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 and the worlds of beasts and ghosts. There, living in the company of critters, devils and desperados, a bodhisattva might appear in the form of a demon, a poor criminal, a filthy-rich capitalist or a heretical preacher. Instead of acting benevolently and wisely, the bodhisattva shows greed, anger, stupidity, deceitfulness, laziness and many other vices, apparently breaking all the tenets of Buddhist morality. Manjushri is not at all shocked by this speech. When Vimalakirti asks him in return about the seeds of enlightenment, he presents an equally twisted view of the Dharma. The seeds of enlightenment, he says, are all sorts of errors and cravings, e.g. the three poisons - ignorance, greed and anger -, the exact opposites of the practices prescribed by the noble eightfold path, and everything else that is recognised as wrong, obnoxious and to be avoided according to the teachings of the Buddha. It almost seems like Vimalakirti and Manjushri are conspiring to create something like a satanic perversion of Buddhism itself. So what is the justification for this anti-Dharma?  Manjushri, in Watson’s translation, explains :

“A person who has perceived the uncreated nature of reality and entered into correct understanding cannot again set his mind on attaining anuttara-samyak-sambodhi [supreme and perfect enlightenment, comment by Edgar].” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 95)

This is again a very strong statement: Don’t try to see the true (uncreated) nature behind phenomena, and avoid correct understanding, otherwise you can never hope to reach enlightenment! As this seems to be such a key phrase in the whole sutra, it is worth looking at an alternative translation and also at the Chinese original. The following translation is from John R. McRae who appears to be a more academic translator then Burton Watson:

“[Mañjuśrī] answered, ‘Anyone who sees the unconditioned and enters
the primary status [of Hinayana enlightenment] will be unable to generate
the intention to achieve anuttarā samyaksaṃbodhi.” (The Sutra of Queen Śrīmālā …, 2017, p. 135.)

And the original Kumarajiva translation in Chinese:
“若見無為入正位者。不能復發阿耨多羅三藐三菩提心。” (Weimojie suoshuo jing, 2002, p. 16)

Watson and McRae agree broadly in their reading of the first three characters. A person who sees what is uncreated / unconditioned (literally “not constructed” - 無為). For the next three characters - 入正位 - Watson gives “entered correct understanding”. McRae gives “... enters the primary status” and then adds his interpretation that this expression relates “Hinayana enlightenment”. Both agree that the first - 入 - means “to enter”. Looking 正 up online gives “upright”, “right” or “correct” as the most common translation in line with Watson’s rendering (Wikitionary, 2020.) The same character is used in the Chinese and Japanese expressions for the noble eightfold path - 八正道 - and each of its elements: 正見 - right view, 正思惟 - right resolve, 正語 - right speech, 正業 - right action, 正命 - right livelihood, 正精進 - right effort, 正念 - right mindfulness, 正定 - right concentration. It might have been this connection that has prompted McRae to link the expression to Hinayana Buddhism. Looking up 位 returns “position” or “location” as the most common rendering (Wikitionary, 2020.) Using the primary translations renders 入正位 as “to enter the right position/location”. Kumarajiva, when translating the sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese, might well have thought about this “right position/location” in terms of Hinayana aspirations linked to the noble eightfold path. Watson’s use of “understanding” in this context seems misleading however. Watson and McRae are pretty much in agreement on the meaning of the second sentence. The person described in the first part is not able to generate in him or herself the wish to attain supreme enlightenment.

To understand what Manjushri means by a person who “sees the uncreated / unconditioned” and who has “entered the correct position” we need to look at what the great bodhisattva has to say next:

“The lotus does not grow on the upland plain; the lotus grows in the mud and mire of a damp low-lying place. In the same way, the Buddha Law can never grow in a person who has perceived the uncreated nature of reality [sees the uncreated / unconditioned, comment by Edgar] and entered into correct understanding [entered the right position, comment by Edgar.] It is only when living beings are in the midst of the mire of earthly desires that they turn to the Buddha Law.” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 95)

Using the image of the lotus flower for the Buddhist faithful, Manjushri tells us what the “right position / location” is. It is not the dry upland, but the muddy lowlands. And what are the lowlands swamped with? - “desires”, or “afflictions” according to McRae. The image of the up- and lowlands mirrors what Vimalakirti said earlier about the places the bodhisattva must go to in order to follow the Buddha way. They too are the low places, the hells and realms of beasts and hungry ghosts as opposed to the higher realms of humans and gods. In classical Buddhist cosmology the world is seen as made up of 31 realms which are vertically stacked on top of each other (Harvey, 1990, pp. 32-35.) At the bottom are the already mentioned hells, animal and ghostly domains. Together with the world of humans and six lower heavens these form spheres dominated by sense-desires. On top of these are another sixteen heavens of “pure form” where the more refined gods - brahmas - live. The topmost heavens, those of the “formless realm”, are the finest places one can get reborn into. All of these 31 domains were not only thought of in terms of physical places, but also as mental places that could be reached through progressive mastery of mediation techniques called the four jhanas (Harvey, 1990, p. 35.) It was the ambition of the non-Mahayana buddhist monks and nuns - or this is at least what the authors of Mahayana sutras want to make us believe - to reach these higher realms of existence. And this required them to extinguish all earthly desires. The rewards are the highest and purely mental states of formlessness, reserved to the saintly Buddhist elite, the arahats.

Returning to Manjushri’s argument, it should now become a bit clearer why he and Vimalakirti present such an apparently twisted view of the Dharma. To follow the true Way of the Buddha requires passion. Those who have extinguished their feelings and reached the higher plains of the Buddhist cosmos - who “see the unconditioned, enter the right [upper] position/location” - cannot kindle in themselves the desire for supreme enlightenment any longer. Vimalakirti and Manjushri are not at all suggesting to overturn Buddhist ethics and morality. The bodhisattva who enters the lower realms only appears to be greedy, stupid, angry, etc., but in reality he or she constantly practices the virtues of the paramitas and upholds the precepts to help others. (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 94). It is out of a deep sense of humanity that Manjushri and Vimalakirti condemn voice-hearer Buddhism and demand that the true followers of the Buddha way must not cut themselves off the messy and draining realities of life. Passion to help all beings is also a passion after all.

Finally, I would like to point to another and maybe somewhat unexpected source that can help us to make sense of the Vimalakirti sutra: The Majjhima Nikaya collection - the Middle Length Discourses of the Theravada canon (The Middle Length Discourses …, 1995.) The Majjhima Nikaya does not belong to the family of Mahayana sutra. It is much older than the Vimalakirti story or indeed any Mahayana sutra. So how can this classic Theravada text shed light on what the militant Mahayanists Vimalakirti and Manjushri say? It is by pure chance when listening to the audiobook version of the Majjhima Nikaya that I came across a passage that strangely seemed to resonate with the parts from the Vimalakirti sutra discussed above: “to enter the right/correct position”, “to see what is uncreated/unconditioned”, the lotus flower, the muddy mire of emotional entanglements in mundane desires. The relevant section in Majjhima Nikaya is sutra 98, the Vāseṭṭha sutra. In it, the Buddha explains to a young brahmin that the status of people is determined by their actions and not by their hereditary caste. In the last part of the sutra, the Buddha describes the actions and attributes of somebody who he recognises as a true brahmin, the highest rank in ancient Indian society. For the Buddha, only those displaying the qualities of an arhat, somebody who has completed the Buddhist path and reached sainthood and nirvana, is worthy to be called a brahmin (The Middle Length Discourses …, 1995, loc. 13423.) And what kind of person is such an arhat-brahmin? “Who has gained firm footing in the Deathless” (Ibd., loc. 13394) - not exactly the same as “to see the what is uncreated/unconditioned”, but not far off either. What else? “Who, like the rain on the lotus leaves, …, clings not to all the sensual pleasures; …” (ibd., loc. 133579.) - the lotus as a symbol for the follower of the Buddha path, just like in the Vimalakirti sutra. And then:

“Who has passed beyond the swamp,
The mire, samsāra, all delusions,
Who has crossed to the further shore,
And meditates within the jhānas,
Is unperturbed and unperplexed,
Attained Nibbāna through no clinging,
He is the one I call a brahmin [arhat, comment by Edgar].” (Ibd., loc. 13408)

Bingo! This is exactly the same image as in Manjushri’s explanation - the swamps of the lowlands, the mire of sensual entanglement and rebirth - samsara. The only difference is that in the Vāseṭṭha sutra the Buddhist faithful has to leave the swamp, whilst Manjushri’s bodhisattva must remain in it: “The lotus does not grow on the upland plain; the lotus grows in the mud and mire of a damp low-lying place”. Now we can fully appreciate the brilliance of the unknown authors of the Vimalakirti sutra, who have seized and turned the metaphor of the lotus from the earlier Buddhist tradition to convey their message of universal compassion and benevolence. There are other points in the above verse from the Vāseṭṭha sutra that strongly suggest a connection with Vimalakirti: the four jhānas, the meditative states linked to the high-up Brahma heavens; nirvana - the final destination where all passions distinguished. And then there are references to abandoned “sensual pleasures” (Ibd., loc. 13379), “inner yearnings” (Ibd., loc. 13394) or “indulgences” (Ibd., loc. 13394) amongst many more that affirm the ultimate freedom of the arhat-brahmin, or his - they are always men -  disinterested insensitivity regarding anything alive, depending on the point of view. It is of course impossible to prove that the authors of the Vimalakirti sutra had the Vāseṭṭha sutra in mind when they wrote this chapter. But we can be certain that they have drawn on the available literature at the time, the collections of the earlier sutras. Stories and arguments are often repeated across the vast body of the Buddhist canon. So I believe it makes perfectly sense to assume that they had access to the same or a very similar form of the description of the arhat-brahmin as in the Vāseṭṭha sutra. It shows that, despite all twists and doctrinal differences, there is one common heritage of themes, stories and metaphors that is shared by all forms of Buddhism.

Summary of the Old Street study group meeting (online) on 15 April 2020

Sources

The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya [Kindle]. (1995). Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bohi. (4th ed). Boston, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications. Available from: Amazon.co.uk.

The Sutra of Queen Śrīmālā of the Lion’s Roar and The Vimalakīrti Sutra. 2017). Translated by Diana Y. Paul and John R. McRae. Moraga, California: BDK America (PDF).

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.

Weimojie suoshuo jing. (2002). Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA). Vol. 14, no. 475 (pdf.)

Wikipedia, (2020). Noble Eightfold Path. Wikipedia. [Viewed 19 April 2020]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_Eightfold_Path.

Wikipedia, (2020). 八聖道分. Wikipedia. [Viewed 19 April 2020]. Available from: https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%85%AB%E8%81%96%E9%81%93%E5%88%86.

Wikitionary, (2020). 正. Wikitionary. [Viewed 19 April 2020]. Available from: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E6%AD%A3

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