The Teaching of Vimalakīrti
Degé Kangyur vol. 60 (mdo sde, ma), folios 175.a–239.a
First published 2017
Current version v 1.45.19 (2022)
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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.
Thereupon, Mañjuśrī, the crown prince, addressed the Licchavi Vimalakīrti: “Good sir, how should a bodhisattva regard all living beings?”
Vimalakīrti replied, “Mañjuśrī, a bodhisattva should regard all living beings as a wise man regards the reflection of the moon in water or as magicians regard men created by magic. He should regard them as being like a face in a mirror; like the water of a mirage; like the sound of an echo; like a mass of clouds in the sky; [F.208.b] like the previous moment of a ball of foam; like the appearance and disappearance of a bubble of water; like the core of a plantain tree; like a flash of lightning; like the fifth great element; like the seventh sense-medium; like the appearance of matter in an immaterial realm; like a sprout from a rotten seed; like a tortoise-hair coat; like the fun of games for one who wishes to die; like the egoistic views of a stream-winner; like a third rebirth of a once-returner; like the descent of a nonreturner into a womb; like the existence of desire, hatred, and folly in an arhat; [F.209.a] like thoughts of avarice, immorality, wickedness, and hostility in a bodhisattva who has attained tolerance; like the instincts of afflictions in a tathāgata; like the perception of color in one blind from birth; like the inhalation and exhalation of an ascetic absorbed in the meditation of cessation; like the track of a bird in the sky; like the erection of a eunuch; like the pregnancy of a barren woman; like the unproduced afflictions of an emanated incarnation of the Tathāgata; like dream-visions seen after waking; like the afflictions of one who is free of conceptualizations; like fire burning without fuel; like the reincarnation of one who has attained ultimate liberation. [F.209.b]
“Precisely thus, Mañjuśrī, does a bodhisattva who realizes ultimate selflessness consider all beings.”146
Mañjuśrī then asked further, “Noble sir, if a bodhisattva considers all living beings in such a way, how does he generate the great love toward them?”
Vimalakīrti replied, “Mañjuśrī, when a bodhisattva considers all living beings in this way, he thinks: ‘Just as I have realized the Dharma, so should I teach it to living beings.’147 Thereby, he generates the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings; the love that is peaceful because free of grasping; the love that is not feverish, because free of passions; the love that accords with reality because it is the very same in all three times; the love that is without conflict because free of the violence of the passions; the love that is nondual because it is involved neither with the external nor with the internal; the love that is imperturbable because totally ultimate.
“Thereby he generates the love that is firm, its high resolve unbreakable, like a diamond; the love that is pure, purified in its intrinsic nature; the love that is even, its aspirations being equal; the arhat’s love that has eliminated its enemy;148 the bodhisattva’s love that continuously develops living beings; the Tathāgata’s love that understands reality; the Buddha’s love that causes living beings to awaken from their sleep; the love that is spontaneous because it is fully enlightened spontaneously;149 the love that is enlightenment because it is unity of experience; the love that has no presumption because it has eliminated attachment and aversion; the love that is great compassion because it infuses the Mahāyāna with radiance; the love that is never exhausted because it acknowledges voidness and selflessness; [F.210.a] the love that is giving because it bestows the gift of Dharma free of the tight fist of a bad teacher; the love that is morality because it improves immoral living beings; the love that is tolerance because it protects both self and others; the love that is effort because it takes responsibility for all living beings; the love that is contemplation because it refrains from indulgence in tastes; the love that is wisdom because it causes attainment at the proper time;150 the love that is liberative art because it shows the way everywhere; the love that is without formality because it is pure in motivation; the love that is without deviation because it acts from decisive motivation; the love that is high resolve because it is without passions; the love that is without deceit because it is not artificial; the love that is happiness because it introduces living beings to the happiness of the Buddha. Such, Mañjuśrī, is the great love of a bodhisattva.”
Mañjuśrī: What is the great compassion of a bodhisattva?
Vimalakīrti: It is the giving of all accumulated roots of virtue to all living beings.
Mañjuśrī: What is the great joy of a bodhisattva?
Vimalakīrti: It is to be joyful and without regret in giving.
Mañjuśrī: What is the equanimity of a bodhisattva?
Vimalakīrti: Mañjuśrī, a bodhisattva who is terrified by fear of life should resort to the magnanimity of the Buddha.
Mañjuśrī: Where should he who wishes to resort to the magnanimity of the Buddha take his stand?
Vimalakīrti: He should stand in equanimity toward all living beings.152
Mañjuśrī: Where should he who wishes to stand in equanimity toward all living beings take his stand?
Vimalakīrti: He should live for the liberation of all living beings.
Vimalakīrti: He should liberate them from their afflictions.
Mañjuśrī: How should he who wishes to eliminate afflictions apply himself?
Vimalakīrti: He should apply himself appropriately.
Vimalakīrti: He should apply himself to productionlessness and to destructionlessness.
Mañjuśrī: What is not produced? And what is not destroyed?
Vimalakīrti: Evil is not produced and good is not destroyed.
Vimalakīrti: Materiality is the root of good and evil.
Mañjuśrī: What is the root of materiality?
Vimalakīrti: Desire is the root of materiality.
Vimalakīrti: Unreal construction is the root of desire.
Mañjuśrī: What is the root of unreal construction?
Vimalakīrti: The false concept is its root.
Mañjuśrī: What is the root of baselessness?
Vimalakīrti: Mañjuśrī, when something is baseless, how can it have any root? Therefore, all things stand on the root that is baseless.153
Thereupon, a certain goddess who lived in that house, having heard this teaching of the Dharma of the great heroic bodhisattvas, and being delighted, pleased, and overjoyed, manifested herself in a material body and showered the great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas, and the great disciples with heavenly flowers. When the flowers fell on the bodies of the bodhisattvas, they fell off on the floor, but when they fell on the bodies of the great disciples, they stuck to them and did not fall. [F.211.a] The great disciples shook the flowers and even tried to use their magical powers, but still the flowers would not shake off.
Then, the goddess said to the venerable Śāriputra, “Reverend Śāriputra, why do you shake these flowers?”
Śāriputra replied, “Goddess, these flowers are not proper for religious persons154 and so we are trying to shake them off.”
The goddess said, “Do not say that, reverend Śāriputra. Why? These flowers are proper indeed! Why? Such flowers have neither constructual thought nor discrimination. But the elder Śāriputra has both constructual thought and discrimination.
“Reverend Śāriputra, impropriety for one who has renounced the world for the discipline of the rightly taught Dharma consists of constructual thought and discrimination, yet the elders are full of such thoughts. One who is without such thoughts is always proper.
“Reverend Śāriputra, see how these flowers do not stick to the bodies of these great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas! This is because they have eliminated constructual thoughts and discriminations.
“In the same way that evil spirits have power over fearful men but cannot disturb the fearless, those intimidated by fear of the world are in the power of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, which do not disturb those who are free from fear of the passions inherent in the constructive world. Thus, these flowers stick to the bodies of those who have not eliminated their instincts for the passions and do not stick to the bodies of those who have eliminated their instincts. Therefore, the flowers do not stick to the bodies of these bodhisattvas, who have abandoned all instincts.”155
Then the venerable Śāriputra said to the goddess, “Goddess, how long have you been in this house?” [F.211.b]
The goddess replied, “I have been here as long as the elder has been in liberation.”
The goddess said, “Has the elder been in liberation for quite some time?”
At that, the elder Śāriputra fell silent.
The goddess continued, “Elder, you are ‘foremost of the wise!’ Why do you not speak? Now, when it is your turn, you do not answer the question.”
Śāriputra: Since liberation is inexpressible, goddess, I do not know what to say.
Goddess: All the syllables pronounced by the elder have the nature of liberation. Why? Liberation is neither internal nor external, nor can it be apprehended apart from them.156 Likewise, syllables are neither internal nor external, nor can they be apprehended anywhere else. Therefore, reverend Śāriputra, do not point to liberation by abandoning speech!157 Why? The holy liberation is the equality of all things!
Śāriputra: Goddess, is not liberation the freedom from desire, hatred, and folly?
Goddess: “Liberation is freedom from desire, hatred, and folly”—that is the teaching for the excessively proud.158 But those free of pride are taught that the very nature of desire, hatred, and folly is itself liberation.
Śāriputra: Excellent! Excellent, goddess! Pray, what have you attained, what have you realized, that you have such eloquence?
Goddess: I have attained nothing, reverend Śāriputra. I have no realization. Therefore I have such eloquence. Whoever thinks, “I have attained! I have realized!” is overly proud in the discipline of the well taught Dharma.
Śāriputra: Goddess, do you belong to the Disciple Vehicle, to the Solitary Sage Vehicle, or to the Great Vehicle?
Goddess: I belong to the Disciple Vehicle when I teach it to those who need it. [F.212.a] I belong to the Solitary Sage Vehicle when I teach the twelve links of dependent origination to those who need them. And, since I never abandon the great compassion, I belong to the Great Vehicle, as all need that teaching to attain ultimate liberation.159
Nevertheless, reverend Śāriputra, just as one cannot smell the castor plant in a magnolia wood, but only the magnolia flowers, so, reverend Śāriputra, living in this house, which is redolent with the perfume of the virtues of the buddha qualities, one does not smell the perfume of the disciples and the solitary sages. Reverend Śāriputra, the Śakras, the Brahmās, the Lokapālas, the devas, nāgas, yakṣas, gandharvas, asuras, garuḍas, kinnaras, and mahoragas who live in this house hear the Dharma from the mouth of this holy man and, enticed by the perfume of the virtues of the buddha qualities, proceed to conceive the spirit of enlightenment.
Reverend Śāriputra, I have been in this house for twelve years, and I have heard no discourses concerning the disciples and solitary sages but have heard only those concerning the great love, the great compassion, and the inconceivable qualities of the Buddha.
Reverend Śāriputra, eight strange and wonderful things manifest themselves constantly in this house. What are these eight?
A light of golden hue shines here constantly, so bright that it is hard to distinguish day and night, and neither the moon nor the sun shines here distinctly. That is the first wonder of this house.
Furthermore, reverend Śāriputra, whoever enters this house is no longer troubled by his afflictions from the moment he is within. That is the second strange and wonderful thing.
Furthermore, reverend Śāriputra, this house is never forsaken by Śakra, Brahmā, the Lokapālas, and the bodhisattvas from all the other buddhafields. That is the third strange and wonderful thing. [F.212.b]
Furthermore, reverend Śāriputra, this house is never empty of the sounds of the Dharma, the discourse on the six transcendences, and the discourses of the irreversible wheel of the Dharma. That is the fourth strange and wonderful thing.
Furthermore, reverend Śāriputra, in this house one always hears the rhythms, songs, and music of gods and men, and from this music constantly resounds the sound of the infinite Dharma of the Buddha. That is the fifth strange and wonderful thing.
Furthermore, reverend Śāriputra, in this house there are always four inexhaustible treasures,160 replete with all kinds of jewels, which never decrease, although all the poor and wretched may partake of them to their satisfaction. That is the sixth strange and wonderful thing.
Furthermore, reverend Śāriputra, at the wish of this good man, to this house come the innumerable tathāgatas of the ten directions, such as the Tathāgatas Śākyamuni, Amitābha, Akṣobhya, Ratnaśrī, Ratnārcis, Ratnacandra, Ratnavyūha, Duḥprasāha, Sarvārthasiddha, Prabhūtaratna, Siṃhanādanādī,161 Siṃhaghoṣa, and so forth, and when they come they teach the door of Dharma called The Secrets of the Tathāgatas, and then depart.162 That is the seventh strange and wonderful thing.
Furthermore, reverend Śāriputra, all the splendors of the abodes of the gods and all the splendors of the fields of the buddhas shine forth in this house. That is the eighth strange and wonderful thing.
Reverend Śāriputra, these eight strange and wonderful things are seen in this house. Who then, seeing such inconceivable things, would believe the teaching of the disciples?
Goddess: Although I have sought my “female state” for these twelve years, [F.213.a] I have not yet found it. Reverend Śāriputra, if a magician were to incarnate a woman by magic, would you ask her, “What prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?”
Goddess: Just so, reverend Śāriputra, all things do not really exist. Now, would you think, “What prevents one whose nature is that of a magical incarnation from transforming herself out of her female state?”
Thereupon, the goddess employed her magical power to cause the elder Śāriputra to appear in her form and to cause herself to appear in his form. Then the goddess, transformed into Śāriputra, said to Śāriputra, transformed into a goddess, “Reverend Śāriputra, what prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?”
And Śāriputra, transformed into the goddess, replied, “I no longer appear in the form of a male! My body has changed into the body of a woman! I do not know what to transform!”
The goddess continued, “If the elder could again change out of the female state, then all women could also change out of their female states. All women appear in the form of women in just the same way as the elder appears in the form of a woman. While they are not women in reality, they appear in the form of women. With this in mind, the Buddha said, ‘In all things, there is neither male nor female.’ ”
Then, the goddess released her magical power and each returned to their ordinary form. She then said to him, “Reverend Śāriputra, what have you done with your female form?”
Śāriputra: I neither made it nor did I change it.
Goddess: Just so, all things are neither made nor changed, and that they are not made and not changed, that is the teaching of the Buddha.164 [F.213.b]
Goddess: I will be born where all the magical incarnations of the Tathāgata are born.
Śāriputra: But the emanated incarnations of the Tathāgata do not transmigrate nor are they born.
Goddess: All things and living beings are just the same; they do not transmigrate nor are they born!
Śāriputra: Goddess, how soon will you attain the perfect enlightenment of buddhahood?
Goddess: At such time as you, elder, become endowed once more with the qualities of an ordinary individual, then will I attain the perfect enlightenment of buddhahood.
Śāriputra: Goddess, it is impossible that I should become endowed once more with the qualities of an ordinary individual.
Goddess: Just so, reverend Śāriputra, it is impossible that I should attain the perfect enlightenment of buddhahood! Why? Because perfect enlightenment stands upon the impossible. Because it is impossible, no one attains the perfect enlightenment of buddhahood.
Śāriputra: But the Tathāgata has declared: “The tathāgatas, who are as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, have attained perfect buddhahood, are attaining perfect buddhahood, and will go on attaining perfect buddhahood.”
Goddess: Reverend Śāriputra, the expression “the buddhas of the past, present, and future” is a conventional expression made up of a certain number of syllables. The buddhas are neither past, nor present, nor future. Their enlightenment transcends the three times! But tell me, elder, have you attained the state of arhat?
Goddess: Just so, there is perfect enlightenment because there is no attainment of perfect enlightenment.
Then the Licchavi Vimalakīrti said to the venerable elder Śāriputra, “Reverend Śāriputra, this goddess has already served ninety-two million billion buddhas. She plays with the superknowledges. [F.214.a] She has truly succeeded in all her vows. She has gained the tolerance of the birthlessness of things. She has actually attained irreversibility. She can live wherever she wishes on the strength of her vow to develop living beings.”
|K||Kumārajīva’s Ch. translation|
|X||Xuanzang’s Ch. translation|
Tibetan and Sanskrit sources
’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.
Translations of this text
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.
Editions and translations of works referenced
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.