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.
Among Buddhist sūtras, The Teaching of Vimalakīrti stands out like a masterfully faceted diamond, so located between the heaps of gold, silver, and pearls of the Transcendent Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) Sūtras and the array of sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and other gems of the Buddha Garland (Buddhāvataṃsaka), or Inconceivable Liberation (Acintyavimokṣa) Sūtras as to refract the radiances of all, beaming them forth to the beholder in a concentrated rainbow-beam of diamond light.
I elaborate upon this traditional metaphor here to convey a sense of how the Vimalakīrti is truly unique among Buddhist sūtras. Unmatched in its content—a quintessence of Mahāyāna doctrines, both of the profound and of the extensive categories—its aesthetic virtue, too, makes it an object of the connoisseur’s delight. This helps us understand how a hundred generations of Mahāyāna Buddhists in India, Central Asia, China, Japan, and South East Asia were disposed to study, revere, and enjoy this sūtra, finding enlightenment, inspiration, and the grace of pleasant humor.
The sūtra starts with the Buddha, in the presence of a large assembly of monks and bodhisattvas gathered before him in Āmrapālī’s grove outside Vaiśālī, receiving offerings from five hundred youths from the city, headed by the Licchavi bodhisattva Ratnākara, and in response revealing the entire universe as a vast buddhafield in a miraculous display, seen by all present. After pronouncing a notable praise to the Buddha in verse, Ratnakāra asks him to explain what is meant by a bodhisattva purifying his buddhafield. The Buddha’s response to this request, together with further descriptions in the fifth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh chapters, constitute one of the most complete and profound teachings on the subject of buddhafields to be found in the canonical literature.
The second chapter introduces the great Licchavi bodhisattva Vimalakīrti, master of the liberative art, who lives as a layman but transcends all categorization. Manifesting himself as if sick, he teaches all the notables and citizens of Vaiśālī, as they come to inquire about his health, on the insubstantial and unsatisfactory nature of the ordinary body, and compares it to the body of a tathāgata. In the third chapter, the Buddha asks his principal disciples, one by one, to visit Vimalakīrti on his sickbed. All of them in turn, however—first the great disciples, and then the bodhisattvas—feel reluctant to do so and decline on the grounds that previous encounters with him (recounted in detail) have left them astonished and somewhat discomfited by the profundity and transcendent nature of his views, often on topics or practices of which they had themselves hitherto been considered peerless masters.
Mañjuśrī, despite his own reluctance, is the only bodhisattva to assent to the Buddha’s request, and the fourth and subsequent chapters describe the conversations between him, Vimalakīrti, and a number of other interlocutors from the large assembly accompanying Mañjuśrī to Vimalakīrti’s house in the eager anticipation of hearing the Dharma expressed in the exchange between these two high-level bodhisattvas. Their discussion starts with what is meant by sickness, how a bodhisattva should comfort another bodhisattva who is sick, and how a sick bodhisattva should control his own mind, with most of the dialogue consisting of long passages spoken by Vimalakīrti in response to brief questions by Mañjuśrī. In the fifth chapter, Vimalakīrti performs the miraculous feat of bringing to his house in Vaiśālī millions of enormous thrones belonging to the entourage of a buddha from another, vastly distant universe, the Tathāgata Merupradīparāja, and explains how such apparently impossible transformations of time, space, and other phenomena become possible for a bodhisattva who lives in the inconceivable liberation. In the sixth chapter—after a discussion with Mañjuśrī on sentient beings and compassion—he leaves it to a goddess living in his house to demonstrate graphically to the hapless great disciple Śāriputra the dualistic notions he holds on attainment, vehicle, and even gender.
The seventh chapter opens with Vimalakīrti answering Mañjuśrī’s leading questions to explain that whatever ways a bodhisattva might follow, including those conventionally considered the most negative and harmful, will cause him to attain the qualities of the buddhas. This leads to a discussion on the family of the tathāgatas (tathāgatagotra) and a long speech in verse by Vimalakīrti extolling the ways in which the actions of bodhisattvas correspond to worldly activities, but transcend and surpass them by far. All of this is made possible by bodhisattvas’ freedom from dualistic thinking, and in the eighth chapter Vimalakīrti individually questions the bodhisattvas present about how each of them practices non-duality, receiving thirty-one different replies all of which Mañjuśrī finds laudable, but nevertheless still tinged with dualism. He requests Vimalakīrti to add his own point of view, to which Vimalakīrti’s responds with his famous silence.
Śāriputra again becomes an object of mind-opening critique when, at the opening of the ninth chapter, Vimalakīrti catches him wondering how everyone present is going to eat before noon. Vimalakīrti miraculously makes everyone perceive another distant buddhafield, where the Tathāgata Gandhottamakūṭa and his bodhisattvas are about to take their meal. Vimalakīrti emanates a bodhisattva, a messenger who goes to that buddhafield and invites all the bodhisattvas there back to the house in Vaiśālī, bringing a vessel of their miraculous, highly fragrant food for the assembly to enjoy. Vimalakīrti elicits from the visiting bodhisattvas an account of how Gandhottamakūṭa teaches the Dharma only through perfumes, and explains to them how the Buddha Śākyamuni has to use much grosser expedients to tame the wild and difficult beings of his own buddhafield, the Sahā world. The visitors are surprised and impressed by the Buddha’s compassion. They express the wish to pay him their respects and Vimalakīrti, in the tenth chapter, magically transports the entire assembly, including the visiting bodhisattvas, into the Buddha’s presence in Āmrapālī’s grove so that they may do so. A discussion between the Buddha, Vimalakīrti, and Ānanda of the great variety of methods used to express the Dharma in different buddhafields ensues, and the Buddha gives the visitors, before they depart for their own buddhafield, a long teaching on “the destructible and indestructible,” explaining how bodhisattvas should neither destroy what is compounded nor rest in what is uncompounded.
In the penultimate chapter, prompted by the Buddha, Vimalakīrti describes how he sees the Tathāgata. When Śāriputra asks where Vimalakīrti was before manifesting in this world, the Buddha tells him it was in Abhirati, the buddhafield of Akṣobhya. Everyone present wants a glimpse of that buddhafield, so at the Buddha’s request Vimalakīrti physically miniaturizes Abhirati, brings it to Vaiśālī to show and inspire them all, and then replaces it where it was. In a dialogue with Śakra in the final chapter the Buddha explains, as in many other sūtras, the extraordinary merit of studying and understanding this teaching, and recounts how in one of his own former lives he was taught the importance of Dharma-worship by the Tahāgata Bhaiṣajyarāja. He then entrusts his own enlightenment along with this sūtra to Maitreya, explaining the importance it will have in conveying the profound principles of the Dharma to beings in the future, as well as asking Ānanda to memorize it and giving it several different names.
In keeping with an alternative title of the sūtra (Inconceivable Liberation),1 Vimalakīrti lays great emphasis on the theme of inconceivability, that is, the ultimate incomprehensibility of all things, relative or absolute. He thus spells out the furthest implication of the application of voidness: that the finite, ego-centered mind cannot even conceive of the ultimate nature of things and, hence, as far as such minds are concerned, their ultimate reality is itself inconceivability. This accords with the degree of attainment of the bodhisattva, so frequently reached by Vimalakīrti’s audiences, called “the tolerance of the birthlessness of all things” (anutpattikadharmakṣānti). It is extremely significant that the term “tolerance” (kṣānti) is used here, rather than “conviction,” “understanding,” or “realization”; it emphasizes the fact that where the ultimate is concerned, the mind is unable to grasp anything in the pattern of dualistic knowledge, for there is no finite object in this case and only relative objects can be grasped with relative certainty in the mundane sense. Yet that is not to say that the student’s task is to simply put a label of “inconceivability” on all things and rest complacent with a sense of having reached a high state. Indeed, there are three stages of this tolerance: the verbal (ghoṣānugā), conforming (anulomikī), and true tolerance of the birthlessness of things. This indicates the difficulty of attainment of true tolerance, which occurs only at the eighth stage of bodhisattvahood.2 Inconceivability as a verbal concept is only a principle to be applied to the mind, just like the verbal concept of voidness, or even of infinity.
When we reflect intensively on any of these concepts, our minds open gradually in an ever widening sphere whose limits proceed from preconceived limitation to preconceived limitation. We discover to our surprise that there is always something further, and we logically discard the possibility of any limit being ultimate because any limit serves as the near boundary of the next larger space or dimension or time. If we adhere rigorously to this process, we soon find ourselves lost in the stars, as it were, with less and less security about ever having started from anywhere.
The Buddha gave this type of deepest teaching only to disciples able to deal with it. Nāgārjuna himself rarely spelled it out explicitly, restricting himself to providing the means whereby the disciplined intellect can strip away its own conceptualizations and habitual notions. But Vimalakīrti felt that such a message should be available to a much larger circle of people, for he expressed himself definitively on all occasions, as recorded in this sūtra.
The main technique Vimalakīrti uses that is of interest here—dichotomy—is found in his discourse, which relates to another alternative title of the sūtra, “Reconciliation of Dichotomies” (Yamakapuṭavyatyastanihāra).3 This is in keeping with the traditional method of the Middle Way masters, who had great skill in pitting polar opposites against each other to eliminate the fixedness of each and to free the mind of the student who applies himself to the polarities to open into a middle ground of reality beyond concepts. The mahāsiddhas of first-millennium India refined this art to a consummate degree in their songs and extraordinary deeds, and the Great Ch’an and Zen Masters wielded the same “double-edged sword” in their earthshaking statements and their illuminating activities. The singular quality of such teachers’ use of dichotomies lies in the fact that they relate them to the actual practice of the hearers, forcing them to integrate them in their minds and actions. Thus, they expect them to be liberated inconceivably, while being totally engaged in the work of helping other living beings. They recommend their full cultivation of great love and great compassion while maintaining total awareness of the total absence of any such thing as a living being, a suffering being, a being in bondage. In short, they show the way to the full nonduality of wisdom and great compassion, the latter being expressed as skill in liberative art—the integrated approach acknowledged by all the masters as the essence of the Mahāyāna.
Vimalakīrti’s reconciliation of dichotomies is so thoroughgoing that he shocks the disciples by his advocacy of the most horrible things as being part of the bodhisattva’s path. The bodhisattva may commit the five deadly sins, follow the false outsider teachings, entertain the sixty-two false views, consort with all the passions, and so on. Even the māras, or devils, that plague the various universes are said to be bodhisattvas dwelling in inconceivable liberation—playing the devil, as it were, in order to develop living beings.
It is an extraordinary fact that Vimalakīrti’s method in integrating the intellectual and behavioral dichotomies is one of many blatant hints of tantric ideas in the background of his teaching method. Futher research is needed to determine whether these connections prove the existence of tantrism at a time earlier than modern scholars generally believe or whether later tantrics found Vimalakīrti’s teachings a source of inspiration. However, the concept of the adept using paths generally considered evil for the attainment of enlightenment and the buddha-qualities is basic in tantric doctrine and practice; Śākyamuni’s revelation of the Sahā world as a jeweled buddhafield accords with tantric method; and Vimalakīrti’s discussion of how a bodhisattva in inconceivable liberation can transfer Mount Sumeru, or an entire universe, into a mustard seed is reminiscent of the yogic practices for transmuting dimensions of time and space found in the Guhyasamāja.4 The description of Vimalakīrti as versed in “esoteric practices”;5 the description of the “family of the tathāgatas”;6 Vimalakīrti’s verse identifying wisdom as the mother and liberative art as the father, exactly corresponding with the central tantric symbolism of male and female as vajra and bell, and the like;7 the yogic powers ascribed to the bodhisattva in inconceivable liberation, such as the ability to take fire in his stomach;8 the mention of the appearance of many tathāgatas—including Akṣobhya, Amitābha, Ratnavyūha, Sarvārthasiddha, and others—in the house of Vimalakīrti, teaching the esotericisms of the tathāgatas (tathāgata-guhyaka);9 and the culmination of the sūtra in the vision of the Buddha Akṣobhya:10 all these lend the sūtra a certain aura of tantra. Whatever the “historical” relationship may be, there is no doubt that the mahāsiddhas of later times would have felt at home in the house of Vimalakīrti.
Nothing concrete is known about the “original text” of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa. It purports to record events that took place during Gautama Buddha’s time (sixth to fifth century B.C.), but no text was apparent in India until after Nāgārjuna (c. first century B.C. to first century A.D.) had revived the Mahāyāna traditions, discovering the Mahāyāna Sanskrit sūtras, the Vimalakīrti text among them. This text was subsequently translated into Chinese seven different times, starting in the second century with Yan Fodiao11 (A.D. 188), the version of Kumārajīva (A.D. 406) being the most popular, and that of Xuanzang (A.D. 650) the most technically accurate. It was translated into Tibetan at least twice, the definitive version completed in the early ninth century by the well-known Tibetan translator Chönyi Tsültrim (chos nyid tshul khrims), also known as Dharmatāśīla, who was one of the compilers of the Mahāvyutpatti.12 It was also translated into Sogdian, Khotanese, and Uighur. For many years it was thought that all Sanskrit texts of the work had been lost, except for some fragments quoted in Mahāyāna philosophical works. In 1998, however, a Sanskrit manuscript was found in the Potala Palace, Lhasa, of which edited versions were published in 2004 and 2006 by the Taishō University Study Group on Sanskrit Buddhist Literature.13
The Japanese chose Kumārajīva’s version for their translation, and the majority of modern translations have been based on this text. In 1962, Dr. E. Lamotte set forth to rectify this situation by basing his fine French translation on the Tibetan and the Xuanzang versions. The history comes full circle finally, as the Rev. E. Bangert first translated the Tibetan into modern Thai and then into current Sanskrit.
My translation is based on the Tibetan version, as I am most at home in that language, although at times the simplicity of the Kumārajīva, the psychological precision of Xuanzang, or the elegance of Lamotte may have clarified the Tibetan, provided an alternative, or given me another reference point from which to find a middle way. Any significant departures from the basic Tibetan have been duly noted. The recently discovered Sanskrit text of the sūtra only came to light thirty years after the first edition of this translation was published, but was consulted for this new edition and has helped to make some of the revisions, including the updating of a number of Sanskrit proper names.
|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.