Skilful Means

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.

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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.