Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

Book Review: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software – by Steven Johnson (Scribner 2001)

This was a pretty good and engaging book about self-organization and its technological and future implications. Self-organizing systems can embody what have been termed ‘emergent’ properties, moving from individual behavior to group behavior, local behavior to global behavior. Collections of simple constituents can display complex behavior when aggregated together in a system. Such systemic behavior typically (but apparently not always) serves adaptive functions in biology. Biological subsets like the human brain and human social behavior also display self-organizing properties.

The book begins with the work of Japanese scientist Toshiyuki Nakagaki in 2000 who announced that he ‘trained’ an amoeba-like organism, the slime mold, to find the most efficient path through a maze to find food and to do so despite the organism having no cognitive resources. Slime mold behavior confounded scientists for some time until its ‘superorganism’ functions were discovered. Through much of its life it lives as distinct single-celled units but under certain conditions these cells will join to form a single organism that can move across the ground as a unit, a swarm. New classes of study overlap such behavior: non-equilibrium thermodynamics, non-linear theory, complexity theory, mathematical biology, and ‘morphogenesis’ for instance. In studying slime mold aggregation scientists first hypothesized ‘pacemaker’ cells that initiated the behavior. They knew that a substance, acrasin, or cyclic AMP, was released prior to the aggregation behavior. But alas, no pacemaker cells were found. It was later found that changes in individual cell releases of AMP and other cells would follow suit as well as following the pheromone trails released by other cells. Thus it is an ‘emergent’ group behavior without a leader (pacemaker). This explanation derived partly from Alan Turing’s work with morphogenesis. It took a while before scientists would abandon the pacemaker idea and accept the existence of ‘collective behavior.’ This is one example of the development of the new science of self-organization. Darwin, Engels, Adam Smith, and Turing had inadvertently contributed to it. The author notes that a new phase in the study of self-organization is happening with software and video games where such functions can be programmed in so that new patterns may emerge – this is termed artificial emergence and will likely be an aspect of artificial intelligence (AI). Johnson also mentions the core principles of the field of self-organization: “neighbor interaction, pattern recognition, feedback, and indirect control.”

Next he visits Deborah Gordon at Stanford’s Gilbert Biological Sciences Building in Palo Alto. She studies ants, in this case harvester ants. Depictions of ant colonies as command economies, of Stalinist communes, are simply wrong. There is no centralized rule. Instead, ant behavior is quite decentralized and emerges from the bottom up. She shows him that the ants instinctively put the cemetery as far away as possible and the trash dump as far away as possible and also far from the cemetery. The idea of an ant “queen” that actually directs behavior is bogus. The queen simply births the ants. Her function is genetic and has nothing to do with directing ant behavior. {although with modern understanding of epigenetics one might want to revisit that possibility}

Next he moves on to the idea of a self-organizing city. Manchester, England is an obvious choice due its co-emergence with the Industrial Revolution. Between 1700 and 1850 Manchester became a booming industrial city and saw a ten-fold increase in population in 75 years as people moved there to work in the coal/steam powered factories. It was not recognized as a city nor had it a city government nor city services until the end of this period. There was no city planning. However, there was fairly precise segregation of the poor and the rich. Engels noted with astonishment that it was done that way with no formal planning. The author here notes the development of Manchester as a form of emergent behavior. Famous city planners Lewis Mumford and especially Jane Jacobs have pointed out that cities tend to develop and cluster in very specific ways without central planning. Engels termed it “systematic” complexity” referring to Manchester. Artists, bankers, crafters, etc. all seem to coalesce in various parts of a city. From the mid-19th century onward Manchester had an area where gay men would meet even in a world where such activity was extreme taboo. The area is officially recognized today and is popular with site-seers. Alan Turing was ostracized for frequenting it, lost his status, and took his own life. Turing, who was the most famous code-breaker of World War II and developed the earliest form of a computer, also wrote a seminal work on ‘morphogenesis,’ that was tragically cut short by his death. Self-assembly was the topic. Turing was discussing the merits of the paper with Belgian Nobel chemist Ilya Prigogine whose own work in non-equilibrium thermodynamics had some overlapping implications. Turing worked for some months at Manhattan’s Bell Labs and met another code-breaker, Claude Shannon, the developer of Information Theory.  Shannon urged him to make his “thinking machine” (computer) more brain-like, adding culture to it. Pattern recognition was key to the development of the computer, information theory, and AI. Warren Weaver would later write a review of scientific research developments that would perhaps be the first official recognition of Complexity Theory, which is based in part on Shannon’s Information Theory as well as computer science, molecular biology, physics, and genetics. Later would come Chaos Theory, although its development was underway at the same time. Weaver classified the ideas into disorganized complexity and organized complexity. Organized complexity simply was simpler and had fewer variables, and would thus be more predictable. Organized complexity systems can yield re-organized macrobehavior while disorganized complexity systems can only be predicted with statistics. Weaver recognized that with new tools come new paradigms, as Thomas Kuhn would further relate. It would be computers and their ability to tackle large data sets and crunch numbers that would come to empower these new scientific ideas: complexity theory, information theory, chaos theory. Thus it is a tragedy, notes the author, that Turing did not live to see the intersection of two ideas that he was instrumental in developing: computers and complexity. 
City planner and social theorist Jane Jacobs read Weaver’s essay and noticed that organized complexity, or complex order, was an issue in how some cities developed and why some parts functioned better than others. This was in the early 1960’s. Jacobs saw the city as an organism with interacting parts. Shannon’s work in the 40’s emphasized the importance of pattern recognition and feedback in information systems, while E.O. Wilson’s discovery in the 50’s of ants use of pattern recognition of pheromone signals in social communicating (similar to the AMP processing of slime molds) further boosted the new ‘science’ of complexity. Meanwhile, Ilya Prigogine was showing through his nonequilibrium thermodynamics that the laws of entropy could be temporarily suspended, with a higher-level order emerging from the chaos. Turing and Shannon’s colleague Norbert Weiner would show the importance of feedback in any ‘cybernetic’ system. Weiner’s student Oliver Selfridge and Marvin Minsky would work similarly with machine learning and AI, developing better means of pattern recognition. Selfridge developed the first emergent software program with his ‘Pandemonium.’ Another of Weiner’s students, John Holland would expand on Selfridge’s ideas to develop ‘evolving’ software programs, based loosely on genetics. His ‘genetic algorithm’ was based on the idea that code was like the genotype and what code does was like the phenotype. UCLA professors David Jefferson and Chuck Taylor furthered the idea in the late 70’s to make software (the Connection Machine) that simulated evolving life – so that replication was imperfect as it is in life rather than exact. Their format was virtual ants following pheromone trails, an emergent behavior, so they proved it could be done virtually, with virtual ants and software code. The ideas of the people mentioned above and others had forged new ways of thinking, from a ‘bottom-up’ perspective rather than a top-down’ one. The Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1984. James Gleick’s book, Chaos, The Making of a New Science, came out in 1987. (I am about half way through that one). Before that, in 1980, came Douglas Hofstadter’s classic, Godel, Escher, and Bach. In the early 90’s came Will Wright’s program SimCity. SimCity would become a popular video game, one that exhibited some self-organizing behavior/emergent properties. 

Humans aside, ants are likely the most successful species on earth. It is likely that the ‘collective intelligence’ of this ‘eusocial’ species is the key to its success. Ants change their individual ‘local’ behavior to meet the ‘global’ needs of the colony. There are no leaders. They change tasks according to need. There is no overseer of the system. As E.O. Wilson and his colleague Holdobler noted, “pheromones play the central role in the organization of colonies.” Ant communication is based on ten signs, nine of which are pheromone-based, the other being tactile communication. Through ‘gradient detection’ ants can discover the source-area of the pheromone trails. They can also assess the frequency of these ‘semiochemicals,” (presumably how many sources there are of them and/or how many emission events there are) which may allow them to assess colony size and adjust task if necessary. Such abilities allow the colony to be efficient, with the right amount of ants dedicated to the varying tasks. Deborah Gordon’s harvester ants exhibit five principles of bottom-up organization: 1) More is different – enough ants need to be around to make a colony and they need to know what to do based on size; 2) Ignorance is useful – it is a plus that no one can assess the overall state of the system – it works best when no one knows it is a system; 3) Encourage random encounters – the many random encounters allow the ants to assess the needs of the colony and promote macrobehavior; 4) Look for patterns in the signs – pattern detection through analyzing pheromone trails and task distribution allows ants to find and exploit food sources and optimize tasks; 5) Pay attention to your neighbors – local info can lead to global knowledge, or swarm logic.
Since ant colonies typically last about 15 years, the lifespan of the queen, Gordon began studying them on longer time scales which had not been done much before. She discovered that the age of the colony is a factor since they have phases – she defined three: infancy, adolescence, and maturity. Younger colonies respond more variably to changes than older ones. Individual ants live no longer than a year. The whole colony still develops and matures while its individuals last a short time. The queen is the only one who lives longer but she never sees the light of day except when mating and is quite separate from the day to day lives of the worker ants. Her mates live such a short time (a few days at most) that genetics doesn’t outfit then with mandibles like the rest of the ant types. One might see human cells as a cooperative hive/colony as well. DNA might be seen as a directing influence which is top-down. However, cells also learn from neighbors which is bottom-up. 

“Cells draw selectively upon the blueprint of DNA: each cell nucleus contains the entire genome for the organism, but only a tiny segment of that data is read by each individual cell.”

The idea of ‘emergence’ might have more to do with biological development (morphogenesis) than biological function. 
“Cells self-organize into more complicated structures by learning from their neighbors.”

Cells communicate through chemical messengers (salts, sugars, amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids). These chemical messengers are akin to the pheromones of ants. We begin life as a single-celled embryo but after a few seconds we morph into compartments: a head and a tail, and join the multicellular ranks, each part with different ‘instructions.’ After cells further divide into more ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ and the embryo grows there is formation of cell ‘collectives.’ Cells, like ants, lack a ‘bird’s eye view’ of life and only experience it from what the author calls ‘street level.’ Cells take cues from neighbor cells and these cues are what has become known as “gene expression.” Neighbors and neighborhoods are also the domain of cities as well as of AI as software that learns and evolves. The author points out the similarities of the SimCity game with both ants and embryos as well as with cities. They all use local interactions to affect global behaviors. Economist Paul Krugman wrote about the ‘self-organizing economy’ in the 90’s. He noted that certain businesses coalesce in city areas, presumably to share customer base. Businesses also tend to like to have their competitors closer rather than a little further away. He says businesses will cluster in these ways in time no matter how a city is first organized. Thus are formed what might be called “hubs” of certain activity in an area. Ethnic and lifestyle-similar groups also tend to cluster in certain areas of a city. Favorable interactions with neighbors make areas within a city safer, noted Jacobs – another example of random local interactions leading to global order. Jacobs saw the sidewalk as the necessary place where these local interactions occur, the interface. Johnson does note that there is an important obvious difference between ants and humans. Ant colony coherence is enhanced by the ignorance of individual ants or rather their inability to make ‘conscious’ decisions, at least compared to humans. Ant decisions are much more based on genetics (and pheromones) than human decisions. But our ‘free will’ may not matter so much at different scales. Regardless, our social clustering has significant predictability based on systems analysis. If we scale out to hundreds or thousands of years the city as a human superorganism will seem much more like an ant colony. As more humans move to the cities our unseen (individually) emergent and collective behavior will become more important, one would think. The author mentions the guilds of Medieval Europe, and notes that the silk weavers, once part of the goldsmith guilds, are still in the same section of Florence as they were as early as 1100. 

Recognizing and responding to anomalies and changing patterns is something we do both consciously and unconsciously. As in the guilds being in certain areas, one might even see “traditions” as patterns enduring through time. Cathedrals and universities also often keep their areal configurations through time and there are of course practical reasons for this such as the uniqueness of the structures themselves. Places become known for things and such knowledge may endure. Such districts become network nodes and hubs in manufacturing and trade. What are called ‘economies of agglomeration’ may develop due to the advantages of sharing resources and services. 

“Cities were creating user-friendly interfaces thousands of years before anyone even dreamed of digital computers. Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots.”

Cities store and transmit information, such as ‘how-to’ knowledge of new technologies. Neighborhoods often come to be self-organizing clusters. There is a need to process and prioritize information. There are more people in a city and more specialized knowledge. More people in a group usually lead to more specialization. More specialization leads to networking nodes and hubs. This is perhaps not too distant from the task specialization of ants. Johnson says that information management is the latent purpose of a city, more like the unconscious pattern recognition. Johnson speculates why cities emerge and grow, particularly the ones beginning again after the fall of the Roman Empire after which there was a contraction and loss of cities. Technology, especially for food production, like the heavy-wheeled plow from Germanic peoples and crop rotation allowed areas to support larger populations which in turn tends to lead to more macrobehaviors. 

He compares the brain and ants, analogizing ants with neurons and pheromones with neurotransmitters. Much like the collective knowledge of the ant colony is the sum of decisions by simple and ignorant individual ants, so too is the brain the sum of decisions of individual neurons. 
Some, like Robert Wright, see the World Wide Web as an heir to cities in developing bottom-up self-organization. Others disagree, noting that there are no ‘higher orders’ manifesting in the highly disordered web. Stephen Pinker explained how the internet was very different from the human brain: The brain is imbued with and connected with specific “goal directed organization” while the internet has no such organization. The Web is great with connections but lousy with structure, says Johnson. He calls it ‘networked chaos.’ One problem, he says, is that HTLM-based links are one-directional – there are no mechanisms for feedback. It is feedback that allows self-organizing systems to become more ordered. Nowadays there are quite a bit of feedback algorithms, many involved with advertising and marketing. The algorithms are designed to recognize patterns and make recommendations based on that. They search and recognize our website-clicking patterns, our seeming preferences, so we can be targeted. It works in many cases. However, the feedback systems of the web are rarely if ever adaptive. 

Neurologist Richard Restak say that habit and memory involve repetition which involves “the establishment of permanent and semi-permanent neuronal circuits.” The brain is made up of connections and networking is a major function and feedback is the key to that functional interconnectedness. Johnson compares the media, what he calls the ‘mediasphere,’ to the brain in that there are numerous feedback loops. Interest in media events seems to “blossom” possibly in response to the strength of the feedback loops. Feedback can drive media stories, especially nowadays with the internet and social media being a major source of news rather than the tightly-controlled “mainstream media” of the past. Johnson talks about the new (at the time ca. 2001) CNN news feeds where subscribed local news could select among a pool of stories and present them in the old news style format that tended to “reverberate” with watchers and listeners. Of course, these feedbacks were also not adaptive. 

Johnson explains “negative feedback” as incorporating previous and present conditions to regulate – as in the thermostat controlling the temperature of a room. Negative feedback is a regulating mechanism while positive feedback is a mechanism for progressing onward in one direction. The use of information as a medium for negative feedback was first explored by Norbert Weiner in his 1949 book, Cybernetics. For many real world applications making decisions based on analysis through negative feedback required a way to make sense of the data, to analyze it through number crunching. Thus Weiner helped developed early computers with the ENIAC. 

“For negative feedback is note solely a software issue, or a device for your home furnace. It is a way of indirectly pushing a fluid, changeable system toward a goal. It is, in other words, a way of transforming a complex system into a complex adaptive system.”

“At its most schematic, negative feedback entails comparing the current state of a system to the desired state, and pushing the system in a direction that minimizes the difference between the two states.”

That is what Weiner meant by “homeostasis.” In Weiner’s words:

“When we desire a motion to follow a given pattern, the difference between this pattern and the actually performed motion is used as a new input to cause the part regulated to move in such a way as to bring its motion closer to that given by the pattern.”

The human body is a “massively complex homeostatic system” where many of the feedback mechanisms are controlled by the brain. Our sleep cycles and circadian rhythms are controlled by negative feedback. That the brain and body are homeostatic systems is why such artificial feedback methods like biofeedback can be successful. Through practice and habituation we can learn to control to some extent some of our internal bodily processes. Neurobiofeedback utilizes brainwave patterns as the goal, represented graphically. Different brain wave signatures correlate to different states of consciousness and degrees of tranquility or excitation. Neurobiofeedback involves pattern amplification and recognition. Johnson sees the media over-amplifying certain stories through excessive coverage as a positive feedback loop. Neurons suffer fatigue states (less than a millisecond) while the media does not fatigue, he notes.

City planners Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs were having a feud about the breakdown of self-organization in cities. While Mumford thought Jacobs’ ideas worked great in small intimate cities, he also thought much was lost in larger cities, especially without the direct feedbacks and feedback enablers: sidewalks and dedicated neighborhoods. Meanwhile the early Web-based communities, the electronic bulletin boards, were mostly top-down with leaders picking topics and moderators so hierarchies of sorts did develop. But homeostasis did not happen nor did much self-organization. Johnson thinks one reason it did not occur is due to the lack of social feedback in non-face-to-face discussion. In face-to-face encounters there is a vast amount of social feedback though voice tones, facial expressions, gestures, and other body language. We become “social thermostats,” he notes. Threaded discussions often consist of active participants and lurkers. The lurkers give no feedback as they are invisible. If a “crank” appears to disrupt discussions (crank might be precursor to what we now call troll) he may be booted by active participants but lurkers can’t be appreciated nor abhorred, nor policed unless participation is mandatory which is rare I would guess. Thus when lurkers are factored in the online groups may be less self-organizing than face-to-face groups due to lack of feedback in parts of the system due to lurkers exhibiting only one-way communication. Thus, no homeostasis. He talks about an online community that exhibited some self-organization called Slashdot that grew and was faced with the decision to keep small and preserve quality or to grow and risk losing that quality – not unlike Mumford’s city-size at which self-organization breaks down. Slashdot was partially based on moderators rating other’s posts and then giving points (called karma) based on ratings, which yielded privileges. Thus there is plenty of feedback. The moderators were limited which created scarcity while the karma rewards created value so the system functioned like a kind of currency. Thus it could be seen as a pricing standard for community participation. Valuation by user-ratings is still in full swing today especially on-line. However, depending on how valuation is designed one might create a “tyranny of the majority” that demotes minority viewpoints. 

Mitch Resnick’s self-organizing program/game Star Logo simulates slime-mold behavior through color flashing which mimics the c-AMP chemical secretion. Other flashing colors receive the transmitting colors. Star Logo is basically a simulator designed to help understand emergent behavior. AI guru Marvin Minsky saw Resnick’s program and initially made incorrect assumptions about it – that it was directed and not self-organized, although after Resnick explained how it worked he revised his assumptions. The point Resnick makes in saying this is that we are accustomed to think of system design in top-down, centralized planning ways – and even an expert in emergent systems (Minsky) could be fooled initially. Of course, the programmer can be considered a centralized authority so in the case of simulators there is some. Weiner derived the term, cybernetics, from the Greek for ‘steersman’ so that control or direction by feedback can be considered a way of directing a moving system, or driving it. Johnson goes through other learning/emergent software innovations such as the number sorting software of programmer Danny Hillis, where the machine takes over from the programmer. The author goes through several other (early) ‘interactive’ software and game products and projects where users/players can only direct self-controlling systems in limited ways. Perhaps the uncertainty of interactive games keeps players from becoming bored or disinterested too quickly. Wright even had to ‘dumb down’ some of his AI-like creations in the subsequent SimCity games to keep things interesting – perhaps like ants are dumb compared to their unseen (by them) collective intelligence. Johnson calls the programmers or controllers of such games – control artists, suggesting that part of their work is art.

The next section begins with mindreading. Psychologists have found that at about age 4 children begin to be able to accurately predict the intentions of others. Other primates can’t really do it. Some have theorized the existence of certain neurons called mirror neurons that are dedicated to copying the motor activity of others. There is much debate about that. Autistic people may have difficulty with mindreading. We do know that the mind makes estimates and predictions about parts of sensory reality that are missing or unclear and fills in the gaps. Visually we do it with blind spots. Apparently, we intuitively understand the predictive success rates of what we think of as likelihoods, our expectations for sensory reality. Similarly we make predictions and develop expectations for the intentions and behavior of others. This is all part of what philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists call ‘theory of mind’ which suggests that our self-awareness may be a by-product of reading the intentions of others. It is thought that this new development added more brain size, particularly in the pre-frontal lobes. Johnson notes that mind-reading and its relative, self-awareness “is clearly an emergent property of the brain’s neural networks.” This involves feedback-heavy interactions. The brain is always rewiring its circuitry.

“Amazingly, this process has come full circle. Hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of years ago, our brains developed a feedback mechanism that enabled them to construct theories of other minds. Today, we are beginning to create software applications that are capable of developing a theory of our minds.”

Will our media come to really know us? Perhaps. It sometimes seems a bit eerie when those Amazon bots pick a good book for you but perhaps less so when they fail. But targeted ads can and sometimes do save the ad makers and the customer time and annoyance. 

“… the invention of the graphic interface – was itself predicated on a theory of other minds. The design principles behind the graphic interface were based on predictions about the general faculties of the human perceptual and cognitive systems. Our spatial memory, for instance, is more powerful than our textual memory, so graphic interfaces emphasize icons over commands. We have a natural gift for associative thinking, thanks to the formidable pattern-matching skills of the brain’s distributed network, so the graphic interface borrowed visual metaphors from the real world: desktops, folders, trash cans. Just as certain drugs are designed specifically as keys to unlock the neurochemistry of our gray matter, the graphic interface was designed to exploit the innate talents of the human mind and to rely as little as possible on our shortcomings.”

Of course software and interface design is decidedly top-down and attempted integration with mere predictions for an average human mind. Interactive computing is often first applied to virtual reality and sometimes VR pornography as we humans seem to seek to technologize our urge-fulfillment. The bot ads and targeted ads based on user-histories and clicks can be seen as self-organized ad media. Ebay works because ratings of sellers works. Otherwise there would be more scamming.
Some high-tech companies experimented with neural-net-like organizational structures with decentralized intelligence. I am not sure how much of this is around today but surely some. CEOs are still around and still extremely well-paid. He also mentions the decentralized nature of protest movements that probably began with the Seattle anti-globalization protests and continued in more recent times with the direct democracy and consensus styles of Occupy Wall Street – although I can see some serious flaws in those set-ups. Today’s smart technologies and devices rely on the ability to learn. While the programming is general the learning fills in the specifics if the system is self-organizing.

Johnson reminds that emergence happens on different scales (or zoom levels) in different systems. That reminds me of fractals and Fibonacci scales within scales, and indeed emergence and chaos are related since both are often features of ‘developing’ systems, both organic and inorganic.
“ … understanding emergence has always been about giving up control, letting the system govern itself as much as possible, letting it learn from the footprints.”

Great thought-provoking book, even if outdated in some respects. It was undoubtedly ahead of its time when published so that makes up for some of the outdatedness. I hear Johnson now and then as a guest or commentator on NPR’s Science Friday or Radiolab but may have to look and see what he has written lately, especially if he is still ahead of things technologically.   

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.