Skillful Means (SKM)

Programs in Skillful Means (SKM)

Skillful Means, an integral part of Institute programs, had its origins in Tarthang Tulku’s observations that many Westerners view work as a burden or as a means to an end, rather than as a meaningful expression of knowledge and energy. Tarthang Tulku found ways to teach students to transform these attitudes while working, achieving a virtuous circle of increasing satisfaction and effectiveness. The work itself was an education.

After years of collaboration with his students who were working full-time on art or text preservation projects, Tarthang Tulku expressed his thoughts on work in the book Skillful Means, published in 1978. The book outlines the relationship between work and spiritual values. Classes and workshops in Skillful Means have been held regularly since 1979. These courses focus on facets of the work experience such as concentration, appreciation, integrity, ethics, cooperation, and responsibility—all qualities that members of the Nyingma organizations have worked hard to develop. Skillful Means classes taught at the Institute each year include 'Skillful Means', 'Mastering Successful Work', and 'Achieving All Goals'. All are taught by faculty with many years experience applying these teachings in their own professional lives.

Knowledge in action is the essence of the Skillful Means teaching. Work is used as the ground for observing and learning from each experience. Once this approach is learned, any kind of work can support the Skillful Means process. There are three stages in developing a new attitude toward work: acknowledging the attitudes and habits that rob work of significance and turn it into dull routine; implementing new attitudes that will support much more satisfying experience; and sharing our results with others.

At the Institute, Skillful Means first found practical expression in 1976 in The Bakery, a whole-grain bakery specifically created as an experiment in bringing Skillful Means into the workplace. The principles of Skillful Means went onward to Odiyan, where they continue to shape attitudes toward work and spiritual practice. Tarthang Tulku prepared whole courses of study for his working students that emphasize the relationship between spiritual success and productive work. These teachings form the basis of Mastering Successful Work, published for the benefit of a wider audience in 1994.

Participants in volunteer programs receive applied training in Skillful Means; integrating Buddhist teachings with the practical necessities of running a business has been essential to its successful functioning. Under Tarthang Tulku’s guidance, Dharma Press pioneered the implementation of Skillful Means in the workplace in the 1970s, even before the publication of the book. In the 1980s, when a new organization was established to take on commercial press work, it took the name Skillful Means Press and made Skillful Means a prominent aspect of its work ethic. In 1987, when Dharma Enterprises took over from Skillful Means Press, these practices—the direct application of spiritual principles in the workplace—remained central to its operations. Applying Skillful Means in all of Tarthang Tulku’s organizations, TNMC students and Nyingma volunteers have been able to make solid contributions to the growth of the Nyingma mandala. Teachings presented as part of Skillful Means have proven to have long-range benefits for participants regardless of whether or not they continue to work within the Nyingma organizations.

In 1984 teachings on the spiritual values of work were further integrated into Institute programs through a series of sacred art projects. Beautiful and rewarding in themselves, these projects involved participants directly in work related to Dharma teachings and transmission. Since that time, sacred art, prayer wheel, and text projects at the Institute have been an ongoing demonstration of Skillful Means in action. The success of these projects has instilled confidence in the dynamic potential for learning that comes through the integration of study, practice, and work. Inspired by the quality and value of the results, both for the individuals who participate in the work and for Tibetan text and art preservation, the Institute continues to focus on programs that give people the opportunity to live, study, and work within an active Buddhist community.