The Vimalakirti Sutra

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The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra also called the Vimalakirti Sutra, probably was written nearly 2,000 years ago. Yet it retains its freshness and humor as well as its wisdom. Modern readers especially appreciate its lesson on the equality of women and the enlightenment of laypeople.

Like most Mahayana Buddhist Sutras, the origins of the text are not known. It is generally believed that the original was a Sanskrit text dating to about the 1st century CE. The oldest version that survives to the present day is the translation into Chinese made by Kumarajiva in 406 CE. Another Chinese translation, considered to be more accurate, was completed by Hsuan Tsang in the 7th century. The now-lost Sanskrit original also was translated into Tibetan, most authoritatively by Chos-nyid-tshul-khrims in the 9th century.

The Vimalakirti Sutra contains more subtle wisdom than can be presented in a short essay, but here is a brief overview of the sutra.

Vimalakirti's Story

In this allegorical work, Vimalakirti is a layman who debates a host of disciples and bodhisattvas and demonstrates his deep enlightenment and understanding. Only the Buddha himself is his equal. So, the first point made in the sutra is that enlightenment does not depend on ordination.

Vimalakirti is a Licchavi, one of the ruling clans of ancient India, and he is held in high esteem by all. The second chapter of the sutra explains that Vimalakirti feigns illness (or takes illness into himself) so that many people, from the king to the commoners, would come to see him. He preaches the dharma to those who come, and many of his visitors realize enlightenment.

In the next chapters, we find the Buddha telling his disciples, as well as transcendent bodhisattvas and deities, to go see Vimalakirti also. But they are reluctant to go and make excuses because in the past they had all been intimidated by Vimalakirti's superior understanding.

Even Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, feels humbled by Vimalakirti. But he agrees to go visit the layman. Then a great host of disciples, buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, and goddesses decide to go along to witness because a conversation between Vimalakirti and Manjusri would be incalculably illuminating.

In the narrative that follows, Vimalakirti's sick room expands to take in the countless beings who had come to see him, indicating they had entered the boundless realm of inconceivable liberation. Although they hadn't intended to speak, Vimalakirti draws the Buddha's disciples and other visitors into a dialogue in which Vimalakirti challenges their understanding and gives them instruction.

Meanwhile, the Buddha is teaching in a garden. The garden expands, and the layman Vimalakirti appears with his host of visitors. The Buddha adds his own words of instruction. The sutra concludes with a vision of the Buddha Akshobhya and the Universe Abhirati and an epilogue that includes a version of the Four Reliances.

The Dharma-Door of Nonduality

If you had to summarize the main teaching of the Vimalakirti in one word, that word might be "nonduality." Nonduality is a deep teaching especially important to Mahayana Buddhism. At its most basic, it refers to perception without reference to subject and object, self and other.

Chapter 9 of the Vimalakirti, "The Dharma-Door of Nonduality," is possibly the best-known section of the sutra. In this chapter, Vimalakirti challenges a group of transcendent bodhisattvas to explain how to enter the dharma-door. One after another, they give examples of dualism and nondualism. For example (from page 74, Robert Thurman translation):

The bodhisattva Parigudha declared, "'Self' and 'selflessness' are dualistic. Since the existence of self cannot be perceived, what is there to be made 'selfless'? Thus, the nondualism of the vision of their nature is the entrance into nonduality."
The bodhisattva Vidyuddeva declared, "'Knowledge' and 'ignorance' are dualistic. The natures of ignorance and knowledge are the same, for ignorance is undefined, incalculable, and beyond the sphere of thought. The realization of this is the entrance into nonduality."

One after another, the bodhisattvas seek to outdo one another in their understanding of nonduality. Manjusri declares that all have spoken well, but even their examples of nonduality remain dualistic. Then Manjusri asks Vimalakirti to offer his teaching at the entrance into nonduality.

Sariputra remains silent, and Manjusri says, "Excellent! Excellent, noble sir! This is indeed the entrance into the nonduality of the bodhisattvas. Here there is no use for syllables, sounds, and ideas."

The Goddess

In a particularly intriguing passage in Chapter 7, the disciple Sariputra asks an enlightened goddess why she does not transform out of her female state. This may be a reference to a common belief that women must transform to become men before they enter Nirvana.

The goddess responds that "female state" has no inherent existence. Then she magically causes Sariputra to assume her body, while she assumes his. It's a scene similar to the gender transformation in Virginia Woolf's feminist novel Orlando but written almost two millennia earlier.

The goddess challenges Sariputra to transform from his female body, and Sariputra answers there is nothing to transform. The goddess responds, "With this in mind, the Buddha said, 'In all things, there is neither male nor female.'"

English Translations

Robert Thurman, The Holy Teachings of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976). This is a very readable translation from Tibetan.

Burton Watson, The Vimalakirti Sutra (Columbia University Press, 2000). Watson is one of the most respected translators of Buddhist texts. His Vimalakirti is translated from the Kumarajiva Chinese text.

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Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "The Vimalakirti Sutra." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). The Vimalakirti Sutra. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Vimalakirti Sutra." Learn Religions. (accessed June 5, 2023).