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 similes Vimalakirti uses is even more sinister. When he talks of living beings like a ‘violation of the precepts by a bodhisattva’, ‘earthly desires in a Buddha’ or like a ‘child born to a barren - literally stone - woman’, he seems to suggest that living beings are not only unreal, but some sort of perversion of reality.

To balance this dire view on the nature of living beings, Manjushri and Vimalakirti immediately turn to the eternal duty of benevolence of the bodhisattva towards everything that is alive, no matter how aberrational or false. Here we can see again that in Buddhism wisdom - seeing the true and empty reality of all things - always has to go together with unconditional caring for fellow humans and all living beings. Manjushri asks Vimalakirti: “If the bodhisattva looks on beings in this way, how can he treat them with compassion/kindness?” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 84.), thus referring to something called the “immeasurable qualities” or “Brahma-vihāras” - literally the ‘dwellings of the god Brahma’ (Bowker, 2002, p. 164.) In the print version these four immeasurable qualities are given as "compassion", "pity", "joy" and "indifference" (p. Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp.84-85). The audiobook version provides alternative translations together with the Sanskrit originals: "kindness" - maitrī, "compassion" - karunā, "sympathetic joy" - muditā and "equanimity" - upekshā. Vimalakirti talks mostly about the first Brahma-vihāra - kindness - and again provides a long list of examples how the bodhisattva helps living beings through sharing the teachings of the Buddha. In this list he also refers to the six pāramitās: bestowal of the Dharma (giving - dāna), observance of the precepts (correct conduct - śīla), forbearance (patience - kṣanti), assiduousness (exertion - vīrya), meditation (dhyāna) and wisdom (praña). These are the cardinal Mahāyāna virtues that are expected from every bodhisattva, whilst the Brahma-vihāras are usually connected to non-Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism. It shows that even such a stout champion of the Great Vehicle as Vimalakirti freely mixes teachings from all sorts of vehicles when he wishes to emphasise the duty of benevolence of the bodhisattva.

The second part of this chapter once more focuses on Shariputra as the antihero. Amongst the historical disciples of the Buddha, Shariputra is renowned for his scholarship and detailed knowledge of the teachings. And this makes him a frequent target of mockery in the Mahayana sutras. In this chapter it is a playful goddess who takes aim at the scholar monk with a teaching about conceptual distinctions. She is of course a lot more than just a simple divinity. Like Vimalakirti himself, she is an accomplished bodhisattva who has taken vows a long time ago and has practiced the way over innumerable previous lives. Enchanted by the dharma discussion between Manjushri and Vimalakirti, the goddess makes herself visible and sprinkles heavenly flowers over the vast assembly. The flowers drop to the floor when touching the bodhisattvas, but they stick to the monastic disciples of the Buddha - Shariputra and his fellow monks and nuns. When they desperately try to brush them off - as monks and nuns they are not allowed to adorn themselves - the goddess challenges Shariputra. “Why try to brush off the flowers?” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 87.) When Shariputra refers to the regulations against personal adornments, the goddess retorts that the flowers stick to him and his fellow monks and nuns precisely because they are still caught up in arbitrary distinctions. Clinging to wilful rules and, as an extension, fearing the cycle of life-and-death is a weakness. The flowers don’t stick to the more advanced bodhisattvas who have managed to overcome such confusions.

Shariputra is not convinced and tries to change the topic, but the goddess skillfully stirs the conversation to the topic of "emancipation". Here Shariputra feels more confident. He has learned that it is not possible or permissible to speak about emancipation in words and so he refuses to talk about it. But the goddess exposes Shariputra’s silence as just another example of his clinging to distinctions, this time concerning the question what can and cannot be put into words. Words and writings, just like anything else, are just expressions of the ultimate and undivided reality. “Therefore, Shariputra, you can speak of emancipation without putting words aside” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 88.) This dialogue between Shariputra and the goddess again resonates with Dōgen’s later Zen writing. In Shobogenzo Sansuikyo Dōgen scalds anti-intellectual tendencies that he has encountered whilst travelling in China. He writes about Chinese Zen masters who taught that the Buddhist truths could not be conveyed through thoughts and images, but were essentially beyond any form of reasoning and understanding. As a consequence, the traditional sayings and stories of the Zen patriarchs  - koans - could not be understood in rational terms. They were merely hints at the pointlessness of trying to understand anything by way of reasoning. Dōgen is very much in agreement with Vimalakirti’s goddess when he says that “What the shavelings [the Chinese Zen teachers] call ‘stories beyond rational understanding’ are beyond rational understanding only to them; …” (Dōgen, 1994, p. 172.)

Back in Vimalakirti’s room, Shariputra, still not healed from his addiction to pointless distinctions, then asks the goddess why she does not use her powers to turn herself into a man. This seems to have been a common strategy of sexist monks when dealing with superior women. Dōgen relates a similar story in Shobogenzo - Raihai-Tokuzui, a passionate text dedicated to achievements of women in the Zen tradition (Dōgen, 1994, p. 73.) Vimalakirti’s goddess responds to the insult by taking on Shariputra’s male form whilst giving him her female anatomy in exchange. Then she asks the flabbergasted monk why he does not change out of his newly acquired female body. Miss Shariputra is stunned and helpless. The goddess then candidly points out that as far as the Dharma is concerned there are no differences in terms of gender whatsoever:

“Shariputra, who is not a woman, appears in a woman’s body. And the same is true of all women - though they appear in women’s bodies, they are not women. Therefore the Buddha teaches that all phenomena are neither male nor female” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 91.)

After the goddess has given Shariputra his male body back she asks him what has happened to his female body. And then Shariputra finally realises “The form and shape of my female body does not exist, yet does not not exist”. “All things are just like that - they do not exist, yet do not not exist” is the approving reply of the goddess (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 91.)

Summary of online discussion - 7 April 2020


Bowker, John, ed., (2002). The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford: BCA.

Dōgen. (1994). Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. Translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross. London: Windbell.

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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