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 preferences are rooted in desire; desire is rooted in feelings; feelings depend on the moment of contact when we notice a desirable or undesirable object; this contact depends on there actually existing such an external object; and, according to Okumura, these objects only really exist in our heads as a function of our consciousness. Whilst Mahayanists reject the voice-hearer notion that we should break the conditional link chain by guarding our senses and eliminating our desires, they don’t deny the validity of the model of dependent origination as such. So Okumura asks, how we can escape this dreadful and self-perpetuating process that causes all the suffering in the world. He finds the answer in the Suttanipāta itself, which has been confirmed much later by the famous Mahayana philosopher Nāgārjuna and later again by Ehei Dōgen. The resolution to the conundrum is “ … to go beyond the dichotomy of self and other, sense organ and object” (ibd., loc. 2530.) In other words, if we manage to overcome the separation between us and the world around us, there can be no harmful contact between our mind and external objects, and the dreadful link chain is stopped in its tracks. What Okumura suggests is that we need to overcome dualism. And this brings as right back to chapter nine of the Vimalakirti sutra where the bodhisattvas in his assembly discuss exactly this.

The headline of the chapter in the Chinese original looks like this: 入不二法門 (Weimojie suoshuo jing, 2002, p.20). This literally means “To enter ( 入) not (不) two (二) Dharma/law (法) gate (門)”. So what in English comes across a bit clunky as “nondualism” reduces to simply “not two” in Chinese. A “dharma gate” is a kind of a learning point that the Buddhist faithful has to understand in order to progress on the way. There are many more dharma gates. According to the Four Vows of the bodhisattva that we chant on most days in the dojos in England, they are indeed numberless or boundless (Sotoshu Sumucho, 2001, p. 74.) At the beginning of chapter nine, Vimalakirti invites the assembly to present ideas how a bodhisattva should enter the dharma gate of nondualism. Thirty-two bodhisattvas come up with an equal number of examples of dualisms and how deconstructing them offers access to the dharma gate. The discussion is not limited to any particular pairs of opposites like for example Descartes’ “mind” vs. “matter” or the Western uber-dualism of “good” vs. “evil” (Dualism, 2002.) A bodhisattva called Virtue Guardian mentions a dualism of “I” vs. “mine” that seems to point at Okumura’s dualism of subject and object. If there is no “I” the bodhisattva says, there will be no “mine” and hence nothing external that can be grasped (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 104.) Another bodhisattva called Good Constellation speaks about the dualism of “The stirring of the mind and thought” which again seems to be related to the link chain of dependent origination (ibd.) If the mind is not touched by external impulses - “contact” in the language of Okumura -, there will be no thought - consciousness. Another bodhisattva called Pushya raises the dualism between “good” vs. “not good” (ibd., p. 105.) This is more familiar territory for the Western reader, although interestingly the text actually avoids the term “evil” by speaking simply of “not good”. Other dualisms mentioned in the dialogue are “defilement” vs. “purity”, “the realm of birth and death” vs. “nirvana” or “form” vs. “emptiness”. At the end of the discussion Manjushri confirms that the Mahayana bodhisattvas are not really concerned with any particular dualism, but with dualistic thinking as such. Reality - all dharmas - cannot be grasped through language which inevitably packages facts into conceptual pairs and opposites. Manjushri explains:

“To my way of thinking, all dharmas are without words, without explanations, without purport, without cognition, removed from all questions and answers. In this way one may enter the gate of nondualism” (ibd., p. 110.)

After he has delivered his conclusion, Manjushri prompts Vimalakirti to present his understanding of nondualism. But Vimalakirti remains silent. Once more, the bodhisattvas have to acknowledge the superior wisdom of the rich layman. Manjushri sighes:

“Excellent, excellent! Not a word, not a syllable - this truly is to enter the gate of nondualism!” (ibd., p. 111).

 Where does this leave us 21st century followers of the Buddha way? Now that we have learned that all opposites and pairs of concepts are invalid and that language cannot express reality, how are we supposed to practice? Okumura again has the answer: our practice of zazen - silent, seated and objectless meditation in the tradition of Dōgen - is the ultimate dharma gate of nondualism (Okumura, 2018, loc. 2530.)


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

Okumura, Shohaku. (2018). The Mountains and Waters Sūtra. A Practitioners Guide to Dōgen's "Sansuikyō" [Kindle]. Boston: Wisdom Publications. Available from:

Sotoshu Shumucho. (2001). Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice. Sotoshu Shumucho: Tokyo.

The Vimalakirti Sutra. (1997). Translated by Burton Watson. New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press.

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


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