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...

Chapter III - Disciples

1. At that time the Elder Vimalakīrti thought to himself, “I am lying sick in bed. How can the World-honored One, He of Great Sympathy, not take pity on me?”

2. Knowing what [Vimalakīrti] was thinking, the Buddha immediately told Śāriputra, “Go visit Vimalakīrti and inquire about his illness.”

Śāriputra addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why? I remember once in the past, when I was sitting in repose beneath a tree. At the time Vimalakīrti came and said to me,

3. “‘O Śāriputra, you need not take this sitting [in meditation] to be sitting in repose. Sitting in repose is to not manifest body and mind in the triple world—this is sitting in repose. To generate the concentration of extinction while manifesting the deportments—this is sitting in repose. Not to relinquish the Dharma of enlightenment and yet manifest the affairs of [ordinary] sentient beings—this is sitting in repose. To have the mind neither abide internally nor locate itself externally—this is sitting in repose. To be unmoved by the [sixty-two mistaken] views yet cultivate the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment—this is sitting in repose. Not to eradicate the afflictions yet enter into nirvana—this is sitting in repose.

“‘Those who are able to sit in this fashion [will receive] the Buddha’s seal of approval.’

4. “At the time, World-honored One, I simply listened to this explanation in silence and was unable to respond. Therefore, I cannot accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness.”

5. The Buddha told Mahāmaudgalyāyana, “You go inquire about Vimalakīrti’s illness.”

Maudgalyāyana addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why? I remember once in the past, I had entered the great city of Vaiśālī and was explaining the Dharma to the retired scholars of a certain neighborhood. At the time Vimalakīrti came and said to me,

6. “‘O Mahāmaudgalyāyana, when you explain the Dharma to white-robed retired scholars, you should not explain it as you are now doing. In explaining the Dharma, you should explain according to the Dharma.

“‘The Dharma is without sentient beings because it transcends the defilements of sentient beings; the Dharma is without self because it transcends the defilements of self; the Dharma is without lifespan because it transcends birth and death (samsara); and the Dharma is without person because it eradicates the threshold between previous and subsequent [moments].

“‘The Dharma is permanently serene because it extinguishes the characteristics; the Dharma transcends characteristics because it is without conditions; the Dharma is without names because it eradicates words; the Dharma is without explanation because it transcends discursive thought and reasoning; the Dharma is without the characteristics of form because it is like space; the Dharma is without hypotheses because it is ultimately empty; the Dharma is without the sense of personal possession because it transcends personal possession; the Dharma is without discrimination because it transcends the consciousnesses; and the Dharma is incomparable because there is nothing to match it; the Dharma is divorced from causation because it is not located in conditionality.

“‘The Dharma is identical to Dharma-nature because it inheres in the dharmas; the Dharma accords with suchness because it is without anything that accords with it; the Dharma abides in the actual because it is unmoved by the extremes; the Dharma is motionless because it is not dependent on the six types of sensory data; and the Dharma is without past and future because it is constantly nonabiding.

“‘The Dharma concurs with emptiness, accords with the absence of characteristics, and responds to inactivity. The Dharma transcends good and ugly, the Dharma is without gain and loss, the Dharma is without generation and extinction, and the Dharma is without refuge. The Dharma surpasses eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The Dharma is without high and low, the Dharma abides constantly without moving, and the Dharma transcends all practices of contemplation.

7. “‘O Mahāmaudgalyāyana, with characteristics such as these, how can the Dharma be explained? Explaining the Dharma should be without explaining and without indicating. Listening to the Dharma should be without listening and without attaining.

“‘It is like a magician explaining the Dharma to conjured people.

8. “‘One should have such a mindset in explaining the Dharma; one should comprehend that the faculties of sentient beings [include both] sharp and dull. You would do well to be without hindrance in your knowledge and vision. Use the mind of great compassion and praise the Mahayana. Remember to recompense the kindness of the Buddha and do not cut off the Three Jewels. Thus should you explain the Dharma.’

9. “When Vimalakīrti explained this Dharma, eight hundred retired scholars generated the intention to achieve anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi. I lack this eloquence. Therefore I cannot accept [your instruction] to go inquire about his illness.”

10. The Buddha told Mahākāśyapa, “You go inquire about Vimalakīrti’s illness.”

Kāśyapa addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why? I remember once in the past, when I was begging in a poor neighborhood, Vimalakīrti came and said to me,

11. “‘O Mahākāśyapa, you have the mind of sympathy and compassion but are unable [to apply it] universally. You have abandoned the wealthy to beg from the poor.

“‘Kāśyapa, while abiding in the Dharma of universal sameness, you should proceed in sequence in your begging.

“‘It is because of not eating that you should practice begging.

“‘It is because of the destruction of one’s physical integrity that you should take that lump of food. It is because of not receiving that you should receive that food.

“‘You should enter a village with the idea that it is an empty aggregation.

12. “‘The forms you see are equivalent to [what] the blind [see]; the sounds you hear are equivalent to echoes; the fragrances you smell are equivalent to the wind; the flavors you eat should not be discriminated; your tactile sensations are like the realizations of wisdom; and you should understand that the dharmas are like phantasms. That which is without self-nature and without other-nature originally was not burning and will not become extinguished now.

13. “‘Kāśyapa, if you are able to enter the eight emancipations without renouncing the eight perversions, using the characteristic of perversion to enter into the correct Dharma, and using a single meal to give to all, making offerings to the buddhas and the assembly of worthies and sages—only then should you eat.

“‘To eat in this fashion is neither to have the afflictions nor to transcend the afflictions, it is neither to enter into concentration nor to arise from concentration, it is neither to abide in the world nor to abide in nirvana.

“‘Where there is charity, there are neither great nor small blessings, neither benefit nor harm. This is the correct entry into the path of buddhahood, without relying on the śrāvaka [vehicle].

“‘Kāśyapa, if you can eat according to this [understanding] then you will not render void the charity of those who feed you.’

14. “At the time, World-honored One, the explanation I heard was unprecedented to me, and I immediately generated a profound sense of reverence for all bodhisattvas. I also thought, ‘This householder’s eloquence and wisdom being as they are, how could anyone who hears him not generate the intention to achieve anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi? From now on I will never exhort anyone to undertake the practices of śrāvaka or pratyekabuddha. ’ Therefore I cannot accept [your instruction] to go inquire about his illness.”

15. The Buddha told Subhūti, “You go inquire about Vimalakīrti’s illness.”

Subhūti addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why? I remember once in the past, I entered into his home to beg. At the time Vimalakīrti filled my bowl full of food and said to me,

16. “‘O Subhūti, if you are able to be universally same about eating, then the dharmas are also universally same; if the dharmas are universally same, you should also be universally same about eating. If you can practice begging like this, you may accept the food.

“‘If, Subhūti, you refrain from eradicating licentiousness, anger, and stupidity, yet are not equipped with them; if you do not destroy the body, yet accord with the single characteristic; if you do not extinguish stupidity and affection, yet generate wisdom and emancipation; if you use the characteristics of the five transgressions to attain emancipation, without either emancipation or bondage; if you do not perceive the four noble truths, yet do not fail to perceive the truths; neither attaining the results [of becoming a stream-enterer (srotāpanna), and so on,] nor not attaining the results; neither being an ordinary [unenlightened] person nor transcending the state (lit., “dharma”) of ordinary person; neither being a sage nor not being a sage; accomplishing all the dharmas yet transcending the characteristics of the dharmas— then you can accept this food.

17. “‘Subhūti, you should only accept this food if you can neither see the Buddha nor hear the Dharma, nor the six teachers of heterodox paths—

Pūraṇa Kāśyapa, Maskarin Gośālīputra, Saṃjayin Vairaṭīputra, Ajita Keśa-kambala, Kakuda Kātyāyana, and Nirgrantha Jñātiputra, who were your teachers, following whom you left home, [so that] at the defeat of those teachers you were also defeated—then you can accept this food.

18. “‘If, Subhūti, you can enter into the heterodox views and not reach the other shore; abide in the eight difficulties and not attain the absence of difficulty; identify with the afflictions and transcend the pure dharmas; attain the samādhi of noncontention; if all sentient beings generate this concentration; if the donors do not name you their field of blessings; if those making offerings to you fall into the three evil destinations; if you join hands with the host of Māras and make them your co-workers; if you do not differentiate yourself from the host of Māras and the sensory troubles; if you bear resentment toward all sentient beings; if you revile the Buddha, denigrate the Dharma, and do not enter the Sangha; and if you never attain extinction—if you are like this then you can accept the food.’

19. “When I heard these words, World-honored One, I was bewildered and did not understand what he had said. I did not know how to answer, so I put down the bowl and tried to leave his house. Vimalakīrti then said,

“‘O Subhūti, do not be afraid to take your bowl. What is the meaning of this? If a [phantasmagorical] person whom the Tathāgata has created through the transformation [of conjury] is criticized for this, should he be afraid?’ I said, ‘No.’ Vimalakīrti said, ‘All the dharmas have the characteristic of being like phantasmagorical transformations. You should not have

any fear now. Why? All verbal explanations do not transcend this characteristic. The wise are not attached to letters, and therefore they have no fear. Why? The nature of letters transcends [their characteristics]; there are no letters. This is emancipation, and the characteristic of emancipation is the dhar-mas.’

20. “When Vimalakīrti explained this Dharma, two hundred gods attained purification of their Dharma eyes. Therefore I cannot accept [your instruction] to go inquire about his illness.”

21. The Buddha told Pūrṇamaitrāyaṇīputra, “You go inquire about Vimalakīrti’s illness.”

Pūrṇa addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why? I remember once in the past, when I was beneath a tree in the forest explaining the Dharma to novice bhikṣus. At the time Vimalakīrti came and said to me,

22. “‘O Pūrṇa, you should only explain the Dharma after first entering into concentration and contemplating the minds of these people—do not put defiled food in a jeweled vessel. You should understand what these bhikṣus are thinking—do not put lapis lazuli together with crystal.

“‘You are unable to understand the fundamental sources of sentient beings—do not inspire them with the Hinayana Dharma. Other and self are without flaw, so do not harm them. If someone wants to travel the great path (i.e., practice the Mahayana), do not show them a small pathway. The ocean cannot be contained within the hoofprint of an ox; the radiance of the sun cannot be equaled by that of a firefly.

“‘Pūrṇa, these bhikṣus have long since generated the aspiration for the Mahayana but in the midst [of many rebirths] they have forgotten this intention.

“‘Why would you teach them with the Hinayana Dharma? When I consider the Hinayana, its wisdom is as minute as a blind man’s, [and with it you are] unable to discriminate the sharp and dull faculties of all sentient beings.’

23. “Then Vimalakīrti entered into samādhi and made the bhikṣus aware of their previous lives. They had planted virtuous roots under five hundred buddhas and had rededicated them to their [eventual achievement of] anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi. [Learning this], they immediately experienced a suddenly

expansive reacquisition of that original inspiration. At this the bhikṣus bowed their heads in reverence to Vimalakīrti’s feet. Then Vimalakīrti explained the Dharma for them, and they never again retrogressed from [their progress to] anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi.

24. “I thought, ‘ Śrāvakas do not consider the faculties of people and therefore should not explain the Dharma.’

“Therefore, I cannot accept [your instruction] to go inquire about his illness.”

25. The Buddha told Mahākātyāyana, “You go inquire about Vimalakīrti’s illness.”

Kātyāyana addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why? I remember once in the past, when the Buddha briefly explained the essentials of the Dharma to some bhikṣus, and immediately afterward I expanded upon your meaning, discussing the meanings of impermanence, suffering, emptiness, no-self, and extinction. At the time Vimalakīrti came and said to me,

26. “‘O Kātyāyana, do not explain the Dharma of the true characteristic using the mental processes of generation and extinction (i.e., samsara).

i) “‘Kātyāyana, the dharmas are ultimately neither generated nor extinguished: this is the meaning of impermanence.

ii) “‘The five skandhas are empty throughout, with no arising: this is the meaning of suffering.

iii) “‘The dharmas ultimately do not exist: this is the meaning of emptiness.

iv) “‘There is no self in the self, yet no duality: this is the meaning of no-self.

v) “‘The dharmas were originally not burning and will not become extinguished now: this is the meaning of extinction.’

27. “When [Vimalakīrti] explained this Dharma, the bhikṣus’ minds attained emancipation. Therefore, I cannot accept [your instruction] to go inquire about his illness.”

28. The Buddha told Aniruddha, “You go inquire about Vimalakīrti’s illness.”

Aniruddha addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why?

29. “I remember once in the past I was walking quietly in a certain location. At the time a Brahmā king named Adorned Purity, in the company of ten thousand Brahmās generating pure radiance, proceeded to where I was. He bowed to my feet in reverence and asked me, ‘How much, Aniruddha, can you see with your divine eye?’

“I answered, ‘Sir, I see the trimegachiliocosm of Śākyamuni’s buddha land as if I were looking at a mango in the palm of my hand. ’

30. “Then Vimalakīrti came and said to me, ‘O Aniruddha, is the seeing of the divine eye a constructed characteristic, or is it an unconstructed characteristic? If it is a constructed characteristic, then it is equivalent to the five supernormal powers of the heterodox paths. If it is an unconstructed characteristic then it is unconditioned and should be without seeing (i.e., “views”).’ World-honored One, at the time I remained silent.

31. “Hearing his words, the Brahmās attained something unprecedented, immediately reverenced [Vimalakīrti], and asked him, ‘Who in this world has the true divine eye?’ Vimalakīrti said, ‘There is the Buddha, the World-honored One, who has attained the true divine eye. Always in samādhi, he sees all the buddha lands without any characteristic of duality.’

32. “At this Adorned Purity Brahmā King and his attending five hundred Brahmā kings all generated the intention to achieve anuttarā samyak-saṃbodhi. They bowed to Vimalakīrti’s feet, then instantly disappeared. Therefore, I cannot accept [your instruction] to go inquire about his illness.”

33. The Buddha told Upāli, “You go inquire about Vimalakīrti’s illness.”

Upāli addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why?

“I remember once in the past, there were two bhikṣus who had violated the practice of the Vinaya but from their shame did not dare ask you about it. They came to ask me: ‘O Upāli, we have violated the Vinaya and are sincerely ashamed, not daring to ask the Buddha about it. We want you to explain our doubts and the [need for] repentance, so that we may be relieved of the transgressions.’ I immediately explained [the matter] to them according to the Dharma.

34. “At the time Vimalakīrti came and said to me,

“‘O Upāli, do not increase these two bhikṣus’ transgressions. You should just remove [the transgressions] and not disturb their minds. Why?

“‘The nature of those transgressions does not reside within, it does not reside without, and it does not reside in the middle.

“‘As the Buddha has explained, when their minds are defiled, sentient beings are defiled. When their minds are purified, sentient beings are purified.

The mind likewise does not reside within, does not reside without, and does not reside in the middle. Just so is the mind, and just so are transgression and defilement. The dharmas are also likewise, in not transcending suchness.

“‘Just so, Upāli, when one attains emancipation using the characteristics of the mind, is it (i.e., the mind) defiled or not?’ I said, ‘It is not.’

“Vimalakīrti said, ‘The characteristics of the minds of all sentient beings are likewise, in being without defilement.

35. “‘O Upāli, to have false concepts is defilement; to be without false concepts is purity.

“‘Confusion is defilement, and the absence of confusion is purity.

“‘To grasp the self is defilement, and not to grasp the self is purity.

“‘Upāli, all the dharmas are generated and extinguished, without abiding. Like phantasms or lightning bolts, the dharmas do not depend on each other. They do not abide even for a single instant. The dharmas are all false views, like a dream, like a mirage, like the moon [reflected] in water, like an image in a mirror—[all] generated from false conceptualization. Those who understand this are called “upholders of the Vinaya.” Those who understand this are said to “understand well.”’

36. “At this the two bhikṣus said, ‘Such superior wisdom! Upāli cannot match this! There could be no better explanation of upholding the Vinaya! ’

“I then answered, ‘Excluding the Tathāgata, there has never been a śrāvaka or bodhisattva able to command the eloquence for such a felicitous explanation—such is the brilliance of his wisdom!’

37. “At the time, the doubts and [need for] repentance of the two bhikṣus were eliminated. They generated the intention to achieve anuttarā samyak-saṃbodhi, speaking this vow: ‘Let all sentient beings attain this [level of] eloquence!’ Therefore, I cannot accept [your instruction] to go inquire about his illness.”

38. The Buddha told Rāhula, “You go inquire about Vimalakīrti’s illness.”

Rāhula addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why?

“I remember once in the past, the elders’ sons of Vaiśālī came to where I was, bowed their heads to me in reverence, and asked, ‘O Rāhula, you are the son of the Buddha, who forsook the position of universal ruler (cakra-vartin) and left home for the path (i.e., enlightenment). What benefits are there to leaving home?’

“I then explained to them, according to the Dharma, the benefits of the merits of leaving home. At that point Vimalakīrti came and said to me,

39. “‘O Rāhula, you should not explain the benefits of the merits of leaving home. Why? To be without benefit and without merits—this is leaving home. One may explain that there are benefits and merits in the conditioned dharmas, but leaving home is an unconditioned dharma and there are no benefits and merits in unconditioned dharmas.

“‘Rāhula, to leave home is to be without that and this, and without intermediate. It is to transcend the sixty-two views and be located in nirvana.

“‘[Leaving home] is accepted by the wise and practiced by the sagely. It subjugates the host of Māras and [allows one to] transcend the five destinations, purify the five eyes, attain the five powers, and establish the five faculties. It is to be without vexation over “that,” to transcend the host of heterogeneous evils, and to demolish the heterodox paths. It is to transcend provisional names and emerge from the muck [of samsara]. It is to be without attachments, without any sense of personal possession. It is to be without experience, without turmoil. It is to harbor joy within and defend the intentions of others. It is to accord with meditation and transcend the host of transgressions. If one can be like this, then this is true leaving home.’

40. “At this Vimalakīrti said to those elders’ sons, ‘You would do well to leave home together in the correct Dharma. Why? It is difficult to encounter a time when a buddha is in the world.’

“The elders’ sons said, ‘O retired scholar, we have heard that the Buddha has said one may not leave home without first receiving permission from one’s parents.’

“Vimalakīrti said, ‘So it is. You should immediately generate the intention to achieve anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi, and this is to “leave home.” This is sufficient.’

41. “Then thirty-two elders’ sons all generated the intention to achieve anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi. Therefore, I cannot accept [your instruction] to go inquire about his illness.”

42. The Buddha told Ānanda, “You go inquire about Vimalakīrti’s illness.”

Ānanda addressed the Buddha, “World-honored One, I dare not accept your instruction to go inquire about his illness. Why? I remember once in the past, the World-honored One had a slight illness requiring cow’s milk [as medicine]. I took my bowl and proceeded to the gateway of a great brahman home.

43. “While I was standing there Vimalakīrti came and said to me, ‘O Ānanda, why are you standing here with your bowl so early in the morning?’

“I said, ‘O retired scholar, the World-honored One has a slight illness requiring cow’s milk, and so I have come here.’

“Vimalakīrti said, ‘Stop, stop, Ānanda! Do not speak thus. The Tathāgata’s body is the essence of vajra. [In it] the evils are already eradicated and the host of goods universally assembled. What illness could it have, what vexation could there be?

44. “‘Go silently, Ānanda—do not revile the Tathāgata, and do not let anyone else hear such coarse talk. Do not allow the gods of awesome power and virtue and the bodhisattvas who have come from pure lands in other directions to hear these words.

“‘Ānanda, even a small degree of blessings (i.e., merit) allows the wheel-turning sage king (cakravartin) to be without illness—how could the immeasurable blessings of the Tathāgata fail to exceed his in every regard?!

“‘Go, Ānanda—do not make us experience this shame. If brahmans in the heterodox paths hear this, they will think, “Who is this teacher, who is unable to save himself from illness but would save others of their ills?” Sir, go in secret haste and do not let anyone hear this.

45. “‘You should understand, Ānanda, the bodies of the Tathāgatas are bodies of the Dharma, not bodies of longing. The Buddha is the World-honored One, who has transcended the triple world. The Buddha’s body is without flaws, the flaws having been extinguished. The Buddha’s body is unconditioned and does not fit the [conventional] analytic categories. A body such as this—how could it be ill, how could it be vexed?’

46. “At the time, World-honored One, I was really ashamed that I might have mistakenly heard what the Buddha had said in spite of being so close.

“‘I then heard a voice from space saying, ‘Ānanda, it is as the retired scholar has said. It is just that the Buddha has appeared in this evil age of the five corruptions and manifests this Dharma to emancipate sentient beings. Go, Ānanda. Take the milk without shame.’

47. “World-honored One, the eloquence of Vimalakīrti’s wisdom is like this. Therefore, I cannot accept [your instruction] to go inquire about his illness.”

48. In similar fashion all of the Buddha’s five hundred great disciples each explained their original encounters and related what Vimalakīrti had said, and each said he was unable to accept [the Buddha’s instruction] to go inquire about [Vimalakīrti’s] illness.

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