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 Buddhas just like himself teach the dharma. Everybody in the assembly is amazed. On seeing so many Buddha lands, Jewelled Accumulation asks the Buddha how a bodhisattva should go about purifying his or her future Buddha land. Purifying a land so that it becomes a worthy place for Buddha is an important task of a bodhisattva (see also Williamson, 1989, pp. 224 - 227). He or she has vowed to become a Buddha one day for the sake of all beings, and it is their responsibility to prepare the land so it will be pure and ready for the great event. The Buddha has plenty of advice on how this should be done. His exposition culminates in the memorable phrase

“ … if the bodhisattva wishes to acquire a pure land, he must purify his mind. If the mind is pure, the Buddha land will be pure.” (Vimalakirti Sutra, p. 29.)

Upon hearing this, Shariputra, one of the senior disciples of the Buddha who is renowned for his critical and sometimes somewhat pedantic intellect is confused:

“When I look at this land, I see it full of knolls and hollows, thorny underbrush, sand and gravel, dirt, rocks, many mountains, filth and defilement.” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 30.)

How can it be that the world is such a dirty and impure place when there is a Buddha present? This is an important question for all Buddhists. I believe it was this question that prompted Dōgen, the 13th century founder of the Japanese Soto Zen school, to write his Mountains and Water Sutra - Sansuikyō (Okumura, 2018). In the Mahayana view impurities are not limited to bad thoughts, or worldly rubbish and dirt. Mountains and valleys are equally marks of impurity. A pure Buddha land should be clean, flat and full of devoted bodhisattvas. So Dōgen had to come up with an explanation how our world, and in particular his mountainous homeland Japan, could be the home of a Buddha. In the face of the global environmental crisis in the 21st century, the question of how to purify the land of the Buddha has become even more relevant.

In the Vimalakirti sutra the Buddha explains to Shariputra that it is not the world which is impure, but the failure of its inhabitants that they cannot see the true and pure nature of the world. A nearby Brahma King - one of the many gods who are present in the Buddha’s assembly - drives this point home:

“It is just that your mind has highs and lows and does not rest on the Buddha wisdom. Therefore you see this land as impure. Shariputra, the bodhisattva treats all things and beings, each one of them, with perfect equality. His deeply searching mind is pure, and because it rests on Buddha wisdom, it can see the purity of this Buddha land.” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1998, p. 30.)

Confirming the Brahma King, the Buddha performs another magical trick. He presses his toe against the earth and makes hundreds of thousands precious gems appear. All members of his assembly, suddenly noticing that they are seated on lotus seats made of jewels, realise their own share of and place in this originally pure world of the Buddha. The chapter ends with tens of thousands of monks, men and gods being converted to the great Mahayana teachings.

Sources

Okumura, Shohaku. (2018). The Mountains and Waters Sūtra: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dōgen’s “Sansuikyō”. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

The Vimalakirti Sutra. (1997). Translated by Burton Watson. New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press.

Williams, Paul. (1989). Mahayana Buddhism. The Doctrinal Foundations. Milton Park, New York: Routledge.

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