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Not one, not two - what not, not what? - Entering the gate of nondualism - Vimalakirti sutra - chapter 9

In the previous chapter we witnessed how Vimalakirti and Manjushri brilliantly refuted the central doctrine of voice-hearer (shravaka) Buddhism, that the Buddhist faithful must free themselves from mundane passions in order to reach nirvana. But this leaves us with a problem. The voice hearers might be mistaken when they strive to cut-off their sensual entanglements, but at least they have a clear sense of direction. But if passions are not the enemy, what can a bodhisattva use to guide his or her practice? Contemporary Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura poses the same question in a different context. In his commentary on Ehei Dōgen’s Sansuikyo, he examines an early form of the model of dependent origination from the Suttanipāta, one of the earliest surviving teachings of the historical Buddha (Okumura, 2018, loc. 2438 - 2540.) This model explains everything that happens in the world in terms of a series of conditional links: conflicts and fights are rooted in personal preferences; personal …

Don't kill your passions! - Vimalakirti sutra - chapter 8

If you have ever wondered, what Zen masters mean when they say that delusions are the source of enlightenment, then this chapter will give you the answer (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 93-103.) For me, this was the toughest chapter yet to summarise. In trying to make sense of it, I consulted various translations and sources and even the Chinese original. I usually don’t speak or read Chinese, and I am grateful to Martin Unzan Landolt who kindly provided me with the text of the original and helped me decipher it. This blog entry is more academic than any of the previous. I hope it is still readable and understandable.

The chapter opens with Manjushri asking Vimalakirti how a bodhisattva should follow the Buddha way. Vimalakirti’s surprising and puzzling answer is that the bodhisattva should do anything but follow the Buddha way. He then offers a long list of the apparently very un-Buddhist things a bodhisattva does in order to master this non-Buddha Way. The bodhisattva must enter hells…

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls - Shariputra and the goddess - Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 7

After having covered the bodhisattva’s ability to conquer space and time in the previous chapter, Manjushri asks Vimalakirti how the bodhisattva should regard living beings (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 83-92.) Vimalakirti replies with a long list of similes, all pointing out the illusory nature of what we perceive living beings. A lot of this imagery will look familiar to those who have studied Zen literature like koan collections or the writings of Master Dōgen. When Vimalakirti talks of the ‘reflection of the moon in the water’, a ‘face in the mirror’, ‘clouds in the sky’, ‘foam or bubbles on water’ or ‘the tracks of birds in the sky’ he wants to say (in my view) that all living beings - people, animals, plants, etc. -  are really nothing more than mirages and phantoms without any substantiality. For Dōgen ‘the moon in the water’ has much more nuanced meaning, also including a sense of ultimate reality, for example in Shobogenzo - Genjo-Koan (Dōgen, 1994, p. 35.) A second group of …