The Vimalakirti Sutra

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Review by Ratnaprabha of The Vimalakirti Sutra, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, New York, 1997).

Towards the end of this great Buddhist classic, the Buddha remarks that ‘those who love varied phrases and literary embellishments … are beginners in the bodhisattva way’. However, highly experienced bodhisattvas are ‘not afraid of deeper principles, and [are] able to enter into the true meaning.’ The Vimalakirti Sutra is a repository of deep principles: its spiritual teaching catapults one way beyond familiar ground. Paradoxically (paradox is one of its methods) it also fascinates as literature. Descriptions of fantastic spectacle, verbal contests, and even slapstick humour, all revolve around Vimalakirti. Vimalakirti is an enlightened bodhisattva, devoted to establishing people on the Buddha way. This he does imperceptibly, irresistibly, because he adapts so well into their various ordinary lives. He can use anything as an ‘expedient means’ towards the benefit and enlightenment of others.

As a demonstration of the unsatisfactoriness of a life that identifies with this fragile body, Vimalakirti falls ill. The Buddha asks his disciples to visit the sick bodhisattva, but one by one they refuse, recounting how Vimalakirti had exposed the limitations of their approaches to Buddhism. All-wise Manjushri is the only worthy opponent to agree to go, and Vimalakirti magically transforms his sickroom to accommodate the crowds who come to hear a breathtaking series of profound exchanges, forming the central portion of the Sutra.

The comically bewildered monk Shariputra, representing a limited, self-centred view of Buddhist practice, stimulates Vimalakirti’s magical displays, all of which demonstrate the richness of an unlimited perspective. When Shariputra wonders where everyone is going to sit (‘did you come here for the sake of the Law, or are you just looking for a place to sit?’, Vimalakirti asks), Vimalakirti imports millions of vast thrones, and somehow fits them all into the room. Later, an enlightened goddess sprinkles Shariputra with flowers, not allowed to monks, yet he cannot brush them off. He is so impressed by her deep explanations that he asks her why she doesn’t become male (Buddhas being traditionally thought of as always male). In reply, she swaps gender with him, and then swaps back, to demonstrate that ‘all phenomena are neither male nor female’. Later still, Shariputra’s mind wanders again, this time to thoughts of lunch, and Vimalakirti sends a phantom bodhisattva to a pure land in a distant galaxy to fetch fragrant ambrosia for all.

Vimalakirti’s profound teachings bear the same message as his jokes and spectacular displays. Let go of restrictive viewpoints, he says, and the splendour of non-dual reality will simply become apparent in the here and now. Every emotion, every action, potentially displays the truth. Letting go into a true vision opens innumerable doors that enable one to help others in their turn to let go into truth, so that they will see every frustration, every grief evaporate. Like the Buddha, Vimalakirti teaches the altruistic bodhisattva ideal. He also universalises the goal of Buddhism: he displaces any thoughts of a personal escape into the relief of ‘Nirvana’ by demonstrating how the actual world one lives in can become, for everybody, a pure Buddha land, perfumed with bliss, vibrant with ultimate significance.

However, you will look in vain for detailed blueprints for ‘purifying the Buddha field’, even for instructions in living one’s daily life or in practising meditation. Instead, the Sutra seeks to stretch the mind with its refutations of plodding thought processes based on the rearrangement of labels, until, perhaps, the mind gives up, and yields to ’empty’ reality unmediated by labels. Then it swoops down from a different angle, and uncloses the sense of wonder with brilliant son-et-lumiére. As I go back again and again to the Vimalakirti Sutra, I might realise one day that ‘how things are’ is inconceivable and unimaginable simply because thinking is not everything, envisaging is not everything. ‘How things are’ is everything, and that can be appreciated only with one’s every faculty attending completely, right now.

Burton Watson’s new translation uses the Chinese version by Kumarajiva, who was renowned as Buddhism’s greatest translator because his own realisation was so deep, and because his style was so fluent. It may be that Watson saw the Vimalakirti Sutra as an inevitable addition to his acclaimed series of translations of Chinese classics: it does not seem to me to be superior to the one we already have, by Charles Luk. (The jacket notes are incorrect to claim that Watson’s is the ‘first ever translation’.) I really have to warn you of some of his odd renderings. Maitri (loving kindness) becomes ‘pity’, and is sometimes confused with compassion; upeksha (equanimity) is ‘indifference’; dana (generosity) is ‘almsgiving’; Mara is christianised into ‘the devil’, and Watson also chooses the biblical resonance of ‘the Law’ for the Dharma (truth and teaching).

The most reliable version in English, apart from the incredibly thorough scholarly text by Lamotte, is Robert Thurman’s from the Tibetan (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), which also scores for its elegance and vividness. But there is something to be said for taking advantage of the filter of Kumarajiva’s mind. Like many texts of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, the Vimalakirti Sutra overflows with extended series of stock Buddhist lists, as well as the baffling intellectual subtleties of analysis and negation. Kumarajiva softens these, sometimes by shortening passages, sometimes with simpler, more direct glimpses of the Dharma.

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