jewel of the mahāyāna sutras November 29, 2006Posted by Brad Richert in religion.
Vimalakīrti is the protagonist of the Vimalakīrti-Nirdesa Sutra. He is introduced as a Licchavi, a city-state in northern India, from the city of Vaiśālī. Vaiśālī is known to be the land of Amrapali, a famous Indian courtesan, whose garden is the opening and concluding location for the narrative as the teaching place of the Buddha. Vimalakīrti is said to be of great wealth, of which he uses to sustain the poor and helpless. As a man of wealth, he is obviously not a monk and is explicitly stated as wearing garments of a layperson. Everything about him, however, was a paradox. He was as a laymen, yet as devoted as a monk; he owned and lived in a house, but lived beyond material realm; he had a family and servants, yet remained continent; he had servants and food aplenty, but lived in solitude and was nourished by meditation. The way in which Vimalakīrti reconciled these differences would be only a shadow of the reconciliation of dichotomies he would achieve much later on in the sutra.
As further extrapolation of this character through his dialogues will show, Vimalakīrti is ultimately reconciler of dichotomies that symbolizes the underlying principles of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which as we will see is the reason for the label of ‘The Jewel of the Mahāyāna Scriptures’. Vimalakīrti is presented as not only a respected figure, but also as one with corrective authority. Two entire chapters of the sutra are dedicated to explaining how reluctant the disciples and even the bodhisattvas are to console Vimalakīrti’s manifested sickness due to previous encounters in which Vimalakīrti would find fault with their actions and teachings.
Although Vimalakīrti is presented as a householder, a layman, it quickly becomes evident that Vimalakīrti is no ordinary man. Besides his understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and his miraculous abilities, there is one early clue to what Vimalakīrti may actually be. In a discussion with the disciple Subhūti, Vimalakīrti indirectly plays on the idea that a dialogue with Vimalakīrti is like having a dialogue with an incarnation created by the Buddha. Whether this is an allusion to Vimalakīrti being an emanated incarnation (nirmana) of the Buddha is debatable, but strongly enforced by a later chapter when Vimalakīrti creates an emanated incarnation. Even if this is not the case, Vimalakīrti is in the very least not just a layman, but is a bodhisattva from the Abhirati universe.
The most obvious comparison to Vimalakīrti is the Buddha himself, as it is extremely difficult to compare such a man to any individual bound by Western concepts. Vimalakīrti fits the mold of many religious figures, such as Jesus the Nazarene, who perform miraculous acts and teach subtle messages that few understand and confuse many. Vimalakīrti is considered the reconciler of dichotomies, whereas many call Jesus the reconciler between God and man. The closest comparison one can make would be in a comparison between Vimalakīrti and the Gnostic conception of Jesus: revealing and then reconciling the ultimate reality with the conventional.
Within the discourse of this sutra is the central teaching of the ‘Inconceivable Liberation’. The liberation that is called ‘inconceivable’ is available only to the Tathāgatas and bodhisattvas, although the message can be transmitted through those that do not attain it. The ‘Inconceivable Liberation’ is represented through the miraculous achievements of reconciling dichotomies such as in the example of placing a large mountain in the mustard seed without shrinking the mountain or enlarging the seed. Clearly, this is an incomprehensible feat. Thurman states that inconceivability is a reference to the ordinary conditioned mind that cannot break free of conceptual terms that continually grasp for conventional reality. The ‘Inconceivable Liberation’ is the liberation that surpasses the dualism of ultimate and conventional realities.
Vimalakīrti often explicitly distinguishes his teachings from mainstream Buddhism in his dialogues with the disciples of the Buddha. Vimalakīrti represents the Mahāyāna perspective by contrasting himself in many ways with the traditional values and doctrines of the śrāvakas. The divergence of teachings is set up in the third and fourth chapters when the śrāvakas and bodhisattvas explain to the Buddha why they are reluctant to visit Vimalakīrti: they are found wanting in their teachings and actions according to the wise Licchavi. Most importantly, each set of the latter teachings is presented as a rebuttal to Śāriputra’s mainstream understandings of Buddhist doctrine. During Vimalakīrti’s elucidation of the Inconceivable Liberation, he produces a set of statements that negate existing mainstream structures as revealed through the traditional abhidharmas. Essentially, Vimalakīrti’s main concern is that a person following the mainstream Buddhist doctrines attaches themselves to various entities: this could be the five aggregates or even the Three Jewels (Buddha, Saṅgha, and Dharma) or the Noble’s Four Truths. Vimalakīrti rejects outright simple adherence to the teachings, as that will result in attachment to them. Where this takes a radical turn is in its relation to liberation: attachment to liberation is a desire itself. The traditional belief that Vimalakīri contests is liberation as a teleological goal. This places nirvana, a compounded thing, as its own essence; Vimalakīrti states that the Dharma is free from compounded things as well as uncompounded things, such as samsara. These leads to a very Mahāyāna concept: to take interest in the Dharma is to take interesting in nothing. Anything other than this concept is a result of selfish desire and will not allow the ultimate, inconceivable liberation. Thus, Mahāyāna thought, as presented by Vimalakīrti, is not so much a different doctrine, but a different way of perceiving it in order to attain its highest purpose. As a result of a different way of perceiving the Dharma, traditional structures such as emptiness and form take on evolved meanings: ultimate and conventional truths (samvṛttisatya and paramārthasatya) are modes of reality rather than ways of being.
Judging by the hard repudiation of the śrāvakas and even the bodhisattvas, the Vimalakīrti-Nirdesa Sutra was definitely not written within the monastic tradition. The disciples are consistently presented in a poor light and are used as representatives of the inferior way (hinayāna); the attitudes of the disciples – notably Śāriputra – are often a result of attachment to monastic legalities and doctrines. The Buddha himself is a minor character in the sutra, surpassed in positive contextual influence by two particular individuals: Vimalakīrti and the crown prince Mañjuśrī. The commonality between these two are that they are both wealthy laymen, probably of noble or royal lineage and therefore are not monks. This rejection of a traditional monastic foundation is common within Mahāyāna literature, and the specific situation of this sutra likely indicates that the target was a royal audience. It is likely that the sutra was written by some ‘elite’ monks (that is to say monks attune to Mahāyāna thought) to gain favour from the privileged class of the Licchavi kingdom. The teaching of the Vimalakīrti stresses experience of the ‘religion’ rather than obedience to doctrines. The instruction advocates a form of truth not obviously integrated with mainstream Buddhism: the ultimate truth as state of peace that is unproduced and universally nirvana-sized – we just need to realize it through the skillful techniques of compassion.
As previously mentioned, the Vimalakīrti-Nirdesa Sutra is often referred to as the jewel of the Mahāyāna sutras. Readers who take the time to consider the teachings of this sutra can easily appreciate why this is the case. The sutra does not outline a doctrine of particular thought through the use of systematic apologetics or categorical imperatives. Rather, Vimalakīrti offers a striking rendition of a religion of reconciliation of dichotomies through the use of penetrating dialogue and flamboyant imagery. It stands out in comparison to other writings as a complete design, explaining the unexplainable and examining the very core of Buddhist thought by not only critiquing the status quo, but offering solutions to perhaps some very important philosophical problems.