The never-ending illness of the bodhisattva - Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 5

After all of the buddha’s disciples and the bodhisattvas in the assembly refuse to visit Vimalakirti on his sickbed, only Manjushri, the young bodhisattva famous for his wisdom, takes up the challenge and agrees to inquire about the illness of the genius layman. At this point all of those who have refused to go now decide to come along and witness the encounter of the two prodigies. 500 monks, 8000 bodhisattvas and hundreds of thousands of gods, demons, monsters and other mythical creatures from the Buddha’s great assembly enter the town of Vaishali and go to Vimalakirti’s house. Vimalakirti quickly empties his room of furniture and servants, not to make space for the multitude, but as a prop for a lecture about emptiness. Once everybody is inside the little sick room - don’t be such a voice-hearer dear reader and ask how they all fit in - the Dharma combat begins (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 64.) Manjushri faithfully inquires about the circumstances and causes of Vimalakirti’s sickness. The rich laymen replies that it is the very nature of the bodhisattva to be sick as he/she shares the ailments of living beings in the world. Then Manjushri touches on the empty room - other than the numerous audience - which leads to a discussion of the topic of emptiness. This is followed by a short exposition from Vimalakirti on how one bodhisattva should comfort another bodhisattva who is ill (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 66-67.)

The main body of the chapter is Vimalakirti’s discourse in response to Manjushri’s question on how an ailing bodhisattva should “go about tempering and controlling his mind?” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 68.) Vimalakirti starts off by recommending a meditation on the ultimate emptiness of all things. The bodhisattva should clarify that all illnesses come from the deluded thoughts about a substantial self or ego. Like all phenomena, the human body is just a temporary coming together of elements that appears and disappears in due course without an intrinsic soul or an “I”. “When they [phenomena] appear, they do not say ‘I have appeared!’, and when they vanish, they do not say, ‘I have vanished!’” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 68). Next, the bodhisattva should tackle the concept of phenomena itself. The thought of phenomena is just another expression of deluded thinking that should be abandoned. To overcome the concept of phenomena, Vimalakirti recommends to subdue any thoughts about “I” and “mine”. This is not just a repetition of the first part of the meditation where the idea of an independent ego is the object. Through tackling thoughts of “I” and “mine” the ailing bodhisattva is supposed to reflect on his use of everyday language. Abandoning the use of “I” and “mine” allows the ill person to overcome the dualism between things “internal” (“I” - own body, own mind, feelings, thoughts, erc.) and “external” (“mine” - external objects that one can appropriate - food, cars, iPhones, etc.) This leads directly to greatest dualism of all as far as Buddhists are concerned: the opposition of “I” and nirvana. “I” and nirvana are also mere naming conventions and ultimately not separate from each other. Once the ailing bodhisattva has reached this level of understanding there can be no more illnesses other than the illness of emptiness itself. And this illness of emptiness is also empty (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 69.)

But the reflection of the ailing bodhisattva should not stop there. After he/she has realised the ultimate emptiness of all illnesses and things, the bodhisattva needs to go out and help all living beings to overcome their illnesses too. “‘I have regulated and controlled myself, and now I must regulate and control other living beings’” is what the bodhisattva should think at this stage. And to clarify that this does not mean to force others Vimalakirti adds “But he [the bodhisattva] should simply rid them of their illnesses and not deprive them of anything, merely teaching and guiding them so they can cut off the source of illness” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 69.) Wisdom - realising the ultimate emptiness of everything - and compassion - helping all beings - cannot be separated from each other in Buddhism. Vimalakirti then addresses problems a bodhisattva might have when trying to help others. They must avoid becoming emotionally involved: “..., if he [the bodhisattva] should conceive a great compassion that is marked by affection and concern for living beings, he should at once thrust it aside” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 70.) This is remarkable. What is the point of being compassionate without becoming emotionally involved? Vimalakirti explains:

“If his compassion is marked by affection and concern, then he will have feelings of weariness and revulsion toward the realm of birth and death. But if he can put aside affection and concern, he will feel no weariness and revulsion; whatever realm he happens to be born into, he will not be blinded by affection or concern” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 70.)

In other words, bodhisattvas can only really be effective in helping others if they are not controlled by emotions. Angriness, sadness or disgust are counterproductive even when confronted with horrible crimes or atrocities. The bodhisattva will only be able to really help if his/her action is not tempered by these emotions. What Vimalakirti is saying here is that effective compassion totally depends on wisdom, because it is only through profoundly realising the ultimate emptiness of phenomena that one can overcome feelings of revulsion when confronted with the ugly aspects of the world. Vimalakirti condenses the mutual dependency of wisdom and compassion into a formula, where he uses the term “expedient means” - skillful interventions to help others - as synonymous to “compassion”:

“Wisdom without expedient means is bondage; wisdom with expedient means is liberation. Expedient means without wisdom is bondage; expedient means with wisdom is liberation” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 70.)

Following this, Vimalakirti offers his final advice in terms of viewing illness as something that cannot be separated from the body:

" He [the bodhisattva] ... should realize that the body is never rid of illness, that illness is never rid of the body, and that this body and this illness are neither prior nor posterior to one another. This is called wisdom" (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 71-72.

After Vimalakirti has given all these details on how an ailing bodhisattva should temper and control thoughts and feelings, he offers a typical Mahayana warning about regulating the mind - meditation - or in fact any practice:

“Manjushri, the ailing bodhisattva should regulate his mind by not dwelling in such regulation, but he should not dwell in nonregulation of the mind either. Why? Because if he dwells in nonregulation of the mind, this is the way of a stupid person. But if he dwells in regulation of the mind, this is the way of a voice-hearer. Therefore the bodhisattva should dwell neither in regulation nor in nonregulation of the mind” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 72.)

Any kind of dualism is to be avoided. The recommended practice has to be put immediately into the context of its opposite. Vimalakirti also does not miss this opportunity to mock the non-Mahayana buddhists, the voice-hearers or “shravakas” who in his view put too much emphasis on formal practices. The rest of the chapter contains Vimalakirti’s conclusion: around 30 rhythmic statements describing virtuous activities and attitudes, each ending with the words “… - such is the practice of the bodhisattva” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 72-74.) Listening to these in the audio book version almost feels like a meditation itself.

Summary of the discussions at the Old Street Zen group on Tuesday, 10 February 2020.


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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