The Teaching of Vimalakīrti
Lesson of the Destructible and the Indestructible
- Chönyi Tsultrim
Degé Kangyur vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 175.a–239.a
While the Buddha is teaching outside the city of Vaiśālī, a notable householder in the city—the great bodhisattva Vimalakīrti—apparently falls sick. The Buddha asks his disciple and bodhisattva disciples to call on Vimalakīrti, but each of them relates previous encounters that have rendered them reluctant to face his penetrating scrutiny of their attitudes and activities. Only Mañjuśrī has the courage to pay him a visit, and in the conversations that ensue between Vimalakīrti, Mañjuśrī, and several other interlocutors, Vimalakīrti sets out an uncompromising and profound view of the Buddha’s teaching and the bodhisattva path, illustrated by various miraculous displays. Its masterful narrative structure, dramatic and sometimes humorous dialogue, and highly evolved presentation of teachings have made this sūtra one of the favorites of Mahāyāna literature.
Translated by Robert A. F. Thurman and first published, under the title The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti: A Mahāyāna Scripture, by the Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park and London, in 1976.
This electronic edition for 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, with an abridged introduction and notes, and lightly edited under the supervision of Professor Thurman, is published by his kind permission as the copyright holder.
From the Preface to the original edition:
I sincerely thank my friend and benefactor, Dr. C. T. Shen, both for his sponsorship of the work and for his most helpful collaboration in the work of comparing the Tibetan and Chinese versions. We were sometimes joined in our round-table discussions by Drs. C. S. George, Tao-Tien Yi, F. S. K. Koo, and T. C. Tsao, whose helpful suggestions I gratefully acknowledge. My thanks also go to Ms. Yeshe Tsomo and Ms. Leah Zahler for their invaluable editorial assistance, and to Ms. Carole Schwager and the staff of The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Preface to this electronic edition:
I earnestly thank Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche for his great efforts in creating the 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha project, to present in English the many great works of the Buddha’s teachings freely to the world.
I also thank John Canti, of 84000, for his careful, creative, and very learned translating and editorial work on this electronic edition, without which this improved translation would not have materialized. I thank Mr. Patrick Alexander, of the Penn State University Press, who was the one who informed me that the copyright to my original translation done for the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions had reverted to me upon the termination of that Institute, to which I had previously conveyed my rights.
I intend to publish in print form a further update of that original version at a future time. Since there have been a number of free-floating electronic forms of this text on the internet for some years now, I am happy that the sūtra in its current revision is now available in the 84000 Reading Room, among the many other translations on that site.
Meanwhile, the area in which the Lord was teaching the Dharma in the garden of Āmrapālī expanded and grew larger, and the entire assembly appeared tinged with a golden hue. Thereupon, the venerable Ānanda asked the Buddha, “Lord, this expansion and enlargement of the garden of Āmrapālī and this golden hue of the assembly—what do these auspicious signs portend?”
The Buddha declared, “Ānanda, these auspicious signs portend that the Licchavi Vimalakīrti and the crown prince Mañjuśrī, attended by a great multitude, are coming into the presence of the Tathāgata.”
At that moment the Licchavi Vimalakīrti said to the crown prince Mañjuśrī, “Mañjuśrī, let us take these many living beings into the presence of the Lord, [F.226.a] so that they may see the Tathāgata and bow down to him!”
Mañjuśrī replied, “Noble sir, send them if you feel the time is right!”
Thereupon the Licchavi Vimalakīrti performed the miraculous feat of placing the entire assembly, replete with thrones, upon his right hand and then, having transported himself magically into the presence of the Buddha, placing it on the ground. He bowed down at the feet of the Buddha, circumambulated him to the right seven times with palms together, and withdrew to one side.
The bodhisattvas who had come from the buddhafield of the Tathāgata Gandhottamakūṭa descended from their lion-thrones and, bowing down at the feet of the Buddha, placed their palms together in reverence and withdrew to one side. And the other bodhisattvas, great spiritual heroes, and the great disciples descended from their thrones likewise and, having bowed at the feet of the Buddha, withdrew to one side. Likewise all those Śakras, Brahmās, Lokapālas, and gods bowed at the feet of the Buddha and withdrew to one side.
Thus commanded by the Buddha, they took their thrones.
“I have seen them, Lord.”
“What concept did you produce toward them?”
“Lord, I produced the concept of inconceivability toward them. Their activities appeared inconceivable to me to the point that I was unable to think of them, to judge them, [F.226.b] or even to imagine them.”
Śāriputra: The Licchavi Vimalakīrti obtained some food from the universe called Sarvagandhasugandhā, the buddhafield of the Tathāgata Gandhottamakūṭa, and this perfume emanates from the bodies of all those who partook of that food.
Vimalakīrti: Until it is digested.
Vimalakīrti: It will be digested in forty-nine days, and its perfume will emanate for seven days more after that, but there will be no trouble of indigestion during that time. Furthermore, reverend Ānanda, if monks who have not entered destiny for the ultimate eat this food, it will be digested when they enter that destiny. When those who have entered destiny for the ultimate eat this food, it will not be digested until their minds are totally liberated. If living beings who have not conceived the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment eat this food, it will be digested when they conceive the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. If those who have conceived the spirit of perfect enlightenment eat this food, it will not be digested until they have attained tolerance. And if those who have attained tolerance eat this food, it will be digested when they have become bodhisattvas one lifetime away from buddhahood. Reverend Ānanda, it is like the medicine called “delicious,” which reaches the stomach but is not digested until all poisons have been eliminated—only then is it digested. Similarly, reverend Ānanda, [F.227.a] this food is not digested until all the poisons of the passions have been eliminated—only then is it digested.
“So it is, Ānanda! It is as you say, Ānanda! There are buddhafields that accomplish the buddha-work by means of bodhisattvas, those that do so by means of lights, those that do so by means of the tree of enlightenment, those that do so by means of the physical beauty and the marks of the Tathāgata, those that do so by means of religious robes, those that do so by means of food, those that do so by means of water, those that do so by means of gardens, those that do so by means of palaces, those that do so by means of mansions, those that do so by means of magical incarnations, those that do so by means of empty space, and those that do so by means of lights in the sky. Why is it so, Ānanda? Because by these various means, living beings become disciplined. Similarly, Ānanda, there are buddhafields that accomplish the buddha-work by means of teaching living beings words, definitions, and analogies, such as ‘dreams,’ ‘images,’ the ‘reflection of the moon in water,’ ‘echoes,’ ‘illusions,’ and ‘mirages’; and there are those that accomplish the buddha-work by making words understandable. Also, Ānanda, there are utterly pure buddhafields that accomplish the buddha-work for living beings without speech, by silence, inexpressibility, and unteachability. [F.227.b] Ānanda, among all the activities, enjoyments, and practices of the buddhas, there are none that do not accomplish the buddha-work, because all discipline living beings. Finally, Ānanda, the buddhas accomplish the buddha-work by means of the four māras and all the eighty-four thousand types of passion that afflict living beings.
“Ānanda, this is a Dharma-door called introduction to all the buddha-qualities. The bodhisattva who enters this Dharma-door experiences neither joy nor pride when confronted by a buddhafield adorned with the splendor of all noble qualities, and experiences neither sadness nor aversion when confronted by a buddhafield apparently without that splendor, but in all cases produces a profound reverence for all the tathāgatas. Indeed, it is wonderful how all the lord buddhas, who understand the equality of all things, manifest all sorts of buddhafields in order to develop living beings!
“Ānanda, just as the buddhafields are diverse as to their specific qualities but have no difference as to the sky that covers them, so, Ānanda, the tathāgatas are diverse as to their physical bodies but do not differ as to their unimpeded gnosis.
“Ānanda, all the buddhas are the same as to the perfection of their buddha-qualities: that is, their forms, their colors, their radiance, their bodies, their marks, their nobility, their morality, their concentration, their wisdom, their liberation, their gnosis and vision of liberation, their strengths, their fearlessnesses, their special buddha-qualities, their great love, their great compassion, their helpful intentions, their attitudes, their practices, their paths, the lengths of their lives, their teachings of the Dharma, [F.228.a] their development and liberation of living beings, and their purification of buddhafields. Therefore, they are all called ‘saṃyaksaṃbuddhas,’ ‘tathāgatas,’ and ‘buddhas.’
“Ānanda, were your life to last an entire eon, it would not be easy for you to understand thoroughly the extensive meaning and precise verbal significance of these three names. Also, Ānanda, if all the living beings of this billion-world galactic universe were like you—the foremost of the learned and the foremost of those endowed with memory and retention193—and were they to devote an entire eon, they would still be unable to understand completely the exact and extensive meaning of the three words ‘saṃyaksaṃbuddha,’ ‘tathāgata,’ and ‘buddha.’ Thus, Ānanda, the enlightenment of the buddhas is immeasurable, and the wisdom and the eloquence of the tathāgatas are inconceivable.”
The Buddha said, “Do not be discouraged, Ānanda! Why? I pronounced you, Ānanda, the foremost of the learned, with the disciples in mind, not considering the bodhisattvas. Look, Ānanda, look at the bodhisattvas. They cannot be fathomed even by the wisest of men. Ānanda, one can fathom the depths of the ocean, but one cannot fathom the depths of the wisdom, gnosis, memory, retention, or eloquence of the bodhisattvas. Ānanda, you should remain in equanimity with regard to the deeds of the bodhisattvas. Why? Ānanda, these marvels displayed in a single morning by the Licchavi Vimalakīrti [F.228.b] could not be performed by the disciples and solitary sages who have attained miraculous powers, were they to devote all their powers of incarnation and transformation during one hundred thousand millions of eons.”
Then, all those bodhisattvas from the buddhafield of the Tathāgata Gandhottamakūṭa joined their palms in reverence and, saluting the Tathāgata Śākyamuni, addressed him as follows: “Lord, when we first arrived in this buddhafield, we conceived a negative idea, but we now abandon this wrong idea. Why? Lord, the realms of the buddhas and their skill in liberative art are inconceivable. In order to develop living beings, they manifest such and such a field to suit the desire of such and such a living being. Lord, please give us a teaching by which we may remember you, when we have returned to Sarvagandhasugandhā.”
Thus having been requested, the Buddha declared, “Noble sons, there is a liberation of bodhisattvas called destructible and indestructible. You must train yourselves in this liberation. What is it? ‘Destructible’ refers to compounded things. ‘Indestructible’ refers to the uncompounded.194 But the bodhisattva should neither destroy the compounded nor rest in the uncompounded.195
“Not to destroy compounded things consists in not losing the great love; not giving up the great compassion; not forgetting the omniscient mind generated by high resolve; not tiring in the positive development of living beings; not abandoning the means of unification; giving up body and life in order to uphold the holy Dharma; never being satisfied with the roots of virtue already accumulated; taking pleasure in skillful dedication; having no laziness in seeking the Dharma; [F.229.a] being without selfish reticence in teaching the Dharma; sparing no effort in seeing and worshiping the tathāgatas; being fearless in voluntary reincarnations; being neither proud in success nor bowed in failure; not despising the unlearned, and respecting the learned as if they were the Teacher himself; making reasonable those whose passions are excessive; taking pleasure in solitude, without being attached to it; not longing for one’s own happiness but longing for the happiness of others; conceiving of trance, meditation, and equanimity as if they were the Avīci hell; conceiving of the world as a garden of liberation; considering beggars to be spiritual teachers; considering the giving away of all possessions to be the means of realizing buddhahood; considering immoral beings to be saviors;196 considering the transcendences to be parents; considering the aids to enlightenment to be servants; never ceasing accumulation of the roots of virtue; establishing the virtues of all buddhafields in one’s own buddhafield; offering limitless pure sacrifices to fulfill the auspicious marks and signs; adorning body, speech, and mind by refraining from all sins; continuing in reincarnations during immeasurable eons, while purifying body, speech, and mind; avoiding discouragement, through spiritual heroism, when learning of the immeasurable virtues of the Buddha; wielding the sharp sword of wisdom to chastise the enemy afflictions; knowing well the aggregates, the elements, and the sense-media in order to bear the burdens of all living beings; blazing with energy to conquer the host of demons; seeking knowledge in order to avoid pride; being content with little desire in order to uphold the Dharma; [F.229.b] not mixing with worldly things in order to delight all the people; being faultless in all activities in order to conform to all people; producing the superknowledges to actually accomplish all duties of benefit to living beings; acquiring retention, memory, and knowledge in order to retain all learning; understanding the degrees of people’s spiritual faculties to dispel the doubts of all living beings; displaying invincible miraculous feats to teach the Dharma; having irresistible speech by acquiring unimpeded eloquence;197 tasting human and divine success by purifying the path of the ten virtues; establishing the path of the pure states of Brahmā by cultivating the four immeasurables; inviting the buddhas to teach the Dharma, rejoicing in them, and applauding them, thereby obtaining the melodious voice of a buddha; disciplining body, speech, and mind, thus maintaining constant spiritual progress; being without attachment to anything and thus acquiring the behavior of a buddha; gathering together the order of bodhisattvas198 to attract beings to the Mahāyāna; and being consciously aware at all times not to neglect any good quality. Noble sons, a bodhisattva who thus applies himself to the Dharma is a bodhisattva who does not destroy the compounded realm.
“What is not resting in the uncompounded? The bodhisattva practices voidness, but he does not realize voidness. He practices signlessness but does not realize signlessness. He practices wishlessness but does not realize wishlessness. He practices non-performance but does not realize non-performance. He knows impermanence but is not complacent about his roots of virtue. He considers misery, but he reincarnates voluntarily. He knows selflessnes, but does not waste himself. [F.230.a] He considers peacefulness but does not seek extreme peace. He cherishes solitude but does not avoid mental and physical efforts. He considers placelessness but does not abandon the place of good actions. He considers occurrencelessness but undertakes to bear the burdens of all living beings. He considers immaculateness, yet he follows the process of the world. He considers motionlessness, yet he moves in order to develop all living beings. He considers selflessness, yet does not abandon the great compassion toward all living beings. He considers birthlessness, yet he does not fall into the ultimate determination of the disciples. He considers vanity, futility, insubstantiality, dependency, and placelessness, yet he establishes himself on merits that are not vain, on knowledge that is not futile, on reflections that are substantial, on the striving for the consecration of the independent gnosis, and on the buddha lineage in its definitive meaning.
“Furthermore, noble sons, in order to accomplish the store of merit, a bodhisattva does not rest in the uncompounded, and, in order to accomplish the store of wisdom, he does not destroy the compounded. In order to fulfill the great love, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, in order to fulfill the great compassion, he does not destroy compounded things. In order to develop living beings, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, in order to aspire to the buddha-qualities, he does not destroy compounded things. To perfect the marks of buddhahood, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, to perfect the gnosis of omniscience, he does not destroy compounded things. Out of skill in liberative art, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, through thorough analysis with his wisdom, he does not destroy compounded things. To purify the buddhafield, he does not rest in the uncompounded, [F.230.b] and, by the power of the grace of the Buddha, he does not destroy compounded things. Because he feels the needs of living beings, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, in order to show truly the meaning of the Dharma, he does not destroy compounded things. Because of his store of roots of virtue, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, because of his instinctive enthusiasm for these roots of virtue, he does not destroy compounded things. To fulfill his prayers, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, because he has no wishes, he does not destroy compounded things. Because his positive thought is pure, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, because his high resolve is pure, he does not destroy compounded things. In order to play with the five superknowledges, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, because of the six superknowledges of the buddha-gnosis,199 he does not destroy compounded things. To fulfill the six transcendences, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, to fulfill the time,200 he does not destroy compounded things. To gather the treasures of the Dharma, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, because he does not like any narrow-minded teachings, he does not destroy compounded things. Because he gathers all the medicines of the Dharma, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, to apply the medicine of the Dharma appropriately, he does not destroy compounded things. To confirm his commitments, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, to mend any failure of these commitments, he does not destroy compounded things. To concoct all the medicines of the Dharma, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, to give out the medicine of even the smallest Dharma,201 he does not destroy compounded things. Because he knows thoroughly all the sicknesses due to passions, he does not rest in the uncompounded, and, in order to cure all sicknesses of all living beings, he does not destroy compounded things.
“Thus, noble sons, the bodhisattva does not destroy compounded things and does not rest in the uncompounded, and that is the liberation of bodhisattvas called destructible and indestructible. Noble sirs, you should also strive in this.”
Then, those bodhisattvas, having heard this teaching, were satisfied, delighted, and reverent. They were filled with rejoicing and happiness of mind. [F.231.a] In order to worship the Buddha Śākyamuni and the bodhisattvas of the Sahā universe, as well as this teaching, they covered the whole earth of this billion-world galactic universe with fragrant powder, incense, perfumes, and flowers up to the height of the knees. Having thus regaled the whole retinue of the Tathāgata, bowed their heads at the feet of the Buddha, and circumambulated him to the right three times, they sang a hymn of praise to him. They then disappeared from this universe and in a split second were back in the universe Sarvagandhasugandhā.
|K||Kumārajīva’s Ch. translation|
|X||Xuanzang’s Ch. translation|
’phags pa dri ma med par grags pas bstan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryavimalakīrtinirdeśanāmamahāyānasūtra). Toh. 176, Degé Kangyur, vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 175b–239a.
’phags pa dri ma med par grags pas bstan pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo (Āryavimalakīrtinirdeśanāmamahāyānasūtra). [Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–2009, vol. 60, pp. 476–635.
Study Group on Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. 梵文維摩經 : ポタラ宮所蔵写本に基づく校訂. Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, A Sanskrit Edition Based upon the Manuscript Newly Found at the Potala Palace. Tokyo: Institute for Comprehensive Studies of Buddhism, Taishō Daigaku Shuppankai, 2006.
Lamotte, Étienne. L’Enseignement de Vimalakīrti (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa). Louvain: Université de Louvain, Institut Orientaliste, 1962. [Translated from Tib. and Xuanzang’s Chinese].
Luk, Charles (tr.). The Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra. Berkeley and London: Shambhala, 1972. [Translated from Kumārajīva’s Chinese].
McRae, John R. (tr.). The Vimalakīrti Sūtra. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2004. [Translated from Kumārajīva’s Chinese].
Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra. Sanskrit text: see Lamotte 1935. Tibetan text: ’phags pa dgongs pa nges par ’grel pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo, Toh 106, Degé Kangyur vol. 49 (mdo sde, tsha), folios 1b–55b. English translation: see Buddhavacana Translation Group.https://read.84000.co/translation/toh106.html
Saddharmapuṇḍarīka. Sanskrit text: see Vaidya 1960, Wogihara et al. 1934-1935. Tibetan text: dpal dam chos pad ma dkar po zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo, Toh 113, Degé Kangyur, vol. 51 (mdo sed, ja), folios 1b–180b. English translations: see Kern 1884; Roberts, 2018.
Guhyasamājatantra. Sanskrit text: see Bagchi 1965. Tibetan text: de bzhin gshegs pa thams cad kyi sku gsung thugs kyi gsang chen gsang ba ’dus pa zhes bya ba brtag pa’i rgyal po chen po, Toh 442, Degé Kangyur vol. 81 (rgyud ’bum, ca), folios 89b–148a.
yul ’khor skyong gis zhus pa (Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā). Toh 62, Degé Kangyur vol. 42 (dkon brtsegs, nga), folios 227.a–257.a. English translation in Vienna Buddhist Translation Studies Group (2021).
Candrakīrti. Prasannapadānāmamūlamadhyamakavṛtti. Sanskrit text: see La Vallée Poussin 1903-1912. Tibetan text: dbu ma rtsa ba’i ’grel pa tshig gsal ba, Toh 3860, Degé Tengyur vol. 102 (dbu ma, ’a), folios 1b–200a.
Nāgārjuna. Prajñanāmamūlamādhyamakakārikā. Sanskrit text and translation: see Inada 1970. Tibetan text: dbu ma rtsa ba’i tshig le’ur byas pa shes rab, Toh 3824, Degé Tengyur vol. 96 (dbu ma, tsa), folios 1b–19a.
Śāntideva. Śikṣāsamuccaya. Sanskrit text: see Vaidya, 1961. Tibetan text: bslab pa kun las btus pa, Toh 3940, Degé Tengyur vol. 111 (dbu ma, khi), folios 3a–194b. English translation: see Goodman 2016.
Bagchi, S. (ed.). Guhyasamājatantra. Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, No. 9. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute of Postgraduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1965.
Buddhavacana Translation Group. The Sūtra Unravelling the Intent (Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, Toh 106). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.https://read.84000.co/translation/toh106.html
Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature. 1932. Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970.
Goodman, Charles. The Training Anthology of Śāntideva: A Translation of the Śikṣā-samuccaya. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Inada, K. Nāgārjuna. Buffalo, N.Y., 1970.
Kern, H. (ed.). Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka, or Lotus of the True Law. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XXI. Oxford: Clarendon, 1884.
Lamotte, Étienne (tr.). Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra: L’Explication des mystères. [Tib. text and French translation]. Louvain: Université de Louvain; and Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1935.
La Vallée Poussin, L. de (ed.). Mūlamadhyamakakārikās (Mādhyamikasūtras) de Nāgārjuna avec la Prasannapadā, commentaire de Candrakīrti . Bibliotheca Buddhica IV. St. Petersburg: Académie Impériale des sciences, 1903-1913.
Roberts, Peter (tr.). The White Lotus of the Good Dharma (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, Toh 113). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2018 (read.84000.co).
Sakaki (ed.). Mahāvyutpatti, Skt.-Tib. lexicon. Kyoto, 1916-1925.
Vaidya, P. L. (ed.) Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra. Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1960.
———(ed.). Śikṣāsamuccaya of Śāntideva. Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, No. 11. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute of Postgraduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1961.
Vienna Buddhist Translation Studies Group, trans. The Questions of Rāṣṭrapāla (Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchāsūtra, Toh 62). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
Wogihara, Unrai and Tsuchida, Chikao. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtram: Romanized and Revised Text of the Bibliotheca Buddhica publication by consulting a Sanskrit Ms. & Tibetan and Chinese translations. Tōkyō: Seigo-Kenkyūkai, 1934–1935.