The Four Methods of Guidance as a Framework for Engaged Buddhist Ethics and Social Harmony

The Four Methods of Guidance as a Framework for Engaged Buddhist Ethics and Social Harmony:

An Interpretation Based on Scriptural, Tibetan and Indian Commentarial, and Japanese Zen Sources

By Erick Tsiknopoulos (2013)



The Four Methods of Guidance are known in Pāli as cattāri-sagaha-vatthūni, in Sanskrit as चत्वारिसंग्रहवस्तूनि catvāri-sagraha-vastūni or चत्वारिसंग्रहवस्तूनि catu-sagraha-vastu , in Tibetan as བསྡུ་བའི་དངོས་པོ་བཞི་ bsdu ba’i dngos po bzhi or བསྡུ་བའི་དངོས་པོ་རྣམ་པ་བཞི་ bsdu ba’i dngos po rnam pa bzhi, in Chinese as 四攝事 sìshèshì or 四攝法 sìshèfǎ, and the same Chinese characters are used in the Japanese as 四攝法 shishōhō or shishōbo. They are one of the main sets of practices recommended by the Buddha in the Buddhist scriptures for guiding others and being in harmony with people and society, and also for attracting people to the Dharma. In the broader sense here we can think of this leading others towards the Dharma through guidance as “guiding others towards truth, altruism, insight, and virtue”.

The Four Methods of Guidance are as follows:

1) giving (or generosity)

2) kind speech (or pleasant speech)

3) beneficial action (or meaningful action/conduct)

4) consistency (or integrity)

The last one, consistency/integrity, is also translated into English as “identity-action” in the Zen texts that we will discuss here, probably as a reference to the aspect of consistency/integrity which is “action in accord with [consistent or integrated with] the identity, nature, and well-being of oneself and others”.

Thus in the linguistic implications of the terms themselves, we see how these practices are ways to bring about healthy transformation in one’s relationships and society.

The Four Methods of Guidance can and have been rendered in many ways, the main difference being in how the verb is interpreted. Thus we find “The Four Methods of Attraction”, “-Delighting”, “-Maturing”, “-Gathering”, “-Influencing”, “-Magnetizing”, and so forth. In their most common usage in the Tibetan tradition, they are referred to as an aspect of the bodhisattva path in which one uses skillful means to benefit others through guiding them. This is however not the only sense of the term. The way that the term is translated into English usually depends on the context in which the term is used in the respective sources.

Although the primary context for the Four Methods of Guidance has usually been that of improving the individual Dharmic practitioner’s relations with other people by using skillful, compassionate, and charismatic methods, the principles can readily be applied to social issues. The Four Methods of Guidance form a useful framework for learning how to guide oneself in order to guide others. They are signs which point us in the direction of social harmony on the small and large scale, and are like easy-to-remember slogans which can be applied to the vast variety of human interactions. They help the individual deal with the world, guiding the interaction of the “subject” with the “object”, guiding the way that each individual in their own subjective perception deals with the objective experiential field of the world-as-it-manifests in society.

The Four Methods of Guidance are tools for benefiting others through the vehicle of oneself as an active agent in the world, engaged and involved with other people and sentient beings. These four methods can be used in many different situations and for various purposes. For example, on a more mundane level, the Four Methods of Guidance can be used as skillful tools in social interaction and maintaining social harmony, while on a more supermundane level they can be used as a way to attract people in order to benefit them in a deeper way, through actions such as teaching them the Dharma. The Four Methods of Guidance have a wide range of applications, such as social, political, interpersonal, and psychological.

While these teachings are often specifically directed at Bodhisattvas, or rather those trying to follow the Bodhisattva path, and are presented in the language and terminology of a general Buddhist context, in actuality, the value of the Four Methods of Guidance extend far beyond the conventional boundaries of Buddhism, and are relevant to people of all nations, religions, and creeds. As principles of morality, compassion, skillfulness, altruism, and engaged involvement with society and the world, they are useful for everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. It’s quite possible that the Four Methods of Guidance are perhaps more relevant to the world right now than ever before. They hold a profound significance for the modern world as guidelines for a happy social life and a happy society.

The present essay is concerned primarily with the use of these Four Methods of Guidance as a viable guiding ethical framework for social interactions and society as a whole. As an ethical framework, they can be applied on various levels of human experience, and their perspective can inform social situations and problems in a powerful way. As a theory of social and interpersonal conduct, they are a radical statement of altruism, and an insightful analysis of important social factors. It’s possible that they could even form part of the foundation for a kind of Buddhist-inspired “deep sociology”.

The Four Methods of Guidance can function as “guidance guidelines”, that is, guidelines for guidance of oneself and others, which, when employed, are conducive and productive of social integration, harmony, and effective leadership for any individual or society. The Four Methods of Guidance could provide a foundation and framework for a new Buddhist social ethic for the modern world, one which is holistic and all-embracing in its theoretical and practical modalities and applications.

The focus here is not so much on finding evidence of a “social” leaning in the original Buddhist scriptures and texts, but rather an interpretation of them as such, using them as a foundation on which to build a model for interpretation. In particular, by extending the traditional teachings on the beneficial qualities of the Four Methods of Guidance into more universal principles, a kind of altruistic conceptual filter is created which can be used to understand a variety of issues which face humanity on the individual and collective levels.

It can easily be argued that there is generally a strongly social dimension to most Buddhist teachings. At the least, it is not hard to formulate them in such a way, because in general, we tend to find that when one applies most principles and concepts, Buddhist or otherwise, to the individual (the microcosm), similar processes are found to function in the society at large (the macrocosm). This kind of analysis, which is closely linked with modern integral and holistic modes of theoretical analysis, can generally be applied to almost any subject, but it has a special suitability for Buddhism, which encourages us to realize the interdependent and co-arising nature of conditioned existence, that is, the world in all its multifarious aspects, arising under the power of interconnected causes and conditions.

We will proceed with an introduction to some of the teachings on the Four Methods of Guidance in the Buddhist scriptures and commentaries, and here the basic definitions and concepts of the terms and concepts will be discussed. We’ll then come to some of the most prominent examples of literature related to the Four Methods of Guidance in the Japanese Zen tradition, in particular that of Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), the founder of the Sōtō Zen sect and the author of the main text we will examine here, The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance (Jpn: bodaisatta shishōhō) a chapter in the Shōbōgenzō (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye).

Scriptural Sources

In the Sūtra Requested by Oceanic Intellect (Skt: Sagaramatiparipriccha Sūtra, Tib: blo gros rgya mtshos zhus pa’i mdo), the Four Methods of Guidance are listed as one of the “Eighty Inexhaustibles”, or “unceasing factors”, a means of classifying the bodhisattva path in an extensive way. Its form of analytical classification is in some ways similar to the famous categorization for the 37 Factors of Enlightenment (Tib: byang phyogs so bdun), which themselves are part of this more extensive list.

Indian Commentarial Sources

In the Pith Instruction on the Encapsulated Meaning of the Sūtras (Skt: Sūtra-artha-samuccaya-upadesha, Tib: mdo sde’i don kun las btus pa’i man ngag) by Atisha, we find in the Tibetan text (translated under Atisha’s own supervision in Tibet):

               bran lta bu ni bsdu ba’i dngos po bzhi’o

“That which is like a servant is the Four Methods of Guidance.”

Tibetan Commentarial Sources

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition the Four Methods of Guidance are known as the Duway Ngöpo Zhi (bsdu ba’i dngos po bzhi), which in English could be rendered as “the Four Means of Attraction” (literally “factors of gathering”). This indicates that they are methods for positively influencing others and “winning them over” in a mutually beneficial way and ideally for more profound and far-reaching purposes. The term is used most often in the Tibetan Mahāyana context to refer to methods for spiritual teachers and those training on the Bodhisattva path to gather disciples and students, or more simply, ways to bring others to the Dharma. The Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary [bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo], one of the most widely used dictionaries among Tibetan-literates, defines the Four Methods of Guidance as follows:

bsdu ba’i ngo po bzhi/ slob ma rnams bsdu ba’i thab bzhi ste/ chos dang zang zing gi sbyin pa gtong ba dang/ gtam snyan par smra ba/ don spyod pa’am gdul bya’i ‘dod don dang mthun par spyod pa/ don mthun pa’am gdul bya’i bya spyod la bstun nas sgrub pa bcas so/

“The Four Methods of Attraction: Four methods for gathering students, namely, giving the Dharma and material things, speaking pleasant talk, meaningful conduct or conduct which accords with the wishes and aims of those to be trained, and integrity or practicing through being in harmony with the manner of those to be trained.”

The Four Methods of Guidance in Eihei Dōgen Zenji’s

The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance (bodaisatta shishōhō)

Eihei Dōgen Zenji’s seminal work on this subject, The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance (bodaisatta shishōhō), is found in his monumental work, the Shōbōgenzō (The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye). I have chosen a few quotations which are relevant to the subject of society and social harmony, along with my commentary. These are just a sampling of the profound material contained therein.

Even if you govern the Four Continents, you should always convey the correct teaching with non-greed.

Here there is a direct reference to leadership. For a healthy society, the leaders should practice non-greed. This applies to all those who hold power over others in society, from the family unit to presidents and prime ministers.

It is to give away unneeded belongings to someone you don’t know, to offer flowers blooming on a distant mountain to the Tathāgata, or, again, to offer treasures you had in your former life to sentient beings.

If everyone followed this advice, it’s possible that there would be no poverty in the world, in particular “giving away unneeded belongings to someone you don’t know”. “Offering flowers blooming on a distant mountain to the Tathāgata” is reminiscent of methods in Tibetan Buddhism where one makes a habit of offering whatever pleasing things you encounter to one’s teachers and the Triple Gem, and also more relevantly the practices in the Mind Training (blo sbyong) teachings which instruct one to mentally offer everything that makes you happy to all sentient beings, and make aspirations that they may always experience such happiness. Most of these practices are based on teachings found in the Mahāyana sūtras.

Whether it is of teaching or of material, each gift has its value and is worth giving.

Generosity’s true value is not found in the things which are offered but rather in the mental factor of generosity. When society becomes too focused on the physical act of offering material things, people can forget the non-physical quality of generosity within the mind, which precedes any true generosity.

At the time of attaining the Way, the Way is always left to the Way. When treasure is left just as treasure, treasure becomes giving. You give yourself to yourself and others to others.

Be generous to yourself and be generous to others. Perhaps the highest form of giving to yourself is giving yourself to yourself fully: letting yourself be yourself. Perhaps the highest form of giving to others is giving others to others fully: letting them be themselves.

The power of the causal relations of giving reaches to devas, human beings, and even enlightened sages.

In terms of society, giving helps all the members of society on every level. Through the causal relations of interdependence, all are benefited through generosity.

Buddha said, “When a person who practices giving goes to an assembly, people take notice.”

People respect those who practice generosity, and moreover it seems that Dōgen is indicating that there is a kind of majesty which emanates from people who have a strong practice of giving.

You should know that the mind of such a person communicates subtly with others.

This seems to be saying that people who practice giving are highly sensitized to the minds of others. This is probably mostly on account of compassion and the aforementioned causal connections which are formed from the active manifestation of that compassion as generosity. The practice of giving helps people in society be aware of others and helps opens the doors to constructive communication.

Therefore, give even a phrase or verse of the truth; it will be a wholesome seed for this and other lifetimes.

This refers to the giving of the Dharma, one of the three kinds of generosity taught in Buddhism: giving material things, giving the Dharma, and giving freedom from fear. The giving of the Dharma is the supreme generosity.

A king gave his beard as medicine to cure his retainer’s disease; a child offered sand to Buddha and became King Ashoka in a later birth.

Here again the symbol of a compassionate king is used in both examples, indicating benevolent ruler-ship. Those in power should be generous, and yet generosity leads to power.

They were not greedy for reward but only shared what they could.

Pure intention is crucial. The implication is that when one does not have a greedy mentality which hungers for the good fruits of giving, the results of generosity are far greater.

To launch a boat or build a bridge is an act of giving.

Helping others in practical ways (i.e., Engaged Buddhism) is an important aspect of generosity.

If you study giving closely, you see that to accept a body and to give up the body are both giving.

With the right attitude, birth, death, and everything in between becomes giving.

Making a living and producing things can be nothing other than giving.

When one has the right view, then the right livelihood which follows from that right view becomes a form of generosity.

Concluding Remarks

Finally, the Four Methods of Guidance are a valuable tool with many applications for society and social issues. I hope that this short essay will inspire further research into these areas, especially in how the Four Methods of Guidance might be used as a framework for the practical application of Buddhist social theory and praxis.

All translations from Tibetan are by Erick Tsiknopoulos.  


  • Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life, by Dainin Katagiri (1988)
  • Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, by Thich Nhat Hanh (1997)
  • The Great Awakening, by David L. Roy (2003)
  • Universal Responsibility: A Collection of Essays to Honour Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama, edited by Ramesh Chandra Tewari and Krishna Nath (1996)
  • Gateway to Knowledge, Volume II, by Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang
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