Dzongsar Khyentse Teaches: The Vimalakirti Sutra

In the sūtra the layman and householder Vimalakīrti, who is also, significantly, a model bodhisattva, instructs deities, learned Buddhist arahants, and lay people in all matters concerning the nature of enlightenment and Buddhist truth. He does so while lying sick in bed, although this is just a ruse designed to draw an audience of visitors who have come to wish him well and inquire about his health. As crowds of well-wishers come to see him, Vimalakīrti employs his superior understanding of “skill in means” (upāya) to teach them about the nature of “emptiness” (śūnyatā), the Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine that culminates in the counterintuitive claim that nirvana and samsara, at an ultimate level, are not different. Throughout the sūtra several famous Hinayāna Buddhist arahants are ridiculed for what Mahāyāna practitioners perceived as their selfish pursuit of nirvana, for their incomplete understanding of the nature of enlightenment, or for their pursuit of wisdom without compassion in aiding others. Vimalakīrti, by contrast, explains how a bodhisattva is able to live in the world, engaging it fully, even to the point of partaking in its pleasures, passions, and defilements, without being attached to them, constrained by them, or corrupted by them. The sūtra reaches its peak dramatic moment when Vimalakīrti asks his audience of bodhisattvas to describe the nature of non-duality. After each of them has responded verbally to his question, using technical, philosophical language, Vimalakīrti, prompted by his chief Mañjuśrī to supply his own answer, responds with silence, indicating that true understanding of non-duality is ineffable.