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 VII - Viewing Sentient Beings

1. At this point Mañjuśrī asked Vimalakīrti, “How should the bodhisattva view sentient beings?”

Vimalakīrti said,

i) “As if he were a magician seeing a conjured person, so should a bodhisattva view sentient beings.
ii) “Like a wise person seeing the moon in water,
iii) like seeing the image of a face in a mirror,
iv) like a mirage when it is hot,
v) like the echo of a shout,
vi) like clouds in the sky,
vii) like water collecting into foam,
viii) like bubbles upon water,
ix) like the firmness of the banana tree,
x) like the prolonged abiding of lightning,
xi) like a fifth element,
xii) like a sixth skandha,
xiii) like a seventh sense,
xiv) like a thirteenth entrance (āyatana),
xv) like a nineteenth realm (dhātu)—so should a bodhisattva view sentient beings.
xvi) “Like form in the formless realm,
xvii) like a seedling emerging from burned grain,
xviii) like a stream-enterer’s mistaken view of the body,
xix) like a non-returner’s (anāgāmin) entrance into a womb,
xx) like an arhat’s three poisons,
xxi) like a bodhisattva who has achieved forbearance breaking the prohibition against anger,
xxii) like a buddha’s latent influences of the afflictions,
xxiii) like a blind man seeing forms,
xxiv) like the inhalation and exhalation of someone who has entered the concentration of extinction,
xxv) like the tracks of birds in the sky, like the child of a barren woman,
xxvi) like a conjured person generating the afflictions, like waking up in a dream,
xxvii) like one who has entered nirvana being reborn, like fire without smoke—so should a bodhisattva view sentient beings.”

2. Mañjuśrī said, “If a bodhisattva views sentient beings in this fashion, how should he practice sympathy?”

Vimalakīrti said, “The bodhisattva who views [sentient beings] in this fashion should think to himself, ‘I should explain the Dharma for sentient beings in this fashion, and this will constitute true sympathy.

“‘I should practice the sympathy of extinction, because of the absence of anything generated;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of no-heat, because of the absence of the afflictions;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of sameness, because of the sameness of the three periods of time;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of nondisputation, because of the absence of generation;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of nonduality, because of the nonconjunction of interior and exterior;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of nondestruction, because of the ultimate exhaustion [of the characteristics of sympathy];
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of resoluteness, because of indestructibility; practice the sympathy of purity, because of the essential purity of the dharmas;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of no extremes, because of its being like space; practice the sympathy of an arhat, because of the destruction of the “bandits” of the fetters;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of a bodhisattva, because of the pacification of sentient beings; practice the sympathy of a Tathāgata, because of attainment of the characteristic of “thusness”;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of a buddha, because of the enlightenment of sentient beings; practice the sympathy of the naturally [accomplished sage], because of the imperceptibility of causes;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of bodhi, because of the sameness of the single taste;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of inequivalence, because of the eradication of the affections;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of great compassion, because of guiding [sentient beings] by means of the Mahayana;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of nonrevulsion, because of the contemplation of emptiness and no-self;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of the charity of Dharma, because of the absence of regrets;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of morality, because of converting the transgressors; practice the sympathy of forbearance, because of protecting others and self;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of exertion, because of carrying the burden for sentient beings;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of concentration, because of not experiencing the flavors [of desire];
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of wisdom, because of the absence of any time of non-understanding;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of skillful means, because of the manifestation of all [teaching methods];
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of non-hiding, because of the purity of sincerity;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of the profound mind, because of the absence of heterogeneous practices;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of the non-crazed, because of not using false conventions;
“‘[I should] practice the sympathy of peace and joy, because of causing [beings] to attain the joy of buddhahood—thus is the sympathy of the bodhisattva.’”

3. Mañjuśrī asked further, “What is compassion?”

[Vimalakīrti] answered, “The merits achieved by the bodhisattva are entirely shared with all sentient beings.”

[Question:] “What is joy?”

Answer: “If there is benefit, then one rejoices without regret.” [Question:] “What is forsaking?”

Answer: “The blessings generated are without expectation.”

4. Mañjuśri also asked, “For the bodhisattva who fears samsara, what should be his reliance?”

Vimalakīrti said, “A bodhisattva who fears samsara should rely on the power of the Tathāgata’s merit.”

Mañjuśri also asked, “The bodhisattva who wishes to rely on the power of the Tathāgata’s merit—in what should he abide?”

Answer: “The bodhisattva who wishes to rely on the power of the Tathā-gata’s merit should abide in saving all sentient beings.”

5. [Mañjuśri] also asked, “If one wishes to save sentient beings, what should be eradicated?”

Answer: “If one wishes to save sentient beings, the afflictions should be eradicated.”

[Mañjuśri] also asked, “If one wishes to eradicate the afflictions, what should one practice?”

Answer: “One should practice correct mindfulness.”

[Mañjuśri] also asked, “How does one practice correct mindfulness?” Answer: “One should practice nongeneration and nonextinction.” [Mañjuśri] also asked, “What dharmas are nongenerated and what dhar-mas are nonextinguished?”

Answer: “The not-good are [to be] nongenerated, and the good dharmas are [to be] nonextinguished.”

[Mañjuśri] also asked, “What is the fundamental basis of good and bad [dharmas]?”

Answer: “The body is their fundamental basis.”

[Mañjuśri] also asked, “What is the fundamental basis of the body?” Answer: “Desire is its fundamental basis.”

[Mañjuśri] also asked, “What is the fundamental basis of desire?” Answer: “False discrimination is its fundamental basis.”

6. [Mañjuśri] also asked, “What is the fundamental basis of false discrimination?”

Answer: “Confused conception is its fundamental basis.”

[Mañjuśrī] also asked, “What is the fundamental basis of confused conception?”

Answer: “The nonabiding is its fundamental basis.”

[Mañjuśrī] also asked, “What is the fundamental basis of nonabiding?”

Answer: “Nonabiding is without any fundamental [basis]. Mañjuśrī, all dharmas are established on the fundamental [basis] of nonabiding.”

7. At the time, there was a goddess in Vimalakīrti’s room who, upon seeing the great men listening to the Dharma being explained, made herself visible and scattered heavenly flowers over the bodhisattvas and great disciples. When the flowers reached the bodhisattvas they all immediately fell off, but when they reached the great disciples they adhered and did not fall off. Even using all their numinous powers, the disciples were unable to remove the flowers.

8. At that time, the goddess asked Śāriputra, “Why would you remove the flowers?”

[Śāriputra] answered, “These flowers are contrary to the Dharma, so I would remove them.”

The goddess said, “Do not say that these flowers are contrary to the Dharma! Why? These flowers are without discrimination. Sir, it is you who are generating discriminative thoughts. If one who has left home in the Buddha-Dharma has discrimination, this is contrary to the Dharma; if such a one is without discrimination, this is in accord with the Dharma.

“Look at the bodhisattvas, to whom the flowers do not adhere—this is because they have eradicated all discriminative thoughts.

“For example, when a person is afraid, non-human [beings] are able to control him. Thus, since the disciples fear samsara, then forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibles control you. None of the five desires can affect those who have transcended fear.

“It is only because the latent influences [of your afflictions] are not yet exhausted that the flowers stick to your bodies.

“For those in whom the latent influences are exhausted, the flowers do not stick.”

9. Śāriputra said, “Have you stayed in this room long?”

Answer: “I have stayed in this room as long as you have been emancipated.”

Śāriputra said, “How long have you stayed here?”

The goddess said, “How long has it been since your emancipation?”

Śāriputra was silent and did not answer.

The goddess said, “What is your great wisdom that you remain silent?”

Answer: “Emancipation is not to be spoken of, and so I did not know what to say.”

The goddess said, “Speech and words are entirely the characteristics of emancipation. Why?

“Emancipation is neither internal, nor external, nor intermediate. Words are also neither internal, nor external, nor intermediate. Therefore, Śāriputra, the explanation of emancipation does not transcend words. Why?

“All dharmas have the characteristic of emancipation.”

Śāriputra said, “Is it not also that emancipation is the transcendence of licentiousness, anger, and stupidity?”

The goddess said, “On behalf of the self-conceited, the Buddha explained that emancipation is the transcendence of licentiousness, anger, and stupidity. If one is not self-conceited, the Buddha explains that licentiousness, anger, and stupidity are emancipation.”

10. Śāriputra said, “Excellent, excellent! O goddess, what attainment do you have, and through what realization do you have eloquence such as this?”

The goddess said, “It is because I am without attainment and without realization that my eloquence is like this. Why? If one had attainment and realization, this would be to be self-conceited with regard to the Buddha-Dharma.”

11. Śāriputra asked the goddess, “Which of the three vehicles do you seek?”

The goddess said, “Since I convert sentient beings with the śrāvaka Dharma I am a śrāvaka. Since I convert sentient beings with the Dharma of causality I am a pratyekabuddha. Since I convert sentient beings with the Dharma of great compassion, I am a Mahayanist.

12. “Śāriputra, just as a person who has entered a campaka forest can smell only campaka and no other smells, thus it is if you enter this room— you can smell only the fragrance of the Buddha’s merit and do not delight in smelling the fragrance of the merit of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas.

“Śāriputra, those Indras, Brahmās, four heavenly kings, and the gods, dragons, and spirits who enter this room all hear this Superior One (i.e., Vimalakīrti) explain the correct Dharma, and they all leave delighting [only] in the fragrance of the Buddha’s merit and generating the intention [to achieve anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi].

“Śāriputra, I have stayed in this room twelve years. From the beginning I have not heard the Dharma of śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha; I have only heard the buddhas’ inconceivable Dharma of the bodhisattvas’ great sympathy and great compassion.

13. “Śāriputra, this room constantly manifests eight unprecedentedly rare dharmas. What are these eight?

i) “This room is always illuminated with golden light, with no variation day or night. It is not bright due to the illumination of sun and moon. This is the first unprecedentedly rare dharma.

ii) “Those who enter this room are not afflicted by the defilements. This is the second unprecedentedly rare dharma.

iii) “This room always has Indras, Brahmās, the four heavenly kings, and bodhisattvas from other regions who arrive and gather without interruption. This is the third unprecedentedly rare dharma.

iv) “In this room there is constant explanation of the six perfections and the nonretrogressive Dharma. This is the fourth unprecedentedly rare dharma.

v) “This room always produces the gods’ supreme string music, which generates the sound of the teaching of the immeasurable Dharma. This is the fifth unprecedentedly rare dharma.

vi) “This room has four great storehouses filled with the many jewels, which are given to the destitute and used to save the poor without limit. This is the sixth unprecedentedly rare dharma.

vii) “To this room Śākyamuni Buddha, Amitābha Buddha, Akṣobhya Buddha, Jewel Virtue Buddha, Jewel Mirage Buddha, Jewel Moon Buddha, Jewel Ornament Buddha, Difficult to Overcome Buddha, Lion’s Echo Buddha, and Achievement of All Benefits Buddha, and the immeasurable buddhas of the ten directions such as these all come when the Superior One is mindful of them; and they extensively explain to him the buddhas’ secret Dharma storehouse and, having explained it, then return [to their own worlds]. This is the seventh unprecedentedly rare dharma.

viii) “In this room appear all the ornamented palaces of the gods and the pure lands of the buddhas. This is the eighth unprecedentedly rare dharma.

“Śāriputra, this room always manifests the eight unprecedentedly rare dharmas. Who could see these inconceivable things and still take pleasure in the śrāvaka Dharma?”

14. Śāriputra said, “Why do you not transform your female body?” The goddess said, “For the past twelve years I have sought the characteristic of being female and have comprehended it to be unattainable (i.e., imperceptible). Why should I transform it? It is as if a magician has created a conjured female. If someone asked her, ‘Why do you not transform your female body?’ would that person’s question be proper or not?”

Śāriputra said, “It would not. An indeterminate characteristic that has been conjured—why should it be transformed?”

The goddess said, “All dharmas are also like this, in being without determinate characteristics. So why do you ask, ‘Why do you not transform your female body?’”

15. Then the goddess used the power of numinous penetration and changed Śāriputra’s body to be like that of a goddess, and she transformed her own body to be like Śāriputra. She then asked, “Why do you not transform this female body?”

Śāriputra, in the goddess’s form, answered, “I do not know how you transformed me now into this female body.”

The goddess said, “Śāriputra, if you were able to transform this female body, then all females would also be able to transform themselves. Just as Śāriputra is not female but is manifesting a female body, so are all females likewise. Although they manifest female bodies, they are not female.

“Therefore, the Buddha has explained that all dharmas are neither male nor female.”

At this point the goddess withdrew her numinous power, and Śāriputra’s body returned to as it was before.

The goddess asked Śāriputra, “Now where does the characteristic of form of the female body occur?”

Śāriputra said, “The characteristic of form of the female body is without occurrence and without non-occurrence.”

The goddess said, “All the dharmas are also likewise, in being without occurrence and without non-occurrence. This ‘without occurrence and without non-occurrence’ is as the buddhas have explained.”

16. Śāriputra asked the goddess, “When you die here, where will you be reborn?”

The goddess said, “Wherever the Buddha’s [activity of] conversion is born (i.e., generated), likewise will I be born.”

[Śāriputra] said, “Where the Buddha’s [activity of] conversion is generated is not [a place] of death and birth.”

The goddess said, “Sentient beings are likewise without death and birth.” Śāriputra asked the goddess, “How long will it be until you attain anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi?”

The goddess said, “When you are reborn as an [unenlightened] ordinary person, I will achieve anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi.”

Śāriputra said, “For me to be an ordinary person—this will never happen!”

The goddess said, “My attaining of anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi—this too will never happen. Why? Bodhi is without any locus of abiding. Therefore there is no one who attains it.”

Śāriputra said, “The buddhas who attain anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi, including those who have attained it and those who will attain it, are as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River. What about all of them?”

The goddess said, “It is entirely through conventional words and numbers that one talks of the existence of the three periods of time. It is not that there is past, future, and present in bodhi!”

The goddess said, “Śāriputra, have you attained arhatship?” [Śāriputra] said, “There is no attainment, and so have I attained it.” The goddess said, “The buddhas and bodhisattvas are also like this. There is no attainment, and so have they attained [anuttarā samyaksaṃ-bodhi].”

17. At this time Vimalakīrti said to Śāriputra, “The goddess has already served ninety-two koṭis of buddhas. She is able to disport in the numinous penetrations of the bodhisattva, her vows are complete, she has attained forbearance of the nonarising of dharmas, and she abides in nonretrogression. By virtue of her original vows she is able to manifest the teaching of sentient beings as she wishes.”

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