of different contexts and different audiences. It suggests to me a sense of repertoire, the need to cultivate a range of modes of expression, in order to communicate with others in a way which is potentially transformative. This in turn implies an understanding of contexts and the people within them, as well as what this means for how we modulate our message. It intrigues me that so much of how I theorise communication was latent within my teenage musings about this principle after I first encountered it.

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