Vimalakirti Sutra

by Burton Watson | 1997 | 43,710 words

Translated by Burton Watson in 1997 from the Chinese version by Kumarajiva (T.475)...

Chapter 8 - The Buddha Way

At that time Manjushri asked Vimalakirti, "How does the bodhisattva go about mastering the Buddha way?"

Vimalakirti said, "The bodhisattva should follow a path that is not the way-then he can master the Buddha way." Manjushri asked, "How does the bodhisattva follow a path that is not the way?"

Vimalakirti replied, "If the bodhisattva goes to the region of the five sins that lead to the hell of incessant suffering, he shows no anguish or anger. He arrives in hell, but is free of offense or defilement. He arrives in the realm of beasts, but without the faults of stupidity or arrogance. He arrives in the realm of the hungry spirits, yet is fully endowed with merits. He goes to the world of form and the world of formlessness, but makes no boast of this.

"He shows greed and desire in his actions, yet is removed from the stains of attachment. He shows anger in his actions, yet has no anger or aversion toward living beings. He appears to be stupid, but utilizes wisdom to regulate his mind. He appears stingy and grasping, yet relinquishes both inner and outer possessions, begrudging neither body nor life. He appears to break the commandments, but in fact resides secure in the pure precepts, and even then remains fearful of committing the smallest fault.

"He seems angry and irascible, yet is at all times compassionate and forbearinga He seems indolent and lazy, yet works diligently to acquire merit. He seems disordered in thought, yet constantly practices meditation. He seems stupid, yet has mastered both worldly and otherworldly wisdom.

"He appears fawning and deceitful, but is skilled in expedient means and faithful to the sutra doctrines. He appears haughty and arrogant, yet serves as a bridge and a crossing for living beings. He appears to be immersed in earthly desires, but his mind is at all times clear and pure.

"We see him going among devils, yet he abides by the Buddha wisdom and heeds no other teachings. We see him going among voice-hearers, but to living beings he preaches a Law never heard before. We see him going among pratyekabuddhas, but he manifests great pity in teaching and converting living beings.

"He seems to be among the poor and destitute, yet he has jeweled hands capable of bestowing inexhaustible benefits. He seems to be crippled and deformed, yet possesses auspicious features, adorning himself wonderfully with them. He seems to be humble and lowly, yet is born into the seed and lineage of the Buddha, fully endowed with blessings. He seems to be among the puny and emaciated, the ugly and vile, yet acquires the body of a Narayana, a delight for all beings to see.l He seems to be old and ailing, yet has forever cut off the roots of illness and transcended the fear of death.

"He appears to possess wealth, but habitually regards it as transient and in fact covets none of it. He seems to have wives, concubines, and waiting women, yet never sullies himself in the bog of the five desires. He seems thick-tongued and clumsy in speech, yet commands great eloquence and retains all he has learned, forgetting nothing. Though appearing to employ unorthodox methods of salvation, he follows the correct teaching in saving living beings. He appears to enter all the different paths of existence, yet cuts himself off from their influence. He appears to have entered nirvana, yet never cuts himself off from the realm of birth and death.


"Manjushri, by going to places that are the opposite of the way in this fashion, the bodhisattva is able to master the Buddha way."

Vimalakirti than asked Manjushri, "What may act as the seeds of the Thus Come One?"[2]

Manjushri said, "The body is the seed, ignorance and partiality are the seeds, greed, anger, and stupidity are the seeds. The four topsy-turvy views are the seeds, the five obscurations are the seeds, the six sense-media are the seeds, the seven abodes of consciousness are the seeds, the eight errors are the seeds, the nine sources of anxiety are the seeds, the ten evil actions are the seeds. To sum it up, the sixty-two erroneous views and all the different kinds of earthly desires are all the seeds of the Buddha."

"What do you mean by that?"

Manjushri replied, "A person who has perceived the uncreated nature of reality and entered into correct understanding cannot again set his mind on attaining anuttara-samyaksam-bodhi. The lotus does not grow on the upland plain; the lotus grows in the mud and mire of a damp low-lying place. In the same way, the Buddha Law can never grow in a person who has perceived the uncreated nature of reality and entered into correct understanding. It is only when living beings are in the midst of the mire of earthly desires that they turn to the Buddha Law.

"If you plant seeds in the sky, they will never grow. Only when you plant them in well-manured soil can they sprout and flourish. In the same way, the Buddha Law will never grow in a person who has perceived the uncreated nature of reality and entered into correct understanding. But one who entertains ego-istic views as huge as Mount Sumeru can still set his mind on the attainment of anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. From this you should understand thataall the various earthly desires are the seeds of the Thus Come One. If you do not descend into the vast ocean, you can never acquire a priceless pearL In the same way, if you do not enter the great sea of earthly desires, you can never acquire the treasure of comprehensive wisdom." y''.: At that time Mahakashyapa sighed and said, "Excellent, excellent, Manjushri! These words are aptly spoken. It is indeed just as you say. Those who are troubled by the passions are the seeds of the Thus Come One. But persons such as us, [the voice- hearers], are now no longer capable of setting our minds on the attainment of anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. Even those who have committed the five sins that lead to the hell of incessant suffering can still rouse aspirations that will afford growth to the Buddha Law. But now we can never rouse such aspirations. We are like persons whose faculties are impaired and can no longer satisfy the five desires. The voice-hearers, who have cut off all entanglements, are like this, for they can no longer bene- fit from the Buddha Law, nor will they ever have the desire to. "In this sense, Manjushri, the common mortal responds with gratitude to the Buddha Law but the voice-hearer does not. Why do I say this? Because when the common mortal hears the Buddha Law, he can set his mind on attaining the unsurpassed way, determined that the Three Treasures shall never perish. But the voice-hearer may hear of the Buddha's Law and powers and fearlessness to the end of his life and yet never be capable of rousing in himself an aspiration for the unsurpassed way." At that time there was in the assembly a bodhisattva named Universally Manifested Physical Body who asked Vimalakirti, "Layman, your father and mother, wife and children, relatives, retainers, clerks, people, and friends-who are they? Your maids and men servants, your elephants, horses, and carriages-where are they?"

Vimalakirti replied with the following verses:

Wisdom is the bodhisattva's mother,
expedient means his father;
of those who guide and teach all beings,
there are none not born of these.
Dharma joy is his wife,
pity and compassion of mind are his daughters,
the good mind and sincerity his sons,
final emptiness and tranquility his dwelling.
For disciples he has the many dusts and passions;
they follow the dictates of his will.
The thirty-seven elements of the Way are his good friends;
through them he gains correct enlightenment.
The paramitas are his Dharma companions,
the four methods of winning others, his singing girls.
For songs they carol the words of the Dharma;
such is the music made for him.
In the garden of full retention of the teachings
grow the trees of the Law free of outflows.
Their wonderful blossoms are the seven factors of enlightenment,
their fruit, emancipation and wisdom.
On the bathing-pool of the eight emancipations,
brimming with clear waters of meditation,
spread the lotuses of the seven purities;
those who bathe there are spotless.
His elephants and horses race the five roads of transcendental power,
for chariot he has the Great Vehicle.
Controlling, directing with the single mind,
he travels the eightfold path.
His form displays all the auspicious marks,
every good feature adorns him.
He is clothed in the garments of shame and remorse,
a deeply searching mind his garland.
For wealth he has the treasure of the seven assets
which he teaches to others, enriching them.
He practices as the teachings direct,
his great profits he shares with others.
His couch is the four meditations,
where the pure way of life is born.
He hears much, augmenting his wisdom,
sounding the call of self-awakening.
The sweet dew of the Law is his food,
sauced with the flavor of emancipation.
He bathes in purification of the mind,
anointing himself with the perfume of the precepts.
He wipes out the thieves of earthly desire;
his valor cannot be outshone.
He conquers and subdues the four kinds of devils,
his victory banners fly over the place of practice.
Though he knows there is no arising or extinction,
he undergoes birth so he may instruct others.
In every land he manifests himself;
like the sun, nowhere is he not seen.
To the countless millions of Thus Come Ones of the ten directions he gives alms,
yet he never thinks of these Buddhas as in any way separate from himself.
Though he knows that the Buddha lands,
along with living beings, are empty,
yet constantly he works to purify the lands,
teaching and converting the many beings.
The form and voice and behavior of every manner of living being -
the bodhisattva with his fearless powers can take on any of these in an instant.
He understands all devilish affairs and can imitate the actions of devils.
Wise in the skillful use of expedient means, he can manifest all such forms at will.
At times he shows himself old, sick, dying, in order to wake living beings,
so they will realize they are like conjured phantoms and gain understanding free of all obstacles.
Sometimes he shows the kalpa ending in flames,
heaven and earth consumed with all else,
so that people who think of things as permanent
will clearly perceive their impermanence.
Countless billions of living beings
come in company to visit the bodhisattva,
all arriving at his house at the same moment;
he converts them, directs them to the Buddha way.
Secular writings, secret spells and incantations,
crafts, skills, the many arts -
all these he shows himself adept in,
so he may aid and benefit living beings.
He becomes a monk in all the different creeds of the world
so that thereby he may free others from delusion
and save them from falling into erroneous beliefs.
At times he becomes the sun, the moon, a heavenly being,
an Indra, a Brahma, lord of the world;
at others he may become earth or water, or again become wind or fire.
If during the kalpa there is pestilence,
he manifests himself as medicinal herbs;
those who drink potions made from them will be healed of sickness, cleansed of all poison.
If during the kalpa there is famine,
he manifests his body as food and drink,
first relieving hunger and thirst,
then telling people of the Law.
If during the kalpa there is a clash of arms,
he accordingly rouses a mind of compassion,
converting those living beings,
causing them to dwell in a land without contention.
When great armies confront each other in the field,
he causes them to be of equal might,
manifesting his bodhisattva power and authority,
subduing them and restoring peace.
In whatever country hells exist,
at once he sets out, journeys there,
striving to relieve their sufferings.
In whatever country beasts are devouring one another,
in all his births he manifests himself there so he can bring aid to those lands.
He shows himself subject to the five desires yet is also seen to practice meditation,
causing the devils' minds to be dazed and confounded
so they cannot take advantage of others.
To live as a lotus among flames-this may be deemed a rare thing.
To exist amid desire yet practice meditation-this too is rare!
Sometimes he shows himself as a woman of
pleasure, enticing those prone to lechery.
First he catches them with the hook of desire,
then leads them into the Buddha way
Sometimes he appears as a village headman,
other times as leader of the merchants,
as a teacher of the nation, a high-placed official, abetting and profiting all beings.
Where there are those in poverty and want he shows himself with limitless stores,
using them to encourage and lead others, causing them to set their minds on attaining bodhi.
Among those arrogant and full of ego
he becomes a man of great strength,
overpowering and curbing their haughtiness,
causing them to dwell in the unsurpassed way.
Where there are those timid and quailing
he stands at their head to lend assurance.
First he fills them with fearlessness,
then causes them to set their minds on the way.
Sometimes he is seen renouncing lust and desire
to become a holy man of the five transcendental powers,
opening the way, guiding living beings,
causing them to dwell in the precepts, forbearance and compassion.
If there are those looking for servants,
he shows himself as a groom or menial,
and after delighting his employers,
he rouses in them a mind for the way.
Whatever others are looking for,
he supplies it to win them to the Buddha way
With his skill in the power of expedient means he can satisfy all their waits.
Thus his ways are beyond measure,
his practices know no bounds; infinite in wisdom,
he saves and emancipates countless beings.
Though all the Buddhas for numberless billions of kalpas should praise the merits he achieves,
they could never finish doing so.
Who can hear of this Law and not set his mind on the attainment of bodhi?
Who but the utterly worthless, the blindly ignorant, the witless?

Footnotes and references:


Narayana, an incarnation of Vishnu, ís incorporated into Buddhism as a guardian deity noted for his heroic strength and stature.


That is, the seeds leading to enlightenment or Buddhahood.

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