Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ordinary Enlightenment: A Translation of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra

Book Review: Ordinary Enlightenment: A Translation of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra – translated and edited by Charles Luk (Lu K’uan Yu) (1972 – Shambhala 2002)

This is a translation from one of the Chinese versions of this Mahayana Buddhist sutra thought to have been composed in the first or second century CE. There are three main Chinese translations and a Tibetan translation from the original Sanskrit version, which is lost. There are also fragments and references to it from other sutras. The Tibetan translation is thought to be the most faithful to the Sanskrit version. The translation here is from what is thought to be the best of the three Chinese versions, that from the Seng Chao, Chinese student of the Indian translator Kumarjiva. The present translation also makes use of a 1630 commentary by the Ch’an master Po Shan. This is one of my favorite of the Mahayana sutras. It is popular in the Tibetan and Zen traditions. The meaning of the name of the sutra is “The Sutra Spoken by Vimalakirti.” Another name given to it is “A Dharma Door to Inconceivable Liberation.” The translator and editor, Charles Luk (Lu Ku'an Yu) did a great job with notes and clarifications. 

The first chapter, called here, “The Buddha Land,” in the traditional Mahayana fanfare first describes the qualities of the hundreds of thousands of those in attendance in assembly with the Buddha: especially the accomplished bodhisattvas, then the brahma-devas, devas, dragons, spirits, yaksas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kinnaras, mahoragas, and people. Buddha displayed his transcendental magical powers by transforming five-hundred canopies that were brought into one large canopy. The sage Ratna-rasi asks the Buddha how to attain the Buddha land. Buddha answers: “Ratna-rasi, all species of living beings are the Buddha land sought by all Bodhisattvas.” He says Bodhisattvas win the pure land by taming beings knowing that he or she needs the Buddha land in order to better tame beings. He says that the six perfections (generosity, patience, discipline, perseverance, meditation, and wisdom) are the Bodhisattvas’ pure land as are the four immeasurables, or boundless minds (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity), the four persuasive actions (giving what others like, affectionate speech, conduct beneficial to others, cooperation with and adaptation to other’s benefit), the expedient methods, or skillful means (upaya), the thirty-seven contributory states to enlightenment, dedication of merits, showing the end of the eight sad conditions (including hell-beings, hungry ghosts, animals, and other states where the dharma is not encountered or encouraged), keeping of precepts (including refraining from criticism), and practicing the ten virtuous deeds. So by practicing the Dharma as given the Buddha land is found. The Pure Land is equivalent to the purified mind of the practitioner. Buddha explains, with help from Brahma, to Sariputra, that our world with its defilements results from our inability to discern its magnificence due to our defiled mind. He manifests a Pure Land by pressing his right toes to the ground to show such magnificence which gives all those present unshaking confidence in their ability to go toward enlightenment. In this text Shakyamuni Buddha and other Buddhas and celestial beings perform magical acts to show others and inspire their enlightenment. 

Chapter two is about expedient methods, also known as ‘skillful means,’ or upaya. Here we first encounter the human sage Vimalakirti. He was a layman, a householder, not a monk. His enlightened qualities are first expounded, his qualifications greater than even the eldest of the great bodhisattvas. He could travel and teach in all the deva and Buddha realms. Here and now he manifested sickness of body and sought to expound the dharma:

“Virtuous ones, the human body is impermanent; it is neither strong nor durable; it will decay and is, therefore, unreliable.”

He goes on to describe the fleeting impermanence and unreliability of our human body that we tend to cherish. He describes he ultimate Buddha body, the Dharmakaya, as the product of the two accumulations of merit and wisdom. This body is the result of practice and understanding. Thus, in order to develop such an undefilable body one should quest for enlightenment through dharma practice.

Vimalakirti wondered why Buddha had not called upon him in his sickness. The next three chapters have Buddha asking his senior students and then the great Bodhisattvas in turn to call upon Vimalakirti on his behalf and inquire about his health. Each declines, saying they are not qualified and gives previous interactions with the profound teachings of Vimalakirti as examples as to why they are unqualified. These make up some of the teachings in this sutra. Finally it is the oldest Bodhisattva Manjusri that calls upon him. Sariputra’s story is when Vimalakirti encounters Sariputra meditating sitting under a tree and tells him, 

“Sariputra, meditation is not necessarily sitting. For meditation means the non-appearance of body and mind in the three worlds (of desire, form, and no form); giving no thought to inactivity when in nirvana while appearing (in the world) with respect-inspiring deportment [this means being active teaching instead of being passive in nirvana]; not straying from the Truth while attending to worldly affairs; the mind abiding neither within nor without; being imperturbable to wrong views during the practice of the thirty-seven contributory stages leading to enlightenment: and not wiping out (klesa) while entering the state of nirvana. If you can thus sit in meditation, you will win the Buddha’s seal.”

Maudgalaputra has a similar story. When he was expounding the dharma in Vaisali he encountered Vimalakirti who gave him a long exposition in how to expound the dharma and what attitude to take in expounding it. The part on attitude and how to expound it is below:

“Maudgalaputra, such being the characteristics of the Dharma, how can it be expounded? For expounding it is beyond speech and indication, and listening to it is above hearing and grasping. This is like a conjuror expounding the Dharma to illusory men, and you should always bear all this in mind when expounding the Dharma. You should be clear about the sharp or dull roots of your audience and have a good knowledge of this to avoid all sorts of hindrance. Before expounding the Dharma you should use your great compassion (for all living beings) to extoll Mahayana to them, and think of repaying your (own) debt of gratitude to the Buddha by striving to preserve the three treasures (of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) for ever.”

Mahakasyapa has another story. When begging he encountered Vimalakirti who taught him the proper way of begging, eating, and regarding food and gift:

“Hey, Mahakasyapa, you are failing to make your kind and compassionate mind all-embracing by begging from the poor while staying away from the rich.”

He further teaches Mahakasyapa to be impartial, to avoid ulterior motives, to be indifferent to forms and to the pleasantness of eating, to offer his received food to all living beings, and to prefer the all-encompassing Mahayana path to the path of the Sravakas, the “hearers” who follow the smaller vehicle (the Hinayana). 

Subhuti has another story. When begging for food he came to Vimalakirti’s house. Vimalakirti filled his bowl with rice and gave him a teaching about the importance of keeping a clear, impartial, and unprejudiced mind. Subhuti, out of fear, starts to leave without his bowl of rice and Vimalakirti reminds him:

“Hey Subhuti, take the bowl of rice without fear. Are you frightened when the Tathagata makes an illusory man ask you questions? I replied, ‘No.’ He then continued, ‘All things are illusory and you should not fear anything. Why? Because words and speech are illusory. So all wise men do not cling to words and speech and this is why they fear nothing. Why? Because words and speech have no independent nature of their own, and when they are no more, you are liberated. This liberation will free you from all bondage.”

Purnamaitrayaniputra has another story. When teaching the Dharma he encountered Vimalakirti who advised him that he should enter a state of Samadhi before expounding the Dharma to examine the minds of his listeners. At that point Vimalakirti entered a profound state of Samadhi and ripened the listeners by getting them to recall their virtuous seeds planted in past lives, so that they could receive the incomparable Mahayana teachings.

Mahakatyayana has another story. When instructing a group of monks on the topics of impermanence, suffering, voidness, egolessness, and nirvana, he encountered Vimalakirti who said:

“Hey, Mahakatyayana, do not use your mortal mind to preach immortal reality. Mahakatyayana, all things are fundamentally above creation and destruction; this is what impermanence means. The five aggregates are perceived as void and not arising; this is what suffering means. All things are basically non-existent; this is what voidness means. Ego and its absence are not a duality; this is what egolessness means. All things basically are not what they seem to be, they cannot be subject to extinction now; this is what nirvana means.”

Aniruddha has another story. Once when meditating while walking to avoid falling asleep he was visited by a Brahma called the “Gloriously Pure” along with ten thousand devas. He inquired about Aniruddha’s ‘deva eye,’ and how far he could see. Suddenly, Vimalakirti appeared and said:

“Hey Aniruddha, when your deva eye sees, does it see form or formlessness? If it sees form, you are no better than those heretics who have won five supernatural powers. If you see formlessness, your deva eye is non-active (wu wei) and should be unseeing.”

Upali has another story. He was approached by monks who had broken their vows and sought the means and instructions to repair them. Vimalakirti appeared and spoke about the illusory nature of ‘sin’ and reality.

“Upali, all phenomena rise and fall without staying (for an instant) like an illusion and like lightning. All phenomena do not wait for one another and do not stay for the time of a thought. They all derive from false views and are like a dream and a flame, the moon in water, and an image in a mirror, for they are born from wrong thinking. He who understands this is called a keeper of the rules of discipline and he who knows it is called a skillful interpreter (of the precepts).”

Rahula, the Buddha’s son, has another story. When Rahula was once speaking about the accumulation of merits from becoming a homeless monk to the sons of the elders of Vaisali, Vimalakirti appeared and said:

“Hey, Rahula, you should not speak of the advantage of earning merits that derive from leaving home. Why? Because home-leaving bestows neither advantage nor good merits. Only when speaking of the worldly (way of life) can you talk about advantage and merits.”

He goes on to say that home-leaving as renunciation is a practice beyond the worldly – that the worldly is thus renounced, and that ‘true home-leaving’ involves authentic renunciation which is freedom from the bondage of the worldly. He recommends to the sons of the elders that they should become homeless monks since it is the age of the Buddha and the Buddha is alive in the world. True home-leaving requires a mind set on a quest for supreme enlightenment – the annuttara-samyak-sambodhi mind.
Ananda has another story. Buddha once sent him to acquire some cow’s milk to cure an ‘indisposition.’ Vimalakirti encounters him and tells him to stop slandering the Buddha – that Buddha cannot be truly disrupted by worldly discomforts and illness. The body of the World-Honored one is beyond the three realms of desire, form, and formlessness. 

Thus, each of the five-hundred main disciples related their encounters with Vimalakirti to show that they were not qualified to call upon him and inquire after his health.

Next, Buddha asks the same of the Bodhisattvas. First is Maitreya and he has another story. He encountered Vimalakirti while teaching Bodhi-mind to the deva king and his retinue in Tusita heaven. Vimalakirti confounded him about his prediction to become enlightened and to be a future Buddha. Vimalakirti taught mysteries of past, future, and present, of birth, aging, and death. He urged him not to mislead the devas but instead lead them to keep from developing discriminating views about the Bodhi-mind.

“Bodhi is unseeing, for it keeps from all causes. Bodhi is non-discrimination, for it stops memorizing and thinking. Bodhi cuts off ideation, for it is free from all views. Bodhi forsakes inversion, for it prevents perverse thoughts. Bodhi puts an end to desire, for it keeps from longing. Bodhi is unresponsive, for it wipes out all clinging. Bodhi complies (with self-nature), for it is in line with the state of suchness. Bodhi dwells (in this suchness), for it abides in (changeless) Dharma-nature (or Dharmata, the underlying nature of all things) …..”

Next is the Bodhisattva Glorious Light who has another story. Once when leaving Vaisali he encountered Vimalakirti entering the town. He asked Vimalakirti:

“Where does the Venerable Upasaka come from?’ He replied: ‘From a bodhimandala.’ I asked him: ‘Where is this bodhimandala?’ He replied: ‘The straightforward mind is the bodhimandala, for it is free from falsehood. The initiated mind is the bodhimandala, for it can keep discipline. The profound mind is the bodhimandala, for it accumulates merits. The enlightened mind is the bodhimandala for it is infallible.”

He continued on to state that the six perfections, the four immeasurables, skillful means and other qualities and aspects along the path to enlightenment are also the bodhimandala, as are living beings and klesas, since all may be taken onto the path. 

Buddha then asks the Bodhisattva Ruler of the World to call upon Vimalakirti but he declines, giving another story. Once when staying in a vihara this Bodhisattva encountered what he thought was a deva, like Indra, with a retinue of twelve thousand goddesses singing and playing music. It was really a demon. The Bodhisattva mistakenly thought that this was the deva, Sakra, and his retinue. He tells the deva to guard against desire and the five worldly pleasures derived from the five senses. The demon then offers him all the goddesses and the Bodhisattva states that as a monk such an offering does not suit him. Vimalakirti then intervenes and says that he will accept the offering of the goddesses and the demon relents. He then expounds the Dharma to the goddesses and gains their confidence. After this he gives them back to the demon king at his request (as a bodhisattva should do) but also teaches them a Dharma called Inexhaustible Lamp to keep them focused on the quest for enlightenment.

Next is the Bodhisattva Excellent Virtue. He once held a meeting to make offerings to gods, monks, brahmins, and beggars. After it was over Vimalakirti appeared and taught him how to truly make offerings:

“The bestowal of Dharma is (beyond the element of time, having) neither start nor finish, and each offering should benefit all living beings at the same time.”

“This means that Bodhi springs from kindness (maitri) toward living beings; the salvation of living beings from compassion (karuna); the upholding of right Dharma from joy (mudita); wisdom from indifference (upeksa)” {these are the four immeasurables} 

He continues giving further exposition of the proper ‘bestowal of Dharma.’ After this the bodhisattva offered Vimalakirti his necklace of precious jewels which he split into two, offering half to the poorest beggar and half to Buddha who transformed it into a magnificent tower. Vimalakirti then noted that he who gives alms to the poorest beggar should know that this is equivalent to the blessings of Buddha’s field of merit. Thus finally did each Bodhisattva reveal a story as to why they were unqualified to call upon Vimalakirti to inquire about his health.

Buddha then calls upon the eldest Boddhisattva Manjusri who also expresses doubt and expounds the enlightened qualities of Vimalakirti. Manjusri accepts the Buddha’s command and is joined by many bodhisattvas who wish to see the meeting of the two Bodhisattva Mahasattvas. Vimalakirti manifests only himself lying in his sick bed. Manjusri arrives and enquires about his illness as requested by the Buddha.

“Stupidity leads to love which is the source of my illness. Because all living beings are subject to illness I am ill as well.…. A Bodhisattva, because of (his vow to save) living beings, enters the realm of birth and death which is subject to illness; if they are all cured the Bodhisattva will no longer be ill.”

He answers Manjusri’s question regarding where from a bodhisattva’s illness comes – it comes from compassion, he says. Manjusri also asks why his house is empty and he has no attendants. He replies:
“All Buddha lands are also void.” Manjusri asks questions, the first being what the Buddha land is void of. He replies: “It is void of voidness.” “Voidness is void in the absence of discrimination.” “All discrimination is also void.” “It should be sought in the sixty-two false views.” And those, he says, should be sought in the liberation of all Buddhas. 

Manjusri further enquires about his illness and how we should view illness. He asks, “What should a Bodhisattva say when comforting another Bodhisattva who falls ill?”

Vimalakirti replies: “He should speak of the impermanence of the body but never of the abhorrence and relinquishment of the body. He should speak of the suffering body but never of the joy in nirvana. He should speak of egolessness in the body while teaching and guiding all living beings. He should speak of the voidness of the body but should never cling to the ultimate nirvana…. Because of his own illness he should take pity on all those who are sick…. He should act like a king physician to cure others’ illnesses.”

He also tells Manjusri that a Bodhisattva should think that his illness comes from clinging to an ego and such clinging should be wiped out. Subject and object dualities should be avoided since both ego and nirvana are void. When such equality is attained there is still the very concept of voidness which must be let go as well. 

“A sick Bodhisattva should free himself from the conception of sensation (vedana) when experiencing any one of its three states (which are painful, pleasurable, and neither, or neutral).”
He should not free himself from the conception of sensation merely to win nirvana for himself but should always consider living beings through compassion. After freeing himself from false views he should work on freeing others from false views. Vimalakirti says that the true Bodhisattva must also wipe out conceptions of sickness, old age, and death. Regarding pitfalls of Bodhisattvas he notes:
“Clinging to serenity (dhyana) is a Bodhisattva’s bondage, but his expedient rebirth (for the salvation of others) is freedom from bondage.”

The Bodhisattva that has wisdom without expedient methods (skillful means, upaya) is also in bondage but one who has wisdom with such methods is liberated. Conversely expedient methods may be with or without wisdom. When with wisdom, there is liberation. When without wisdom (without restraint from klesas) there is bondage. Interestingly, he also says that a Bodhisattva should dwell neither in a state of uncontrolled mind, which is simply stupidity, nor in a state of (overly) controlled mind, which is the stage of a shravaka, or hearer. The Bodhisattva remains in the worldly state of being without entering into full enlightenment in order to keep close access to sentient beings for their benefit. Thus, the conduct of a Bodhisattva is one of precision balance, of being immersed in world but not carried away by it.

The next chapter begins Vimalakirti’s displays of magical power. He magically invites Buddha Merukalpa to magically manifest gigantic lion thrones for the greatest Bodhisattvas to sit on as they are able to change their body sizes to match them. The others he has pay reverence to the Buddha Merukalpa and after this they are able to reach the lion thrones. Sariputra is marveled by the size magic and Vimalakirti notes that liberation is inconceivable and that an awakened Buddha or Bodhisattva can put Mount Sumeru inside of a mustard seed without anyone realizing it or change the perception of time experienced by beings in varying ways depending on the needs of each being. He goes on to describe the transcendental powers attained with inconceivable liberation. The Buddha’s disciple Mahakasyapa was especially impressed by this teaching about inconceivable liberation, stating that it had not been expounded before. Vimalakirti also notes that Bodhisattvas can and do often appear in many different forms, including as demon kings, as beggars, as animals, or in any form. They do this to influence other beings toward enlightenment.

Manjusri asks Vimalakirti how a Bodhisattva should view living beings. He basically answers that they should be seen as illusory yet still needing help. He then asks how a bodhisattva should practice kindness.

“He should practice causeless (nirvanic) kindness which prevents creativeness; unheated kindness which puts an end to klesa (troubles and causes of trouble); impartial kindness which covers all the three times; passionless kindness which wipes out disputation; non-dual kindness which is beyond sense organs within and sense data without; indestructible kindness which eradicates all corruptibility; stable kindness which is a characteristic of the undying self-mind; pure and clean kindness which is spotless like Dharmata {the underlying nature of all things}; boundless kindness which is all-pervasive like space; the kindness of the arhat stage which destroys all bondage; the Bodhisattva kindness which gives comfort to living beings; the Tathagata kindness which leads to the state of thatness; the Buddha kindness which enlightens all living beings; spontaneous kindness which is causeless; bodhi kindness which is of one flavor; unsurpassed kindness which cuts off all desires; merciful kindness which leads to the Mahayana …”

He goes on to describe more types of kindness, associated with the six perfections and other qualities.
Manjusri questions him intently.

Regarding compassion he notes that: “His compassion should include sharing with all living beings all the merits he has won.”

Regarding joy: “He should be filled with joy on seeing others win the benefit of the Dharma with no regret whatsoever.”

Regarding fear of birth and death: “He should rely on the power of the Tathagata’s moral merits.” By liberating living beings he can gain the support of the Tathagata’s moral merits. 

By upholding correct mindfulness he can wipe out the klesas of himself and all living beings. He also says that the body is the root of good and evil, craving is the root of the body, baseless discrimination is the root of craving, inverted thinking is the root of baseless discrimination, non-abiding is the root of inverted thinking, and non-abiding is rootless – all things arise from non-abiding.

At this point a goddess who had been listening appears in bodily form and showers down flowers to honor the Bodhisattvas and disciples of Buddha. The flowers that encounter Bodhisattvas fall to the floor but the flowers that encounter the disciples stick to them and they can’t shake them off. She asks Sariputra why he wants to shake them off. He says because they are not in the state of suchness. She explains that flowers don’t differentiate, only (human) minds do, and among beings only the Bodhisattvas have put an end to differentiation – thus the flowers do not stick to them. He then asks her how long she has been in the room. She replies that the time of her stay is as long as his liberation. She then reveals she has been (presumably in the company of Vimalakirti hearing his teachings) for twelve years. Sariputra praises her elegance and asks which vehicle she practices. She says she appears as a sravaka (hearer), pratyeka-Buddha (solitary realizer), or as a teacher of the Mahayana, depending on the aptitudes of beings present. She then reveals that Vimalakirti’s room manifests great magical qualities and is visited regularly by Indra, Brahma, deva kings, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. Sariputra then asks her why she doesn’t change her female form (this is due to beliefs at the time about the difficulty of attaining enlightenment in a female form). She then magically changes Sariputra’s form into that of a woman and her own form into that of a man and asks him the same question – why do you not change your female form? She relates the words of the Buddha: “All things are neither male nor female.” The feisty goddess continues to elegantly teach Sariputra. Vimalakirti praises her powers and says she is a Bodhisattva on the ‘never-receding’ stage. 
Manjusri then asks how a Bodhisattva enters the Buddha path. By avoiding discrimination and attachment as an inhabitant of each of the six realms, he replies. He also has to endure often appearing not what he is – appearing ignorant, greedy, full of desire, etc. The body and the klesas are the seeds of Buddhahood, he also notes. Manjusri further explains that those mired in klesas can attain Buddhahood while those mired in nirvana cannot advance, due presumably to separating themselves from other sentient beings. Mahakasyapa also notes that the worldly human can still set his mind on Buddha Dharma but the sravaka often cuts this off and prefers the state beyond transmigration and life and death and thus is also cut off from the Buddha path. 

The Bodhisattva Universal Manifestation then asks Vimalakirti who are his parents, friends, family, and aids. He replies in a long song-like verse which resembles a song of Milarepa as his family is the doctrine, the Dharma, and constant mindfulness of it. 

“Wisdom-perfection is a Bodhisattva’s Mother, his father is expedient method, for the teachers of all living beings come only from these two (upaya and prajna)”

Vimalakirti then asks each bodhisattva to explain how they understand the non-dual Dharma. First the Bodhisattva Comfort in Dharma says that “…birth and death are a duality but nothing is created and nothing is destroyed.” The Bodhisattva Guardian of the Three Virtues noted that, “Subject and object are a duality  for where there is ego there is also (its) object, but since fundamentally there is no ego, its object does not arise.” The Bodhisattva Never Winking said “Responsiveness and unresponsiveness are a duality. If there is no response to phenomena, the latter cannot be found anywhere; hence there is neither accepting nor rejecting (of anything) and neither karmic activity nor discrimination.” Other bodhisattvas point to other understandings of non-dual Dharma: cessation of the idea of purity, absence of thought, the unity of form and formlessness, the undifferentiation of sravaka-mind and bodhisattva-mind, of good and evil, of weal and woe, of the mundane and supramundane, of samsara and nirvana, of ego and non-ego, of enlightenment and unenlightenment, of form and voidness and the other four aggregates similarly, of consciousness and voidness, of the four elements and voidness. The Bodhisattva Deep Thought noted that if dualities are contemplated without klesas there is the state of nirvana and this state is equivalent to initiation into the non-dual Dharma. Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Mind noted that each of the perfections along with dedication of their merits to the all-knowledge (sarvajna) and realization of this oneness is initiation into the non-dual Dharma. The Bodhisattva Profound Wisdom noted that the gates to liberation – voidness, formlessness, and non-activity, are nondual when each is compared to the other two. Thus liberation through any one these gates is identical with liberation through all three of them. It is the same with the three gems, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, noted the Bodhisattva Unstirred Sense Organs. Bodhisattva Unimpeded Mind noted that body and its eradication in nirvana are duality but body is identical with nirvana since both are non-dual and that, “The absence of alarm and dread when confronting this ultimate state is initiation into the non-dual Dharma.” Bodhisattva Superior Virtue noted that the non-activity of the three karmas of body, speech, and mind is not separate from the non-activity of wisdom (prajna) and thus that realization is initiation into non-dual Dharma. Good, evil, and motionlessness are also unified with their qualities of voidness, noted Bodhisattva Field of Blessedness. Bodhisattva Majestic Blossom noted that if the duality of ego and object is cast aside there will be no consciousness and freedom from consciousness is initiation into non-dual Dharma. Bodhisattva Treasure of Threefold Potency said, “Realization implies subject and object which are a duality, but if nothing is regarded as realization, there will be neither grasping nor rejection, and freedom from grasping and rejection is initiation into non-dual Dharma.” Bodhisattva Moon in Midheaven noted that dark and light are a duality but in Samadhi there is extinction of sensation and thought so that such dualities disappear. It is the same with joy and sadness, the extremes of orthodoxy and heterodoxy – keeping from them, and reality and unreality (true reality is not typically seen without the wisdom eye). They then asked for Manjusri’s opinion. He said, “In my opinion, when all things are no longer within the province of either word or speech, and of either indication or knowledge, and are beyond questions and answers, this is initiation into the non-dual Dharma.” Vimalakirti remained silent and Manjusri declared that this was “Excellent.” 

Next comes another neat part. Sariputra had a thought that he was hungry and Vimalakirti saw this and reprimanded him a little asking him if he wanted to mix his desire to eat with the Buddha Dharma. Vimalakirti then entered Samadhi and magically showed those in attendance a land from a universe far away called the country of All Fragrances whose Buddha was still there and called Tathagata of the Fragrant Land. In this land everything was made of fragrances and everything experienced through fragrances. The only doctrine known there was the Mahayana, they did not know of any ‘smaller vehicle.’ Vimalakirti then asked which bodhisattva could go there and beg food. None spoke up, not even Manjusri. Vimalakirti then magically manifested a bodhisattva and sent him there to beg food. The Buddha there accepted the request and told his bodhisattvas about the saha world (Earth) were dwelled Buddha Shakyamuni. They were awed by the power of Bodhisattva Upasaka Vimalakirti and that Buddha confirmed his powers. A bowl was filled with fragrant rice. The bodhisattvas there expressed a wish to hear the teachings of Vimalakirti. Their Buddha said they could go, but to hide their fragrance so the people there do not give rise to thoughts of clinging to it. He also advised them to change their appearance so the people would not feel lesser. There were nine million new bodhisattvas arriving so Vimalakirti manifested nine million lion thrones for them. The fragrance of the rice spread throughout the town and the universe. Local brahmins as well as many more devas came to the assembly after encountering the fragrance of the rice. Vimalakirti then announced that the rice was infused with great compassion but one must not give rise to the thought of limitation or else the rice could not be digested. Sravakas expressed doubts about the ability of one bowl of rice to feed all but the created bodhisattva proclaimed that the rice was inexhaustible like the Mahayana Dharma. Vimalakirti then asks the visiting bodhisattvas how their Buddha teaches. They explain that he teaches not by words and sounds but by scents which entice them to Samadhi. They ask Vimalakirti the same question and he says that beings here are ‘pig-headed’ so Buddha Shakyamuni has to use words, sometimes strong words, and speak of things like hells, hungry ghosts, and animal realms with their attendant sufferings. The visiting bodhisattvas praise the insurpassable bodhisattvas of the saha world as humble and indefatigable. Vimalakirti explains that this is because they have achieved ten excellent deeds not so required in pure lands: charity, discipline, patience, perseverance, serenity, wisdom, putting an end to the eight distressful conditions, teaching Mahayana to those who cling to Hinayana, cultivation of good roots for those in want of merits, and the four bodhisattva winning devices (intense concentration, intense effort, intense holding on to position, and intense meditation on the root principle). Finally he tells the asking visiting bodhisattvas what dharmas are required for the bodhisattvas here to find rebirth in a pure land.

As the Buddha was expounding the Dharma at Amravana park, the park suddenly became majestic and everything radiated with a golden hugh. Ananda inquired of these auspicious signs and Buddha replied that it was Vimalakirti and Manjusri and their assembly wanting to come and join the Buddha here. Thus Vimalakirti magically wrapped the entire assembly to fit in the palm of his hand and flew to the Amravana park. All venerated the Buddha and joined the assembly there. Ananda inquired about the fragrance from the rice now coming from the pores of those who ate it. Ananda asks Vimalakirti how long the fragrance will last. He says until the rice is digested which takes about a week and each being who digests it will attain along the Buddha path that which he had yet to attain. Ananda notes that it is a rare thing that fragrant rice can be salvific. Indeed replied the Buddha who also explains that other things can do so as well: parks and lands, the Buddha’s robe or bedding, bo trees, illusory bodhisattvas, the Buddha’s body and marks, temples, and even empty space – and also dream, shadow, echo, flame, sound, speech, writing, reflections, and silence. He also explains to Ananda that whether a Buddha appears in a pure or impure land, each Buddha has similar omniscience. He then says to Ananda that to explain the meanings of the three titles of Samyaksambuddha, Tathagata, and Buddha would take more than an entire aeon, and Ananda replies, “From now on I dare no more claim to have heard much of the Dharma.”

The visiting bodhisattvas addressed the Buddha:

“World Honoured One, when we first saw this world we thought of its inferiority but now we repent of our wrong opinion. Why? Because the expedients (upaya) employed by all Buddhas are inconceivable; their aim being to deliver living beings they appear in different Buddha lands suitable for the purpose. World Honoured One, will you please bestow upon us some little Dharma so that when we return to our own land we can always remember you.”

The Buddha replied,

“There are exhaustible and inexhaustible Dharmas which you should study. What is the exhaustible? It is the active (mundane ) Dharma. What is the inexhaustible? It is the non-active (supramundane) Dharma. As Bodhisattvas, you should not exhaust (or put an end to) the mundane (state); nor should you stay in the supramundane (state).” 

He expounds in detail on what entails these Dharmas. Not exhausting the mundane state involves developing and continuously applying compassion, benevolence, effort, gathering knowledge, and ripening beings without fatigue. Thus does he realize wisdom. Not abiding long in the supramundane state involves exploring these states including nirvana without becoming attached to them nor abandoning compassion for it is compassion that keeps him from staying in the supramundane state. Thus does he gain merits. After this the visiting bodhisattvas rained flowers, bowed to the Buddha, and returned to their land. 

Buddha asks Vimalakirti how he sees the Buddha impartially. Vimalakirti replies, “Seeing reality in one’s body is how to see the Buddha.” He expounds much further about this. Then Sariputra asks Vimalakirti where he died to be reborn here. He chides him for asking since “death is unreal and deceptive, and means decay and destruction (to the worldly man), while life which is also unreal and deceptive means continuance to him. As to the Bodhisattva, although he disappears (in one place) he does not put an end to his good deeds, and although h reappears (in another) he prevents evils from arising.” Then Buddha tells Sariputra that Vimalakirti came here from the realm of Profound Joy, the pure land where the Buddha there is Akshobya. Buddha then read the thoughts of those in attendance – they wished to see this pure land – so he asks Vimalakirti to magically manifest it so they can see it. He then entered Samadhi and used his supramundane powers to take the realm of Profound Joy in his right hand. The Bodhisattvas, sravakas, and some devas present who realized supramundane powers asked the Buddha, “World Honoured One, who is taking us away? Will you please protect us?” He simply noted that it was Vimalakirti who was working the magic – but those without realized supramundane powers did not notice anything. Then the realm of Profound Joy was shown to the assembly and many developed the wish to be reborn there and Buddha predicted their rebirth there. Sariputra then praises Buddha and Vimalakirti and his powers and predicts great benefits from the hearing of this sutra, both before and after the Buddha’s (para)-nirvana. 

The deva lord Sakra was also in attendance and praises this sutra. He says he has heard hundreds of thousands of sutras but this is the first time he has heard this one. He also says he and his deva followers will protect and aid anyone who venerates, reads, studies, and practices this sutra. The Buddha praises this and does the standard Mahayana super-veneration of the powers of hearing and practicing such a sutra, its merits being immeasurable.

Buddha then tells a story of a Buddha called Bhaisajya-raja (Medicine Buddha) from an aeon long ago. There was a heavenly ruler, a cakravartin king called Precious Canopy and he had a thousand sons. For five aeons Precious Canopy and his retinue made offerings to the Buddha Bhaisajya-raja and he taught his sons to do so as well. One son called Lunar Canopy wondered what offering was best of all. At this thought a voice was heard that said the offering of Dharma was such and to go and ask the Buddha. He does and that Buddha explains it to him. He notes that the upholding of Dharma through practice is also the offering of Dharma as is the proper expounding of Dharma. Lunar Canopy then took off his robe and offered it to the Buddha, vowed to uphold the Dharma and eventually practice Bodhisattva conduct. Buddha then tells Sakra that this Precious Canopy is now a Buddha called Precious Flame and his thousand sons are the thousand Buddhas of the Bhadrakalpa (the virtuous aeon that is now – Buddha Shakyamuni being the 4th Buddha of the aeon). He also says that he, Shakyamuni Buddha was the son called Lunar Canopy. Thus he confirmed that the offering of Dharma was the supreme offering. 

Buddha then addresses the Bodhisattva Maitreya (the next Buddha) and entrusts him with the Dharma and exhorts him to use his magical powers to proclaim sutras such as this one especially during the period of decline of the teachings of the Buddha (traditionally beginning 1500 years after the Buddha’s paranirvana). He also mentions that there are two categories of Bodhisattvas: those who favor proud words and a racy style (basically beginners) and those who can fathom deeper meanings. There are also two classes of newly initiated Bodhisattvas, some of which will not recognize or praise the profound Dharma and even slander it. There are also older Bodhisattvas who will not properly guide new Bodhisattvas and even belittle them. He notes that the problem with these Bodhisattvas is that they still give rise to discrimination between form and formlessness. Maitreya then vows to uphold the Dharma and magically place this sutra in the hands of practitioners and magically make them remember it. He also notes that those who study, read, recite, praise, and proclaim this sutra should know that they are doing so under the magic power of the future Buddha Maitreya. The other Bodhisattvas present also vow to proclaim this sutra, and the devas present vow to aid and protect those doing so. Buddha also tells Ananda to remember this sutra and Ananda asks what its name should be. Buddha says it should be called “The Sutra Spoken by Vimalakirti” or “The Door to Inconceivable Liberation.” After this the practitioners pay reverence to Buddha and go away.

While the Mahayana sutras can seem odd, uncanny, overly supernatural at times, these circumstances frame a profound ‘doctrine’ that seems to have no counterparts and can seem quite ‘otherworldly’ at times. Historians are kind of confounded trying to source its development and although there is a vast amount of legend and lore intertwined, the doctrine is quite detailed and consistent under most analyses. The Dharma is unique. The Dharma is vast and profound.



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