The Vimalakirti Sutra is another beautiful text assigned in the Buddhist Traditions course I’m taking. In the introduction, the translator Burton Watson indicates that he has tried to present the text in a way that it’s accessible to everyone, even those with no to little familiarity in Buddhism. While it does have a very useful glossary and detailed footnotes throughout, I do think it would be difficult for someone to come into it without any background in the tradition. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful resource.
Now I’d just like to do a run-through of the things that stood out the most to me. Hopefully some will resonate for you too!
Early in the text, some verses are recited by Vimalakirti, including this (page 24):
The Buddha preaches the Law with a single
but each living being understands it in his
I think this is an important component of Buddhism. The laws and ideas are not set in stone in any traditional way. I remember when reading Old Path White Clouds that the Buddha indicates that individuals shouldn’t accept any teachings just because they come from the Buddha or another religious figure. Individuals are encouraged to dissect teachings and accept what works for them and, as shown here, in the way they understand it. From the few traditions I’m familiar with, Buddhism seems to be the most open. Not only in respect to its laws, but also in its acceptance of Religious Tolerance. That’s one of the things that speaks to me the most from this tradition. The response is never that their way is the only way. In fact, I remember being in a Buddhist temple this summer where there was an image of Buddha on one side and an image of Jesus Christ on the other. Such a beautiful union.
Further in the text, there is a discussion on the body and suffering (an inevitable topic in comprehensive Buddhist texts). Because I live with chronic pain, I am especially drawn to these ideas. They were expounded on more than I had seen in other texts. To begin with, Vimalakirti reminds us that “this body is impermanent, without durability, without strength, without firmness, a thing that decays in a moment, not to be relied on . . . This body is like a bubble that cannot continue for long” (34). Then he offers this poignant solution: “seek the Buddha body . . . It is born from precepts, meditation, wisdom, emancipation, and the insight of emancipation. It is born from pity, compassion, joy and indifference” (35). He heartily advises: “Good people, if you wish to gain the Buddha body and do away with the ills that afflict all living beings, then you must set your minds on attaining anuttara-samyak-sambodhi [enlightenment]” (36). Then the conversation deepens in the chapter “Inquiring About the Illness.” I found it very comforting. Vimalakirti recommends using “illness as a means of sympathizing with the illness of others” (67). It’s a beautiful thought, and one that sprung to mind the image of the Greek centaur Chiron, the Wounded Healer. Comfortingly, Vimalakirti offers “to concentrate on a life of purity, and not to give way to gloom or worry” (67).
In discussing the origin of illness, Vimalakirti asserts that “one should call up the thought of phenomena, thinking to oneself: ‘It is simply that various phenomena have come together to form this body. It has appeared simply because phenomena appeared, and it will vanish simply because phenomena vanish’” (68). While I can recognize and grasp this concept, I know it will take time to truly absorb it. I plan to meditate on it often. Vimalakirti also indicates that we essentially get trapped in our “upside-down thinking,” and the way to get out of that is to rid the self of dualism. Again, something I can grasp as I read, though something that is truly profound, and something that will take a lifetime of practice.
I think of Joseph Campbell and his discussion of the union of opposites. Amazing how all the mythologies tie together, isn’t it? A beautiful thing. Truly demonstrative of the fact that myth is timeless, placeless, ageless, and that it all speaks to the human experience.
Finally, Vimalakirti directs that we can obtain non-duality “by realizing that there is nothing to grasp at” (69). Essentially, we have to let go of our “troublesome entanglements.” Ah, he makes it sound so easy.
And a final powerful comment from Vimalakirti on illness: “view the body and realize that it is marked by impermanence, suffering, emptiness, and absence of ego. This is called wisdom . . . never giv[e] in to weariness or revulsion” (71).
Essentially, in all matters, we need to seek emancipation. Vimalakirti discusses this in his chapter “Regarding Living Beings.” I would like to note that in the introduction, Watson indicates that you will read contrary ideas throughout the text. But, if you return to the idea of non-duality, there can’t really be a contradiction, yes? I say this to get to the idea of words (something I’m obviously fond of as a writer). Early in Sutra, Vimalakirti indicates that they are essentially useless. However, in a striking dialogue, he indicates:
“Words, writing, all are marks of emancipation. Why? Because emancipation is not internal, not external, and not in between. And words likewise are not internal, not external, and not in between. Therefore you can speak of emancipation without putting words aside. Why? Because all things that exist are marks of emancipation” (88).
Reflecting on this after reading the entire Sutra, I see how strongly Vimalakirti demonstrates that what really matters is outside the realm of the things we’ve claimed words and definition to in this world. However, as we are in this world, we can use those things, our classifications and terms, to understand, to connect, to speak to others, and, ultimately, along the path to enlightenment. Vimalakirti reminds us that as the lotus grows in mud, “only when living beings are in the midst of the mire of earthly desires [do] they turn to the Buddha Law” (95). (Now I’m reminded of a concept in my philosophy course that uselessness has its uses). By the end of the text, Vimalakirti reminds us “to rely on meaning, not on words” (140). This is sound advice, and I now see how words are a vehicle to get to the meaning without the words.
One idea I want to mention briefly is suchness, which “knows no dualism or differentiation” (53) and is defined in the glossary as “the ultimate reality underlying all things, the absolute” (156). This is a concept that also came up in Old Path White Clouds and that I want to learn more about. (I mention it here because 1- it has strongly sparked my curiosity and 2 – I want to remember it!). I understand suchness in definition, but I want to explore its depths. This led me on a brief search wherein I discovered this text that I would like to pick up sometime soon: Everyday Suchness: Buddhist Essays on Everyday Living.
On a final note, I offer you the definition for four methods of winning people that I believe are just good rules to live by, whatever your beliefs or religious/non-religious traditions:
[These are] four methods employed by bodhisattvas to attract others to their teachings. They are to give alms and expound the Law; to speak in a kindly manner; to work to benefit others; and to share their hardships and cooperate with them.
As I said, it doesn’t have to apply to Buddhism or even religion. You can work to simply attract others to mindful living by setting an example. And you don’t necessarily have to give “alms,” but just give. Finally, you don’t have to expound Buddhist Law but simple goodness. Virtue is universal, and beautifully demonstrated through the other three methods listed here of kind speech, work for others, empathy, and cooperation.