Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra

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....


`antecedents And Transmission Of The Holy Dharma

Then Sakra, the prince of the gods, said to the Buddha, "Lord, formerly I have heard from the Tathágata and from Manjusri, the crown prince of wisdom, many hundreds of thousands of teachings of the Dharma, but I have never before heard a teaching of the Dharma as remarkable as this instruction in the entrance into the method of inconceivable transformations. Lord, those living beings who, having heard this teaching of the Dharma, accept it, remember it, read it, and understand it deeply will be, without a doubt, true vessels of the Dharma; there is no need to mention those who apply themselves to the yoga of meditation upon it. They will cut off all possibility of unhappy lives, will open their way to all fortunate lives, will always be looked after by all Buddhas, will always overcome all adversaries, and will always conquer all devils. They will practice the path of the bodhisattvas, will take their places upon the seat of Enlightenment, and will have truly entered the domain of the Tathágatas. Lord, the noble sons and daughters who will teach and practice this exposition of the Dharma will be honored and served by me and my followers. To the villages, towns, cities, states, kingdoms, and capitals wherein this teaching of the Dharma will be applied, taught, and demonstrated, I and my followers will come to hear the Dharma. I will inspire the unbelieving with faith, and I will guarantee my help and protection to those who believe and uphold the Dharma."

At these words, the Buddha said to Sakra, the prince of the gods, "Excellent! Excellent, prince of gods! The Tathágata rejoices in your good words. Prince of gods, the enlightenment of the Buddhas of the past, present, and future is expressed in this discourse of Dharma. Therefore, prince of gods, when noble sons and daughters accept it, repeat it, understand it deeply, write it completely, and, making it into a book, honor it, those sons and daughters thereby pay homage to the Buddhas of the past, present and future.

"Let us suppose, prince of gods, that this billion-world-galactic universe were as full of Tathágatas as it is covered with groves of sugarcane, with rosebushes, with bamboo thickets, with herbs, and with flowers, and that a noble son or daughter were to honor them, revere them, respect and adore them, offering them all sorts of comforts and offerings for an aeon or more than an aeon. And let us suppose that, these Tathágatas having entered ultimate liberation, he or she honored each of them by enshrining their preserved bodies in a memorial stupa made of precious stones, each as large as a world with four great continents, rising as high as the world of Brahma, adorned with parasols, banners, standards, and lamps. And let us suppose finally that, having erected all these stupas for the Tathágatas, he or she were to devote an aeon or more to offering them flowers, perfumes, banners, and standards, while playing drums and music.

That being done, what do you think, prince of gods? Would that noble son or daughter receive much merit as a consequence of such activities?"

Sakra, the prince of gods, replied, "Many merits, Lord! Many merits, O Sugata! Were one to spend hundreds of thousands of millions of aeons, it would be impossible to measure the limit of the mass of merits that that noble son or daughter would thereby gather!"

The Buddha said, "Have faith, prince of gods, and understand this: Whoever accepts this exposition of the Dharma called 'Instruction in the Inconceivable Liberation,' recites it, and understands it deeply, he or she will gather merits even greater than those who perform the above acts. Why so? Because, prince of gods, the enlightenment of the Buddhas arises from the Dharma, and one honors them by the Dharma worship, and not by material worship. Thus it is taught, prince of gods, and thus you must understand it."

The Buddha then further said to Sakra, the prince of gods, "Once, prince of gods, long ago, long before aeons more numerous than the innumerable, immense, immeasurable, inconceivable, and even before then, the Tathágata called Bhaisajyaraja appeared in the world: a saint, perfectly and fully enlightened, endowed with knowledge and conduct, a blissful one, knower of the world, incomparable knower of men who need to be civilized, teacher of gods and men, a Lord, a Buddha. He appeared in the aeon called Vicarana in the universe called Mahavyuha.

"The length of life of this Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja, perfectly and fully enlightened one, was twenty short aeons.

His retinue of disciples numbered thirty-six million billion, and his retinue of bodhisattvas numbered twelve million billion. In that same era, prince of gods, there was a universal monarch called King Ratnacchattra, who reigned over the four continents and possessed seven precious jewels. He had one thousand heroic sons, powerful, strong, and able to conquer enemy armies. This King Ratnacchattra honored the Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja and his retinue with many excellent offerings during five short aeons. At the end of this time, the King Ratnacchattra said to his sons, 'Recognizing that during my reign I have worshiped the Tathágata, in your turn you also should worship him.'

"The thousand princes gave their consent, obeying their father the king, and all together, during another five short aeons, they honored the Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja with all sorts of excellent offerings.

"Among them, there was a prince by the name of Candracchattra, who retired into solitude and thought to himself, 'Is there not another mode of worship, even better and more noble than this?'

"Then, by the supernatural power of the Buddha Bhaisajyaraja, the gods spoke to him from the heavens: 'Good man, the supreme worship is the Dharma-worship.'

"Candracchattra asked them, 'What is this "Dharma-worship"?'

"The gods replied, 'Good man, go to the Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja, ask him about the "Dharma-worship," and he will explain it to you fully.'

"Then, the prince Candracchattra went to the Lord Bhaisajyaraja, the saint, the Tathágata, the insuperably, perfectly enlightened one, and having approached him, bowed down at his feet, circumambulated him to the right three times, and withdrew to one side. He then asked, 'Lord, I have heard of a "Dharma-worship," which surpasses all other worship. What it this "Dharma-worship"?'

"The Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja said, 'Noble son, the Dharma-worship is that worship rendered to the discourses taught by the Tathágata. These discourses are deep and profound in illumination. They do not conform to the mundane and are difficult to understand, difficult to see and difficult to realize. They are subtle, precise, and ultimately incomprehensible. As Scriptures, they are collected in the canon of the bodhisattvas, stamped with the insignia of the king of incantations and teachings. They reveal the irreversible wheel of Dharma, arising from the six transcendences, cleansed of any false notions. They are endowed with all the aids to enlightenment and embody the seven factors of enlightenment. They introduce living beings to the great compassion and teach them the great love. They eliminate all the convictions of the Mara’s, and they manifest relativity.

"'They contain the message of selflessness, living-being-less-ness, lifelessness, person-less-ness, void ness, sign-less-ness, wish-less-ness, nonperformance, non-production, and nonoccurrence.

"'They make possible the attainment of the seat of enlightenment and set in motion the wheel of the Dharma.

They are approved and praised by the chiefs of the gods, nagas, yakshas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras, and mahoragas. They preserve unbroken the heritage of the holy Dharma, contain the treasury of the Dharma, and represent the summit of the Dharma-worship. They are upheld by all holy beings and teach all the bodhisattva practices. They induce the unmistaken understanding of the Dharma in its ultimate sense. They certify that all things are impermanent, miserable, selfless, and peaceful, thus epitomizing the Dharma. They cause the abandonment of avarice, immorality, malice, laziness, forgetfulness, foolishness, and jealousy, as well as bad convictions, adherence to objects, and all opposition. They are praised by all the Buddhas. They are the medicines for the tendencies of mundane life, and they authentically manifest the great happiness of liberation.

To teach correctly, to uphold, to investigate, and to understand such Scriptures, thus incorporating into one's own life the holy Dharma - that is the "Dharma-worship."

"'Furthermore, noble son, the Dharma-worship consists of determining the Dharma according to the Dharma; applying the Dharma according to the Dharma; being in harmony with relativity; being free of extremist convictions; attaining the tolerance of ultimate birthlessness and nonoccurrence of all things; realizing selflessness and living-being-less-ness; refraining from struggle about causes and conditions, without quarreling, or disputing; not being possessive; being free of egoism; relying on the meaning and not on the literal expression; relying on gnosis and not on consciousness; relying on the ultimate teachings definitive in meaning and not insisting on the superficial teachings interpretable in meaning; relying on reality and not insisting on opinions derived from personal authorities; realizing correctly the reality of the Buddha; realizing the ultimate absence of any fundamental consciousness; and overcoming the habit of clinging to an ultimate ground. Finally, attaining peace by stopping everything from ignorance to old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, anxiety, and trouble, and realizing that living beings know no end to their views concerning these twelve links of dependent origination; then, noble son, when you do not hold to any view at all, it is called the unexcelled Dharma-worship.'

"Prince of gods, when the prince Candracchattra had heard this definition of Dharma-worship from the Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja, he attained the conformative tolerance of ultimate birthlessness; and, taking his robes and ornaments, he offered them to the Buddha Bhaisajyaraja, saying, 'When the Tathágata will be in ultimate liberation, I wish to defend his holy Dharma, to protect it, and to worship it. May the Tathágata grant me his supernatural blessing, that I may be able to conquer Mara and all adversaries and to incorporate in all my lives the holy Dharma of the Buddha!'

"The Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja, knowing the high resolve of Candracchattra, prophesied to him that he would be, at a later time, in the future, the protector, guardian, and defender of the city of the holy Dharma. Then, prince of gods, the prince Candracchattra, out of his great faith in the Tathágata, left the household life in order to enter the homeless life of a monk and having done so, lived making great efforts toward the attainment of virtue.

Having made great effort and being well established in virtue, he soon produced the five super-knowledge’s, understood the incantations, and obtained the invincible eloquence. When the Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja attained ultimate liberation, Candracchattra, on the strength of his super-knowledge’s and by the power of his incantations, made the wheel of the Dharma turn just as the Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja had done and continued to do so for ten short aeons.

"Prince of gods, while the monk Candracchattra was exerting himself thus to protect the holy Dharma, thousands of millions of living beings reached the stage of irreversibility on the path to unexcelled, perfect enlightenment, fourteen billion living beings were disciplined in the vehicles of the disciples and solitary sages, and innumerable living beings took rebirth in the human and heavenly realms.

"Perhaps, prince of gods, you are wondering or experiencing some doubt about whether or not, at that former time, the King Ratnacchattra was not some other than the actual Tathágata Ratnarcis. You must not imagine that, for the present Tathágata Ratnarcis was at that time, in that epoch, the universal monarch Ratnacchattra.

As for the thousand sons of the King Ratnacchattra, they are now the thousand bodhisattvas of the present blessed aeon, during the course of which one thousand Buddhas will appear in the world. Among them, Krakucchanda and others are already born, and those remaining will still be born, from Kakutsunda up to the Tathágata Roca, who will be the last to be born.

"Perhaps, prince of gods, you are asking yourself if, in that life, in that time, the Prince Candracchattra who upheld the Holy Dharma of Lord Tathágata Bhaisajyaraja was not someone other than myself. But you must not imagine that, for I was, in that life, in that time, the Prince Candracchattra. Thus it is necessary to know, prince of gods, that among all the worships rendered to the Tathágata, the Dharma-worship is the very best. Yes, it is good, eminent, excellent, perfect, supreme, and unexcelled. And therefore, prince of gods, do not worship me with material objects but worship me with the Dharma-worship! Do not honor me with material objects but honor me by honor to the Dharma!"

Then the Lord Shakyamuni said to the bodhisattva Maitreya, the great spiritual hero, "I transmit to you, Maitreya, this unexcelled, perfect enlightenment which I attained only after innumerable millions of billions of aeons, in order that, at a later time, during a later life, a similar teaching of the Dharma, protected by your supernatural power, will spread in the world and will not disappear. Why? Maitreya, in the future there will be noble sons and daughters, devas, nagas, yakshas, gandharvas, and asuras, who, having planted the roots of virtue, will produce the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. If they do not hear this teaching of the Dharma, they will certainly lose boundless advantages and even perish. But if they hear such a teaching, they will rejoice, will believe, and will accept it upon the crowns of their heads. Hence, in order to protect those future noble sons and daughters, you must spread a teaching such as this!

"Maitreya, there are two gestures of the bodhisattvas. What are they? The first gesture is to believe in all sorts of phrases and words, and the second gesture is to penetrate exactly the profound principle of the Dharma without being afraid. Such are the two gestures of the bodhisattvas. Maitreya, it must be known that the bodhisattvas who believe in all sorts of words and phrases, and apply themselves accordingly, are beginners and not experienced in religious practice. But the bodhisattvas, who read, hear, believe, and teach this profound teaching with its impeccable expressions reconciling dichotomies and its analyses of stages of development these are veterans in the religious practice.

"Maitreya, there are two reasons the beginner bodhisattvas hurt themselves and do not concentrate on the profound Dharma. What are they? Hearing this profound teaching never before heard, they are terrified and doubtful, do not rejoice, and reject it, thinking, and ‘whence comes this teaching never before heard?' They then behold other noble sons accepting, becoming vessels for, and teaching this profound teaching, and they do not attend upon them, do not befriend them, do not respect them, and do not honor them, and eventually they go so far as to criticize them. These are the two reasons the beginner bodhisattvas hurt themselves and do not penetrate the profound Dharma.

"There are two reasons the bodhisattvas who do aspire to the profound Dharma hurt themselves and do not attain the tolerance of the ultimate birthlessness of things. What are these two? These bodhisattvas despise and reproach the beginner bodhisattvas, who have not been practicing for a long time, and they do not initiate them or instruct them in the profound teaching. Having no great respect for this profound teaching, they are not careful about its rules. They help living beings by means of material gifts and do not help them by means of the gift of the Dharma. Such, Maitreya, are the two reasons the bodhisattvas who aspire to the profound Dharma hurt themselves and will not quickly attain the tolerance of the ultimate birthlessness of all things."

Thus having been taught, the bodhisattva Maitreya said to the Buddha, "Lord, the beautiful teachings of the Tathágata are wonderful and truly excellent. Lord, from this time forth, I will avoid all such errors and will defend and uphold this attainment of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment by the Tathágata during innumerable hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of aeons! In the future, I will place in the hands of noble sons and noble daughters who are worthy vessels of the holy Dharma this profound teaching. I will instill in them the power of memory with which they may, having believed in this teaching, retain it, recite, it, penetrate its depths, teach it, propagate it, write it down, and proclaim it extensively to others.

"Thus I will instruct them, Lord, and thus it may be known that in that future time those who believe in this teaching and who enter deeply into it will be sustained by the supernatural blessing of the bodhisattva Maitreya."

Thereupon the Buddha gave his approval to the bodhisattva Maitreya: "Excellent! Excellent! Your word is well given! The Tathágata rejoices and commends your good promise."

Then all the bodhisattvas said together in one voice, "Lord, we also, after the ultimate liberation of the Tathágata, will come from our various Buddha-fields to spread far and wide this enlightenment of the perfect Buddha, the Tathágata. May all noble sons and daughters believe in that!"

Then the four Maharajas, the great kings of the quarters, said to the Buddha, "Lord, in all the towns, villages, cities, kingdoms, and palaces, wherever this discourse of the Dharma will be practiced, upheld, and correctly taught, we, the four great kings, will go there with our armies, our young warriors, and our retinues, to hear the Dharma. And we will protect the teachers of this Dharma for a radius of one league so that no one who plots injury or disruption against these teachers will have any opportunity to do them harm."

Then the Buddha said to the venerable Ánanda, "Receive then, Ánanda, this expression of the teaching of the Dharma. Remember it, and teach it widely and correctly to others!"

Ánanda replied, "I have memorized, Lord, this expression of the teaching of the Dharma. But what is the name of this teaching, and how should I remember it?"

The Buddha said, "Ánanda, this exposition of the Dharma is called 'The Teaching of Vimalakirti,' or 'The Reconciliation of Dichotomies,' or even 'Section of the Inconceivable Liberation.' Remember it thus!"

Thus spoke the Buddha. And the Licchavi Vimalakirti, the crown prince Manjusri, the venerable Ánanda, the bodhisattvas, the great disciples, the entire multitude, and the whole universe with its gods, men, asuras and gandharvas, rejoiced exceedingly. All heartily praised these declarations by the Lord.

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