THE VIMALAKIRTI SUTRA
The Vimalakirti Sutra is one of the most popular of all Mahayana sutras, being especially loved and revered in the Far East. One of the reasons for the Sutra’s popularity is that its principal character, Vimalakirti, is not a Buddha or a Bodhisattva, or even a monk, but a layman with a family living in Vaishali in India, leading – apparently – a secular life. This does not hinder his ability, the Sutra proclaims, to be a man of remarkable spiritual understanding and attainment – so much so that he confidently lectures and advises arhats (enlightened monks) and bodhisattvas ( perfected individuals working for the enlightenment of all) on spiritual matters. These range from the ten precepts to be observed (including not harming beings, the practices of generosity and skilful speech) to the six perfections (including morality, renunciation, spiritual vigour and equanimity) and the four immeasurable qualities including loving kindness, compassion and empathetic joy. The central chapter, and the climax of the Sutra is a long and rich discourse on non-duality. Unusually for such a work, the Vimalakirti Sutra is threaded with touches of humour. The story which frames the work recounts how Vimalakirti feigns an illness in order to prompt arhats – figures such as Shariputra and Subhuti – as well as numerous Bodhisattvas to visit him and inquire after his health thus creating opportunities for the famous layman to expound the Dharma, the Buddha’s teaching. They are initially reluctant to make the visit because they have, in the past, encountered Vimalakirti’s skill and received a bit of a spiritual drubbing! All this is cast in a mythical and imaginative Mahayana setting with thousands of figures of all kinds from all the realms of the many worlds finally coming to visit Vimalakirti – and all fitting comfortably in his small house in Vaishali. Though of Sanskrit origin, it is not known when or where the Vimalakirti Sutra was written, but it is the translation by the 5th century Chinese scholar monk Kumarajiva which has provided us with the fullest and most satisfactory source text, and which Burton Watson has used to render it into English. The Vimalakirti Sutra is read with presence and understanding by Taradasa.
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