Translations

The story of Dharma Day: The Buddha starts to teach

Lotus pond

Sugawara Mitsushige (1257) (Metropolitan Museum of Art), via Wikimedia Commons

The Buddha’s decision to teach

THE BUDDHA:

[After my enlightenment,] I thought, ‘This Dharma that I have attained is deep, hard to see or realize, it is the highest, most peaceful goal of all. It’s beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment and indulges in attachment. It’s hard for the people of this generation to see the truth of dependent arising. It’s hard for people to see the truth of stopping the karma formations, letting go, finishing craving, the fading of addictions, nirvana itself. If I taught, they would not understand me.

Just then these verses … occurred to me:

Enough now with teaching
what, only with difficulty,
I reached.

This Dharma is not easily realised
by those overcome
with aversion & craving.

What is abstruse, subtle,
deep,
hard to see,
going against the flow —
those delighting in craving,
cloaked in darkness —
they won’t [be able to] see it.’

As I reflected like this, my mind inclined to dwelling in comfort, and not to teaching the Dharma.

Then Sahampati, [a dweller in the sublime Brahma heavens] … thought to himself:

SAHAMPATI

‘The world is lost! The world is utterly lost! The mind of the fully awakened one inclines to [his own comfort], not to teaching the Dharma!’

THE BUDDHA

Then, just as a strong man might extend his arm …, Sahampati disappeared from his Brahma-world and reappeared in front of me. He … saluted me with his hands before his heart:

SAHAMPATI

‘Sir, let the abundant one teach the Dharma! Let the One-well-gone teach the Dharma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away because they cannot hear the Dharma. There will be those who will understand the Dharma!’ …

‘Throw open the door to the Deathless!
Let them hear the Dharma
realized by the Stainless One!

Just as one standing on a rocky crag
might see people
all around below,

So, O wise one, with panoramic vision,
ascend the tower
fashioned of truth.

Free from sorrow, look at the people
submerged in sorrow,
oppressed by birth & aging.

Rise up, hero, victor in battle!
O Teacher, travel without debt in the world.

Teach the Dharma, O Abundant one:
There will be those who will understand!’

THE BUDDHA

Then, having listened to Sahampati’s invitation, out of compassion for beings, I surveyed the world with an enlightened eye. As I did so, I saw beings with little dust in their eyes and those with much, those with keen faculties and those with dull, those with good qualities and those with bad, those easy to teach and those hard…. Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses — born and growing in the water — might flourish while immersed in the water, without rising up from the water; some might stand at the surface of the water; while some might rise up from the water and stand without being wetted by the water — so too, surveying the world with an enlightened eye, I saw [the range of beings].

Having seen this, I answered Sahampati:

‘Open are the doors of the Deathless
To those who can hear.

Let them show their confidence.

O Sahampati,
If I [had thought I would not tell people]
the refined,
sublime Dharma,
It was because it seemed too troublesome to me.’

Then Sahampati realised,

SAHAMPATI

‘The Abundant one has decided to teach the Dharma.’

THE BUDDHA

He bowed to me, and disappeared.

The Buddha’s attempts to teach

THE BUDDHA

Then I thought, ‘To whom should I teach the Dharma first? Who will quickly understand this Dharma?’

I thought of [my former teachers], but they had passed away…

Then I thought: ‘The group of five [friends] who attended to me when I was practising fasting and self-denial, they were very helpful to me. [Now they are] staying near Benares, in the Game Park at Isipatana. What if I were to teach them the Dharma first?’

Then, having stayed at Bodhgaya as long as I wished, I set out to walk [the long road] to Benares.

Upaka the sectarian met me on the road between the (place of) awakening and Gaya village, and he said to me,

UPAKA

‘Clear, my friend, are your faculties. Pure your complexion, and bright.

What made you go forth? Who’s your teacher? In whose Dharma do you delight?’

THE BUDDHA

‘All-vanquishing,
all-knowing am I,
with regard to all things,
unattached.

All-abandoning,
freed by ending craving:
having fully known this on my own,
whom should I regard as my teacher?

I have no teacher,
and one like me can’t be found.
I have no counterpart in the world with its gods.

For I am a worthy one in the world;
an unexcelled teacher.

I, alone, am fully awakened.
Cooled am I,             unbound.

I’m going to Benares
To set rolling the wheel of the Dharma.

In a blindfolded world,
I’ll beat the drum of the Deathless.’

UPAKA

‘From your claims, my friend, you must be a Jina, a universal conqueror.’

THE BUDDHA

‘Conquerors are those like me
who have reached fermentations’ end.
I’ve conquered evil qualities,
and so, [yes], Upaka, I’m a conqueror.’

UPAKA

‘May it be so, my friend,’

THE BUDDHA

And — shaking his head and taking a side-road — he left.

Then, walking in stages, I arrived at Benares, at the Game Park in Isipatana, where the group of five friends were staying. They saw me coming from some way off, and made a pact with one another.

THE FIVE

‘Friends, here comes Gotama the contemplative. [He has given up] our struggle [of self-denial], living luxuriously, straying from his exertion, backsliding into abundance. He doesn’t deserve our bows, or even for us to stand up to greet him. Still, if he wants to, he can sit down with us.’

THE BUDDHA

But as I approached, they were unable to keep to their pact. One stood up to greet me, another got me a seat. Another got some water for washing my feet. However, they [still] addressed me as ‘Gotama’ and as ‘friend.’

So I said to them, ‘Please don’t address the Tathagata, the Thus-gone one, by name and as ‘friend.’ The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, fully awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dharma. Practising as instructed, you will in no long time reach & remain in the supreme goal of the spiritual life, … knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.’

THE FIVE

‘You did not attain any superior human states by practising hardship and deprivation, nor any special knowledge & vision worthy of a noble one. So how can you have done so now — living luxuriously, straying from your exertion, backsliding into abundance?’

THE BUDDHA

‘The Tathagata is not living luxuriously, has not strayed from his exertion, has not slid back into abundance. The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, fully awakened. [And twice more I repeated my offer to teach them.]’

[They still doubted, so] I said to the group of five, ‘Do you recall my ever having spoken in this way before?’

THE FIVE

‘No, sir.’

THE BUDDHA

‘The Tathagata, monks, is not living luxuriously, has not strayed from his exertion, has not slid back into abundance. The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, fully awakened. Listen, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dharma. If you practice as instructed, before long you will reach the supreme goal of the spiritual life and remain there…, knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.’

And so I was able to convince them. I would teach two while three went to get food, and we six lived off what the three brought back from their alms round. Then I would teach three of them while two went for food, and we six lived off what the two brought back from their alms round. Then the group of five — thus exhorted and instructed by me — being themselves subject to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeking the unborn, unexcelled security from oppression, nirvana, reached nirvana. Being subject themselves to aging, illness, death, sorrow and defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging, illness, death, sorrow and defilement, seeking the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, undefiled, unexcelled security from oppression, nirvana, they reached nirvana. Complete knowledge & vision arose in them, their liberation was unshakeable, and from the rounds of rebirth they were completely free.

From the Noble Quest Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya number 26.

(Edited and adapted for reading aloud by Ratnaprabha from the translation by Thanissaro (1), referring to translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2) and Nanamoli (3).)

Sources

  1. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.026.than.html .
  2. http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/middle-length-discourses-buddha/selections/middle-length-discourses-26-ariyapariyesana-sutta
  3. Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu, The Life of the Buddha (Buddhist Publication Society, 1972)
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Lotus Sutra: the Image of the Plants

The Image of the Plants

Monsoon over Biligirirangans, India. (Shyamal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

From the White Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma Sutra, Chapter 5.
Abridged and adapted by Ratnaprabha for reading aloud.
Based on the translations by Kato et al and Reeves, sub-headings not in the original.

The Buddha adapts the Dharma according to his listeners

The Buddha, the Dharma-king,
Smashing ideas of being,
Appears in this world.

According to the needs of all beings,
He teaches the Dharma in varied ways.

The Buddha teaches people
According to their strengths,
With various explanations
To bring them to helpful views.

The Buddha is like a thunder cloud

The Buddha is like a great cloud
Rising above the [parched] world,
Covering everything everywhere.

A beneficent cloud full of moisture,
Bringing gladness and ease to all,
Where flashes of lightning shine and glint,
And the voice of thunder vibrates afar.

The [hot] sun’s rays are veiled,
And the earth is cooled;
The cloud lowers and spreads
As if it might be caught and gathered.

[Then] its rain everywhere equally
Descends on all sides,
Streaming and pouring without stint,
Enriching all the land.

His hearers are like plants in need of the rain

On mountains, by rivers, in steep valleys,
In hidden places, there grow
The plants, trees, and herbs.

Trees, big or small,
The shoots of all the ripening grain,
Sugar cane and grapevine,

All these are fertilised by the rain,
And abundantly enriched.
The dry ground is all soaked,
And herbs and trees flourish together.

From the same water which issued from that cloud,
Plants, trees, thickets and forests,
According to their need, receive moisture.

All the [plants],
Each according to its scale,
Can grow and develop.

Roots, stalks, branches, and leaves,
Blossoms and fruits in their brilliant colours,
By the pouring of the one rain,
All become fresh and glossy.

Just as their forms and capacities
Are some great and some small,
So the enriching [rain], though one and the same,
Enables each to flourish.

The Buddha proclaims his impartial intent

The Buddha is like this.
He appears in the world,
Like a great [monsoon]-cloud
Universally covering all things;

And having appeared in the world,
He, for the sake of all living beings,
Teaches in varying ways
The reality of all things.

The great World-honoured One
To human and heavenly beings,
And to all the other beings,
Declares this:

“I am the Tathagata,
Honoured by people;
I appear in the world
Just like a great rain cloud,
To pour enrichment on all parched living beings,

“To free them all from suffering
And so attain the joy of peace,
Joy in this world,
And the joy of nirvana.

“Humans and heavenly beings and all!
Give me your full attention,
Gather around
And behold the Buddha.

“For the hosts of the living
I teach the Dharma, pure as sweet dew:
The Dharma with one taste
Of freedom and nirvana.

“With one wonderful voice
I explain this meaning,
Constantly taking the great way
As my subject.

“I look upon all [living beings]
Everywhere [with] equal [eyes],
Without favouring anyone,
With no mind of love or hate.

“I have no preferences
Nor limitations [or partiality];
At all times to all [beings]
I teach the Dharma equally;

“As I would to one person,
So [I teach] to all.
Constantly I proclaim the Dharma,
Never occupied with anything else.

“Going or coming, sitting or standing,
I never weary or get downhearted,
Pouring it abundantly upon the world,
Like the rain, enriching everywhere.

“Eminent and humble, high and low,
Those who keep the precepts and those who break them,
Those of admirable character
And those of imperfect character,

“With right views or wrong views,
Quick-witted and dull-witted,
[With] equal [mind] I rain the rain of the Dharma,
Neglecting no one.”

Summing up

So the Buddha’s unbiased teaching
Is like the one rain.

[But] beings, according to their capacities,
Receive it differently,
Just as the plants and trees
Each take a varying supply.

The Buddha by this [image]
Skilfully reveals [his methods],
And with various expressions
He proclaims the one single Dharma,

The one essential Dharma,
To be practised according to ability,
Just as those thickets, forests, herbs, and trees,
True to their type, grow lush and beautiful.

Just so,
Practising it step-by-step,
All can gain the fruit of the way.

The Dharma taught by the Buddha is like this.
It is just like a great cloud
Which with the same kind of rain
Enriches humans like blossoms,
So that each will bear fruit.

The way in which you all walk
Is the Bodhisattva-way;
By gradually practising and learning,
You will all become Buddhas.

TURNING THE WHEEL OF DHARMA

The Buddha’s first teaching

Image: John Hill

Today, 8 June 2017,  is the full moon of Dharma Day, the anniversary of the Buddha’s first teaching, known as Turning the Wheel of Dharma.

Here is my Re-rendering of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Ratnaprabha, June 2017)

This is what I heard. (After his awakening), the Buddha arrived at the game reserve near Varanasi, (and was reunited with his five former comrades).

He taught the group of five. He said to them: “Going forth (to seek awakening), you must avoid two extremes.

“Looking for gratification in sense pleasures is demeaning, crude and ignoble. It’s what people always go for, but it’s pointless, and it takes you nowhere near the goal.

“Yet self-torment is also ignoble and pointless, and (it commits you to needless) suffering.

“Instead of veering towards one of these extremes, (if you’re) attuned to reality, you will wake up to the middle path. It yields vision so that you truly know. It leads to peace, to complete awareness, to quenching (the flames) and waking yourself up fully.

“Speaking simply, the middle path has eight aspects. These are complete vision, complete emotion, complete communication, complete action, complete livelihood, complete effort, complete mindfulness, and complete unification (of the mind). When I attuned myself to reality, I woke up to this path.

“Furthermore, (I woke up to four noble truths). Firstly, this is the noble truth, the grand reality, of pain. Birth, ageing and illness are painful. Death is horrible. (Then you’ll encounter) depression, grief and physical agony; unhappiness and despair as well, and losing what you love, and not getting what you want. In fact all the aspects of life that we cling to are painful.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality (that explains) where pain comes from. It comes from thirst, from craving. It is craving that impels us to remake ourselves so that we are still conjoined with gratification and clinging, indulging in one thing after another. (More specifically), it is craving for sense-gratification, craving for continuing (as we are), or craving for oblivion.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality, of the finish of pain. It is the fading and finishing of that same craving, giving it up, letting it go, not depending on it any more, so that we are completely free from craving.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality of the way that finishes pain. It is the same middle path (that avoids the extremes) – complete vision and so on.

“When I fully woke up, I saw this for the first time. A fresh insight, wisdom and awareness, indeed a complete illumination, dawned on me. I truly saw pain as a grand reality, I saw I had to understand it, and (eventually) I did.

“Similarly, I truly saw, as a grand reality, how pain comes from craving. I saw I had to let go of that craving, and I managed to do that.

“And I truly saw the grand reality of (the possibility of) pain finishing (for good). I knew I had to realise that finish directly, and I did realise it.

And I truly saw the grand reality of the middle way that frees one from pain, I saw that I had to journey on that way, and I travelled it to the end.

“It was these crucial insights that enabled me to perfect my full and complete awakening. This is an awakening that completes the journey, (a journey open to) all forms of life in the universe. I saw, and I realised: unshakeable is the liberation of my mind, I’m no longer compelled to re-make myself, this is it.”

The group of five listened enraptured to the Buddha. And as he listened, one of them, Kondañña, saw the truth clearly and lucidly, and realised that all that comes into being must also finish. “Kondañña knows!” Exclaimed the Buddha, “Kondañña knows!”

This, in the game reserve near Varanasi, was the (first) rolling of the Wheel of Dharma by the Buddha. The earth spirits yelled with all their might: “THE SUPREME WHEEL OF THE BUDDHA’S DHARMA IS NOW TURNING, AND NO ONE CAN STOP IT!” And the cheer went up through the ranks of invisible beings up to the (formless) world of pure spirit, so that the whole world trembled, and an incandescent light spread from horizon to horizon.

Brackets signify words added for clarification. Some repetitions have been removed. This re-rendering is interpretive, and other interpretations are possible; it is well worth looking through several translations.

Are scientific laws permanent?

‘All things are impermanent’: what about scientific laws?

IDL TIFF file

Saturn

Impermanence is fundamental to Buddhism. It is even “Buddhism in One Word” (Sangharakshita).  The locus classicus for this particular doctrine could be seen as being a verse of the Dhammapada (a collection of sayings ascribed to the Buddha, which are very likely to be very close to his original teachings), which runs:

277  sabbe sankhaaraa anichchaa ti yadaa paññaaya passati
atha nibbindati dukkhe esa maggo visuddhiyaa.

All processes are impermanent. When one sees this with understanding, then one is disillusioned with the things of suffering. This is the Path of Purification. (John Richards translation)

So what is being stated as being impermanent is all processes — the Pali word being sankhara (the transliteration doubles the a’s to show they are the long form), or Sanskrit samskara.  It pointedly does not say, “all dharmas are impermanent”, but two verses later, it does say, “all dharmas are insubstantial (anatta)”.  Dharmas here probably means anything that can be an object of cognition, whether it is what we see as a physical thing, or an idea, or an attribute etc. I think it would be best to see a physical law as a dharma, but not a samskara (though a philologist friend who read an earlier draft disputes this).

Verse 5 of the Dhammapada says:

Occasions of hatred are certainly never settled by hatred. They are settled by freedom from hatred. This is the eternal law

So here a psychological law is being stated as not being impermanent.  (Eternal law translates dhammo sanantano – ‘an eternal or age-old dharma’.)  Why should the same not be the case with the physical laws of the universe? However, it is possible that they are contingent in some way: the cosmologist Lee Smolin speculates that new universes are constantly being spawned within black holes, each new universe having slightly different physical laws from its parent universe. (The Life of the Cosmos.)

But Buddhists might differ from many scientists, in particular those who think that there will eventually be a final theory of everything, in that they would count physical laws as dharmas, and so would assert that they are insubstantial.  In other words, a law has no independent existence of its own.  It is simply an ordered description of the way phenomena behave — how they influence each other, how they arise and pass away etc. and another type of intelligence might use a different set of laws to describe the same phenomena, though it would in principle be possible to cross-reference the two sets, and show how they are consistent with each other.  It is an object of the conscious mind.

I wonder whether the regularity of scientific experimentation allows one to suspect that some physical laws would always be conceptually patterned in the same way, if different observers at perhaps very different times in very different parts of the universe set up their observations in the same way? In that sense, the law could be unchanging.

What is impermanent?  In the Buddhist tradition, very little is left out of the rather loose term ‘samskara’.  It is most importantly used for people’s mental states, habits, characters etc — in other words, it is encouraging you to feel that you are not stuck in any form of life, or any personal tendency.

This doctrine would assert that there can be no entity in the universe that was free from influence and thus change, similarly, no form of existence or realm, no physical object etc.  ( I am taking it as read that such entities are mind objects, though in this context they are mind objects within scientific discourse, which is very careful to specify them in ways that ensures they can be investigated coherently by many people using a variety of well defined observation methods.) But how would this apply to certain subatomic particles which are regarded as being completely stable?  Could one say that a proton(1) is a permanent entity?

It may be that it is illegitimate to apply Buddhist insights to the scientific sphere. I hope not, I suspect that the meeting of the two ways of looking at human life could be stimulating and fruitful. Scientific findings are very robust, and could clarify the worldview of Buddhists in many ways. Buddhists could also help scientists, for example by offering cogent alternatives to the view that it is primarily the human brain that gives rise to human awareness, and that there is an absolutely real, dead universe, lacking in awareness, which is ultimately separate from the processes of awareness. More importantly, it can suggest a non-religious ethical framework for scientists, some of whom have little in the way of ethics apart from the pressure of public opinion.

_______________

(1) I had originally written ‘neutron’, a bit of a howler as a free neutron has a half life of less than 15 minutes. Free protons have never been seen decaying so far, so may be very long lasting, perhaps ‘permanent’, though protons within nuclei can transform to neutrons by beta decay, and a proton would lose its identity if it fell into a black hole.

The Buddha’s Last Words

As he lay on his deathbed between the twin Sal Trees, the Buddha’s parting words were: “Be your own light, be your own refuge, the Dharma is your light and refuge. Things naturally decay: win through by mindfulness!”

After reading Jayarava’s very thorough discussion of the last sentence above, from the Pali words given in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, I thought I would produce my own re-rendering, designed for accessibility and usefulness.  Jayarava raises many points about the meanings of the various terms, and his suggested translations are different from the above; he has not checked my rendering.  It is well worth reading his whole blog entry.

 

 

Homage pleasing to the protector Manjushri

Chintamani Manjughosha Jnanavaca 212I give my homage to you, Manjushri of the gentle heart.
Like the sun freed from the mists, your clear understanding bursts through
The clouds of my self-clinging and my reckless views;
So you press to your heart the book of perfect wisdom.

I give my homage to you, Manjushri of the sweet voice.
Beings are trapped in the dungeons of time;
With the kindness of a parent for their only child, you strive to liberate them.
There they suffer in the darkness of ignorance, but your sixty four Dharma voices boom like the thunder,
Rousing from the sleep of self-clinging and sundering the iron chains of past mistakes.
There you brandish your flaming blade, and dark delusion is illuminated, the sprouts of anguish are severed at the root.

I give my homage to you, Manjushri of the bright body.
You are the Buddha, your form perfected by ages of skilfulness.
You are the Bodhisattva, already perfected, yet working through stages of practice.
Your appearance shines with a hundred qualities and adornments
So the darkness of our mind
Is finally dispersed!

This is a freely re-rendered version of the stuti from the traditional Manjughosha Stuti Sadhana, by Ratnaprabha, 23 June 2015.  The sadhana was given to Urgyen Sangharakshita by Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche.

Sangharakshita’s seminar on the text is here.  Another version of the homage is here.

The Vimalakirti Sutra

the_vimalakirti_sutra_large

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.