Vimalakīrti Sutra

by John R. McRae | 44,185 words

The Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra is a Mahāyāna sūtra that teaches the meaning of nonduality. It contains a report of a teaching addressed to both arhats and bodhisattvas by the layman Vimalakīrti, who expounds the doctrine of śūnyatā, or emptiness, to them. According to Burton Watson, the Vimalakīrti Sūtra probably originated in India in approximatel...

Translator’s Introduction

The Vimalakīrti Sutra (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa-sūtra) is renowned in contemporary world Buddhism for its breathtaking exposition of the Mahayana doctrine of nonduality, and justifiably so. The text imparts its penetrating insight by first elaborating the manifold nuances of this doctrine in finely honed formal language, next by demonstrating the ideal in exquisite philosophical repartee, and then by dramatizing its lofty understanding in the climax of Vimalakīrti’s “thunderous silence.” Doctrinally, the Vimalakīrti Sutra elaborates ideas deriving from the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) literature and stated more formally in the treatises of the Mādhyamika school. Spiritually, the demonstrative quality of Vimalakīrti’s silence, and the vivid interactions between him and his interlocutors, imply a deep connection with the later development of the Chinese Chan (Japanese: Zen) school as well.

The intellectual charm of the doctrine of nonduality is only heightened by its being situated in such a spectacular religious world. This is no coldly analytical treatise, no harshly systematic rehearsal of religious dogma, but a lively and inventive depiction of religious dialogue that palpably sparkles with humor, insight—and frequent irruptions of the miraculous. This last quality might be ignored by modernist readers, but its effects are too important to allow the tendency to go unchallenged. A fantastic congregation, including incredible arrays of gods, celestial bodhisattvas, and other beings, is assembled within Vimalakīrti’s tiny chamber, where they sit on magnificent thrones of unimaginable size—all without jumbling up against each other, and entirely without contorting the dimensions of the ordinary world. The level of impossibility escalates even more when this congregation is then host to an entirely separate world-system, complete with its own mountains and continents, rivers and oceans, which Vimalakīrti grasps as easily as a potter throwing a lump of clay. And to match this incredible assembly there are miracles aplenty, beginning with heavenly flowers raining from above and instantaneous gender reversals, leading up to the spectacular vision of a galaxy far, far away, where the reigning buddha teaches by means of fragrance rather than words. To top all of this off, a one-bowl-serves-all take-out meal from that world of fragrance is used to feed— and instruct—Vimalakīrti’s guests. (I wonder about the possible efficacy of a chocolate Dharma, but that divine substance is nowhere mentioned!) Though moderate in length the scripture is certainly magnificent in the scale of its vision!

At the heart of it all, of course, is the figure of Vimalakīrti. Throughout the course of the scripture he is identified as a great bodhisattva who formerly lived in the “pure land” of the Buddha Akṣobhya, but who has chosen to be reborn in this world in order to teach the recalcitrant sentient beings here. His current identity as householder is but a pose he has assumed, just as his current illness is but a skillful means he has adopted: both are simply devices by which to teach sentient beings. The householder identity is manifestly impossible: he is celibate but has children, goes to brothels but is chaste, is rich but without desire, etc. The immense improbability of Vimalakīrti’s person is undoubtedly part of this religious appeal.

Chinese readers were fascinated with the figure of Vimalakīrti, and it is usually said that he represented a type of religious ideal with which unordained literati could identify. Here was a rich and educated layman who could outperform everyone around him—except, of course, the buddhas themselves—in every conceivable form of endeavor. He enjoyed every imaginable privilege, yet used his energies solely for the benefit of the community around him, a type of service that resonated with Confucian social ideals. No doubt the popularity of the scripture in East Asia has something to do with this congruence with indigenous social ideals and the fascination Chinese Buddhists and interested intellectuals had in a figure of such diverse and remarkable talents. We should not overlook the active role local clienteles played in determining the selection of Buddhist texts that were presented for them in Chinese translation—the residents of East Asia were not passive recipients of Buddhist missionary activity, but very proactive consumers.

In contrast to the relative obscurity of this text in India and Tibet, where there is no record of even a single commentary nor even of any art historical imagery based on it, from at least the third century of the common era the Vimalakīrti Sutra became one of the favorites of the East Asian tradition. There are over fifteen hundred depictions of Vimalakīrti and Mañjuśrī in dialogue known from East Asian painting and sculpture traditions, as well as a series of influential commentaries, and innumerable occasional references to the text and its ideas in both religious and secular writings. This is but one example of the manner in which East Asian Buddhism draws on the universalistic themes developed in the Indian homeland of the religion, even as the overall configurations of the Mahayana in South and East Asia are so profoundly different.

It would be wrong, though, to exaggerate the importance of the Vimalakīrti Sutra in China, Korea, or Japan. Although it seems to have been used continuously throughout the East Asian Buddhist tradition, both temporally and geographically, there are obvious limitations in the manner of its use. First, even though the text—like many other Mahayana Buddhist scriptures—recommends its own recitation, there is precious little evidence that it was ever very popular as a devotional text, one to be recited for religious benefit. The Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra) and the Pure Land sutras (Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra, Amitāyurdhyāna-sūtra) are good examples of sutras used in this manner, of course, and even the massive Flower Garland Sutra (Buddhāvataṃsaka-sūtra) was used in the same way. Second, the Vimalakīrti Sutra never became the basis for a doctrinal tradition of its own, unlike the other scriptures just mentioned, which were used as scriptural bases of the Tiantai (Korean: Ch’ont’ae; Japanese: Tendai), Pure Land, and Huayan (Hwaom; Kegon) schools. It is not merely that no independent “Vimalakīrti school” ever developed; the text is frequently mentioned as one of a number of important Mahayana texts but it tends to be listed in the middle of the pack, as it were. It was used occasionally for healing purposes in medieval China and Japan, though not as often as other scriptures.

No matter what the time period, readers (both those who read for content and those who recite for religious value) tend to perceive their texts in idiosyncratic ways. One wonders if the medieval Chinese really noticed, for example, that the goal of all of Vimalakīrti’s efforts was not to create other enlightened laypeople like himself but to inspire his listeners to become monastics and embark on the bodhisattva path. Although accomplished bodhisattvas might choose to be reborn as laypeople, or as beings of virtually any identity, the text indicates on numerous occasions that the best response to hearing and understanding its doctrine of inconceivable liberation was to leave home to become a monk and undertake training in the grandiose vocation of the bodhisattva. Vimalakīrti’s job description, in fact, even included the inspiration of some of his following to dedicate themselves to the goal of achieving “Hinayana” enlightenment. Although the Mahayana goal of anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi (complete, perfect enlightenment) was clearly the highest religious ideal presented, for beings of lesser capacity to select lesser targets was not a failing but an appropriate collateral benefit. Not only does the Vimalakīrti Sutra not share in the “One Vehicle” teaching of the Lotus Sutra, in which all Buddhist practitioners are destined for perfect buddhahood, there is also no explicit hint of any recommendation that one should dedicate lifetimes of training to achieving the status of an enlightened layperson.

Modern readers are very interested in the scene in which a goddess upstages the stodgy śrāvaka or “Hinayana” monk Śāriputra. In a dramatization of the Vimalakīrti story that I saw in San Francisco in the summer of 2000, in which life-size puppets were used to represent the dramatis personae, the highlight of the performance came when the goddess transforms the bodies of herself and Śāriputra into their contrasting genders (depicted by a quick change of the puppets’ heads!). From our perspective, this is an important statement of a traditional Buddhist attitude on the status of women, and thus a meaningful religious statement. However, although I have only begun to browse through the Chinese commentarial literature on the Vimalakīrti Sutra, it seems that medieval Chinese interest in this scene was rather different from ours. Whereas for modern people this is primarily a statement about gender, for medieval Chinese (and, I suspect, other East Asian) readers it was primarily a statement about emptiness.

Translating the Vimalakīrti Sutra has been a joy, in no small part because of the inherent interest of the text itself, including not only its specific doctrinal formulations but just as importantly its dramatic flair and sense of humor. As well, though, the immense pleasure of preparing this English rendition comes through the great resources that are now available.

The present translation is an English rendition of the Chinese translation by Kumārajīva (350-409 or 413), or rather by the team of Kumārajīva, which included such famously gifted students as Sengzhao (373-414) and Daosheng (360?-434). My goal has indeed been to “represent” the Kumārajīva version of the Vimalakīrti Sutra, to create an English version that provides access to the text as it might have been understood by fifth-century Chinese readers. One implication of this decision is that I have rendered the terminology as it occurs in Chinese, without attempting to represent what may have been the underlying Indic (either Sanskrit or Prakrit) terminology, except of course where Chinese characters are used to transliterate the Indic sounds. For example, where kleśa might better be rendered “defilement,” the Chinese equivalent offannao is given here as “afflictions,” because that is what the characters mean. And where the fourth skandha, saṃskāra, is best rendered “conditioning forces” or “impulses” based on the Sanskrit, the Chinese counterpart xing is given as “processes.”

Although I obviously do not have direct access to the mind of medieval Chinese readers, I have made frequent use of the Zhu Weimojie jing (Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō Vol. 38, No. 1775, 327a-420a), the joint commentary to the Vimalakīrti Sutra left by Kumārajīva, Sengzhao, and Daosheng, and I have tried to render the sutra in the way that it was understood by these primary figures of the translation team. To be able to consult this commentary, which assembles the comments of the chief translator and his primary assistants in the very translation project involved, was for me a remarkable experience.

Practically speaking, I was unable to consult the joint commentary for every line, but I did check its contents when the Chinese phrasing of the sutra itself seemed questionable in some way. Only rarely if at all did the commentators answer my questions directly, and sometimes (especially toward the end of the text, when the density of their comments decreases) they offered no clue whatsoever. However, in a refreshingly large number of cases some feature of their remarks allowed me to make a choice between reasonable alternatives, to create a suitable English analog to their understanding. I have also frequently consulted the two other extant Chinese translations of the Vimalakīrti Sutra, the first (Taishō No. 474) by Zhi Qian (fl. 220-252); and the other (Taishō No. 476) by the famous seventh-century pilgrim Xuanzang (596?-664); on rare occasions I have also consulted the commentary on this later translation by Xuan-zang’s disciple Ji (often referred to as Kuiji, 632-682), the Shuo Wuguocheng jingshu (Taishō No. 1782). In the terms used within the sutra itself, I have frequently sighed in exclamation at the unprecedented quality of this arrangement.

Another aspect of how enjoyable this translation project was is the fact that all the extant relevant Chinese texts are now available in well-proofed electronic versions. As a result, my standard practice has been to type the English translation into a word processing file on the computer screen, alongside text editor windows containing the Zhi Qian, Kumārajīva, and Xuanzang translations and the joint commentary of Kumārajīva, Sengzhao, and Daosheng. A simple search utility has allowed me to look for parallel usages in other Buddhist canonical sources when desired. This is the first time I have been able to do translation work in such a manner, and I must express my profound gratitude to the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA, www. for making this possible.

The Vimalakīrti Sutra has already been published four times in English translation, and I made some use of these resources in preparing the present English text. Of these four versions, only two are of the Kumārajīva text, and unfortunately neither is of sufficient quality to justify its extensive use here. Charles Luk’s older rendering is too freely interpretive to be of help, and in addition he frequently becomes confused regarding the grammatical construction of the original. Burton Watson’s recent translation is better grammatically but his intentional lack of attention to Buddhist technical terms undermines his effort, eliminating a great deal of its intrinsic religious interest. Robert Thurman’s translation of the Tibetan version of the Vimalakīrti Sutra is a very creditable rendition of that text but there are enough differences between it and Kumārajīva’s Chinese version to make extensive use inappropriate here. I have therefore relied primarily on Etienne Lamotte’s translation from the Tibetan, even though it sometimes regularizes the text (i.e., adverts to standard Indian Buddhist usages) in ways that the Thurman rendition does not. To be precise, I have used the English translation of Lamotte’s work done by Sara Boin (London: Pali Text Society, 1976), which sometimes renders scriptural passages more in line with Lamotte’s reconstructed Sanskrit than his translation of the Tibetan. (The preceding characterizations are based in part on Jan Nattier’s “The Teaching of Vimalakīrti [Vimalakīrtinirdeśa]: A Review of Four English Translations,” Buddhist Literature 2 [2000]: 234-58.) For understanding the Chinese grammar of the Kumārajīva version I have consulted the “Yuima-gyō,” a useful modern Japanese translation by Jikidō Takasaki, in his and Kōshō Kawa-mura’s Yuima-gyō, Shiyaku Bonten shomon kyō, Shuryōgon zammai kyō [Vimalakīrti Sutra, Questions of the Brahmā (Deva) Viśeṣacinti Sutra, and Śūraṃgama-samādhi Sutra], Monju kyōten [Mañjuśrī Scriptures] no. 2 (Tokyo: Daizō shuppan, 1993), in spite of its emphasis on readings drawn from Lamotte and the Tibetan translation. Recently, a Sanskrit manuscript of the Vimalakīrti Sutra has been discovered, and I have acquired transcriptions of selected passages through the kind assistance of Yoshiyasu Yonezawa of Taishō University.

Chapter numbers and titles are as in the Taishō edition; section numbers imitate those in Lamotte, varying only where Kumārajīva’s text differs from the Tibetan version followed by Lamotte.



Also called “The Inconceivable Emancipation”

Translated by
Tripiṭaka Master Kumārajīva
of the Yao Qin [Dynasty]

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