A smell too good to be true - Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 10 - Fragrance Accumulated

Chapter ten presents a powerful argument why there is no better place than the real world, our world with all its problems and tragedies, to live and practice the way of the bodhisattva (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 112-120.) Our world, the world of Shakyamuni Buddha, is called Sahā world, the world of “endurance” and suffering (ibd., p. 154.) The inhabitants of this world - we - are stupid and stubborn. Ruled by greed and anger, we lead shortened and miserable lives in a world of war, natural disaster and spiritual decline. This is what is also called the world of the five impurities (ibd., p. 150.) Our Sahā world is compared to a very pure Buddha land called “Many Fragrances”. The Buddha who resides in that happy land is aptly called “Fragrance Accumulated”. That world has the finest aromas of all worlds. Th,ere only live pure and great bodhisattvas who don’t know suffering and have never heard of inferior teachings like voice-hearer Buddhism. The buildings in that world are made out of fragrance. And only gods and goddesses serve superbly aromatic food to the Buddha’s assembly. So, if one was an advanced bodhisattva and had a choice, why would one choose to be born into the miserable Sahā world instead of the pure Buddha land of Many Fragrances? Because it is in our world of suffering where bodhisattvas find the best conditions to do what they have vowed to do: to help and save living beings.

The chapter opens with Shariputra getting worried about what all the tens of thousands of monks, nuns, bodhisattvas, gods, demons, etc. in Vimalakirti’s bedroom should have for lunch. Vimalakirti admonishes the major disciple for getting his priorities wrong once more. Shariputra should not think about food, but rather about the eight emancipations the Buddha has taught. These eight emancipations are a meditation exercise that allows the practitioner to rid her-/himself of attachments to forms and appearances (Aṣṭa-vimokṣa, 2002.) Vimalakirti, using supernatural powers, then shows his guests the wonderful Buddha land “Many Fragrances” at the other end of the universe, where the local Buddha “Fragrance Accumulated” is having lunch together with his vast assembly at the very same moment. Vimalakirti uses even more magic and summons up a miraculous bodhisattva out of thin air. This phantom is sent to the world "Many Fragrances" and bring back some leftover food. The magic bodhisattva returns not only with a bowl of superbly fragrant rice, but also with nine million bodhisattvas from that far away world, who are curious to see the Sahā world, Shakyamuni Buddha and Vimalakirti. Back in Vimalakirti’s room, still not overcrowded, everybody receives their share of fragrant rice from the one bowl. After the meal, Vimalakirti asks his new guests about the teaching methods of their Buddha. They explain that the Buddha “Fragrance Accumulated” does not use words at all to teach the Dharma. He simply uses smells. His bodhisattvas just sit under fragrant trees and are enlightened by the smell. Vimalakirti then explains that things are quite different in the Sahā world where the Buddha Shakyamuni uses strong language to force the stubborn inhabitants onto the right path. People are like monkeys or untamed elephants that need to be beaten into submission. Only by threatening them with rebirth as beasts, ghosts or in hell he can stop them from killing, stealing and lying and to follow the precepts. The dwellers in the Sahā world would not be able to grasp the full truth of the Buddha’s teachings, which is why he presents them with inferior doctrines such as the voice-hearer path. The visiting bodhisattvas can hardly believe what they hear. But then they cannot but praise the immeasurable compassion of Buddha Shakyamuni and his bodhisattvas for choosing to be born in such a ghastly place as the Sahā world. And then Vimalakirti makes his most fundamental point: it is exactly because the Sahā world is such a nasty place that the merits of those choosing to live there are so great:

“ … the enrichment and benefit they [the bodhisattvas] bring to living beings in one lifetime here is greater than that bestowed in other worlds over the space of a hundred thousand kalpas” 
(Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 119.)

To make his position even clearer Vimalakirti mentions ten pāramitās or virtuous practices that only exist in the Sahā world and nowhere else. The first six are known to any follower of the Zen way: generosity (dāna) , moral discipline (śīla), patience (kṣānti), exertion (vīrya), mediation (dhyāna) and wisdom (prajña). And then, returning to the eight meditations mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, Vimalakirti comes up with his own list of eight methods of liberation that are entirely dedicated to the welfare of others:
  • enriching living beings without expecting reward
  • taking on the suffering of others and share the merit this generates
  • being close to others, not erecting barriers
  • respecting other bodhisattvas like if they were the Buddha himself
  • not doubting sutras or argue with voice hearers - that is followers of different branches of Buddhism
  • not being jealous of what is given to others or boastful about ones own profits
  • constantly reflecting on one's own behaviour and not criticising others
  • always performing good deeds
(Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 119-120.)

Once more, Vimalakirti emphasises that the life of a Buddhist faithful should be directed to help others instead of seeking liberation for oneself.


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

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


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