Day by Day (Dharma lectures)

by Stephen L. Klick | 37,321 words

These are the Dharma lectures from the early years of the Buddhist Information ministry. The writing style is not as developed as it would later become but the content is wonderful because it is Dharma. Many of these lectures bring back fond memories of the very early days when we were not quite sure of the direction we would take. We often spent f...

Buddhism: The Sutras For Lay People

Modern Buddhist history begins with the teachings of a man called Shakyamuni Buddha (Shakyamuni is a title that means sage of the Shaka tribe). He is also known as Siddhartha Gautama. He lived at least 3000 years ago (some scholars say 3500) in Northern India (now Nepal).

Something never comes from nothing or there is never an effect without a corresponding cause. The Buddha taught this, he said, “Action makes joy and suffering. What has been makes what shall be.” This is recognized as a Universal Truth; Christian Thinker and writer Paul, in his letter to the Galatians wrote “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

Plato states, in “The Republic,” “for all the unjust deeds that each man has ever done, and for all the men to whom he has done injustice, he pays the penalty in due course.” “The Egyptian Book Of The Dead” has a passage that reads, “…He bestoweth wickedness on him that worketh wickedness, and right and truth on he who worketh right and truth.”

Euripides wrote “ O Zeus, along the noiseless path thou treadest all mortal beings are guided in the way of Justice.” This Truth has seemed self-evident to great thinkers of all eras. Oral tradition tells us that there were six Buddhas before Shakyamuni. It’s possible that the echoes of those teachings can be found in the Brahman religion.

To understand Shakyamuni’s Buddhism it is helpful to know something of the beliefs held by the people around him, especially when you begin to study other sutras. No single teacher founded Brahmanism; rather, over a long period of time many teachers refined these concepts. This led to the existence of various schools; there were differences of course, some of them very subtle. All of these schools taught that the forces of nature were under the influence of deities or gods, and many different rituals were invented in an effort to win the approval or protection of these gods and hymns were composed to praise them.

Collections of these hymns, as well as incantations and sacrificial rites were called VEDAS and the priestly class memorized them. The Indian Sub-Continent was invaded from 1500, to 1200 BCE by groups who called themselves Aryan. All of the gods (other than Indra) recognized by this group were Aryan. The devils were the gods of the defeated people. The RIG VEDA (most famous of all the Vedas) is a re-telling of the victorious invasion of the Aryans and concerns itself with praising the gods who, they felt, made their victory possible.

The fundamental, most basic reality was considered unchanging for eternity and was labeled Brahma. Individual self was called Atman (which means your own). This Atman was also eternal; body and mind would perish at death, but Atman was the very essence of life.

The Philosophers of the various schools argued about the nature of reality and the relationship of the individual to ultimate reality. Some of these schools taught that cause led to effect, some claimed that cause and effect had no relationship and still others said that cause sometimes led to effect, but sometimes didn’t depending on the circumstances.

Most of these schools taught re-birth of some kind and all of them agreed that Brahma is the Atman, which is manifested in everything including individual self. So your Atman is exactly the same as Brahma and when the student realized this he is enlightened.

Men who studied and mastered the Vedas teachings and rituals eventually became the priestly class (or Brahmans) and were the most important people in what became a very rigid chaste system. The other classes were: warriors, who held secular power and ran the country, but were under the Brahmans: commoners (ordinary people) who engaged in commerce, and menial laborers.

This was the society Shakyamuni was born into and he was very much a product of his environment. The teachings of Shakyamuni can be divided into two distinct categories: those which he taught to benefit specific individuals in order to help them overcome their suffering or problems (and the sutras in this category don’t apply to everyone, but when you find one that fits your type of mind, the results are very beneficial); the other category is a systematic approach for all students, that started with the four noble truths and ended with the teaching of “The Lotus Sutra.”

The problems and sufferings of people are numerous and so are the teachings Shakyamuni gave to counter them. Buddhism has been called the eighty thousand (or eighty four Thousand) teachings, but this is not meant to be a literal number. When Shakyamuni Attained enlightenment, the realization was profound and he could see that teaching others would be difficult. His solution was to teach his students in stages, and the system worked and still works beautifully.

First, he wanted to make the distinction between what Brahmanism taught and what he had realized very clear to his students. The Brahman message was that the practitioner should aim to unify his soul with the eternal unchanging soul that was the god Brahma. In contrast, Shakyamuni began his career by teaching the doctrines known as the lesser vehicle {of the many schools that taught the lesser vehicle (or Hinayana) only one survives—it is the Theravada school a small but active minority.}

These teachings introduce the Four Noble Truths:

1) The Noble Truth of Suffering
2) The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering
3) The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
4) The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering

The Noble Eight Fold Path Is The Path Leading To The Cessation Of Suffering:

1 Right View
2 Right Intention
3 Right Speech
4 Right Action
5 Right Livelihood
6 Right Effort
7 Right Mindfulness
8 Right Concentration

These Teachings also introduce the concept of non-self (because you and everything else is impermanent and dependant on causes) and the Buddha also introduced students to the concept of Nirvana.

These early teachings were intended to be a step in the right direction; away from the Brahman misconceptions they had been taught all their lives and toward a deeper understanding of the enlightenment Shakyamuni had realized. This is a process every student goes through, especially if they were not raised in the Buddhist Faith.

None of these teachings are wrong, all of them are true but they are not complete because his students were not capable enough to grasp what he intended to teach them. A good example of this lack of development is the fact that no one questioned whether these teachings were complete.

Think about it; if these teachings were complete why would Shakyamuni bother to teach anyone? Why didn’t he just peacefully contemplate things until he entered nirvana? Why did he take up the life long struggle to educate people? And it was a struggle. People tried to do unpleasant things to him, they tried to destroy his reputation, even tried to kill him. He could have avoided all of that, but… he didn’t. Why?

What is missing from these teachings we’ve been talking about? Every School of Buddhism teaches what we’ve talked about so far. The Theravada School never advances beyond these core teachings; in essence, they focus on the first few months of what was at least a forty-year teaching career.

As important as the analytical aspects of Buddhism are, as critical as it is for your individual happiness to properly understand emptiness (surely the greatest therapeutic concept ever devised), if you leave out compassion then the Buddha’s behavior is inexplicable, and you are missing the central message of Buddhism.

The Buddha tells us: “always I am aware of which living beings practice the way, and which do not, and in response to their needs for salvation I preach various doctrines for them. At all times I think to myself: how can I cause living beings to gain entry into the unsurpassed way and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?” So the reason Shakyamuni behaved the way he did is because he wanted to help people wake up, end their suffering, and attain Buddhahood.

Now, the Buddha had two types of students. They all sought enlightenment, but a small minority felt that the way must include ascetic practices (usually for reasons of purification). The Buddha could see that that this kind of person needed a monastic environment to be successful and happy so he let his monks engage in very mild forms of asceticism.

In Japan there is a group called the FAS society. There is a Scholar connected with this society named Hisamatsu Shin’ichi who wrote: “We must now think about the meaning that lay Buddhism has at present, and for the future. I have been working on this problem for years, and it comes down to this: which is more important, monastic, or lay Buddhism? My conclusion is that for true Buddhism, it is lay Buddhism that is fundamental, monastic Buddhism being only one of its particular forms. Speaking in terms of universality, monastic Buddhism can only exist based on the universality of lay Buddhism. Thus I think that lay people now are necessary, not conventional Buddhist monks. Is it even possible, given the present situation, to maintain conventional monastic Buddhism? Looking to the future, monastic Buddhism should be disbanded; in fact it already is in the process of falling apart.”

I cannot agree completely because some students will never be happy unless they are in a monastic environment. The rest of us however seek happiness by grasping after what we perceive to be pleasure. Self-denial will not make our type of person happy at all. If the Buddha did not give teachings for lay people, Buddhism would have very limited value.

Less than two percent of the Buddhist world has been monastic, and that same two percent are the only ones who ever practiced quiet, sitting meditation. Not all monks found such practices suitable. In the U.S., for the first time in Buddhist history, more people than ever before are trying to do some form of monastic practice. What will the result be? No one knows because it has never been done before. Please remember, traditionally lay Buddhists in monastic systems remain poorly educated and are taught that supporting the monks and priests is the best way to acquire merit.

Well, we don’t want to remain ignorant! Charity without wisdom will not lead to a higher rebirth. Beware the person who preaches ignorance; he will always have some hidden and unpleasant agenda that ultimately will benefit no one. Ignorance is the enemy that we must blot completely from our lives and our world system. So don’t take my word for what I’ve been telling you. Maybe I’m wrong. Find out for yourself, because the only person who can save you is yourself.

We’ve talked a little about the Theravada teachings and we mentioned Nirvana. At this point in their education, monastics were aspiring to something called “The Phantom City,” which you will learn more about as you study “The Lotus Sutra.” (See “Inside The Lotus Sutra or The Thirty Teachings of Bodhisattva Kenny” at

In brief “The Phantom City” is a place of rest for people on a long journey (the path to enlightenment). The Guide (or teacher) sees that the traveler (student) is becoming tired and discouraged so he creates a “city” or place of rest, where the student can recover his lost energy. In other words, the monastics longed for what they thought nirvana was. They had a preconceived notion of what it must be like. (Rather similar to the way Christians speculate on the nature of a “heaven.”) They understood that life is suffering (the first of the Four Noble Truths) but their solution was to escape from the system and live in this blissful state without any kind of suffering. These are the preparatory teachings for the Buddhas monastic followers.

During the lifetime of the Buddha no distinction was made between lay students and monastic followers. One way was not valued over another; they were clearly intended for different types of mind. While it’s true more lay people attained enlightenment, it’s also true that monastic students were a small minority. Approximately 300 years after the Buddha died monks and priests decided that they were somehow special. To be fair, they were preserving the teachings and monasteries did serve as universal centers of learning.

But special soon became superior, a status that remains unchanged to this day. Oddly, nuns were never included in this superior group. A symptom of this problem is the fact that if you want to become a Buddhist monk or priest, there are many places you can go here in the U.S. We’ve helped young men looking for monasteries; all it took was a simple phone call. However becoming a Buddhist Nun is much more difficult. There is only one place in the entire country to send women.

It is disgraceful, but in many Buddhist groups women are still second-class citizens. It should be made clear that this was never the Buddha’s intent. Any Group that follows “The Lotus Sutra” recognizes the equality of all beings.

We’ve talked about monastic practices, but what did that Buddha teach most people? Lay people in those times worked many more hours than we do now, and they did not have endless time to devote to philosophical speculation. A good example of a lay teaching deals with Amida Buddha. This Buddha appears in several preparatory Mahayana sutras (one of which is appropriately entitled “The Amida Sutra”). The Buddha Amida lived in the Western Pure Land. When he was still a Bodhisattva he swore an oath to save anybody who called his name. The only people he would not save were those who committed the five cardinal sins, or worse, slandered the True Law.

The five cardinal sins are:

1.) Killing your Father
2.) Killing your Mother
3.) Killing a Buddhist Saint
4.) Shedding the blood of a Buddha
5.) Destroying the Harmony of the Buddhist order.

A Pure Land is a place where there is no pain, no suffering, and a student can peacefully attain enlightenment without distraction. It is the same kind of fantasy heaven that the Monastics sought in Nirvana. The Elements that these preparatory teachings have in common is the idea: change is inevitable, all things, including your ‘self’ are transitory and everything is dependent on causes.

None of these teachings were final or complete, but they did help teach people not to rely on temporary things of the world for happiness. Interestingly, when the second historical Buddha, T’ien ’T’ai of China, taught new students, he started them on the Amida teachings. After they abandoned their attachment to this world and began to long for Buddhahood he had them study, practice and recite “The Lotus Sutra.”

The Early Mahayana sutras teach about Amida Buddha, or other Pure Lands. The more advanced Mahayana Sutras tell students what and how to practice to develop spiritually and it is that very quality that makes them advanced.

According to ancient Buddhist tradition (seen throughout Asia) Shakyamuni attained enlightenment at the age of thirty. However, a group of Western Buddhist Scholars have insisted that he was thirty-five. Whichever figures you decide are correct, the Buddha preached these doctrines for 30 or 40 years, before he announced that his students were ready—he would now teach the truth that he had realized so long ago. For the last eight years of his life he would teach nothing but this truth.

This ultimate truth came to be known as “The Three-fold Lotus Sutra.” “The Lotus Sutra” was preached on a mountain called “Eagle Peak,” Northeast of a city called Rajagriha, the capital of Magadha. The mountain was named “Eagle Peak” because it’s pinnacle was shaped like an eagle, and also because large numbers of eagles lived there.

“The Threefold Lotus Sutra” begins with “The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings.” The Buddha is asked, “If a practitioner wants to accomplish perfect enlightenment quickly what doctrine should he practice?” The Buddha replies: “if you wish to attain enlightenment quickly you should practice the Doctrine of Innumerable Meanings. A bodhisattva, if he wants to learn and master the Doctrine of Innumerable meanings, should learn that all laws were originally, will be, and are in themselves void in nature and form; they are non-dualistic, just emptiness. All living beings however discriminate, falsely: it is this, or, it is that. They entertain evil thoughts, make various evil karmas and thus transmigrate… and cannot escape during “infinite” amounts of time.

Buddhists observing rightly like this, should raise the mind of compassion, and display the great mercy of desiring to relieve others of suffering…” For thirty to forty years Shakyamuni taught people what they could understand (depending on their individual capacity or situation). Now he revealed that all these truths came from a single Law. If you live by this Law, read, recite it, and teach it to others than you can accomplish perfect enlightenment quickly. What was this Great Law?

Shakyamuni did not say that would come in the central text entitled “The Lotus Sutra,” which would be preached next. “The Lotus Sutra” begins by telling us that it is being preached in the same location as “The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings.”

Suddenly, the Buddha begins to preach. This is very unusual. In almost every case someone asked a question and then an answer was given. It was usually the Buddha, who answered the question, but sometimes an advanced student would answer and the Buddha would show approval at the end. (A good example of this situation is “The Heart Sutra.”) In this case however nobody knew what question to ask, so for one of the few times in his teaching career he simply began to preach.

He began by saying “The Wisdom of the Buddhas is very profound and infinite. Their Wisdom School is difficult to understand and difficult to enter, men of learning or realization cannot understand it. The True entity of all phenomena can only be understood and shared by Buddhas.”

What is this reality or “true entity” of everything? The Buddha says, “This reality consists of ten factors: 1.Appearance 2.Nature 3.Entity 4.Power 5.Influence 6.Inherent Cause 7.Relation 8.Latent Effect 9.Manifest Effect 10.Their Consistency From Beginning to End.” All of life’s functions are classified into ten states that we call the ‘Ten Worlds.’ {For more information please see “Eyes of Enlightenment.”} These worlds are different from each other but all belong to the same entity (or person). They are all manifestations of the same being.

The message is that there is an essential characteristic shared by all of the ten worlds and that characteristic is the Ten Factors. The Buddha goes on to say that although Buddhas give various teachings to help people the one reason they appear in the world is to lead all beings to enlightenment.

Chapter sixteen reveals that Shakyamuni did not become a Buddha for the first time in India. In fact, he attained enlightenment in the remote past. However, it is important to remember that it is the Law that saves people, not the Buddha. This Law is hidden in the depths of Chapter Sixteen. It is implied but never spoken. The student would understand it intuitively if he practiced and studied as he was taught. As long as a student was limited to using words to understand he would never progress past the fifty-first of the fifty-two stages of development. (The fifty-first was considered to be almost but not quite enlightenment). This final intuitive leap was made by the students of Shakyamuni’s period of the Law.

The Middle Period was under the guidance of Chinese teacher T’ien T’ai, his students had different needs, and he did some of that intuitive work for them with his brilliant analysis of “The Lotus Sutra’s” teaching but all of this was still very theoretical. What, practically speaking, did a person have to do to attain Buddhahood? Obviously, some intuitive leap was still necessary at the end. However the people in the Middle Day of the Law had different needs then we do. Their Karma was different but notice that the principles involved do not change. The people and their capacity change but the medicine of “The Lotus Sutra” never changed. It was the same at the beginning as it is now. These things are true, and they always will be true.

So, Shakyamuni came at the beginning and taught this truth in an abstract way. T’ien T’ai showed up in the Middle Period of the Law and analyzed “it’s socks off” (as my son put it), but Nichiren, in the Latter Day of the Law, showed us the practical way for anyone to attain enlightenment with no intuitive leap necessary. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is the Universal Law that anyone who ever became a Buddha has realized. “The Lotus Sutra” should be seen as a set of principles that the Buddhist student must master, but the most important thing to remember is that Shakyamuni emphasized the necessity of faith. Even the most Brilliant of students gains entrance to this wisdom through the door of faith.

Why, because “the true entity of all phenomenon can only be understood by Buddhas.” Now, I’m not urging you to have some sort of blind trust. You develop Buddhist faith by doubting everything, and testing everything—questioning everything. Test this stuff over and over. If it’s real you can see it change your life. After a few years you will know, deep down, all the way through, that what you’re dealing with is reality—and that is the beginning of Buddhist Faith.

We are warned that disbelief and slander (or the opposite of faith) will lead to terrible suffering not only in this life but also in many lives to come. The famous fourteen slanders are a recipe for hellish suffering, and all of them stem from lack of faith.

The fourteen slanders appear in chapter 3 (“Simile and Parable”). They are

1) Haughtiness
2) Neglect
3) Self-Centeredness
4) Shallowness
5) Sensuality
6) Irrationality
7) Unbelief
8) Sullenness
9) Doubting
10) Slander
11) Scorning Goodness
12) Hating Goodness
13) Jealously of Goodness
14) Grudging Goodness

The point we do not want to miss is that we must continue to grow in knowledge and understanding of Buddhism or we are guilty of Shallowness (#4). This is not talking about our interests or our personality, but is referring to the State of our understanding.

In the Gosho entitled “On The Buddha’s Prophesy” Nichiren writes “The Great teacher Dengyo stated, ‘Shakyamuni taught that the shallow is easy to embrace, but the profound is difficult. To discard to shallow and seek the profound requires courage.’” We are also told “This Law-Flower Sutra greatly benefits the practitioner and enables them to reach perfect enlightenment.” And “therefore let his followers, after the Buddha’s extinction, on hearing a sutra such as this, not have doubt or perplexity. But let them wholeheartedly Publish abroad this Sutra, and age-by-age meeting Buddhas, they will speedily accomplish the Buddha way.”

Before he died at age eighty, Shakyamuni stated, “Rely on the law and not on persons.” He also made a point of saying, “rely on those Sutras that are complete and final.” While study of other sutras is important to develop your knowledge and wisdom, practice of anything other than “The Lotus Sutra” in this period of the law is futile and does not match the intention of our Teacher.

Nichiren Writes in “On The Buddha’s Prophesy,” “In the Latter Day of the Law, there is no longer any benefit to be gained from either Mahayana or Hinayana. Hinayana retains nothing but it’s teaching; it has neither practice nor proof. Mahayana still has its teaching and practice but no longer provides any benefit whatsoever, either conspicuous or inconspicuous.

Furthermore, the sects of Hinayana and provisional Mahayana established during the Former and Middle Days of the Law cling all the more stubbornly to their doctrines as they enter the Latter Day. Those who espouse Hinayana reject Mahayana, and those who espouse provisional teachings attack the True teachings, until the country is overran with people who slander. Those who fall into the evil paths because of their mistaken practice of Buddhism outnumber the dust particles that comprise the Earth. While those who attain Buddhahood by practicing the true teachings are fewer than the dust specks you can hold on a fingernail.”

The final part of “The Three-Fold Lotus Sutra” is “The Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue.” It was taught later, at the assembly hall in the great forest monastery. The central theme is repentance, but other topics are dealt with as well.

For example “the Bodhisattva practice is not to cut off defilement, nor to abide in the ocean of defilement. In meditating on one’s mind, there is no mind one can seize except the mind that comes from one’s perverted thought. The mind presenting such a form rises from one’s false imagination like wind in the sky, which has no foothold. Such a form of the law neither disappears nor appears. What is Sin? What is Blessedness? As one’s own mind is void of itself, sin and blessedness have no existence. In like manner all the laws are neither fixed nor going towards destruction. If one repents like this, meditating on his mind, there is no mind he can seize.”

If we ignore all the teachings before “The Lotus Sutra” that deals with emptiness, we still cannot help but notice that the introductory Sutra “Innumerable Meanings” says: “A Bodhisattva… should observe that all laws… are empty of form.” “The Lotus Sutra” says, “Next, the Bodhisattva… should view all phenomenon as empty, that being their true entity.”

The concluding Sutra tells us “Mind is void of itself…” The Buddha went to great lengths to make certain we would not miss this message. If you do not have an understanding of emptiness, make that a goal for yourself. Sit in front of the Gohonzon and make a determination that you will continue to make efforts to understand emptiness as taught by the Buddhas. When you do begin to have realizations on void the pay-off is a huge drop in suffering that gets better as you practice.

“The Three Fold Lotus Sutra” concludes with the Buddha telling us to constantly have right mind, not to slander the three treasures, nor hinder or persecute anyone practicing correct conduct. We are told again to remember the doctrines of the Sutras and the principle of void. We’re reminded to repay the debt we owe to our parents and to believe deeply in cause and effect, to have faith in the way of one reality, and to know that the Buddha is never extinct. “If in Future worlds, there be any who practice these laws of repentance, know that such a man has put on the robes of Shame, is protected and held by the Buddhas, and will attain perfect enlightenment before long. This ends “The Lotus Sutra.” We’ll take a break and be back in a few minutes.

(15 minutes pass)

“The Vimalakirti Sutra” is widely available in a number of translations. I will be using the excellent version put out by Burton Watson (from Colombian University Press) but I also used a version translated by Vern Barnet, who is a local Scholar.

The Vimalakirti Sutra is the second most widely read Mahayana Sutra. “Vimala” means “defilement free” or “Pure.” “Kirti” means “Renowned” or “Praised,” so Vimalakirti is usually translated as “Renowned for Purity” or ”Praised for Freedom From Defilement.” The central message of this sutra is that you can live a normal life in society and still practice Buddhism. In fact, since Vimalakirti had the highest realization of all Shakyamuni’s disciples, you could say that lay practice was superior to monastic practice because it allows you to interact with many more people, most of whom would never show up at a monastery to ask questions.

Chapter One is entitled “Buddha Lands”; The Location given was the Arma Gardens (Mango Gardens) in the city of Vaisali. Three paragraphs into the text you see: “They had learned to accept the fact that there is nothing to be grasped at, no view of phenomenon to be entertained.” So we’re right back to one of the most important teachings in Buddhism, emptiness. The Fifth paragraph opens with: “They had plumbed the depths of dependent origination and cut off all erroneous views, no longer entertaining the concepts of either being or non-being.”

I always thought that this Sutra just beats to death the concept of emptiness, it is talked about all through the text, but recently I was working with a young man who couldn’t grasp the idea of emptiness, he just jumped around to different views, all of them wrong, and then he settled into this Nihilistic viewpoint, “If everything is empty then it doesn’t matter what I do!” He was at that point worse off than he was before we started; I worked with him on the “Diamond Sutra,” and went through the “Heart Sutra” with him over and over again, until he finally demanded that we move onto a different topic. We started on the “Vimalakirti Sutra” and before he had finished side one of tape one, he called me and started explaining emptiness to me!

He’s the only person who’s done that but if we studied “The Vimalakirti Sutra” earlier more people might have the same experience. Even though emptiness (or Void) is mentioned in chapter one the main theme is, what are Buddha Lands and how do we acquire them? Remember that the students have spent time learning the early teachings and want to attain some kind of heaven realm, either the Eastern or Western Pure Land or the monastic “Nirvana.” The Buddha said: “The various kinds of living beings are in themselves the Buddha lands of the Bodhisattvas. Why So? Because it is by converting various beings to the teachings that the Bodhisattvas acquire their Buddha lands. Why is this, because the Bodhisattva’s acquisition of a Pure Land is wholly due to his having brought benefit to living beings! You should understand that an upright mind is the Pure Land of the Bodhisattva.”

So the Pure Land is right here and the way to acquire it is to develop yourself to your fullest potential: to wake up and view things the way they really are. The Buddha stated, “Therefore, if the Bodhisattva wishes to acquire a Pure Land, he must purify his mind. When the mind is pure, the Buddha land will be pure.” He adds: “It is the failings of living beings that prevent them from seeing the marvelous purity of the land of the Buddha. This land of mine is pure, but you fail to see it.”

At the end of the chapter we find: “It is just that your mind has highs and lows and does not rest on Buddha wisdom, therefore, you see this land as impure.” In other words you spend your time in the lower six worlds and cannot see reality. If you base your life on Buddha wisdom, or spend you time in the upper four worlds, you will then see the true “such-ness” of things. You will not view the world dualistically and therefore you will lose a great deal of mental suffering.

Chapter Two is entitled “Expedient Means,” and it is here we meet Vimalakirti. He is a layman and a master of using expedient means to benefit the people around him. One of these expedient means is to appear sick so that people come to visit him, which gives him the opportunity to teach the dharma.

We read: “good people, this body is impermanent, a thing that decays in a moment, not to be relied on. 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 at 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 a dream, compounded of false and empty visions, this body is like a shadow, appearing through karma causes, this body is like lightning, barely lasting from moment to moment.

Good people, a thing like this is irksome and hateful, and therefore you should seek a Buddha body. This body is born of the cutting off of all things not good and the gathering of all good things, born of truth, born of the avoidance of indulgence and laxity. The body of the Buddha is born of immeasurable numbers of pure and spotless things such as these.

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 perfect enlightenment.” The chapter ends by saying that numberless thousands of persons all set their minds on attaining perfect enlightenment.

Chapter Three (“The Disciples”) and Chapter 4 (“The Bodhisattvas”) must be the two strangest chapters recorded anywhere in the sutras. The Buddha wants to send a disciple (in chapter 3) to enquire about Vimalakirti ’s health, but all of them refuse, because they do not have a great enough understanding of the teachings to answer his criticisms, even though the most famous of the disciples are asked. Shariputra, the foremost in knowledge among the monastic students, Maudgalyana, Mahakashyapa, Subhuti, Purna, Maha Katyayana, Aniruddha, Upali, Rahula, and Ánanda, a veritable “Who’s Who” of famous Buddhist disciples, all felt that they were not competent enough to visit Vimalakirti, and enquire about his illness.

Chapter Four sees the Buddha still trying to find someone willing to visit Vimalakirti. He turns to the Bodhisattvas because they have the highest realizations of all his students. He asks Maitreya, who refuses, he then asks “Shining Adornment,” “Upholder Of The Age,” and “Good Virtue,” who also feel unequal to the task.

In chapter Five he says to Manjushri, you must go visit Vimalakirti, and enquire about his illness. Manjushri replies “World Honored One, that eminent man is very difficult to confront. He is profoundly enlightened in the true nature of reality, and skilled at preaching the essentials of the law—his eloquence never falters, his wisdom is free of impediments, he understands all the rules of Bodhisattva conduct, and nothing in the secret storehouse of the Buddhas is beyond his grasp, he has overcome the host of devils and disports himself with transcendental powers—in wisdom and expedient means he has mastered all there is to know, nevertheless I will go visit him, and enquire about his illness.”

The word spreads quickly; Manjushri and Vimalakirti will be talking together! So eight thousand Bodhisattvas, five hundred monastic students, and hundreds of thousand of heavenly beings decide to drop everything they’re doing and accompany Manjushri on his visit.

When they arrive, Manjushri asks about his illness and Vimalakirti spends the rest of the chapter giving a discourse on sickness. He says: “this illness of mine is born of ignorance and attachment, because all living beings are sick, I too am sick. If all living beings are relieved of sickness, then my sickness will be mended. Why, because the Bodhisattva for the sake of living beings enters the realm of birth and death, and because he is in the realm of birth and death he suffers illness.

If living beings can gain release from illness, then the Bodhisattva will no longer be ill.” He goes on to say that the origin of illness is dualistic thinking. Rid yourself of the concept “I” and “mine” and do not see things as internal or external, treat all as equal, because everything is empty. Everything is empty because everything is dependent on causes and conditions.

Chapter Six is unusual because of the humorous events that take place when Vimalakirti calls up 32,000 giant chairs, which handily fit into his sick room. Shariputra and the other monastic students cannot figure out how to sit in them. This is a symbolic way of saying that these monastics (also called voice hearer’s) did not understand the message of the Buddha. They were still attached to the provisional teachings, which were only meant as a starting place. The Buddha rebuked them over and over in numerous sutras but still they remained attached to their concept of nirvana. They wanted out of this Saha world system—they wanted paradise.

These monastic students were convinced that they could never attain enlightenment. Even the Buddha told them that they would never attain enlightenment because he was trying to get them to wake up from their self-centeredness. In this chapter, one voice hearer, speaking to another, says: “When we voice hearers hear this doctrine we are all incapable of understanding it. When voice hearers hear this doctrine they will surely all cry out in anguish in voices loud enough to shake the whole thousand million-fold world.”

This “Vimalakirti Sutra” was taught before “The Lotus Sutra.” One of the main themes of “The Lotus Sutra” is that there is not three types of students nor are there separate teachings for them. There is only one teaching, one Buddha vehicle. It was in “The Lotus Sutra” that Shakyamuni made predictions of Buddhahood for these monastic students, because they realized that they didn’t have to remain voice hearers. If they developed compassion for others that was greater than the love they had for themselves, then they were Bodhisattvas.

Shariputra has always been a hero of mine so I rejoiced when I read: “Shariputra in ages to come you will become a Buddha bearing the name “Flower Glow” and you will save countless multitudes.”

Chapter Seven deals with compassion. The chapter is entitled “Regarding Living Beings,” and is concerned with how Bodhisattvas should regard other people. The text states: “He treats them with a compassion that never despairs, seeing that all is empty and without ego. He treats them with the compassion of forbearance, guarding both others and self; treats them with the compassion of wisdom, which always knows the right time,” This is very important to understand.

The right time means to know what era of the law you are living in. Since we are in the latter day of the law practices designed for the Early and Middle Days of the Law will not help you. They do not work anymore because they were fashioned for different kinds of people. The text continues: “he treats them with a compassion that is unerring, innocent of falsity and sham; treats them with a compassion full of peace and delight. For through it they gain the delight of the Buddha. Such is the compassion of the Bodhisattva.”

This chapter is mostly remembered for the incident that happens near the end. Shariputra is having a conversation with a goddess, who claims to have been living in the room invisibly for twelve years! This goddess is so knowledgeable about the Buddha’s teachings that Shariputra wonders why she still has a female body. To convince him that gender is not important, she becomes male, and he becomes female.

“The Lotus Sutra” would be taught in a few months and the Buddha would reveal to his students at that time that having this sort of prejudice against women leads to suffering. The “Devadatta” chapter deals with a woman who attains enlightenment in the time it takes her to hand a jewel to the Buddha. Chapter thirteen predicts enlightenment for female followers!

In spite of this fact the typical Indian male considered women “soiled and defiled.” This kind of nonsense has gone on for centuries.

However, unless embryonic tissue receives other signals, the tissue that forms the external genitalia will always form itself into female structures in the first trimester. More importantly, since life is eternal we have taken many forms, some were male, some were female, and some were forms that we can’t even begin to imagine.

Chapter Eight ‘beats up’ on the voice hearers again. Statements like “when common mortals hear the Buddha law, he can set his mind on the unsurpassed way. But the voice hearer may hear the Buddhas law to the end of his life and yet never be capable of rousing in himself an aspiration for the unsurpassed way” Why? Again, because they are thinking only of themselves, the only thing keeping them from the Bodhisattva way is their lack of compassion and understanding.

Chapter Nine is called “entering the gate of non-dualism.” Vimalakirti and the other Bodhisattvas present their explanation of non-dualism, as each one understands it. We read “‘I’ and ‘mine’ form a dualism. Because there is and ‘I’ there is also a ‘mine.’ But if there is no ‘I’ there will be no ‘mine.’ In this way one enters the gate of non-dualism.”

Another Bodhisattva named “Dharma Freedom” said: “birth and death form a dualism. But since all dharmas are not born to begin with, they must now be without death. By grasping and learning to accept this truth of birth-less-ness, one may enter the gate of non-dualism.”

There are more than twenty-five definitions of non-dualism, one for each Bodhisattva present. Finally they turn to Vimalakirti and say “each of us has given an explanation, now it is your turn to speak. How does the Bodhisattva enter the gate of Non-Dualism?”

And Vimalakirti remained silent. Manjushri sighed and said “excellent, excellent. Not a word, not a syllable, this is truly to enter the gate of non-dualism.”

Chapter Ten has Vimalakirti sending a phantom body to another world to get food for his visitors. This is a world were no one has heard of the lesser vehicle teachings so again, the monastic students not understanding the advanced teachings of the Mahayana is the point of the story. The chapter ends with the eight methods that Bodhisattvas carry out to attain enlightenment.

1) The Bodhisattva must enrich and benefit living beings, but look for no recompense.

2) The Bodhisattva must take upon himself the sufferings of all living beings, and give the merit to them as a gift.

3) The Bodhisattva must be like other living beings in mind, humbling him self, descending to their level, erecting no barriers.

4) The Bodhisattva must regard other Bodhisattvas as though they were Buddhas.

5) When the Bodhisattva hears a sutra he has never heard before, he must not doubt it, and he shall not dispute with the voice hearers.

6) The Bodhisattva must not envy the alms given to others, nor boast of his own gains.

7) The Bodhisattva must constantly examine and repair his own faults, and not censure the shortcomings of others.

8) The Bodhisattva must at all times strive to acquire merit.

The presence of these practical instructions lifts “The Vimalakirti Sutra” into a higher Mahayana classification and makes it a more important teaching.

Chapter Eleven has Vimalakirti and thousands of visitors join with the Buddha in the mango grove. The Buddha offers a teaching called the “Exhaustible and Inexhaustible Emancipation,” which makes up the rest of the chapter.

We read: “The student should study and practice the teachings on emptiness, but not take emptiness to be enlightenment.” You should “view all things as impermanent, but not neglect the roots of goodness and view the world as marked by suffering, but not hate to be born and die in it. See that there is no permanent ego, but be tireless when instructing others. Also please embrace the view of emptiness and nothing-ness, but do not discard your great pity.”

Chapter Twelve begins with a classic definition of emptiness, which fits on only two pages—fairly compact but not up to the standards of “The Heart Sutra.” Then a Pure Land is brought from far away and placed on the ground of this world. This Pure Land represents Vimalakirti ’s state of realization so it does not change in size and neither does our Saha world.

This is a symbolic way of saying that the Pure Land is here and now. If your life condition is in the top four worlds and you practice and study then you are building, or have built, a Buddhist Pure Land.

When enough of these Pure Lands come together on our world then Kosen Rufu is established. The Buddha says: “if Bodhisattva wish to acquire a land as pure as Vimalakirti ‘s they should study and practice the way taught by the Buddhas.”

Chapter Thirteen is entitled the “offering of the law.” The offering of the Law is the finest offering you can make, because it literally is the gift that keeps on giving. Teaching someone the Law will benefit him or her in lifetime after lifetime because your mental development is the only thing that goes with you to the next life. “The Buddha said, ‘Good man, the offering of the Law means the profound sutras preached by the Buddhas. The sutras enable living beings to sit in the place of practice and turn the wheel of the Law. Relying on the principle of the true nature of all phenomena, they clearly set forth the doctrines of impermanence, suffering, emptiness, no ego, and tranquil extinction.”

“The sutras enable you to practice as the law directs, to set aside erroneous views, and to realize that there is no ego, and no disputing the law of cause and effect. They teach you to rely on meaning, not on words, to rely on wisdom and not on consciousness. The offering of the law is without equal; therefore you should use this offering of the Law as your offering to the Buddha.

The final chapter is called “Entrustment” because the Buddha told the Bodhisattvas present to spread these teachings so that people like us can learn and set our minds on attaining enlightenment. This chapter warns that there are two attitudes that keep you from grasping these teachings. The first is a person who, hearing this sutra for the first time, is alarmed or frightened. Giving way to doubt they slander the sutra, saying “I never heard this before! Where does it come from?”

The second is a person who treats practitioners badly and “at times may even speak of their faults before others.” Slander of fellow Buddhist students is one of the worst acts you can commit. This sutra says “you do injury to yourself and cannot train your mind to accept the profound teachings of the Buddha.” This concludes our study of “The Vimalakirti Sutra.”

Before we finish we should briefly look at the final teaching of the Buddha. “The Maha Parinibbána Sutra” was taught on the last day of the Buddha’s life. He said “therefore, Ánanda, you should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the dharma as your refuge, with no other refuge.” Or, rely on the law, not on persons. The final words of the Buddha were “I declare to you, all conditioned things are of a nature to decay—strive on untiringly.”

This concludes our series on “Dharma For Laypeople.” If you are interested in the other parts of this series “Eyes of Enlightenment,” The Life of the Buddha”, and “The Life of Nichiren” they are freely available from Buddhist Information of North America.

The “Wisdom of Ani” reads, “I pray thee to set before thyself the path that must be traversed.” This series has set before you the path; please continue to follow it until Kosen Rufu is established, not just here but universally. I would like to thank you for spending your time with us today, please be grateful to the people behind the scenes who make all this possible.

Buddhist Information of North America operates twenty-four hours, every day of the year. We will help you find a practice in the area you live in, and we make informational tapes on numerous Buddhist subjects. We want to help if we can. There is never any charge from Buddhist Information and we do not accept donations. There are many places in your area that do need your support, so please help your local Dharma centers. We can be reached at (913) 385-0085 in the Kansas City area and at (866) 725-0900 in the rest of the North America (Toll Free). {Webmaster: these numbers are subject to change but you can always find us at: }

We would like to dedicate the merit that we have attained here for the benefit of all beings everywhere. May all beings find peace and happiness and the path that leads directly to nirvana, Nam-Myoho-Renge Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge Kyo, may all beings benefit. Thank You.

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