VIMALAKIRTI NIRDESA SUTRA
Robert A. F. Thurman
copyright 1976, The Pennsylvania State University
Chapter 03 :
The Disciples' Reluctance to Visit Vimalakirti
Then, the Licchavi Vimalakirti thought to himself, "I am sick,
lying on my bed in pain, yet the Tathagata, the saint, the perfectly accomplished Buddha,
does not consider or take pity upon me, and sends no one to inquire after my
The Lord knew this thought in the mind of Vimalakirti and said to the
venerable Sariputra, "Sariputra, go to inquire after the illness of the Licchavi
Thus having been addressed, the venerable Sariputra answered the
Buddha, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to ask the Licchavi Vimalakirti about his
illness. Why? I remember one day, when I was sitting at the foot of a tree in the forest,
absorbed in contemplation, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came to the foot of that tree and said
to me, 'Reverend Sariputra, this is not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation. You
should absorb yourself in contemplation so that neither body nor mind appear anywhere in
the triple world. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can
manifest all ordinary behavior without forsaking cessation. You should absorb yourself in
contemplation in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person
without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature. You should absorb
yourself in contemplation so that the mind neither settles within nor moves without toward
external forms. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that the
thirty-seven aids to enlightenment are manifest without deviation toward any convictions.
You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you are released in
liberation without abandoning the passions that are the province of the world.
"'Reverend Sariputra, those who absorb themselves in contemplation
in such a way are declared by the Lord to be truly absorbed in contemplation.'
"Lord, when I heard this teaching, I was unable to reply and
remained silent. Therefore, I am reluctant to go to ask that good man about his
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Mahamaudgalyayana,
"Maudgalyayana, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Maudgalyayana replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to the
Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness. Why? I remember one day when I was
teaching the Dharma to the householders in a square in the great city of Vaisali, and the
Licchavi Vimalakirti came along and said to me, 'Reverend Maudgalyayana, that is not the
way to teach the Dharma to the householders in their white clothes. The Dharma must be
taught according to reality.
"'Reverend Maudgalyayana, the Dharma is without living beings,
because it is free of the dust of living beings.
It is selfless, because it is free of the dust of desire. It is
lifeless, because it is free of birth and death. It is without personalities, because it
dispenses with past origins and future destinies.
"'The Dharma is peace and pacification, because it is free from
desire. It does not become an object, because it is free of words and letters; it is
inexpressible, and it transcends all movement of mind.
"'The Dharma is omnipresent, because it is like infinite space. It
is without color, mark, or shape, because it is free of all process. It is without the
concept of "mine," because it is free of the habitual notion of possession. It
is without ideation, because it is free of mind, thought, or consciousness. It is
incomparable, because it has no antitheses. It is without presumption of conditionality,
because it does not conform to causes.
"'It permeates evenly all things, because all are included in the
ultimate realm. It conforms to reality by means of the process of nonconformity. It abides
at the reality-limit, for it is utterly without fluctuation. It is immovable, because it
is independent of the six objects of sense. It is without coming and going, for it never
stands still. It is comprised by voidness, is remarkable through signlessness, and is free
of presumption and repudiation, because of wishlessness. It is without establishment and
rejection, without birth or destruction. It is without any
fundamental consciousness, transcending the range of eye, ear, nose,
tongue, body, and thought. It is without highness and lowness. It abides without movement
"'Reverend Mahamaudgalyayana, how could there be a teaching in
regard to such a Dharma? Reverend Mahamaudgalyayana, even the expression "to teach
the Dharma" is presumptuous, and those who listen to it listen to presumption.
Reverend Maudgalyayana, where there are no presumptuous words, there is no teacher of the
Dharma, no one to listen, and no one to understand. It is as if an illusory person were to
teach the Dharma to illusory people.
"'Therefore, you should teach the Dharma by keeping your mind on
this. You should be adept in regard to the spiritual faculties of living beings. By means
of the correct vision of the wisdom-eye, manifesting the great compassion, acknowledging
the benevolent activity of the Buddha, purifying your intentions, understanding the
definitive expressions of the Dharma, you should teach the Dharma in order that the
continuity of the Three Jewels may never be interrupted.'
"Lord, when Vimalakirti had discoursed thus, eight hundred
householders in the crowd conceived the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment, and I
myself was speechless. Therefore, Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to this good man to
inquire about his illness."
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Mahakasyapa, "Mahakasyapa,
you go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
"Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to
inquire about his illness. Why? I remember one day, when I was in the street of the poor
begging for my food, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came along and said to me, 'Reverend
Mahakasyapa, to avoid the houses of the wealthy, and to favor the houses of the poor -
this is partiality in benevolence. Reverend Mahakasyapa, you should dwell on the fact of
the equality of things, and you should seek alms with consideration for all living beings
at all times. You should beg your food in awareness of
the ultimate nonexistence of food. You should seek alms for the sake of
eliminating the materialism of others.
When you enter a town, you should keep in mind its actual voidness, yet
you should proceed through it in order to develop men and women. You should enter homes as
if entering the family of the Buddha. You should accept
alms by not taking anything. You should see form like a man blind from
birth, hear sounds as if they were echoes, smell scents as if they were winds, experience
tastes without any discrimination, touch tangibles in awareness of the ultimate lack of
contact in gnosis, and know things with the consciousness of an illusory creature. That
which is without intrinsic substance and without imparted substance does not burn. And
what does not burn will not be extinguished.
"'Elder Mahakasyapa, if, equipoised in the eight liberations
without transcending the eight perversions, you can enter the equanimity of reality by
means of the equanimity of perversion, and if you can make a gift to all living beings and
an offering to all the saints and Buddhas out of even a single measure of alms, then you
yourself may eat. Thus, when you eat, after offering, you should be neither affected by
passions nor free of passions, neither involved in concentration nor free from
concentration, neither living in the world nor abiding in liberation.
Furthermore, those who give such alms, reverend, have neither great
merit nor small merit, neither gain nor loss. They should follow the way of the Buddhas,
not the way of the disciples. Only in this way, Elder Mahakasyapa, is the practice of
eating by alms meaningful.'
"Lord, when I heard this teaching, I was astonished and thought:
'Reverence to all bodhisattvas! If a lay bodhisattva may be endowed with such eloquence,
who is there who would not conceive the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment? From
that time forth, I no longer recommend the vehicles of the disciples and of the solitary
sages but recommend the Mahayana. And thus, Lord, I am reluctant to go to this good man to
inquire about his illness."
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Subhuti, "Subhuti, go to
the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Subhuti replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to this good
man to inquire about his illness. Why? My Lord,
I remember one day, when I went to beg my food at the house of the
Licchavi Vimalakirti in the great city of Vaisali, he took my bowl and filled it with some
excellent food and said to me, 'Reverend Subhuti, take this food if you understand the
equality of all things, by means of the equality of material objects, and if you
understand the equality of all the attributes of the Buddha, by means of the equality of
all things. Take this food if, without abandoning desire, hatred, and folly, you can avoid
association with them; if you can follow the path of the single way without ever
disturbing the egoistic views; if you can produce the knowledges and liberations without
conquering ignorance and the craving for existence; if, by the equality
of the five deadly sins, you reach the equality of liberation; if you are neither
liberated nor bound; if you do not see the Four Holy Truths, yet are not the one who
"has not seen the truth"; if you have not attained any fruit, yet are not the
one who "has not attained"; if you are an ordinary person, yet have not the
qualities of an ordinary person; if you are not holy, yet are not unholy; if you are
responsible for all things, yet are free of any notion concerning anything.
"'Take this food, reverend Subhuti, if, without seeing the Buddha,
hearing the Dharma, or serving the Sangha, you undertake the religious life under the six
heterodox masters; namely, Purana Kasyapa, Maskarin Gosaliputra, Samjayin Vairatiputra,
Kakuda Katyayana, Ajita Kesakambala, and Nirgrantha Jnaniputra, and follow the ways they
"'Take this food, reverend Subhuti, if, entertaining all false
views, you find neither extremes nor middle; if, bound up in the eight adversities, you do
not obtain favorable conditions; if, assimilating the passions, you do not attain
purification; if the dispassion of all living beings is your dispassion, reverend; if
those who make offerings to you are not thereby purified; if those who offer you food,
reverend, still fall into the three bad migrations; if you associate with all Maras; if
you entertain all passions; if the nature of passions is the nature of a reverend; if you
have hostile feelings toward all living beings; if you despise all the Buddhas; if you
all the teachings of the Buddha; if you do not rely on the Sangha; and
finally, if you never enter ultimate liberation.'
"Lord, when I heard these words of the Licchavi Vimalakirti, I
wondered what I should say and what I should do, but I was totally in the dark. Leaving
the bowl, I was about to leave the house when the Licchavi Vimalakirti said to me,
'Reverend Subhuti, do not fear these words, and pick up your bowl. What do you think,
If it were an incarnation created by the Tathagata who spoke thus to
you, would you be afraid?'
"I answered, 'No indeed, noble sir!' He then said, 'Reverend
Subhuti, the nature of all things is like illusion, like a magical incarnation. So you
should not fear them. Why? All words also have that nature, and thus the wise are not
attached to words, nor do they fear them. Why? All language does not ultimately exist,
except as liberation. The nature of all things is liberation.'
"When Vimalakirti had discoursed in this way, two hundred gods
obtained the pure doctrinal vision in regard to all things, without obscurity or
defilement, and five hundred gods obtained the conformative tolerance. As for me, I was
speechless and unable to respond to him. Therefore, Lord, I am reluctant to go to this
good man to inquire about his illness."
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Purnamaitrayaniputra,
"Purna, go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Purna replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to this good man
to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember one day, when I was teaching the
Dharma to some young monks in the great forest, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came there and
said to me, 'Reverend Purna, first concentrate yourself, regard the minds of these young
bhikshus, and then teach them the Dharma! Do not put rotten food into a jeweled bowl!
First understand the inclinations of these monks, and do not confuse priceless sapphires
with glass beads!
"'Reverend Purna, without examining the spiritual faculties of
living beings, do not presume upon the one-sidedness of their faculties; do not wound
those who are without wounds; do not impose a narrow path upon those who aspire to a great
path; do not try to pour the great ocean into the hoof-print of an ox; do not try to put
Mount Sumeru into a grain of mustard; do not confuse the brilliance of the sun with the
light of a glowworm; and do not expose those who admire the roar of a lion to the howl of
"'Reverend Purna, all these monks were formerly engaged in the
Mahayana but have forgotten the spirit of enlightenment. So do not instruct them in the
disciple-vehicle. The disciple-vehicle is not ultimately valid, and you disciples are like
men blind from birth, in regard to recognition of the degrees of the spiritual faculties
of living beings.'
"At that moment, the Licchavi Vimalakirti entered into such a
concentration that those monks were caused to remember their various former existences, in
which they had produced the roots of virtue by serving five hundred Buddhas for the sake
of perfect enlightenment. As soon as their own spirits of enlightenment had become clear
to them, they bowed at the feet of that good man and pressed their palms together in
reverence. He taught them the Dharma, and they all attained the stage of irreversibility
from the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. It occurred to me then, 'The
disciples, who do not know the thoughts or the inclinations of others, are not able to
teach the Dharma to anyone. Why? These disciples are not expert in discerning the
superiority and inferiority of the spiritual faculties of living beings, and they are not
always in a state of concentration like the Tathagata, the Saint, the perfectly
"Therefore, Lord, I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire
about his health."
The Buddha then said to the venerable Mahakatyayana, "Katyayana,
go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Katyayana replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go that good
man to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember one day when, after the Lord had
given some brief instruction to the monks, I was defining the expressions of that
discourse by teaching the meaning of impermanence, suffering, selflessness, and peace; the
Licchavi Vimalakirti came there and said to me, 'Reverend Mahakatyayana, do not teach an
ultimate reality endowed with activity, production, and destruction! Reverend
Mahakatyayana, nothing was ever destroyed, is
destroyed, or will ever be destroyed. Such is the meaning of
"impermanence." The meaning of the realization of birthlessness, through the
realization of the voidness of the five aggregates, is the meaning of
"suffering." The fact of the nonduality of self and selflessness is the meaning
of "selflessness." That which has no intrinsic
substance and no other sort of substance does not burn, and what does
not burn is not extinguished; such lack of extinction is the meaning of
"When he had discoursed thus, the minds of the monks were
liberated from their defilements and entered a state of nongrasping.
Therefore, Lord, I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about
The Buddha then said to the venerable Aniruddha, "Aniruddha, go to
the Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
"My Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go that good man to inquire
about his illness. Why? I remember, Lord, one day when I was taking a walk, the great
Brahma named Subhavyuha and the ten thousand other Brahmas who accompanied him illuminated
the place with their radiance and, having bowed their heads at my feet, withdrew to one
side and asked me, 'Reverend Aniruddha, you have been proclaimed by the Buddha to be the
foremost among those who possess the divine eye. To what distance does the divine vision
of the venerable Aniruddha extend?'
I answered, 'Friends, I see the entire billion-world-galactic universe
of the Lord Sakyamuni just as plainly as a man of ordinary vision sees a myrobalan nut on
the palm of his hand.' When I had said these words, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came there
and, having bowed his head at my feet, said to me, 'Reverend Aniruddha, is your divine eye
compounded in nature? Or is it uncompounded in nature?
If it is compounded in nature, it is the same as the superknowledges of
the heterodox. If it is uncompounded in nature, then it is not constructed and, as such,
is incapable of seeing. Then, how do you see, O elder?'
"At these words, I became speechless, and Brahma also was amazed
to hear this teaching from that good man.
Having bowed to him, he said, 'Who then, in the world, possesses the
"Vimalakirti answered, 'In the world, it is the Buddhas who have
the divine eye. They see all the buddha-fields without even leaving their state of
concentration and without being affected by duality.'
"Having heard these words, the ten thousand Brahmas were inspired
with high resolve and conceived the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. Having
paid homage and respect both to me and to that good man, they disappeared. As for me, I
remained speechless, and therefore I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about
The Buddha then said to the venerable Upali, "Upali, go to the
Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Upali replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to that good man
to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember that one day there were two monks who
had committed some infraction and were too ashamed to appear before the Lord, so they came
to me and said, 'Reverend Upali, we have both committed an infraction but are too ashamed
to appear before the Buddha. Venerable Upali, kindly remove our anxieties by absolving us
of these infractions.'
"Lord, while I was giving those two monks some religious
discourse, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came there and said to me, 'Reverend Upali, do not
aggravate further the sins of these two monks. Without perplexing them, relieve their
remorse. Reverend Upali, sin is not to be apprehended within, or without, or between the
The Buddha has said, "Living beings are afflicted by the passions
of thought, and they are purified by the purification of thought."
"'Reverend Upali, the mind is neither within nor without, nor is
it to be apprehended between the two. Sin is just the same as the mind, and all things are
just the same as sin. They do not escape this same reality.
"'Reverend Upali, this nature of the mind, by virtue of which your
mind, reverend, is liberated - does it ever become afflicted?'
"'Never,' I replied.
"'Reverend Upali, the minds of all living beings have that very
nature. Reverend Upali, passions consist of conceptualizations. The ultimate nonexistence
of these conceptualizations and imaginary fabrications - that is the purity that is the
intrinsic nature of the mind. Misapprehensions are passions. The ultimate absence of
misapprehensions is the intrinsic nature of the mind. The presumption of self is passion.
The absence of self is the intrinsic nature of the mind. Reverend Upali, all things are
without production, destruction, and duration, like magical illusions, clouds, and
lightning; all things are evanescent, not remaining even for an instant; all things are
like dreams, hallucinations, and unreal visions; all things are like the reflection of the
moon in water and like a mirror-image; they are born of mental construction. Those who
know this are called the true upholders of the discipline, and those disciplined in that
way are indeed well disciplined.'"
"Then the two monks said, 'This householder is extremely well
endowed with wisdom. The reverend Upali, who was proclaimed by the Lord as the foremost of
the upholders of the discipline, is not his equal.'
"I then said to the two monks, 'Do not entertain the notion that
he is a mere householder! Why? With the exception of the Tathagata himself, there is no
disciple or bodhisattva capable of competing with his eloquence or rivaling the brilliance
of his wisdom.'
"Thereupon, the two monks, delivered from their anxieties and
inspired with a high resolve, conceived the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
Bowing down to that good man, they made the wish: 'May all living beings attain eloquence
such as this!' Therefore, I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his
The Buddha then said to the venerable Rahula, "Rahula, go to the
Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Rahula replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to that good
man to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember that one day many young Licchavi
gentlemen came to the place where I was and said to me, 'Reverend
Rahula, you are the son of the Lord, and, having renounced a kingdom of
a universal monarch, you have left the world. What are the virtues and benefits you saw in
leaving the world?'
"As I was teaching them properly the benefits and virtues of
renouncing the world, the Licchavi Vimalakirti came there and, having greeted me, said,
'Reverend Rahula, you should not teach the benefits and virtues of renunciation in the way
that you do. Why? Renunciation is itself the very absence of virtues and benefits.
Reverend Rahula, one may speak of benefits and virtues in regard to
compounded things, but renunciation is uncompounded, and there can be no question of
benefits and virtues in regard to the uncompounded. Reverend Rahula, renunciation is not
material but is free of matter. It is free of the extreme views of beginning and end. It
is the path of liberation. It is praised by the wise, embraced by the saints, and causes
the defeat of all Maras. It liberates from the five states of existence, purifies the five
eyes, cultivates the five powers, and supports the five spiritual faculties. Renunciation
is totally harmless to others and is not adulterated with evil things. It disciplines the
heterodox, transcending all denominations. It is the bridge over the swamp of desire,
grasping, and free of the habits of "I" and "mine."
It is without attachment and without disturbance, eliminating all commotion. It
disciplines one's own mind and protects the minds of others. It favors mental quiescence
and stimulates transcendental analysis. It is irreproachable in all respects and so is
called renunciation. Those who leave the mundane in this way are called "truly
renunciant." Young men, renounce the world in the light of this clear teaching! The
appearance of the Buddha is extremely rare. Human life endowed with leisure and
opportunity is very hard to obtain. To be a human being is very precious.'
"The young men complained: 'But, householder, we have heard the
Tathagata declare that one should not renounce the world without the permission of one's
"Vimalakirti answered: 'Young men, you should cultivate yourselves
intensively to conceive the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. That in itself
will be your renunciation and high ordination!'
"Thereupon, thirty-two of the Licchavi youths conceived the spirit
of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
Therefore, Lord, I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about
The Buddha then said to the venerable Ananda, "Ananda, go to the
Licchavi Vimalakirti to inquire about his illness."
Ananda replied, "Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to that good
man to inquire about his illness. Why? Lord, I remember one day when the body of the Lord
manifested some indisposition and he required some milk; I took the bowl and went to the
door of the mansion of a great Brahman family. The Licchavi Vimalakirti came there, and,
having saluted me, said, 'Reverend Ananda, what are you doing on the threshold of this
house with your bowl in your hand so early in the morning?'
"I replied: 'The body of the Lord manifests some indisposition,
and he needs some milk. Therefore, I have come to fetch some.'
"Vimalakirti then said to me, 'Reverend Ananda, do not say such a
thing! Reverend Ananda, the body of the Tathagata is tough as a diamond, having eliminated
all the instinctual traces of evil and being endowed with all goodness. How could disease
or discomfort affect such a body?
"'Reverend Ananda, go in silence, and do not belittle the Lord. Do
not say such things to others. It would not be good for the powerful gods or for the
bodhisattvas coming from the various buddha-fields to hear such words.
"'Reverend Ananda, a universal monarch, who is endowed only with a
small root of virtue, is free of diseases.
How then could the Lord, who has an infinite root of virtue, have any
disease? It is impossible.
"'Reverend Ananda, do not bring shame upon us, but go in silence,
lest the heterodox sectarians should hear your words. They would say, "For shame! The
teacher of these people cannot even cure his own sicknesses. How then can he cure the
sicknesses of others?" Reverend Ananda, go then discreetly so that no one observes
"'Reverend Ananda, the Tathagatas have the body of the Dharma -
not a body that is sustained by material food.
The Tathagatas have a transcendental body that has transcended all
There is no injury to the body of a Tathagata, as it is rid of all
defilements. The body of a Tathagata is uncompounded and free of all formative activity.
Reverend Ananda, to believe there can be illness in such a body is irrational and
"When I had heard these words, I wondered if I had previously
misheard and misunderstood the Buddha, and I was very much ashamed. Then I heard a voice
from the sky: 'Ananda! The householder speaks to you truly.
Nevertheless, since the Buddha has appeared during the time of the five
corruptions, he disciplines living beings by acting lowly and humble. Therefore, Ananda,
do not be ashamed, and go and get the milk!'
"Lord, such was my conversation with the Licchavi Vimalakirti, and
therefore I am reluctant to go to that good man to inquire about his illness."
In the same way, the rest of the five hundred disciples were reluctant
to go to the Licchavi Vimalakirti, and each told the Buddha his own adventure, recounting
all his conversations with the Licchavi Vimalakirti.
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