by Tomon Marr
The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti (1), is an engaging read. Likely composed around 100 CE, it tells the story of the holy layman, Vimalakirti, who has fallen ill. The Buddha encourages his main disciples to visit him, and all of them refuse, daunted by the way in which, in prior interactions, Vimalakirti consistently demonstrated his superior insight and wisdom despite being a layman. Finally, Manjusri agrees to go see Vimalakirti, and is followed by throngs of disciples, arhats, laymen, deities, bodhisattvas, etc., all of whom miraculously fit into Vimalakirti’s home.
In the exchanges that follow, Vimalakirti expounds more wise and clarifying teachings. The exchanges and stories are sometimes humorous, sometimes dramatic, and full of beautiful imagery told in language that is poetic.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter called “The Goddess.” In the person of Vimalakirti, the sutra has recognized the potential of enlightenment for laypeople and in this section, the sutra also confirms that women, as well as men, can become enlightened.
I was particularly struck by the discussion of love. Sometimes it feels that there isn’t a lot of love in our polarized world of strife and anger, yet most people want to love, to be loved, and /or to be in love – it’s a constant topic of discussion and the subject of most songs, books and movies. Nevertheless, we too often confuse love with desire for something or somebody that we don’t have, with its root in one of the three poisons, greed. Almost every pop song expresses the world of dukkha- I lost love, I want it again; I never had love, but want it now; I love him and he doesn’t love me; oh, why can’t I find love?? How much of this is love and how much is desire?
Love takes many forms: love for people: our children, our parents, our partner, our community. Love for objects: art, baseball, literature, our country. In the the Pali canon, love is one of the “Four Immeasurables”, or Divine States, with compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity being the other three.
Describing unlimited love, the Metta Sutta (2) states:
As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
The key question is how we can cultivate this “great love”, love that is altruistic, beneficial and compassionate. What does this love look like in practice?
In the Vimalakirti sutra, Manjusri, asks Vimalakirti, “Good sir, how should a bodhisattva regard all living beings?” Vimalkirti replies that one should see all living beings as without a permanent self, ephemeral, or “like the track of a bird in the sky”.
If this is so, Manjusri asks how a bodhisattva would generate “the great love” towards them. Vimalakirti replies ,“Manjusri, 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”, and in this way he generates the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings.”
He then explains that this love is free of grasping and passions, and is equanimous, nondual and imperturbable. This love is “unbreakable, like a diamond”. It understands reality, has eliminated attachment and aversion, and can never be exhausted. It improves other beings and is tolerant, spontaneous, without deceit. It introduces living beings to the “happiness of the Buddha.”
Manjusri then asks, “What is the great compassion of a bodhisattva?” and Vimalakirti responds, “It is the giving of all accumulated roots of virtue to all living beings.” There is no regret in this giving. It benefits both self and others. And if people are afraid, we should emulate the magnanimity of the Buddha, striving for the liberation of all living beings from their passions.
Excited by this teaching, the Goddess, who has materialized in the room, showers flower petals over everyone. The petals stick to the great disciples, who cannot remove them, because they are still caught in conceptual thought and discrimination. The petals did not stick to the bodhisattvas, who were free of these afflictions.
Thinking about this story, I sometimes wish I could sprinkle petals over myself to determine whether or not I am in the grips of instinctual passions and discriminative thought. Sometimes I do know. Something just doesn’t feel right and I have a gut sense that I’m “going off the rails”. But sometimes it’s not until I see the result of my actions that I realize I was off. I can see how I’m caught up in delusions and not helping myself or others. Pausing, and reflecting, and listening to the “gut”, I try my best. If I fail, I try to do better the next time. And zazen helps clarify my seeing. It’s like wiping smeared glasses so we can see what is really going on and respond in the best way possible.
We aspire to live in a way that’s beneficial and kind to others and we turn to Buddhist teachings such as the Vimalakirti Sutra to give us guidance on living and being this “great love”. It is through the teachings that the “great love” of the Buddhas and ancestors, comes down through the centuries to help each of us. May we be generous and kind to others and ourselves, tolerant and patient in the work we do, treating everyone with the love and kindness with which a mother treats her child. Let us follow this good guidebook for life in a chaotic world.
- The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. Robert A.F. Thurman translation. The Pennsylvania State University Press. 2017
- Thanissaro Bikkhu translation
Tomon Lisa Marr is a Palliative Care physician and a Soto Zen priest. She received dharma transmission from Tonen O’Connor in 2012 and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.