The Vimalakirti Sutra


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.


The Great Monkey and the discovery of mangoes (a Jataka story)


Illustration by Andy Gammon

Long ago, before men had tasted mangoes, the bodhisattva was reborn as a monkey, near the banks of the Ganges. Growing up strong and vigorous, he became leader of his troop. The monkeys found a huge mango tree on the river bank: ‘Its sweet fruits of divine flavour were as large as water jars, and from one branch the fruit fell on dry ground, from another they fell into the Ganges.’ The troop feasted eagerly on the fruit, but the bodhisattva pondered, and decided that he must not let the ripe fruit fall into the river, or there would come a time when disaster would befall his followers.

So after the next blossoming, he made the monkeys eat or discard all the fruitlets on the branch that overhung the river. However, one single fruit ripened because an ants’ nest hid it from view, and it fell into the water.

Meanwhile, many miles downstream in the great royal capital Benares, King Brahmadatta was idling away his life. His many wives did their best to keep him amused, his courtiers flattered him and devised elaborate feasts, and the king himself grew more fat and more bored. In the afternoon he would go with his court to his bathing place on the Ganges. Nets were strung across the river, upstream and downstream, to keep out the crocodiles, and the king would wallow in the shallows to his heart’s content, and then emerge for a picnic.

One night, after the king had returned to his palace, the fisherman who put away the crocodile nets found a strange object caught in the mesh. Was it the egg of some huge water bird? Red and green it was, weighty, soft to the touch; swollen, blushing, and fragrant. Did the fisherman know what it was? no! — So he gave it to the chief queen. Did the queen know what it was? no! — So she gave it to the king. Did the king know what it was? no! — So he asked the queen, who asked the fisherman, who did not know. The fisherman fetched the woodman: he would know. He said to the king ‘Eat it, sire’. Suspiciously, the king made the woodman taste some first, and an enchanting perfume filled the palace as the fruit was cut.

Yes, it was the very mango that had fallen from the monkey’s tree, and the king was soon guzzling its flesh, leaving some small pieces to tantalize his wives and courtiers. He was delighted, and the fragrant essence pervaded his body. They were ecstatic, and the fragrant essence pervaded their bodies. But when the mango was finished, the sensuous king craved more; the whole gourmand court were obsessed with mangoes. So Brahmadatta ordered an expedition for the next morning. They would all go up river to look for the tree. The bodhisattva monkey’s worst fears were about to be realized.

The king’s boats stopped under the mango tree, its branches bending with ripe fruit, and Brahmadatta and his wives and courtiers feasted to repletion, all falling asleep under the great tree. The moon rose. At midnight, our monkey troop arrived for their mangoes, not noticing their new and deadly rivals snoring contentedly on the ground. The noise of the monkeys woke the king, who saw them and smiled. `The mango is an ideal fruit, but it lacks a savoury. Tomorrow we will eat mangoes and roast monkey!’ Brahmadatta awakened his men and had the tree surrounded by archers, ready to shoot at first light.

Trembling, the monkeys came to their leader — ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Do not fear,’ he whispered, and climbed to the very end of the bough which overhung the river. With a prodigious leap, he made the far river bank, landing in a bush. There, he carefully calculated the length of his leap, broke off a long bamboo pole to reach the branch, tied one end to the top of the bush, and tied the other end to his waist. The great monkey gathered every sinew for a mighty leap, and ‘with the speed of a wind‑torn cloud’ he sprang for the branch. But oh! the pole was just too short. With a despairing convulsion, the bodhisattva clutched the branch as he fell. ‘O monkeys, my back must be the bridge. Run swiftly to the pole and safety.’

So the troop escaped the dreadful fate of adorning Brahmadatta’s breakfast table. But look — the last monkey to cross is the bodhisattva’s great rival, and he stamps on his chief’s back as he passes, causing his heart to crack in a wave of pain. The cruel rival fled, laughing. The bodhisattva was alone, lashed to a bamboo pole, hanging on to the tree.

Brahmadatta had seen all in the growing light. ‘This is but a beast, yet he risks all to save his kin!’ and at daybreak he sent his boats into midstream and had a platform built on them. Gently, the dying monkey was taken down and tended. The king sat next to him on the ground and spoke, his heart full. ‘You could have saved yourself, great being. What are you to those chatterers, what are they to you?’ ‘Those monkeys are my charge, king. In terror of your brutal arrows, they looked to me, and so I saved them. Neither death nor bondage will disturb my breast, since those I ruled are now safe. I tell this to you, O king, that you may learn that a wise ruler seeks the welfare of all in his domain.’

And so the bodhisattva died, and Brahmadatta gave him a monarch’s funeral, enshrined his bones, and abandoned his own luxurious ways to rule righteously, following the instructions of a monkey.

Catherine RhysDavids, Stories of the Buddha, Dover, New York 1989 (1st edn 1929), 149–53. Tradition says that the Buddha told this story when discussing the value of seeking the welfare of one’s kin. Feats of courage and self sacrifice in defence of the troop are well known among the macaque group of monkeys (an early illustration of this birth story from the Bharat Stupa shows monkeys of this type), and are ascribed to kin selection. The idea is that it is genetically worth while to risk your life if you save the lives of close relatives, since they carry similar genes to yours. However, despite the naturalistic observation of much of this two thousand year old story, it is important as a moral fable, and not for its portrayal of animal behaviour.