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 this chapter however is the encounter of a bodhisattva called Upholder of the Age with the devil king Mara, who visits him in his room together twelve thousand heavenly maidens (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 56-59.)  Unlike his horned western counterpart, this devil king lives in a heavenly palace filled with sensual pleasures. He is the great tempter who does everything he can to keep beings in the circle of life and death. Mara has disguised himself as Indra, the ancient Vedic sky god who became a protector of Buddhism. He offers all twelve thousand women to Upholder of the Age. The bodhisattva in monk form refuses the forbidden gift, but at the same time feels guilty of showing disrespect to the god. Enter Vimalakirti. The cunning layman immediately unmasks the devil king. And as he is not bound by the discipline of the Buddhist order, he offers to accept the women on behalf of Upholder of the Age. Mara's plan to seduce the monk bodhisattva has failed, and he is forced to hand over the women to Vimalakirti. What happens next is even more remarkable. Vimalakirti teaches the Buddha Dharma to the twelve thousand women.  In doing so he lifts them from their passive role of mere tempters of men. Buddhism has mixed history with a view to women. The Buddha himself instituted an order for women after some initial hesitation. But in the centuries following his death women were often denied access to the Buddhist order and the benefits of the Buddhist teachings. But just like the historical Buddha before and Zen Master Dogen after him (Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, 1994, pp. 69-84), Vimalakirti treats women as equal to men, even calling them "sisters" (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 59.) Following the teaching, the women have no more time for sensual profanities and prefer Dharma delight instead. Mara makes one more attempt to regain his entourage: He reminds Vimalakirti of his bodhisattva duty to give up everything he possess, including the women. But Vimalakirti again is one step ahead: by setting the women free from their attachments he has given them up already. In the end, the women return to the devil's palace, but they are changed for ever. Before they leave reluctantly Vimalakirti encourages them spread the teaching like a shining lamp that can light hundreds and thousands of other lamps: "Although you live in the palace of the devil, with this Inexhaustible Lamp you can enable countless heavenly sons and heavenly daughters to set their minds on anuttara-samyak-sambodhi [supreme perfect enlightenment]" (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 59.) I find this episode enormously inspiring: Almost 2000 years ago the unknown authors of the sutra have made abundantly clear that for the true Buddhist there can be no discrimination between men and women. And the idea of spreading the Dharma in the devil's palace is a strong reminder for us first-world Buddhists, whose duty it is not to fall for the many temptations of modern life, but to protect and nurture Vimalakirti's Inexhaustible Lamp for the benefit of all beings.

Summary of the discussion at Old Street Zen group on 25 February 2020.

Sources

Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. Book 1. (1994). Translated by Gudo Wafu Nishijima, Chodo Cross. London: Windbell Publications.

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

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