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Daily Connection: Upaya and Provocation?

Looking over the comments analyzing the impact of IDP's new "This Body Will Be A Corpse" T-shirt, the overriding concern of many revolves around its alleged ostentatious presentation that may very well inflict more damage on others who have suffered from death and sickness with its large, bold, in-yo-face lettering, than skillfully encourage deep contemplation on the nature and truth of impermanence.

As an admittedly young Buddhist practitioner, the noticeable and popular referral to the idea of skillfulness in these critiques intrigued me. What precisely did this notion of upaya ethically mandate? How did the Buddha clarify this principle? So, imagine my surprise when the most well-known and famous historical example of this teaching is in the Lotus Sutra wherein a desperate father resorts to lying to his sons to quickly and expediently evacuate them from their burning home. Indeed, apparently some teachers have even resorted to inflicting physical pain on disciples in the name of upaya if a particular lesson might be better understood. Clearly then, the principle of upaya is a deeply complex and context specific idea that permits provocation and even sometimes the infliction of pain to render a teaching or message more intelligible to an audience. How terribly and wonderfully confusing and controversial! And being somewhat context specific, this, of course, entails that any clear, decisive judgment on its application renders it an ethical dilemma that only the individual practitioner can fully appreciate and solve in a given circumstance. Perhaps then it might be good to remember that the wearing of a T-shirt can in no way fully participate or exhaust the upaya of an interaction, as it is really more of a instigation to a conversation, an encounter, a moment with others wherein the ultimate conduct and demeanor of the wearer is significantly more vital to the practice of upaya than the possible incitement of any initially perceived message. Happy Thursday.

"'Skill in means is 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." - Edward Conze

"The Tathagata...is without falsehood. First he preaches the three vehicles to attract and guide living beings, but later he employs just the Great Vehicle to save them. Why? The Tathagata possesses measureless wisdom, power, freedom from fear, the storehouse of the Dharma. He is capable of giving to all living beings the Dharma of the Great Vehicle. But not all of them are capable of receiving it. Shariputra, for this reason you should understand that the Buddhas employ the power of expedient means." - Guatama Buddha

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be here now

It puts the attention and the mind on the future. just be here now.

An excellent point: talk

An excellent point: talk about an unmindful shirt. The body IS a living entity and a corpse simultaneously. Cells are dying and new cells are replacing them (for the most part). This emphasis on the future contradicts mindful presence.

This shirt is aggressive in

This shirt is aggressive in the precise way that masochism is often aggressive. As if the market isn't already flooded with this same marketing strategy. The shirt is, to use a coinage of my good friend Steve Covino, SWOOT (i.e., the opposite of sweet).

Uh oh

Your body will be a corpse too! ;)

Yep, it will. But I ain't

Yep, it will. But I ain't wearing a gimmicky shirt that says something along the lines of "Death can't fuck me up, fucker, because I'm already fucked." The irony is that the so-called philosophical Buddhists who rock this shirt are just as scared of dying as anyone else is.


so happy to see all this discussion about this topic. can't wait to wash my shirt and wear it again.


can you give me some sense of your view in wearing it -- what's the thought/attitude/belief under it?

I'm totally sincere here. no snark. only lani has given any sense of what it means for her, and I'm curious about others.

Critique of the Critiques :)

The shirt does not say "You're gonna die."

It says "I'm gonna die." It is a personal statement on the part of the practitioner.

there seems to be a subtle but crucially huge difference to me.

Do you know that the Rubin Museum put out a t-shirt last year that says: "Remember that YOU will die"?

That seems a lot more controversial and in your face, because that's not a statement about the wearer, but the viewer.

Can't we tell the truth about our own bodies on our own bodies?

I don't love being confronted by the nike logo on people's clothing personally - a statement that literally stands for nothing.

What if I find materialism confrontational and offensive (not that I take it personally, but what if I did)?

Also, I find the tone of critiques thus far to be somewhat theoretical (no personal attacks intended to anyone, but it's all about what might or could happen if you wear one, not what has happened).

About 150 of these t-shirts have been sold. Perhaps we should wait to see what people's actual experience is when wearing them?

I agree wholeheartedly with commenters who have said that context (both how you explain the shirt and in whose company you wear it) is REALLY important. I am going to be very careful in which context I wear mine.

However, The context of our actions and statements is ALWAYS important. Not just here.

Our next shirt will be in reference to another of the four reminders - joyful human life. That one's less controversial for sure.

I love the conversations we have at IDP!

Keep the critiques coming :)

Love to all.

you can wear anything you want

and you can find anything anyone else wears offensive.

it's up to you.

my initial reaction -- because I appreciate the reminder and I support IDP -- was that I should get a shirt. then I thought about the context in which I would feel comfortable wearing it, and I had some doubts.

it's not theoretical to me. I know my reaction to seeing it all over my facebook newsfeed. I don't want to go into the reasons in a public forum, but I don't want to put this particular reminder out there right now.

I'll probably still buy a shirt. maybe I'll give it to my kid. he wears confrontational shirts -- but he knows the context in which to cover up. (not to give him too much credit. he had his yearbook picture junior year in a shirt that said "grabass charlestons." you can guess where they cropped it.

context is always important.


well, i do love the shirt for the amazing conversation it's provoked! really good debate about some juicy topics.

wear it among buddhists, who understand the context: maybe. as an insider thing it's funny, and a good reminder (if potentially insensitive to some).

elsewhere: not for me.

i think, as Buddhists, what we are trying to do, and are NEEDED to do is simply listen first without preconceptions or an agenda... just Bear Witness. Not broadcast the dharma without a deeper context.

my main concern is simply that a loud statement like this (or any other) makes it harder for others to feel comfortable opening up. it says, "i have a strong opinion about things, and i'd be happy to share it with you!".... which potentially shuts down the viewer from opening up. It says, "listen to me!"

By not pushing your thoughts in front of you, you make room for others to share with you. And by not wearing a provocative statement on your shirt, you will probably find more opportunity for the safe intimacy that deep listening requires. and a chance to share the dharma in a way that serves the listener and is particular to that present moment for them.

hello! i certainly agree that

hello! i certainly agree that cultivating a space that is inviting is imperative for any ethical interaction with others. i suppose i just feel that a t-shirt is a very small component of the overall approachability of a person and that demeanor, conduct, etc. are also integral aspects of any effort to support and encourage intimacy. in this case then, the provocative nature of the shirt relies very much on its wearer to manage its message as incendiary or simply stimulating.

Hi Lani, i'm the writer

Hi Lani,

i'm the writer above, mu6 - monica (can anyone tell me how i got this name mu6, btw? )

I do totally agree with that.
even just who the wearer is and and where it's worn gives a wildly different meaning. it would be interesting to see a voluptuous stripper wearing it in a club. and something different totally different still to see an emaciated, cadaver-like runway model in it. How abuot a 3-year old playing at the payground? Or an enormously overweight person at McDonald's? Or a patient in a cancer or AIDS ward of a hospital? Talk about death practice. Or a high school biology teacher.... Or a buddhist meditating.

the context is astonishingly powerful in shaping the meaning. I love that fact! It's kind of an awesome reflection on ART, written language, and meaning. (does the meaning of the words lie with the words and the message? the wearer? the viewer? the t-shirt as medium?) Decontructionsist could go wild with it.

On a side note, i asked my 2 teenage boys what they thought of it, without telling them it was from a buddhist organization.
Older son (17) said. "Yeah, emo. Is it from a death metal band or something? i'd wonder what was getting them so down, and i probably would avoid them at a party."
Younger son (15), who writes a lot of poetry about death, incidentally, said, "Why does everyone obsess about the future? I'd be like, dude, just enjoy what you got going on right now." (heh - that one made me think.)

i love the awesome conversation. :)

I'd feel differently

if the type weren't so aggressive. teachers use all kinds of tools to teach lessons, but they're teaching to someone who has come to them to learn something. wearing a T-shirt in public is transmitting your message to everyone without considering whether they are able to receive your teaching. the best teachers tailor their instruction to the student. some people need a metaphorical smack in the head to learn a particular lesson. others will shut down -- not only to your method but to your message.

the vast majority of people who would see it in a public arena have no idea that it's a teaching and certainly not that it has anything to do with impermanence. how many people really contemplate what they read on someone else's shirt?

I find myself dancing on a strange middle ground here. I believe that we're responsible for our own reactions to others' stimuli, but if we're setting out to be provocative, then that changes.

I guess it comes down to view and intention. why are you wearing it -- to be aggressive? to smack people in the head? to raise awareness of impermanence? -- and what lies under that? a belief that everybody would be better off if they were buddhist? and what lies under that? arrogance? pride? and what lies under that? I know what's best for everybody?

hmmmm ... learn to love the questions.

I'm more interested in teaching by example than by smacking people in the head.

hey nancy! on a purely

hey nancy! on a purely personal note, i didn't think of the message as dharma (although it is, of course, in reference to a particular teaching) per say but simply as an uncomfortable - dare i say, inconvenient? - truth. pure, unfiltered real.i.ty. its jarring and dislocating message frankly compelled me to explore it more deeply. i suppose why i enjoying wearing this t-shirt is because i often find that the stakes of my exploration of a concept are much higher and require me to be much more articulate when they are done publicly. i do, however, agree that perhaps the type could be tweaked as it seems to be more reminiscent of yelling for people than simply stating a message clearly and legibly.

buy this shirt and support IDP

The InterDependence Project (IDP) brings a secular and highly accessible approach to studying and practicing Buddhist meditation, psychology, and philosophy. look to your right ... buy this shirt and support IDP. I can't disconnect them. (what if it said BUY THIS SHIRT AND SUPPORT IDP. yes, sir.)

personally, I like to explore my concepts in private. I've worked at local newspapers for all of my adult life, where obvious statements of affiliation are discouraged so wearing blatant statements of belief feels uncomfortable. being a reporter in a small city where you live and raise children means it's wise not to be provocative. there's enough yelling about the news.

totally clear and legible.

Man. Buddhists. Psh.

and frankly, a part of me

and frankly, a part of me LOVES to be playfully provocative. and loves to have others playfully provoke me. as. um. this did. touche!

hahaha! now that i reread

hahaha! now that i reread that you'd think i was an academic. "clear and legible." ha!

war tactics

I feel like in the 21st Century employing 21st Century tactics isn't the worst thing that could happen.


I vote for new "THIS BODY WILL" and "BE A CORPSE" brass knuckles. Anyone?

brass knuckles

you wear those matt, and I'll take a tiny tarnished brass coffin pendant to wear around my neck.  


I would be honored. In italics.

He's got a big ego - Beyonce.

It’s interesting that someone title their response to the Worst Horse’s post as “Smug not Snug”. It’s what came up after reading this post.

With that said, I like the T-Shirt and I look forward to seeing it on someone, although when I first saw the ad I wonder if the type had be thoroughly thought out.

Punching someone in the face is an expedient way of stopping aggression. It’s also an expedient way to get a complicated blow back that promotes further aggression.

Once again, I think the T-shirt is great but using the Dharma (as you have done in this post) to condone an act not fully intended to wake up but also to promote IDP, makes it seem fishy.

Instead of stating that this T-Shirt is an act of a Buddha, why not hear what’s being said and allow that communication to help you understand how effective it is and also how to improve “if” necessary. It may take sometime to get a good sense of how effective it is, so working the paramita of patience may be a good way to go.

In the end, you do want people to be receptive to the thought AND to IDP. Great!! but if you bitch slap them, then tell them you’re entitled to for their own sake…. Well that simply comes off as an inflated ego.

dear anonymous, i am a bit

dear anonymous,

i am a bit confused by some of your comments. i am certainly making a fairly explicit connection between a recent conversation on the idp blog regarding idp t-shirts and skillfulness but frankly, i'm a bit surprised to be accused of condoning an act and being a part of some type of promotional campaign. i'm also completely confused by your phrase "act of the buddha." i mean the only sentences that mention the shirt are

1) Looking over the comments analyzing the impact of IDP's new "This Body Will Be A Corpse" T-shirt, the overriding concern of many revolves around its alleged ostentatious presentation that may very well inflict more damage on others who have suffered from death and sickness with its large, bold, in-yo-face lettering, than skillfully encourage deep contemplation on the nature and truth of impermanence.

2) Perhaps then it might be good to remember that the wearing of a T-shirt can in no way fully participate or exhaust the upaya of an interaction, as it is really more of a instigation to a conversation, an encounter, a moment with others wherein the ultimate conduct and demeanor of the wearer is significantly more vital to the practice of upaya than the possible incitement of any initially perceived message.

and the second instance is general and not even a specific mention.

i do think, however, that it is expedient to point out that the t-shirt has nary a mention of idp on it and so this idea of "bitch slapping" people with idp when wearing it seems a bit absurd.


I think the Tshirt would work better if it the type was smaller and maybe not all caps bold. A bold statement with less volume in my opinion would be more effective. A terrifying whisper if you will.

i like this. i think that

i like this. i think that anything that didn't detract from the visibility, simplicity and legibility of the message but perhaps rendered it less visibly harsh is definitely preferable.

And let's not pretend wasn't Juan-Carlos

Speaking of letters, the friggin' "Captcha" code is impossible (all caps) to decipher, it takes me 17 times each time I post. And what's up with the 2 year old crayon scribble look/feel? Not feeling it.


capcha sucks

this one is insane. i understand spam protection but i've certainly abandoned a few comments after 4 or 5 tries. sometimes it works. maybe this one will. every moment is fresh : )

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