by Robert A. F. Thurman | 37,346 words
The Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra teaches, among other subjects, the meaning of nonduality. It contains a report of a teaching addressed to both arhats and bodhisattvas by the layman Vimalakīrti ("Undefiled Reputation"), who expounds the doctrine of śūnyatā, or emptiness, to them. This culminates with the wordless teaching of silence....
Then, the Licchavi Vimalakirti thought to himself, "I am sick, lying on my bed in pain, yet the Tathágata, the saint, the perfectly accomplished Buddha, does not consider or take pity upon me, and sends no one to inquire after my illness."
The Lord knew this thought in the mind of Vimalakirti and said to the venerable Shariputra, "Shariputra, go to inquire after the illness of the Licchavi Vimalakirti."
Thus having been addressed, the venerable Shariputra answered the Buddha, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to ask the Licchavi Vimalakirti about his illness. Why? I remember one day, when I was sitting at the foot of a tree in the forest, absorbed in contemplation, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came to the foot of that tree and said to me, 'Reverend Shariputra, this is not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation so that neither body nor mind appear anywhere in the triple world. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest all ordinary behavior without forsaking cessation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature. You should absorb yourself in contemplation so that the mind neither settles within nor moves without toward external forms. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment are manifest without deviation toward any convictions. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you are released in liberation without abandoning the passions that are the province of the world.
"'Reverend Shariputra, those who absorb themselves in contemplation in such a way are declared by the Lord to be truly absorbed in contemplation.'
"Lord, when I heard this teaching, I was unable to reply and remained silent. Therefore, I am reluctant to go to ask that good man about his sickness."
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Maha-Maudgalyayana, "Maudgalyayana, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness." (Maha is a title that means "Great")
Maudgalyayana replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness. Why? I remember one day when I was teaching the Dharma to the householders in a square in the great city of Vaisali, and the Licchavi Vimalakirti came along and said to me, 'Reverend Maudgalyayana, that is not the way to teach the Dharma to the householders in their white clothes. The Dharma must be taught according to reality.
"'Reverend Maudgalyayana, the Dharma is without living beings, because it is free of the dust of living beings.
It is selfless, because it is free of the dust of desire. It is lifeless, because it is free of birth and death. It is without personalities, because it dispenses with past origins and future destinies.
"'The Dharma is peace and pacification, because it is free from desire. It does not become an object, because it is free of words and letters; it is inexpressible, and it transcends all movement of mind.
"'The Dharma is omnipresent, because it is like infinite space. It is without color, mark, or shape, because it is free of all process. It is without the concept of "mine," because it is free of the habitual notion of possession. It is without ideation, because it is free of mind, thought, or consciousness. It is incomparable, because it has no antitheses. It is without presumption of conditionality, because it does not conform to causes.
"'It permeates evenly all things, because all are included in the ultimate realm. It conforms to reality by means of the process of nonconformity. It abides at the reality-limit, for it is utterly without fluctuation. It is immovable, because it is independent of the six objects of sense. It is without coming and going, for it never stands still. It is comprised by void ness, is remarkable through sign-less-ness, and is free of presumption and repudiation, because of wish-less-ness. It is without establishment and rejection, without birth or destruction. It is without any fundamental consciousness, transcending the range of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and thought. It is without highness and lowness. It abides without movement or activity.
"'Reverend Maha-Maudgalyayana, how could there be a teaching in regard to such a Dharma? Reverend Maha-Maudgalyayana, even the expression "to teach the Dharma" is presumptuous, and those who listen to it listen to presumption. Reverend Maudgalyayana, where there are no presumptuous words, there is no teacher of the Dharma, no one to listen, and no one to understand. It is as if an illusory person were to teach the Dharma to illusory people.
"'Therefore, you should teach the Dharma by keeping your mind on this. You should be adept in regard to the spiritual faculties of living beings. By means of the correct vision of the wisdom-eye, manifesting the great compassion, acknowledging the benevolent activity of the Buddha, purifying your intentions, understanding the definitive expressions of the Dharma, you should teach the Dharma in order that the continuity of the Three Jewels may never be interrupted.'
"Lord, when Vimalakirti had discoursed thus, eight hundred householders in the crowd conceived the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment, and I myself was speechless. Therefore, Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to this good man to inquire about his illness."
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Maha-Kasyapa, "Maha-Kasyapa, you go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
"Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness. Why? I remember one day, when I was in the street of the poor begging for my food, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came along and said to me, 'Reverend Maha-Kasyapa, to avoid the houses of the wealthy, and to favor the houses of the poor - this is partiality in benevolence. Reverend Maha-Kasyapa, you should dwell on the fact of the equality of things, and you should seek alms with consideration for all living beings at all times. You should beg your food in awareness of the ultimate nonexistence of food. You should seek alms for the sake of eliminating the materialism of others.
When you enter a town, you should keep in mind its actual void ness, yet you should proceed through it in order to develop men and women. You should enter homes as if entering the family of the Buddha. You should accept alms by not taking anything. You should see form like a man blind from birth, hear sounds as if they were echoes, smell scents as if they were winds, experience tastes without any discrimination, touch tangibles in awareness of the ultimate lack of contact in gnosis, and know things with the consciousness of an illusory creature. That which is without intrinsic substance and without imparted substance does not burn. And what does not burn will not be extinguished.
"'Elder Maha-Kasyapa, if, equipoised (a state of equilibrium) in the eight liberations without transcending the eight perversions, you can enter the equanimity of reality by means of the equanimity of perversion, and if you can make a gift to all living beings and an offering to all the saints and Buddhas out of even a single measure of alms, then you yourself may eat. Thus, when you eat, after offering, you should be neither affected by passions nor free of passions, neither involved in concentration nor free from concentration, neither living in the world nor abiding in liberation.
Furthermore, those who give such alms, reverend, have neither great merit nor small merit, neither gain nor loss. They should follow the way of the Buddhas, not the way of the disciples. Only in this way, Elder Maha-Kasyapa, is the practice of eating by alms meaningful.'
"Lord, when I heard this teaching, I was astonished and thought: 'Reverence to all bodhisattvas! If a lay bodhisattva may be endowed with such eloquence, who is there who would not conceive the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment? From that time forth, I no longer recommend the vehicles of the disciples and of the solitary sages but recommend the Mahayana. And thus, Lord, I am reluctant to go to this good man to inquire about his illness."
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Subhuti, "Subhuti, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Subhuti replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to this good man to inquire about his illness. Why? My Lord,
I remember one day, when I went to beg my food at the house of the Licchavi Vimalakirti in the great city of Vaisali, he took my bowl and filled it with some excellent food and said to me, 'Reverend Subhuti, take this food if you understand the equality of all things, by means of the equality of material objects, and if you understand the equality of all the attributes of the Buddha, by means of the equality of all things. Take this food if, without abandoning desire, hatred, and folly, you can avoid association with them; if you can follow the path of the single way without ever disturbing the egoistic views; if you can produce the knowledge’s and liberations without conquering ignorance and the craving for existence; if, by the equality of the five deadly sins, you reach the equality of liberation; if you are neither liberated nor bound; if you do not see the Four Holy Truths, yet are not the one who "has not seen the truth"; if you have not attained any fruit, yet are not the one who "has not attained"; if you are an ordinary person, yet have not the qualities of an ordinary person; if you are not holy, yet are not unholy; if you are responsible for all things, yet are free of any notion concerning anything.
"'Take this food, reverend Subhuti, if, without seeing the Buddha, hearing the Dharma, or serving the Sangha, you undertake the religious life under the six heterodox masters; namely, Purana Kasyapa, Maskarin Gosaliputra, Samjayin Vairatiputra, Kakuda Katyayana, Ajita Kesakambala, and Nirgrantha Jnaniputra, and follow the ways they prescribe.
"'Take this food, reverend Subhuti, if, entertaining all false views, you find neither extremes nor middle; if, bound up in the eight adversities, you do not obtain favorable conditions; if, assimilating the passions, you do not attain purification; if the dispassion of all living beings is your dispassion, reverend; if those who make offerings to you are not thereby purified; if those who offer you food, reverend, still fall into the three bad migrations; if you associate with all Mara’s; if you entertain all passions; if the nature of passions is the nature of a reverend; if you have hostile feelings toward all living beings; if you despise all the Buddhas; if you criticize
all the teachings of the Buddha; if you do not rely on the Sangha; and finally, if you never enter ultimate liberation.'
"Lord, when I heard these words of the Licchavi Vimalakirti, I wondered what I should say and what I should do, but I was totally in the dark. Leaving the bowl, I was about to leave the house when the Licchavi Vimalakirti said to me, 'Reverend Subhuti, do not fear these words, and pick up your bowl. What do you think, reverend Subhuti?
If it were an incarnation created by the Tathágata who spoke thus to you, would you be afraid?'
"I answered, 'No indeed, noble sir!' He then said, 'Reverend Subhuti, the nature of all things is like illusion, like a magical incarnation. So you should not fear them. Why? All words also have that nature, and thus the wise are not attached to words, nor do they fear them. Why? All language does not ultimately exist, except as liberation. The nature of all things is liberation.'
"When Vimalakirti had discoursed in this way, two hundred gods obtained the pure doctrinal vision in regard to all things, without obscurity or defilement, and five hundred gods obtained the conformative tolerance. As for me, I was speechless and unable to respond to him. Therefore, Lord, I am reluctant to go to this good man to inquire about his illness."
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Purna-maitrayaniputra, "Purna, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Purna replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to this good man to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember one day, when I was teaching the Dharma to some young monks in the great forest, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came there and said to me, 'Reverend Purna, first concentrate yourself, regard the minds of these young Bhikkhus, and then teach them the Dharma! Do not put rotten food into a jeweled bowl! First understand the inclinations of these monks, and do not confuse priceless sapphires with glass beads!
"'Reverend Purna, without examining the spiritual faculties of living beings, do not presume upon the one-sidedness of their faculties; do not wound those who are without wounds; do not impose a narrow path upon those who aspire to a great path; do not try to pour the great ocean into the hoof-print of an ox; do not try to put Mount Sumeru into a grain of mustard; do not confuse the brilliance of the sun with the light of a glowworm; and do not expose those who admire the roar of a lion to the howl of a jackal!
"'Reverend Purna, all these monks were formerly engaged in the Mahayana but have forgotten the spirit of enlightenment. So do not instruct them in the disciple-vehicle. The disciple-vehicle is not ultimately valid, and you disciples are like men blind from birth, in regard to recognition of the degrees of the spiritual faculties of living beings.'
"At that moment, the Licchavi Vimalakirti entered into such a concentration that those monks were caused to remember their various former existences, in which they had produced the roots of virtue by serving five hundred Buddhas for the sake of perfect enlightenment. As soon as their own spirits of enlightenment had become clear to them, they bowed at the feet of that good man and pressed their palms together in reverence. He taught them the Dharma, and they all attained the stage of irreversibility from the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. It occurred to me then, 'the disciples, who do not know the thoughts or the inclinations of others, are not able to teach the Dharma to anyone. Why? These disciples are not expert in discerning the superiority and inferiority of the spiritual faculties of living beings, and they are not always in a state of concentration like the Tathágata, the Saint, the perfectly accomplished Buddha.'
"Therefore, Lord, I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his health."
The Buddha then said to the venerable Maha-Katyayana, "Katyayana, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Katyayana replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go that good man to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember one day when, after the Lord had given some brief instruction to the monks, I was defining the expressions of that discourse by teaching the meaning of impermanence, suffering, selflessness, and peace; the Licchavi Vimalakirti came there and said to me, 'Reverend Maha-Katyayana, do not teach an ultimate reality endowed with activity, production, and destruction! Reverend Maha-Katyayana, nothing was ever destroyed, is destroyed, or will ever be destroyed. Such is the meaning of "impermanence." The meaning of the realization of birthlessness, through the realization of the void ness of the five aggregates, is the meaning of "suffering." The fact of the non-duality of self and selflessness is the meaning of "selflessness." That which has no intrinsic substance and no other sort of substance does not burn, and what does not burn is not extinguished; such lack of extinction is the meaning of "peace."'
"When he had discoursed thus, the minds of the monks were liberated from their defilements and entered a state of non-grasping.
Therefore, Lord, I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his illness."
The Buddha then said to the venerable Aniruddha, "Aniruddha, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
"My Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go that good man to inquire about his illness. Why? I remember, Lord, one day when I was taking a walk, the great Brahma named Subhavyuha and the ten thousand other Brahmas who accompanied him illuminated the place with their radiance and, having bowed their heads at my feet, withdrew to one side and asked me, 'Reverend Aniruddha, you have been proclaimed by the Buddha to be the foremost among those who possess the divine eye. To what distance does the divine vision of the venerable Aniruddha extend?'
I answered, 'Friends, I see the entire billion-world-galactic universe of the Lord Shakyamuni just as plainly as a man of ordinary vision sees a myrobalan nut on the palm of his hand.' When I had said these words, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came there and, having bowed his head at my feet, said to me, 'Reverend Aniruddha, is your divine eye compounded in nature? Or is it uncompounded in nature?
If it is compounded in nature, it is the same as the super-knowledge’s of the heterodox. If it is uncompounded in nature, then it is not constructed and, as such, is incapable of seeing. Then, how do you see, O elder?'
"At these words, I became speechless, and Brahma also was amazed to hear this teaching from that good man.
Having bowed to him, he said, 'Who then, in the world, possesses the divine eye?'
"Vimalakirti answered, 'in the world, it is the Buddhas who have the divine eye. They see all the Buddha-fields without even leaving their state of concentration and without being affected by duality.'
"Having heard these words, the ten thousand Brahmas were inspired with high resolve and conceived the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. Having paid homage and respect both to me and to that good man, they disappeared. As for me, I remained speechless, and therefore I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his illness."
The Buddha then said to the venerable Upali, "Upali, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Upali replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember that one day there were two monks who had committed some infraction and were too ashamed to appear before the Lord, so they came to me and said, 'Reverend Upali, we have both committed an infraction but are too ashamed to appear before the Buddha. Venerable Upali, kindly remove our anxieties by absolving us of these infractions.'
"Lord, while I was giving those two monks some religious discourse, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came there and said to me, 'Reverend Upali, do not aggravate further the sins of these two monks. Without perplexing them, relieve their remorse. Reverend Upali, sin is not to be apprehended within, or without, or between the two. Why?
The Buddha has said, "Living beings are afflicted by the passions of thought, and they are purified by the purification of thought."
"'Reverend Upali, the mind is neither within nor without, nor is it to be apprehended between the two. Sin is just the same as the mind, and all things are just the same as sin. They do not escape this same reality.
"'Reverend Upali, this nature of the mind, by virtue of which your mind, reverend, is liberated - does it ever become afflicted?'
"'Never,' I replied.
"'Reverend Upali, the minds of all living beings have that very nature. Reverend Upali, passions consist of conceptualizations. The ultimate nonexistence of these conceptualizations and imaginary fabrications - that is the purity that is the intrinsic nature of the mind. Misapprehensions are passions. The ultimate absence of misapprehensions is the intrinsic nature of the mind. The presumption of self is passion. The absence of self is the intrinsic nature of the mind. Reverend Upali, all things are without production, destruction, and duration, like magical illusions, clouds, and lightning; all things are evanescent, not remaining even for an instant; all things are like dreams, hallucinations, and unreal visions; all things are like the reflection of the moon in water and like a mirror-image; they are born of mental construction. Those who know this are called the true upholders of the discipline, and those disciplined in that way are indeed well disciplined.'"
"Then the two monks said, 'this householder is extremely well endowed with wisdom. The reverend Upali, who was proclaimed by the Lord as the foremost of the upholders of the discipline, is not his equal.'
"I then said to the two monks, 'Do not entertain the notion that he is a mere householder! Why? With the exception of the Tathágata himself, there is no disciple or bodhisattva capable of competing with his eloquence or rivaling the brilliance of his wisdom.'
"Thereupon, the two monks, delivered from their anxieties and inspired with a high resolve, conceived the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. Bowing down to that good man, they made the wish: 'May all living beings attain eloquence such as this!' Therefore, I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his illness."
The Buddha then said to the venerable Rahula, "Rahula, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Rahula replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember that one day many young Licchavi gentlemen came to the place where I was and said to me, 'Reverend Rahula, you are the son of the Lord, and, having renounced a kingdom of a universal monarch, you have left the world. What are the virtues and benefits you saw in leaving the world?'
"As I was teaching them properly the benefits and virtues of renouncing the world, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came there and, having greeted me, said, 'Reverend Rahula, you should not teach the benefits and virtues of renunciation in the way that you do. Why? Renunciation is itself the very absence of virtues and benefits.
Reverend Rahula, one may speak of benefits and virtues in regard to compounded things, but renunciation is uncompounded, and there can be no question of benefits and virtues in regard to the uncompounded. Reverend Rahula, renunciation is not material but is free of matter. It is free of the extreme views of beginning and end. It is the path of liberation. It is praised by the wise, embraced by the saints, and causes the defeat of all Mara’s. It liberates from the five states of existence, purifies the five eyes, cultivates the five powers, and supports the five spiritual faculties. Renunciation is totally harmless to others and is not adulterated with evil things. It disciplines the heterodox, transcending all denominations. It is the bridge over the swamp of desire, without grasping, and free of the habits of "I" and "mine." It is without attachment and without disturbance, eliminating all commotion. It disciplines one's own mind and protects the minds of others. It favors mental quiescence and stimulates transcendental analysis. It is irreproachable in all respects and so is called renunciation. Those who leave the mundane in this way are called "truly renunciant." Young men, renounce the world in the light of this clear teaching! The appearance of the Buddha is extremely rare. Human life endowed with leisure and opportunity is very hard to obtain. To be a human being is very precious.'
"The young men complained: 'But, householder, we have heard the Tathágata declare that one should not renounce the world without the permission of one's parents.'
"Vimalakirti answered: 'Young men, you should cultivate yourselves intensively to conceive the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. That in itself will be your renunciation and high ordination!'
"Thereupon, thirty-two of the Licchavi youths conceived the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
Therefore, Lord, I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his illness."
The Buddha then said to the venerable Ánanda, "Ánanda, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Ánanda replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember one day when the body of the Lord manifested some indisposition and he required some milk; I took the bowl and went to the door of the mansion of a great Brahman family. The Licchavi Vimalakirti came there, and, having saluted me, said, 'Reverend Ánanda, what are you doing on the threshold of this house with your bowl in your hand so early in the morning?'
"I replied: 'the body of the Lord manifests some indisposition, and he needs some milk. Therefore, I have come to fetch some.'
"Vimalakirti then said to me, 'Reverend Ánanda, do not say such a thing! Reverend Ánanda, the body of the Tathágata is tough as a diamond, having eliminated all the instinctual traces of evil and being endowed with all goodness. How could disease or discomfort affect such a body?
"'Reverend Ánanda, go in silence, and do not belittle the Lord. Do not say such things to others. It would not be good for the powerful gods or for the bodhisattvas coming from the various Buddha-fields to hear such words.
"'Reverend Ánanda, a universal monarch, who is endowed only with a small root of virtue, is free of diseases.
How then could the Lord, who has an infinite root of virtue, have any disease? It is impossible.
"'Reverend Ánanda, do not bring shame upon us, but go in silence, lest the heterodox sectarians should hear your words. They would say, "For shame! The teacher of these people cannot even cure his own sicknesses. How then can he cure the sicknesses of others?" Reverend Ánanda, go then discreetly so that no one observes you.
"'Reverend Ánanda, the Tathágatas have the body of the Dharma - not a body that is sustained by material food.
The Tathágatas have a transcendental body that has transcended all mundane qualities.
There is no injury to the body of a Tathágata, as it is rid of all defilements. The body of a Tathágata is uncompounded and free of all formative activity. Reverend Ánanda, to believe there can be illness in such a body is irrational and unseemly!'
"When I had heard these words, I wondered if I had previously misheard and misunderstood the Buddha, and I was very much ashamed. Then I heard a voice from the sky: 'Ánanda! The householder speaks to you truly.
Nevertheless, since the Buddha has appeared during the time of the five corruptions, he disciplines living beings by acting lowly and humble. Therefore, Ánanda, do not be ashamed, and go and get the milk!'
"Lord, such was my conversation with the Licchavi Vimalakirti, and therefore I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his illness."
In the same way, the rest of the five hundred disciples were reluctant to go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti, and each told the Buddha his own adventure, recounting all his conversations with the Licchavi Vimalakirti.