Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra

by Charles Luk | 1972 | 32,509 words

Translated and edited from the Chinese (Kumarajiva ed. T.475) by Charles Luk (Lu K'uan Yi) in 1972....

Chapter 3 - The Disciples


Vimalakirti wondered why the great compassionate Buddha did not take pity on him as he was confined to bed suffering from an indisposition.

The Buddha knew of his thought and said to Sariputra: “Go to Vimalakirti to enquire after his health on my behalf.”

Sariputra said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on him and enquire after his health. The reason is that once, as I was sitting in meditation under a tree in a grove, Vimalakirti came and said: ‘Sariputra, meditation is not necessarily sitting. For meditation means the non-appearance of body and mind in the three worlds (of desire, form and no form); giving no thought to inactivity when in nirvana while appearing (in the world) with respect-inspiring deportment; not straying from the Truth while attending to worldly affairs; the mind abiding neither within nor without; being imperturbable to wrong views during the practice of the thirty-seven contributory stages leading to enlightenment: and not wiping out troubles (klesa) while entering the state of nirvana. If you can thus sit in meditation, you will win the Buddha’s seal.’

“World Honoured One, when I heard his speech I was dumbfounded and found no word to answer him. Therefore I am not qualified to call on him and enquire after his health.”


The Buddha then said to Maudgalaputra: “Go to Vimalakirti and enquire after his health on my behalf.”

Maudgalyayana said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on him to enquire after his health. The reason is that one day when I came to Vaisali to expound the Dharma to lay Buddhists (upasakas) in the street there, Vimalakirti came and said: “Hey Maudgalyayana, when expounding the Dharma to these upasakas, you should not preach like that for what you teach should agree with the absolute Dharma, which is free from the (illusion of) living beings; is free from the self for it is beyond an ego; from life for it is beyond birth and death and from the concept of a man which lacks continuity (thought seemingly continuous, like a torch whirled around); is always still for it is beyond (stirring) phenomena; is above form for it is causeless; is inexpressible for it is beyond word and speech; is inexplainable for it is beyond intellect; is formless like empty space; is beyond sophistry for it is immaterial; is egoless for it is beyond (the duality of) subject and object; is free from discrimination for it is beyond consciousness; is without compare for it is beyond all relativities; is beyond cause for it is causeless; is identical with Dharmata (or Dharma-nature), the underlying nature (of all things); is in line with the absolute for it is independent; dwells in the region of absolute reality, being above and beyond all dualities; is unmovable for it does not rely on the six objects of sense; neither comes nor goes for it does not stay anywhere; is in line with voidness, formlessness and inactivity; is beyond beauty and ugliness; neither increases nor decreases; is beyond creation and destruction; does not return to anywhere; is above the six sense organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind; is neither up nor down; is eternal and immutable; and is beyond contemplation and practice. “Maudgalyayana, such being the characteristics of the Dharma, how can it be expounded?”

For expounding, it is beyond speech and indication, and listening to it is above hearing and grasping. This is like a conjurer expounding the Dharma to illusory men, and you should always bear all this in mind, when expounding the Dharma. You should be clear about the sharp or dull roots of your audience and have a good knowledge of this to avoid all sorts of hindrance. Before expounding the Dharma, you should use your great compassion (for all living beings) to extol Mahayana to them and think of repaying your own debt of gratitude to the Buddha by striving to preserve the three treasures (of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) for ever.

“When Vimalakirti spoke, eight hundred upasakas set their minds on seeking supreme enlightenment (anuttara-samyak-sambodhi). I do not have the eloquence and I am, therefore, not fit to call on him to inquire after his health.”


The Buddha then said to Mahakasyapa: “ Go to Vimalakirti to enquire after his health on my behalf.”

Mahakasyapa said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on him to inquire after his health. The reason is that once when I went begging for food in a lane inhabited by poor people, Vimalakirti came and said: “Hey, Mahakasyapa, you are failing to make your kind and compassionate mind all-embracing by begging from the poor while staying away from the rich. Mahakasyapa, in your practice of impartiality, you should call on your donors in succession (regardless of whether they are poor or rich). You should beg for food without the (ulterior) idea of eating it. To wipe out the concept of rolling (food into a ball in the hand), you should take it by the hand (i.e. without the idea of how you take it). You should receive the food given without the idea of receiving anything. When entering a village, you should regard it as void like empty space. When seeing a form, you should remain indifferent to it. When you hear a voice, you should consider it (as meaningless as) an echo. When you smell an odor, take it for the wind (which has no smell). When you eat, refrain from discerning the taste. Regard all touch as if you were realizing wisdom (which is free from feelings and emotions). You should know that all things are illusory, having neither nature of their own nor that of something else, and that since fundamentally, they are not self-existent, they cannot now be the subject of annihilation. Mahakasyapa, if you can achieve all eight forms of liberation without keeping from the eight heterodox ways (of life), that is by identifying heterodoxy with orthodoxy (both as emanating from the same source), and if you can make an offering of your (own) food to all living beings as well as to all Buddhas and all members of the Sangha, then you can take the food. Such a way of eating is beyond the troubles (of the worldly man) and the absence of the troubles of Hinayana men); above the state of stillness (in which Hinayana men abstain from eating) and the absence of stillness (of Mahayana men who eat while in the state of serenity); and beyond both dwelling in the worldly state or in nirvana, while your donors reap neither great nor little merits, what they give being neither beneficial nor harmful. This is correct entry upon the Buddha path without relying on the small way of sravakas. Mahakasyapa, if you can so eat the food given you, your eating shall not be in vain.”

“World Honoured One, when I listened to his words which I had never heard before, I gave rise to profound reverence to all Bodhisattvas and thought, ‘His wisdom and power of speech being such, who will fail to develop a mind set on supreme enlightenment?’ Since then I have refrained from urging people to follow the practices of sravakas and pratyeka-buddhas. Hence, I am not qualified to call on him to inquire after his health.”


The Buddha then said to Subhuti: “You call on Vimalakirti to enquire after his health on my behalf.”

Subhuti said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on him and enquire after his health. The reason is that once when I went to his house begging for food, he took my bowl and filled it with rice, saying: ‘Subhuti, if your mind set on eating is in the same state as when confronting all (other) things, and if this uniformity as regards all things equally applies to (the act of) eating, you can then beg for food and eat it. Subhuti, if without cutting off carnality, anger and stupidity you can keep from these (three) evils: if you do not wait for the death of your body to achieve the oneness of all things; if you do not wipe out stupidity and love in your quest of enlightenment and liberation; if you can look into (the underlying nature of) the five deadly sins to win liberation, with at the same time no idea of either bondage or freedom; if you give rise to neither the four noble truths nor their opposites; if you do not hold both the concept of winning and not winning the holy fruit; if you do not regard yourself as a worldly or unworldly man, as a saint or not as a saint; if you perfect all Dharmas while keeping away from the concept of Dharmas, then can you receive and eat the food. Subhuti, if you neither see the Buddha nor hear the Dharma; if the six heterodox teachers, Purana-kasyapa, Maskari-gosaliputra, Yanjaya-vairatiputra, Ajita-kesakambala, Kakuda-katyayana and Nirgrantha-jnatiputra are regarded impartially as your own teachers and if, when they induce leavers of home into heterodoxy, you also fall with the latter; then you can take away the food and eat it. If you are (unprejudiced about) falling into heresy and regard yourself as not reaching the other shore (of enlightenment); if you are unprejudiced about the eight sad conditions and regard yourself as not free from them; if you are unprejudiced about defilements and relinquish the concept of pure living; if when you realize samadhi in which there is absence of debate or disputation, all living beings also achieve it; if your donors of food are not regarded (with partiality) as (cultivating) the field of blessedness; if those making offerings to you are partially looked on as also falling into the three evil realms of existence; if you impartially regard demons as your companions without differentiating between them as well as between other forms of defilement; if you are discontented with all living beings, defame the Buddha, break the law (Dharma), do not attain the holy rank and fail to win liberation; then you can take away the food and eat it.

“World Honoured One, I was dumbfounded when I heard his words, which were beyond my reach, and to which I found no answer. Then I left the bowl of rice and intended to leave his house but Vimalakirti said: ‘Hey, Subhuti, take the bowl of rice without fear. Are you frightened when the Tathagata makes an illusory man ask you questions? I replied: ‘No.’ He then continued: ‘All things are illusory and you should not fear anything. Why? Because words and speech are illusory. So all wise men do not cling to words and speech, and this is why they fear nothing. Why? Because words and speech have no independent nature of their own and, when they are no more, you are liberated. This liberation will free you from all bondage.’

“When Vimalakirti expounded the Dharma two hundred sons of devas realized the Dharma eye. Hence I am not qualified to call on him to inquire after his health.”


The Buddha then said to Purnamaitrayaniputra: “You call on Vimalakirti to enquire after his health on my behalf.”

Purnamaitrayaniputra said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on him and enquire after his health. This is because when I was once in a grove and was expunding the Dharma under a tree to a group of newly initiated bhiksus, Vimalakirti came and said: “Hey, Purnamaitraynaiputra, you should first enter the state of samadhi to examine the minds of your listeners before expounding the Dharma to them. Do not put rotten food in precious bowls. You should know their minds and do not take their precious crystal for (ordinary) glass. If you do not know their propensities, do not teach them Hinayana. They have no wounds, so do not hurt them. To those who want to tread the wide path, do not show narrow tracks. Do not enclose the great sea in the print of an ox’s foot; do not liken sunlight to the dim glow of a firefly. Purnamaitryaniputra, these bhiksus have long ago developed the Mahayana mind but they now forget all about it; how can you teach them Hinayana? Wisdom as taught by Hinayana is shallow; it is like a blind man who cannot discern the sharp from the dull roots of living beings.”

At that time, Vimalakirti entered the state of samadhi and caused the bhiksus to remember their former lives when they had met five hundred Buddhas and had then planted seeds of excellent virtues, which they had dedicated to their quest of supreme enlightenment; they instantly awakened to their past and recovered their fundamental minds. They at once bowed with their heads at the feet of Vimalakirti, who then expounded the Dharma to them; they resumed their quest of supreme enlightenment without backsliding.

I think that Sravakas, who do not know how to look into the roots of their listeners, should not expound the Dharma. Hence, I am not qualified to call on Vimalakirti to inquire after his health.


The Buddha then said to Mahakatyayana: “You go to Vimalakirti to enquire after his health on my behalf.”

Mahakatyayana said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on him and inquire after his health. For once after the Buddha had expounded the essential aspects of the Dharma to a group of bhiksus, I followed Him to explain to them the meanings of impermanence, suffering, voidness, egolessness and nirvana. “Vimalakirti came and said: ‘Hey, Mahakatyayana, do not use your mortal mind to preach immortal reality. Mahakatyayana, all things are fundamentally above creation and destruction; this is what impermanence means. The five aggregates are perceived as void and not arising; this is what suffering means. All things are basically non-existent; this is what voidness means. Ego and its absence are not a duality; this is what egolessness means. All things basically are not what they seem to be, they cannot be subject to extinction now; this is what nirvana means.

After Vimalakirti had expounded the Dharma, the bhiksus present succeeded in liberating their minds. Hence, I am not qualified to call on him and inquire after his health.


The Buddha then said to Aniruddha: “You call on Vimalakirti to inquire after his health on my behalf.”

Aniruddha said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on him and inquired after his health. For once when I was walking about while meditating to prevent sleepiness, a Brahma called, ‘The Gloriously Pure’, together with an entourage of ten thousand devas sent off rays of light, came to my place, bowed their heads to salute me and asked: ‘How far does your deva eye see?’ I replied: ‘Virtuous one, I see the land of Sakyamuni Buddha in the great chiliocosm like an amala fruit held in my hand.’ Vimalakirti (suddenly) came and said: ‘Hey, Aniruddha, when your deva eye sees, does it see form or formlessness? If it sees form, you are no better than those heretics who have won five supernatural powers. If you see formlessness, your deva eye is non-active (wu wei) and should be unseeing.’ “World Honoured One, I kept silent.”

And the devas praised Vimalakirti for what they had not heard before, They then paid reverence and asked him: ‘Is there anyone in this world who has realized the real deva eye?”

Vimalakirti replied: “There is the Buddha who has realized the real deva eye; He is always in the state of samadhi and sees all Buddha lands without (giving rise to) the duality (of subjective eye and objective form).”

At that time, Brahma and five hundred of his relatives developed the anuttara-samyak-sambodhi mind; they bowed their heads at Vimalakirti’s feet and suddenly disappeared. This is why I am not qualified to call on him to inquire after his health.”


The Buddha then said to Upali: “You call on Vimalakirti to inquire after his health on my behalf.”

Upali said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on Vimalakirti to inquire after his health. For once, two bhiksus broke the prohibitions, and being shameful of their sins, they dared not call on the Buddha. They came to ask me: ‘Upali, we have broken the commandments and are ashamed of our sins, so we dare not ask the Buddha about this and come to you. Please teach us the rules of repentance so as to wipe out our sins.’ I then taught them the rules of repentance.

At that time, Vimalakirti came and said: ‘Hey, Upali, do not aggravate their sins which you should wipe out at once without further disturbing their minds. Why? Because the nature of sin is neither within nor without, nor in between. As the Buddha has said, living beings are impure because their mind are impure; if their minds are pure, they are all pure. And, mind also is neither within nor without nor in between. Their minds being such, so, are their sins. Likewise all things do not go beyond (their ) suchness. Upali, when your mind is liberated, is there any remaining impurity?’ I replied: ‘There will be no more.’ He said: ‘Likewise, the minds of all living beings are free from impurities. Upali, false thoughts are impure and the absence of false thoughts is purity. Inverted (ideas) are impure and the absence of inverted (ideas) is purity. Clinging to ego is impure and non-clinging to ego is purity. Upali, all phenomena rise and fall without staying (for an instant) like an illusion and lightning. All phenomena do not wait for one another and do not stay for the time of a thought. They all derive from false views and are like a dream and a flame, the moon in water, and an image in a mirror for they are born from wrong thinking. He who understands this is called a keeper of the rules of discipline and he who knows it is called a skillful interpreter (of the precepts).’

At that time, the two bhiksus declared: ‘What a supreme wisdom which is beyond the reach of Upali who cannot expound the highest principle of discipline and morality?’

I said: ‘Since I left the Buddha I have not met a sravaka or a Bodhisattva who can surpass his rhetoric, for his great wisdom and perfect enlightenment have reached such a high degree.’

Thereupon, the two bhiksus got rid of their doubts and repentance, set their mind on the quest of supreme enlightenment and took the vow to make all living beings acquire the same power of speech. Hence, I am not qualified to call on Vimalakirti and inquire after his health.


The Buddha then said to Rahula: “You go to Vimalakirti to inquire after his health on my behalf.”

Rahula said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on him and inquire after his health. For once the sons of the elders at Vaisali came to my place and bowed to salute me, saying: ‘Rahula, you are the Buddha’s son and left the throne to search for the truth; what advantage derives from leaving home? I then spoke of the advantage of earning merits that so derive. Vimalakirti came and said: “Hey, Rahula, you should not speak of the advantage of earning merits that derive from leaving home. Why? Because home-leaving bestows neither advantage nor good merits. Only when speaking of the worldly (way of life) can you talk about advantage and merits. For home-leaving is above the worldly, and the transcendental is beyond advantage and merits. Rahula, home-leaving is beyond thisness, thatness and in between; is above the sixty-two wrong views, and abides in (the state of) nirvana. It is praised by all wise men and practiced by all saints. It overcomes all demons; liberates from the five realms of existence; purifies the five kinds of eyes; helps realize the five spiritual powers and sets up the five spiritual faculties; releases from earthly grievances; keeps from varied evils (derived from a mixed mind); frees from the unreality of names and terms; gets out of the mud (of defilement); relieves from all bondages, wipes out the duality of subject and object and all responsiveness and disturbances; it gives inner joy; protects all living beings; dwells in serenity and guards against all wrongs. If all this can be achieved, this is true home-leaving.’

Vimalakirti then said to the sons of the elders: ‘During this period of correct Dharma, you should leave home to join the Sangha. Why? Because it is very difficult to have the good fortune of living in the Buddha-age.’

The sons of the elders replied: ‘Venerable Upasaka, we have heard the Buddha said that one cannot leave home without the consent of one’s parents.’

Vimalakirti said: ‘Yes, it is so, but you will really leave home the moment you develop a mind set on the quest of supreme enlightenment (anuttara-samyak-sambodhi), which completes your home-leaving.’

At that time, all the thirty-two sons of the elders developed the anuttara-samyak-sambodhi mind. This is why I am not qualified to call on Vimalakirti and inquire after his health.”


The Buddha then said to Ananda: “You call on Vimalakirti and inquire after his health on my behalf.”

Ananda replied: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on him to inquire after his health. This is because once when the World Honoured One had a slight indisposition and needed some cow milk, I took a bowl and went to a Brahmin family where I stood at the door. Vimalakirti came and asked me: ‘Why are you out so early holding a bowl in your hand?”

I replied: ‘Venerable Upasaka, the World Honoured One is slightly indisposed and wants some cow milk; this is why I have come here.’

Vimalakirti said: ‘Stop, Ananda, stop speaking these words. The Tathahata’s body is as strong as a diamond for He has cut off all evils and has achieved all good. What kind of indisposition and trouble does He still have? Ananda, do not slander the Tathagata and do not let other people hear such coarse language. Do not let the god (devas) as well as the Bodhisattvas of other pure lands hear about it. Ananda, world ruler (cakravarti) who has accumulated only a few small merits is already free from all ailments; how much more so is the Tathagata who has earned countless merits and has achieved all moral excellences? Go away, Ananda, do not cover us all with shame. If the Brahmins heard you they would say: “How can this man be a saviour if he cannot cure his own illness; how can he pretend to heal the sick?” Get away unnoticed and quickly and do not let others hear what you have said. Ananda, you should know that the body of the Tathagata is the Dharmakaya and does not come from (the illusion of) thought and desire. The Buddha is the World Honoured One (Bhagavat); His body is above and beyond the three realms (of desire, form and beyond form) and is outside the stream of transmigratory suffering. The Buddha body is transcendental (we wei) and is beyond destiny. How then can such a body be ill?’

World Honoured One, his word covered me with shame and I asked myself if I had not wrongly understood the Buddha’s order. At that time, a voice was heard in the air above, saying: ‘Ananda, the Upasaka is right, but since the Buddha appears in the five kasaya (or periods of turbidity on earth), He uses this (expedient) method (upaya) to liberate living beings. Ananda, go and beg for the cow milk without shame.’

World Honoured One, Vimalakirti’s wisdom and power of speech being such, I am really not qualified to call on him to inquire after his health.”

Thus each of the five hundred chief disciples related his encounter with Vimalakirti and declined to call on him to inquire after his health.

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