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 person who outwits all of the Buddha's famous disciples who are all monks. Lay people leading worldly lives are at least as capable to follow the Buddha Way as ordained monks and nuns. Vimalakirti's immense wealth seems at odds with what we think we know about Buddhist virtues. Has the historical Buddha not abandoned his life as a rich prince in order to become a poor mendicant? Do the Buddhist teachings not warn against the dangers of sensual pleasures and material wealth? Although Vimalakirti wears fine clothes and jewellery, he is not at all attached to his material wealth. Instead, he spends his riches to help the poor. His business transactions are based on trust, awarding each party a fair share of the profit. He is highly respected at all levels of society and uses his influence to help those in need wherever he can. He even enters brothels and drinking parlours to rescue prostitutes and drunkards.

After this introduction, we learn that Vimalakirti fakes an illness so that he can lure visitors into his sick room who he then lectures about the Dharma. Again, this seems odd from what we know of the Buddhist teachings. Is there not a precept that says that we should not lie? For Vimalakirti however, pretending to be ill is just another skilful means he uses to create opportunities to teach the Buddha Dharma. It is one of the many examples in the Mahayana literature where the end - helping all beings to progress towards ultimate enlightenment - justifies the means. The trick works, and many visitors flock to see Vimalakirti in his sick room and enquire about his health. The Buddhist prodigy then delivers a broad sweep of the Dharma, using the frailty of his apparently ill body as starting point.

"Good people, this body is impermanent, without durability, without strength, without firmness, a thing that decays in a moment, not to be relied on." (Watson, 1997, p. 34)

What follows is a collection of creative similes for the body and its weakness. It is variously compared to foam, dreams, drifting clouds and an decaying old well among other things. The audio book version captures well the rhythmic and repetitive nature of the language of this part of the sutra, which gives it an almost meditative quality . It reminds us, that sutras such as this one were not really meant to be studied alone behind closed doors. In ancient India and China, the sutras would have been recited, memorised and chanted together. This is why sutra chanting is still an important practice in Zen temples and dojos. After Vimalakirti has made abundantly clear that there is nothing to hold on to in the physical body, he recommends his audience to turn to the body of the Buddha. By this he obviously does not mean the Buddha's physical body, but something that is called the "dharmakāya" in Buddhism. Dharmakāya, or the "Dharma body" of the Buddha points to the essence of what it means to be a Buddha. It is often referenced as the body of the teachings of the Buddha or as the true nature of reality as it is expressed in the sutras. For followers of Mahayana the dharmakāya describes the ultimate emptiness of all things. It is from this transcendental Buddha body that all Buddhas and all phenomena arise. Those who wish to learn more about body theories of the Buddha can have a look at Paul Williams (1989, pp. 167-184.) Vimalakirti continues his speech by pointing out how we can realise the Buddha body.

"It [the Buddha body] is born from immeasurable merits and wisdom. It is born from precepts, meditation, wisdom, emancipation and the insight of emancipation. It is born from pity, compassion, joy and indifference." (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 35)

In other words, it is through Buddhist practices and virtues - six paramitas and many more - that one can realise the Buddha body. Vimalakirti mentions a number of canonical lists: the six transcendental powers, the three understandings, the thirty seven elements of the Way, etc. Luckily, the Burton Watson translation provides a handy glossary at the end of the book that explains the items of all of these lists. Vimalakirti concludes his talk by urging his listeners to commit themselves to "anuttara-samyak-sambodhi", "supreme and unsurpassed enlightenment", the broad an all-encompassing enlightenment that includes all beings, the ultimate end of Mahayana. And surely, many thousands of listeners do exactly that at the end of the chapter.

Summary of the discussion at Old Street Zen Group - Tuesday 11 February 2020

Sources

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

The Vimalakirti Sutra. (2019). Translated by Burton Watson and read by Taradasa. Dharma Audiobooks and Audible.

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

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