Who is doing the Buddha's work? - fragrant rice and other unlikely agents - Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 11

Chapter 11 contains many instructions how bodhisattva should go about doing their business which is nothing short of making all beings in all worlds happy and safe (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 122-129.) Another way of saying this is “doing the Buddha’s work”. A bodhisattva is after all just a future Buddha. And the advanced bodhisattvas we are meeting in the sutra like Manjushri or Vimalakirti have already come close to buddhahood and possess the appropriate powers. The topic of “doing the Buddha’s work” is introduced through the fragrant rice from the previous chapter. This magical rice, brought by Vimalakirti from a far away Buddha land to feed the assembly in his house, can only be digested after the diner has clarified the Buddha Dharma. This example is followed by a long list of other mundane and extraordinary examples of “doing the Buddha’s work”. The chapter culminates in a teaching of the Buddha about the practice of the bodhisattva in terms of the conditioned and the unconditioned.

At the beginning of the chapter, Vimalakirti scoops up the the whole assembly in his house - several millions of individuals including bodhisattvas on seats several kilometres tall, gods, demons and monks and nuns - in one hand and carries them to the Amra Gardens outside the city of Vaishali where the Buddha resides. If you are surprised by this, dear reader, please check out chapter six - Beyond Comprehension - of the sutra. It is exactly the sort of thing that advanced bodhisattvas do (ibid. p79.) In the Amra Gardens, Ananda, a major disciple of the Buddha, notices the strange fragrance that all of the new arrivals emit. Vimalakirti explains that the smell comes from the fragrant rice that the new arrivals have eaten in Vimalakirti’s house. They will smell of it for as long as the rice is not digested. And the rice can only be digested once the person who has eaten it has advanced sufficiently on the Buddha Way. Voice-hearers for example will only be able to digest the rice once they embrace the ultimate enlightenment of the Mahayana. Those already following the Mahayana can only digest the rice if they accept the truth of birthlessness. In a nutshell, the rice can be digested “only after all the poisons of earthly desires have been wiped out” (ibid., p. 123.) I understand this fragrant rice as a metaphor for the Buddha Dharma itself. It takes time to digest it. It is a beautiful activity to take in the Buddha's teachings and wrestle with them while trying to digest it. Those striving to learn it are noticeably special, emitting the fragrance of the Dharma. But once the learner has truly understood the Buddha Dharma, the specialness ends, and one returns to a normal "non-fragrant" state. The truly enlightened and the ordinary are ultimately the same.

Back in the sutra, the Buddha gives Ananda a long list of other things that do the work of the Buddha, starting off with “radiant light”, “bodhisattvas” and “phantom beings” produced by magic (ibid. p. 123). The list covers pretty much all elements of the teachings of the Buddha and all objects and circumstances we may find in the world. It even includes seemingly negative things like devils and earthly desires. In the Mahayana view as expressed in the Vimalakirti sutra, everything and everybody does - at least potentially - the work of the Buddha. The list contains a few items that again look very familiar to those who are interested in Zen. We encounter “reflections”, “echoes”, “images in a mirror”, “the moon in the water” or “shimmering heat waves” that are given as examples of things sometimes doing the work of the Buddha (ibid., pp. 123-124.) The sutra mentions a number of these images before in chapter seven where they are used to illustrate the illusory nature of all living beings (ibid., p. 83.) In the context of chapter eleven these images of delusion become potential means to lead beings to awakening. And it is in this way we find them in the later Zen literature like in Dōgen’s Genjo-Koan or Shobogenzo Kokyo (Dogen, 1994.)

Towards the end of the chapter, the nine million bodhisattvas from the pure Buddha land “Many Fragrances” who have joined Vimalakirti’s assembly in the previous chapter, ask Buddha Shakyamuni for a teaching before returning to their own world. The Buddha offers them an instruction on how a bodhisattva should relate to what is conditioned and to what is unconditioned (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 126-129.) According to the Abbidharma, the commentarial extensions to the canonical collections of the original Buddhist sutras, almost all things - dharmas -, almost everything that exists in other words - is conditioned (Williams, 1989, p. 15.) This means that they cannot come into existence by themselves, but they depend on other dharmas as input. The world is in constant flow where one thing follows from another in an endless sequence of events. But there are a few dharmas - in the Theravada tradition it is exactly one - that are unconditioned, not depending on anything else. This unconditioned reality is nirvana and related ideas, that describe the end of the cycle of birth and death and of suffering. It is the aim of voice-hearer Buddhism to leave the conditioned behind and enter the unconditioned - nirvana. But the Buddha instructs the bodhisattvas that they should not abandon the conditioned when entering the unconditioned.

“But beings such as the bodhisattvas do not exhaust [or have done with] the conditioned, nor do they dwell in the unconditioned” (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, p. 126.)

The Buddha then provides many examples of what it means to not abandon the conditioned. It essentially boils down to tirelessly helping others and constantly further one’s own practice. Examples from the list are:

  • “... to work restlessly to plant the roots of goodness” (ibid., p. 126.)
  • “... shouldering the burden of living beings and bringing them to unending emancipation” (ibid.) 
  • “... practicing unbound charity” (ibid., p. 127.)

The Buddha then talks about what it means to not dwell in the unconditioned. It means that one is deeply familiar with the fundamental quietness and immutability which is the ground of everything. At the same time one does not withdraw from the hubbub of the world. Some examples for not dwelling in the unconditioned are:

  • “One sees that there is such a thing as tranquil extinction, but does not dwell in extinction for long” (ibid., p. 128.)
  • “One sees that there is no birth, yet one takes on the form of birth in order to share the burdens of others” (ibid.)
  • “One sees that there is nothing to be practice, yet one practices the Law in order to teach and convert living beings” (ibid., pp. 128-129.)

This teaching is in the end only yet another way to express the fundamental truth of all Buddhist teachings: wisdom - knowing the unconditioned - and compassion - entering the conditioned to help beings - are inseparable for those who truly follow the way of the Buddha.

Sources

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.

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

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