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Science fiction beyond science fiction, or Shariputra too small to mount a Buddha's seat - Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 6

After a heavy dose of philosophy in chapter five, chapter six is again a bit more playful. Shariputra - the eternal punching bag of the Mahayana sutras - looks at the multitude of monks, nuns, bodhisattvas, gods, demons and other mythical beings who have gathered in Vimalakirti’s small sick room and wonders where they should sit. Vimalakirti, who can read the mind of others, exposes him of completely missing the point: “Did you come here for the sake of the Law [Dharma], or are you just looking for a place to sit?”, he asks (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 75.) The humiliated Shariputra replies that he has of course come for the Dharma. This is all Vimalakirti needs to reel off a fine teaching of what it means -  or rather what it does not mean - to seek the Dharma, apparently denying many of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism. “The Dharma has nothing to do with idle theorizing” sums up his criticism of the orthodox Buddhist doctrines. And the conclusion of this impromptu lecture is that …

The never-ending illness of the bodhisattva - Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 5

After all of the buddha’s disciples and the bodhisattvas in the assembly refuse to visit Vimalakirti on his sickbed, only Manjushri, the young bodhisattva famous for his wisdom, takes up the challenge and agrees to inquire about the illness of the genius layman. At this point all of those who have refused to go now decide to come along and witness the encounter of the two prodigies. 500 monks, 8000 bodhisattvas and hundreds of thousands of gods, demons, monsters and other mythical creatures from the Buddha’s great assembly enter the town of Vaishali and go to Vimalakirti’s house. Vimalakirti quickly empties his room of furniture and servants, not to make space for the multitude, but as a prop for a lecture about emptiness. Once everybody is inside the little sick room - don’t be such a voice-hearer dear reader and ask how they all fit in - the Dharma combat begins (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 64.) Manjushri faithfully inquires about the circumstances and causes of Vimalakirti’s sickne…

Empowered women and the Inexhaustible Lamp: Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 4

After the 500 monks have refused to visit Vimalakirti, the Buddha turns to the bodhisattvas in his gathering. But they too decline to meet the Buddhist lay prodigy on the grounds of some previous experience where Vimalakirti has outsmarted them. Chapter four mentions four such encounters. The bodhisattva Maitreya, dwelling in the Tushita heaven and awaiting his prophesied final rebirth as the Buddha of the Future, is told off for teaching about enlightenment - bodhi - is if it was something personal (The Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 52-54.) A young bodhisattva called Shining Adornment, who greets Vimalakirti at a city gate, receives an unsolicited sermon about the "place of practice" which is basically everything and everywhere (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 54-56.) Another bodhisattva in the form of a rich and charitable townsman is told that he should rather be generous with the Dharma instead of material goods (The Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 59-63.)

My favourite story in…

Zazen Day in Brockley with Yushin Christophe Guillet

Last Saturday, 22 February,  I spent the day in a church hall in South London on at a day of Zazen. The Brockley group had invited Yushin Christophe Guillet from Kanshoji temple in Souteast France. For city-Zen folk like me it is always interesting to meet Zen followers who have chosen a more monastic existence. Yushin has been at Kanshoji since the beginning in 2002. He now finally feels that the temple is settling in some sort of routine after almost of two decades of building and learning the ins and outs monastic Zen life. Yushin gave as some valuable insights into the life of the temple - zazen practice twice daily, ceremonies, communal meals and work periods (samu). And although they live and work in a monastery, Kanshoji residents also have plenty of contact with the surrounding communities. Yushin mentioned the temple band which regularly participates in local music festivals. Kanshoji is open to visitors who want to stay for as little as an afternoon and up to a year or more.

The Buddhas major disciples chicken out: Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 3

After having lectured and converted many thousands of lay people in his sick room, Vimalakirti complains that he does not receive any visitors from the assembly of the Buddha. The Buddha, becoming aware of this, asks each of his 500 disciples to visit Vimalakirti and inquire about his illness. They all refuse. The chapter talks about in particular about the ten foremost followers of the Buddha. When asked to visit Vimalakirti, each of them comes up with a story how the lay prodigy has reprimanded them in the past. Shariputra is lectured about his preference of silent retreats over the activities of daily life. Maudgalyayana is criticised for not properly understanding the Dharma he himself teaches to laymen. Mahakashyapa is told off for making a difference between rich and poor when begging for alms. Subhuti, upon entering Vimalakirti's home begging for food, is first subjected to a deceiving and twisted argument that concludes he should hate all human beings, smear the Buddha'…

Rich laymen and Buddhist genius: Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 2

In the second chapter we finally get to meet Vimalakirti. The first thing we learn is that Vimalakirti is a very advanced bodhisattva. He has taken the great vow to save all beings many lives ago and has diligently practised the paramitas and other virtues since then. He has served under numberless Buddhas in the past. He has learned everything there is to be known about emptiness, has acquired magical powers and has an advanced capacity to understand what people need. The sutra falls just short of calling him a Buddha, but he has the "dignity and authority" of one and is admired by Buddhas, gods and disciples alike. (The Vimalkirti Sutra, 1997, p. 32)

This superhuman being has decided to be born, not as a famous monk or god, but as a rich citizen in the northern Indian town of Vaishali. This is a very important point: advanced bodhisattvas can take any shape or form to help other beings. The sutra derives most of its humour from the fact that here is an accomplished lay per…

Pure minds - pure Buddha Lands: Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 1

Old Street study group - 4 Feb 2020

Like many other Mahayana sutras, the Vimalakirti Sutra also opens with a description of the impossible huge assembly of Buddha Shakyamuni. The Thatagata - another name of the Buddha - is in residence in a park near the north Indian town of Vaishali. With him there are eight thousand of his leading monks and nuns. There are also thirty-two thousand bodhisattvas, and tens of thousands of gods, dragons, demons, monsters and other fantastical creatures and also lay people. A procession of 500 laypeople, led by a rich townsmen called Jewelled Accumulation, joins the assembly. They carry 500 parasols which they offer to the Buddha. Shakyamuni collates all parasols together so that they form one giant sunshade. Using this as a screen - note that this piece was written thousands of years before cinemas or the internet -, he shows the whole universe to his astonished assembly - mountains, rivers, oceans, stars, constellations and countless worlds where Buddh…