The greatest sutra ever! - Vimalakirti sutra - chapters 13 and 14

This chapter, the second last of the book, debates how the Dharma - the doctrines of the Buddha - should be taught. This process is called the “offering of the Dharma” (Vimalakirti sutra, 1997, pp. 136 to 142.) The sutra claims unashamedly that “Offering the Dharma” is the same as studying and teaching itself and related Mahayana sutras. Vimalakirti for once does not say anything in this chapter. This must have been quite difficult for him given his constant urge to teach throughout the book. Instead, Buddha Shakyamuni and the god Indra do the talking in this chapter. The Buddha also mentions his previous existence as a prince called "Moon Parasol" in the assembly of a previous Buddha called Medicine King. This mythical Buddha gave Moon Parasol a prediction of future enlightenment after the latter promised to protect and offer the Dharma.

At the opening of the chapter, Indra praises the Vimalakirti sutra and promises to support and protect it and anybody who teaches it. Indra does not talk about any particular deeds or teachings of Vimalakirti from the previous chapters. He refers to the whole text, including his own comment. It is like if Harry Potter would say in the “Goblet of Fire” that the “Goblet of Fire” was his favourite novel. Put in another way, the sutra praises and recommends itself through the words of Indra. Paul Williams explains that this “laudatory self reference” is quite typical for Mahayana sutras as they had to assert their authenticity. (Williams, 1989, p. 39.) And what is the role of the Vedic god Indra in a Buddhist sutra? From the beginning of the text we know that the Buddha’s assembly was crowded with all sorts of gods, monsters and demons who had gathered together with the monks, nuns and bodhisattvas (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 17.) By the time the sutra was written, the old Vedic gods had been adopted into the Buddhist pantheon. Indra had been given the role of a protector of the Dharma. It is exactly in this role that he appears (Harvey, 1990, p. 35.) The Buddha is very pleased with Indra’s commitment. But he also points out that Indra and his followers would do even better if they actively taught and promoted the sutra instead of merely supporting the cult of it. To illustrate this point, the Buddha offers a simile which includes extremely large numbers of the type that can also be found in other Mahayana sutras. If there were as many Buddhas in the world as there are reeds of grass, sugarcane, rice, bamboo, weeds and trees, and if there were devotees who would build and worship monuments for each of these Buddhas the size of continents, then the merits of these devotees would still be smaller to those of a handful of people who study and practice the Vimalakirti sutra. Although the merits of the monument builders and worshippers would be extremely large, it would still be finite. The great enlightenment embodied in the Vimalakirti sutra however is unlimited:

“... the bodhi [enlightenment] of the Buddhas is all born from this sutra. The marks of bodhi are beyond limit or measure, and for that reason their blessings are immeasurable” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 137.)

To make this point even clearer, Buddha Shakyamuni tells Indra a story when he himself was only a prince called “Moon Parasol” who lived in the country and times of a Buddha called “Medicine King”. Moon Parasol’s father - a mighty monarch who had conquered the whole world - and his thousand siblings were honouring the Medicine King Buddha with countless offerings and devotions. But Moon Parasol felt that there was something missing. Some divinity appeared and suggested he should offer the Dharma instead of material gifts. Not knowing what “offering the Dharma” was, Moon Parasol approached the Medicine King Buddha. This Buddha then explained that studying and teaching the right kind of sutras is what is meant by “offering the Dharma”. That was not easy though, because these sutras were notoriously difficult to understand, and people found them hard to believe. Those of us who have witnessed Vimalakirti picking up a whole world with one hand and placing it in the middle of an assembly in the previous chapter will immediately understand what is meant by this. On the other hand, if taught and understood correctly, these sutras opened up the entire Buddha Dharma to those who studied and trusted them. They revealed the true meaning of the doctrines of the 10 paramitas, non-self, impermanence, suffering, and many more. Medicine King Buddha called them the “sutras that are complete in meaning” as opposed to “those that are incomplete in meaning” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 140.) And what is the correct meaning of a Buddhist doctrine?  It means to understand any doctrine on the basis of emptiness. Medicine King Buddha illustrates this using the teaching of the twelve-linked chain of dependent origination - pratītya-samutpāda in Sanskrit. This formula of causes and conditions begins with ignorance and leads via 12 logical connections to the final consequence of old age and death. It is one of the “bedrock” teachings of all Buddhist schools (Paticca-samuppāda, 2002.) But Medicine King Buddha explained to Moon Parasol that when understood properly there was no ignorance and neither did the other links really exist. Therefore:

“... when one learns to see in this manner, the twelve-linked chain of causation will cease to have any form that comes to an end, and one will no longer entertain the view that it does. This is called the finest of all offerings of the Law [Dharma].” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 140.)

After hearing this teaching Moon Parasol vowed to protect and spread the Dharma in this way and embarked on his journey that eventually led him to become the Buddha Shakyamuni in our present world.

This is now pretty much the end of the Vimalakirti Sutra. There is only one more short chapter in the book where Buddha Shakyamuni entrusts the bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, with protecting and promoting this very sutra. The text ends with a scene that unites all the major characters and the whole assembly in joy and celebration. The layman Vimalakirti, the bodhisattva Manjushri, the voice-hearers Shariputra and Ananda, and all the other monks and nuns, bodhisattvas, gods, monsters and mythical beings leave behind their differences in their admiration of this great teaching of the Buddha. I hope that those who have participated in the Old Street study group discussions of this text since January have shared some of this joy. I certainly had immense pleasure working through this incredible text chapter by chapter. If you haven't had a chance to read (or listen to) the Vimalakirti sutra, I can only recommend that you do that.

Summary of the discussion of the "Old Street" study group (online), 20 May 2020


Sources

Harvey, Peter. (1990). Buddhism, an introduction to. Teachings, history and practices. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Paticca-samuppāda. (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.

The Vimalakirti Sutra. (2019). Translated by Burton Watson and read by Taradasa. Dharma Audiobooks and Audible.

Williams, Paul. (1989). Mahayana Buddhism. The Doctrinal Foundations. Milton Park, New York: Routledge.

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