Unbelievable powers and a heavy piece of lifting - Vimalakirti sutra - chapter 12

The highlight of chapter 12 and probably the dramatic climax of the whole sutra is when Vimalakirti - the lay prodigy and super-bodhisattva - scoops up an entire Buddha land with one hand and deposits it in the middle of the assembly in the Amra Gardens outside the city of Vaishali. This “land” is called “Wonderful Joy”, and in it rules the Buddha Akshobhya who is also ferried across. This world is complete with its own world mountain, its continents, oceans, hells, kingdoms of ghosts, animals and humans. It also has dozens of heavens, a sun and moon. Placing an object the size of a planet into a north Indian park does not cause any space issues of course. The chapter also has a long exposition by Vimalakirti on the body of the Buddha, although he really only tells us all the things that a Buddha is not. And no chapter of the Vimalakirti sutra seems to be complete without a silly question from the Buddha’s senior disciple Shariputra; so we get one of those as well.

At the beginning of the chapter, the Buddha asks Vimalakirti “how do you regard the Thus-Come-One?” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 130.) The expression “Thus-Come-One”, tathāgata in Sanskrit, is one of the names the historical Buddha used to call himself following his enlightenment. Vimalakirti replies that he sees the Buddha as he sees his own true form. He then offers a list that touches many items of the Buddha Dharma, saying that the Buddha isn’t any of these things. For example, with a view to the five skandhas - an essential Buddhist teaching on the five fundamental classes of phenomena - Vimalakirti says that the Buddha is neither “form”, “perception”, “conception”, “volition” or “consciousness”. The Buddha also has nothing to do with the five great elements - earth, water, fire and wind - or the six senses - sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and thought. In summary, a Buddha cannot be grasped or described by the human mind in any way. In Vimalakirti’s words: “He cannot be labelled, he cannot be measured” (ibid., p. 131). Those of us vaguely familiar with the Heart Sutra, the Hannya Shingyō which is recited in Zen temples and dojos every day, will recognise the pattern. The Heart Sutra also denies at face value all basic teachings of Buddhism (Sotoshu Shumuchu, 2001), but it only does this so that we can access the deeper meaning of these doctrines and the realities they describe. According to the Heart Sutra all teachings and phenomena are empty, void of inherent existence, only lasting for a brief moment and fully depending on other events that are equally unsubstantial. Seeing this reality behind all phenomena is wisdom - prajñā in Sanskrit. Vimalakirti teaches this wisdom throughout the entire sutra. Just like everything else, the Buddha's body is also void of inherent existence, “the same as the empty sky” in Vimalakirti’s words (Vimalakirti Sutra, p. 130.) But at the same time he is embodied in his teachings - the Dharma - and the realities that these teachings describe - the dharmas. The Buddha body that Vimalakirti tries to describe so painstakingly with his long list of negations is not that of a physical person, but that of the Dharma body of the Buddha, the Dharmakayā. Williams (1989) offers a whole chapter on the various theories of the body of the Buddha for those who wish to explore this topic further.

Following this profound dialogue between Vimalakirti and Buddha Shakyamuni, Shariputra - the Buddha’s famous disciple -, wades in and asks another silly question. He obviously has not learned anything from similar occasions in previous chapters where he ended up being told off by Vimalakirti each time. This time he wants to know where Vimalakirti lived before he was reborn in our world, the Sahā world of Buddha Shakyamuni. By now, one really cannot help but having some sympathy with poor old Shariputra, because at a certain level of Buddhist learning there really is nothing wrong with his question. Buddhist scriptures contain numberless examples where beings are re-born in more or less happy places according to their good and bad deeds. These places include not only the various hells, heavens and the intermediary realms that the ancient Indians imagined to exist around our world. In popular Mahayana Buddhism there are also countless other worlds like ours, with their own oceans, continents, suns, moons, heavens and hells. If these worlds are lucky enough to have Buddhas appearing in them, they are called “Buddha lands”. And advanced bodhisattvas like Vimalakirti can control the places where they are born in their future lives. So what is wrong with Shariputra’s question then? It is like complaining about the screen wipers on your old banger to a chief engineer of Formula 1 racing cars. In Mahayana Buddhism everything can be addressed at various levels. Although the various worlds and planes of rebirth exist in a way for all Buddhists, the deeper truth is that everything is ultimately empty of inherent reality. This is exactly what Vimalakirti has been talking about since the beginning of the chapter. So it is not surprising that he is annoyed by Shariputra’s question. We can almost sense a dose of contempt as the famous lay bodhisattva once more lectures the foremost among the voice-hearers: “If all things are without the nature of dying or being born, then why do you ask where I died before I was reborn here?” he asks Shariputra who cannot respond. (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 132.)  But this time, Shariputra is more lucky than in previous chapters as he does not face the opinionated lay prodigy on his own. Buddha Shakyamuni himself is there too to intervene, and he answers Shariputra's question about Vimalakirti's previous live. Vimalakirti lived in a Buddha land called “Wonderful Joy” - Abhirati - before making himself reborn in our Sahā world. This Abhirati is the domain of a Buddha called “Immovable” - Akshobya. Williams (1989, pp. 243-247) dedicates a whole chapter to the cult and mythology of Akshobya and his land. Abhirati is not so different from our world, but it is a lot cleaner, and there are less bad things like illnesses, lies or jails. With less temptations and afflictions, pure lands like Abhirati are seen as intermediary stations on the way to full nirvana in some branches of Buddhism. They are deemed to be more accessible than the ultimate goal itself. Abhirati is also a quite progressive pure land. It even admits women and children! There is no physical sex though, so how are these children come into the world? As soon as a man with lustful intentions approaches a woman, he immediately sits down and starts to meditate on the topic of impurity. And the woman, after receiving a mere glance from the man, becomes pregnant (ibid., p. 245.) What is there not to be liked? The point that Vimalakirti chose to be reborn in an inferior world - our world - than Akshobya’s Abhirati is important. Every “normal” Buddhist faithful would see a pure land like Abhirati as a stepping stone towards the final nirvana. Making oneself reborn in an inferior world would be the same as backsliding. Not for Vimalakirti though, who, according to his bodhisattva vows, goes to those worlds where his help is needed most. It is the same idea that we now have encountered so many times in the sutra: the great enlightenment that the bodhisattva seeks is to save all beings, and he or she goes wherever, takes on whatever form and does everything necessary to achieve this end.

Back in the text, after Buddha Shakyamuni mentioned the pure land Abhirati, everybody in the great assembly wants to see this wonderful place, the object of longing for many Buddhist faithfuls. They clearly have not yet quite reached Vimalakirti's level of wisdom, that there ultimately is no difference between the various worlds. Buddha Shakyamuni, always compassionate and ready to do what is opportune at the moment, asks Vimalakirti to show the land Abhirati to the assembly. People also need their screen wipers fixed. They cannot live of watching Formula 1 racing alone. Vimalakirti then enters into deep meditation, stretches out his hand, picks up the whole pure land of Abhirati like if it was a newly thrown pot “from a potter’s wheel” and places it in the middle of the assembly (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 133-134.) It is at points like this that a rational reader is at the greatest danger of closing the sutra for good. But those who have also studied chapter six know that hurtling large chunks of the world from one end of the universe to the other is exactly what bodhisattvas can do once they have realised “emancipation Beyond Comprehension” (ibid., p. 73.) So what again is this “emancipation Beyond Comprehension”? In the original translation from Sanskrit into Chinese the expression is given as 不可思議解脫 (Weimojie suoshuo jing. 2002.) The compound 解脫 means to “free” or “relieve oneself” (Wikitionary.) And 不可思議 literally means to “not” (不) “can” (可) “imagine” or “understand” (思議) (ibid.) Altogether the first four characters mean “inconceivable”, “unimaginable” or “incomprehensible”. This "unbelievable emancipation" is actually also the secondary title of the whole sutra besides the more commonly known title "The Expositions of Vimalakirti" or "Vimalakirti Sutra" in short (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 145.) John McRae translates this secondary title as “Dharma Gate of Inconceivable Emancipation” (The Sutra of Queen Śrīmālā ..., 2017, p. 179.) By choosing this expression as a title it becomes evident that the authors of the sutra play very deliberately with what must have been unimaginable or unbelievable at the time. Contemporary Buddhists would have been familiar with the idea that a certain level of accomplishment in meditation would bestow some supernatural powers such as walking on water, flying or appearing at various places at the same time (Harvey, 1990, p.252.) In other words, these psycho-kinetic skills would have been considered “imaginable” or “believable”. But flinging whole worlds through the cosmos is a superpower of a different order. It must have appeared “unbelievable” to the majority of contemporary Buddhists. And just like the powers of somebody who can merely walk over water or fly are insignificant when compared to somebody else who can juggle with planets, so this scene from the sutra is probably meant to proof beyond any doubt that the supreme enlightenment sought by the Mahayana bodhisattva is vastly superior to the kind of personal liberation - nirvana - which is the aim of voice-hearer Buddhism.

But I think there is still more to this fantastical scene than mere Great-Vehicle propaganda. It is the sheer scale of daring to think the unthinkable that I find fascinating. For us who live in an age of abundant technology, the notion of seeing the whole world through our TVs and laptops is now almost normal. At a click of a computer mouse we can switch from watching gorillas scratching their backs in a remote African mountain forest to witnessing how a black hole somewhere in the universe devours a neighbouring star. This would have been truly unimaginable for the Indian monks and/or nuns who have written the Vimalakirti sutra almost 2000 years ago. And yet they envisioned a vast macro cosmos full of worlds and peoples that could interact with each other through the powers of bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Great leaps in technology and knowledge are not possible without a prior surge of imaginary powers. Going beyond the conventional, the limitations of what is acceptable or believable at the time, for me this is the true meaning of “emancipation beyond comprehension” or “unbelievable liberation”.

Summary of online discussion of the 'Old Street' on 13 May 2020

Sources

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

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

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.)

Wikitionary, (2020). [Various Chinese characters]. Wikitionary. [Viewed 18 May 2020]. Available from: https://en.wiktionary.org

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