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 those who wish to seek the Dharma should not seek it in anything at all (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 76.)

Following this Vimalakirti addresses Shariputra’s concerns with the seating arrangements. He orders thirty-two thousand seats from a far away Buddha land where a Tathagata called Sumeru Lamp King is in charge. Sumeru Lamp King immediately dispatches the seats to Vimalakirti’s sick room. As they arrive, everybody is stunned. The seats are wide and exquisitely decorated, but they are also several hundred kilometres high! The spectators are amazed, because these thirty-two thousand dwarf planets easily fit into Vimalakirti’s small room. Neither the town of Vaishali, the land around it or the continent are affected at the slightest. And this is the real topic of this chapter which is called “Beyond Comprehension”. It describes the power of a bodhisattva to transcend the natural laws governing time and space. It is fantastical tales like this that many of us Westerners find annoying. Buddhism is supposed to be rational, so why are we told these bizarre stories? I believe that the authors of the great Mahayana sutras had understood that the image of the world that we humans have in our heads and the world itself are two very different things. Our mental map is good enough - most of the time - to navigate our daily lives. But the real world is far too big and complex for our limited mental capacities. When telling us outlandish stories, the authors of the Mahayana sutras are inviting us to venture beyond the limitations of our minds - going beyond our (normal) comprehension. It is this liberation of thought that enabled the explosive creativity expressed in the sutras. And this burst of imagination led to a lot more than just fantastical fairy tales. Whenever we come across an impossible large number in a sutra - the number of grains of sand in thirty-two thousand river Ganges - illustrating a point of the doctrine, it is worth remembering that we are actually witnessing the birth of modern mathematics. The idea of emptiness itself, Sanskrit “sunyata” is the same as the concept of null or zero - “sunya”. Without zero, our familiar decimal system would be unthinkable. And it is also worth remembering that great discoveries in science were only possible because thinkers like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were able to go beyond the limitations of conventional thinking in their times. Back in the text, Vimalakirti invites all of the monks, nuns, bodhisattvas and other visitors to take a seat on the newly arrived colossal thrones. The more advanced bodhisattvas immediately increase the size of their bodies to forty-two yojanas - one yojana is between twelve and fifteen kilometres long, the distance an army can cover on foot in one day - and make themselves comfortable. But the less advanced bodhisattvas and all of the monks and nuns fail to grow their bodies. Shariputra sheepishly admits that Sumeru Lamp King’s lion seats are too tall for them. Once more, Vimalakirti got the better of the followers of the small vehicle, demonstrating in his own way that they are too limited to realise the full majesty of the Buddha Dharma (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 77.)

The rest of the chapter covers Vimalakirti’s teaching on the emancipation beyond comprehension. But before that he instructs the monks, nuns and minor bodhisattvas to pay homage to Sumeru Lamp King, the generous provider of the colossal thrones. After they have done so, Shariputra and his fellow nuns and monks manage to grow themselves and also mount the seats (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 77.) Then Vimalakirti offers the assembly a number of instructive examples for emancipation beyond comprehension: Sticking the world mountain Sumeru into a grain of mustard seed without changing its size; pouring four oceans through a skin pore with all the fishes, whales, dragons and other creatures in it; lengthening seven days into one aeon or shortening one aeon into seven days; slicing off a large part of the world and throwing it to the other end of the universe without anybody noticing it (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 78-79.) These examples seem outrageously bizarre. But if we think that we actually live on a speck of dust, one out of as many as the sands of thirty-two thousands river Ganges, in a galaxy that hurtles through space at an incomprehensible speed, then these ideas don’t appear quite so ridiculous.

There is one final aspect of emancipation beyond comprehension that is worth noting. Vimalakirti explains that amongst worldly devils there are in fact many bodhisattvas who realise emancipation beyond comprehension. And similarly, amongst those who demand from us food, money, body parts, spouses, children, houses, gold, etc. - in other words beggars, robbers, organ dealers, adulterers, tax men, murderers -, there are also many bodhisattvas who have only adopted these roles in order to help us on the way and test our resolve (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 81.) So, whenever we meet somebody who is really annoying us or treating us really badly, Vimalakirti reminds us that this person might actually be a bodhisattva dwelling in the emancipation beyond comprehension and trying to help us on our own bodhisattva journey.

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.

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