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's name and decry the Buddha's teachings. And as the upset monk tries to leave the rich man's house, he receives a lecture about the emptiness of all words on top. Purna Maitrayaniputra is rebuked for failing to recognise the potential of the novices he is trying to teach the Dharma. Mahakatyayana is told to abandon his clinging to concepts such as birth and extinction. Aniruddha is embarrassed in front of a Brahma king and his divine entourage when boasting of his magical all-seeing eye. Upali, the master of monastic discipline, is criticised for his insensitivity when dealing with a couple of rule-breaking young monks. Rahula, the Buddha's son, receives a lecture about what it really means to leave the home and become a monk. And Ananda, trying to find some fresh milk for his indisposed master, is severely reprimanded for giving the public the impression that the eternal Buddha has fallen ill.

Vimalakirti's criticism always comes back to the same points: the monks are clinging too rigidly to doctrines and fail to see their deeper meaning. This deeper meaning is the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena and language. "The Dharma knows nothing of living beings, because it is removed from the defilement of such concepts as 'living beings'", Vimalakirti opens his teaching to Maudgalyayana (The Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p.  38.) And a few lines further he asserts "The Dharma is not the subject of frivolous theories, because in the end it is empty." He plays with two meanings of the word "Dharma": in the sense of the literal teachings of the Buddha on one hand and as the description of ultimate reality - emptiness - on the other. All of Vimalakirti's teachings related in this chapter are rich, full of wit and cunning. The disciples are overwhelmed and speechless when they hear them. They know that Vimalakirti's alleged illness is just a pretext to involve them in further discussions of the Dharma. And so the refuse to go in order to protect them from further embarrassments.

The sutra portrays the major ten disciples of the Buddha as "shravakas" or "voice hearers", originally referring to those who listened to the living historical Buddha. In the Mahayan sutras shravakas are monks or nuns who adhere to an ossified version of the Buddha Dharma that is overly preoccupied with scholastic doctrines. This form of Buddhism is sometimes called the "Lesser Vehicle" or Hinayana as opposed to the "Great Vehicle" or Mahayana. Vimalakirti is a relentless critic of Hinayana whose teachings he calls "trite" and "shallow" (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 44.) His hostility seems remarkable even in the context of the Mahayana sutras.

The Lotus sutra for example in the famous simile of the burning house maintains that all schools of Buddhism are merely different aspects of the same and unified Buddha Dharma (Lotus Sutra, chapter 3.) We followers of the Zen way in the 21st century are also well advised not to slander other schools of Buddhism. There is a lot we can learn from studying texts like the Vimalakirti sutra. But we should never accept anything they say without reflecting on it critically.

Summary of the discussion at Old Street Zen group on 18 February 2020.


The Lotus Sūtra. The White Lotus Sūtra of the True Dharma. Saddharma Pundarīka. In a new rendering for Dharma Audiobooks based on the classic translation from the Sanskrit by Hendrik Kern. (No date). Dharma Audiobooks.

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


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