At that time in the great city of Vaishali there was a rich man named Vimalakirti. Already in the past he had offered alms to immeasurable numbers of Buddhas, had deeply planted the roots of goodness, and had grasped the truth of birthlessness. Unhindered in his eloquence, able to disport himself with transcendental powers, he commanded full retention of the teachings and had attained the state of fearlessness. He had overcome the torments and ill will of the devil and entered deeply into the doctrine of the Law, proficient in the paramita of wisdom and a master in the employing of expedient means. He had successfully fulfilled his great vow and could clearly discern how the minds of others were tending. Moreover, he could distinguish whether their capacities were keen or obtuse. His mind was cleansed and purified through long practice of the Buddha Way, firm in its grasp of the Great Vehicle, and all his actions were well thought out and planned. He maintained the dignity and authority of a Buddha, and his mind was vast as the sea. All the Buddhas sighed with admiration, and he commanded the respect of the disciplies, of Indra, Brahma, and the Four Heavenly Kings.
Desiring to save others, he employed the excellent expedient of residing in Vaishali. His immeasurable riches he used to relieve the poor, his faultless observation of the precepts served as a reproach to those who would violate prohibitions. Through his restraint and forbearance he warned others against rage and anger, and his great assiduousness discouraged all thought of sloth and indolence. Concentrating his single mind in quiet meditation, he suppressed disordered thoughts; through firm and unwavering wisdom he overcame all that was not wise.
Though dressed in the white robes of a layman, he observed all the rules of pure conduct laid down for monks, and though he lived at home, he felt no attachment to the threefold world. One could see he had a wife and children, yet he was at all times chaste in action; obviously he had kin and household attendants, yet he always delighted in withdrawing from them. Although he wore jewels and finery, his real adornment was the auspicious marks; although he ate and drank like others, what he truly savored was the joy of meditation.
If he visited the gambling parlors, it was solely to bring enlightenment to those there; if he listened to the doctrines of other religions, he did not allow them to impinge on the true faith. Though well versed in secular writings, his constant delight was in the Buddhist Law. Respected by everyone, he was looked on as foremost among those deserving of alms; embracing and upholding the correct Dharma, he gave guidance to old and young. In a spirit of trust and harmony he conducted all kinds of business enterprises, but though he reaped worldly profits, he took no delight in these.
He frequented the busy crossroads in order to bring benefit to others, entered the government offices and courts of law so as to aid and rescue all those he could. He visited the places of debate in order to guide others to the Great Vehicle, visited the schools and study halls to further the instruction of the pupils. He entered houses of ill fame to teach the folly of fleshly desire, entered wine shops in order to encourage those with a will to quit them.
If he was among rich men, they honored him as foremost among them because he preached the superior Law for them. If he was among lay believers, they honored him as foremost because he freed them from greed and attachment. Among Kshatriyas he was most highly honored because he taught them forbearance. Among Brahmans he was most highly honored because he rid them of their self-conceit. The great ministers honored him as foremost because he taught the correct Law. The princes honored him as foremost because he showed them how to be loyal and filial. Within the women's quarters he was most honored because he converted and brought refinement to the women of the harem.
The common people honored him as first among them because he helped them to gain wealth and power. The Brahma deities honored him as first among them because he revealed the superiority of wisdom. The Indras honored him as first among them because he demonstrated the truth of impermanence. The Four Heavenly Kings, guardians of the world, honored him as foremost because he guarded all living beings.
In this way the rich man Vimalakirti employed immeasurable numbers of expedient means in order to bring benefit to others. Using these expedient means, he made it appear that his body had fallen prey to illness. Because of his illness, the king of the country, the great ministers, rich men, lay believers, and Brahmans, as well as the princes and lesser officials, numbering countless thousands, all went to see him and inquire about his illness.
Vimalakirti then used this bodily illness to expound the Law to them in broad terms: "Good people, this body is impermanent, without durability, without strength, without firmness, a thing that decays in a moment, not to be relied on. It suffers, it is tormented, a meeting place of manifold ills.
"Good people, no person of enlightened wisdom could depend on a thing like this body This body is like a cluster of foam, nothing you can grasp or handle. This body is like a bubble that cannot continue for long. This body is like a flame born of longing and desire. This body is like the plantain that has no firmness in its trunk. This body is like a phantom, the product of error and confusion. This body is like a dream, compounded of false and empty visions. This body is like a shadow, appearing through karma causes. This body is like an echo, tied to causes and conditions. This body is like a drifting cloud, changing and vanishing in an instant. This body is like lightning, barely lasting from moment to moment.
"This body is like earth that has no subjective being. This body is like fire, devoid of ego. This body is like wind that has no set life span. This body is like water, devoid of individuality.
"This body has no reality but makes these four elements its lodging. This body is void, removed from self and self's possessions. This body is without understanding, like plants or trees, tiles or pebbles. This body is without positive action, blown about by the wind. This body is impure, crammed with defilement and evil. This body is empty and unreal; though for a time you may bathe and cleanse, clothe and feed it, in the end it must crumble and fade. This body is plague-ridden, beset by a hundred and one ills and anxieties. This body is like the abandoned well on the hillside, old age pressing in on it. This body has no fixity, but is destined for certain death. This body is like poisonous snakes, vengeful bandits, or an empty village, a mere coming together of components, realms, and sense-fields.
"Good people, a thing like, this is irksome and hateful, and therefore you should seek the Buddha body. Why? Because the Buddha body is the Dharma body. It is born from immeasurable merits and wisdom. It is born from precepts, meditation, wisdom, emancipation, and the insight of emancipation. It is born from pity, compassion, joy, and indifference. It is born of the various paramitas such as almsgiving, keeping of the precepts, forbearance and gentleness, assiduousness in religious practice, meditation, emancipation and samadhi, wide knowledge and wisdom. It is born of expedient means, born of the six transcendental powers, born of the three understandings, born of the thirty-seven elements of the Way, born of concentration and insight, born of the ten powers, the four kinds of fearlessness, and the eighteen unshared properties. It is born of the cutting off of all things not good and the gathering in of all good things, born of the truth, born of the avoidance of indulgence and laxity. The body of the Thus Come One is born of immeasurable numbers of pure and spotless things such as these.
"Good people, if you wish to gain the Buddha body and do away with the ills that afflict all living beings, then you must set your minds on attaining anuttara-samyak-sambodhi."
In this manner the rich man Vimalakirti used the occasion to preach the Law to those who came to inquire about his illness. As a result, numberless thousands of persons were all moved to set their minds on the attainment of anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.
Footnotes and references:
This paragraph describes Vimalakirti's practice of the six paramitas, for which see glossary.