3. The Disciples’ Reluctance to Visit Vimalakirti, cont’d
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 prescribe.
“‘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 criticize all the teachings of the Buddha; if you do not rely on the Sangha; and finally, if you never enter ultimate liberation.’
Subhuti is one of my favorite disciples, in particular his integral role in the Diamond Sutra. This story revolving around his begging bowl is a wonderful vehicle that portrays his voracious appetite for the Buddhadharma. Vimalakriti skillfully elucidates how this hunger can be used as a device showing the inter-relatedness of all dharmas—but before this hunger can be satisfied one needs to be ready to consume the whole menu. Take and eat of all that is constitutive of the divided nature of samatâ—all things being equal they are thus the same. This encompasses all apparent dichotomies. You can’t have one without the other somehow being present as well. They are parts of a much larger whole, and one cannot disassociate from one without the other somehow losing its allotted portion of the completeness. You cannot seem to conquer avidya and hope to achieve liberation from all attachment; you cannot be a saint without the grand visor of the sinner shining through at the same time; you need to walk hand in hand with Mara and thus see how his trails of defilement follow and become your every step; you need to see that the chains of bondage are never far from final liberation. Yes, Subhuti, if in this manner you partake in all phenomenally-linked and diseased attributes, while at the same time not being marked by them, you may take your first bite from the Buddhadharma. This is the same as Jesus’ admonition to be in the world yet not of it. This is a most satisfying meal indeed. But you first have to be willing to take and eat before you can receive recompense from the hands of the Buddhas. This is something that Subhuti apparently was unwilling to do:
“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, reverend Subhuti? 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.”
Subhuti is just so stupefied from it all. Vimalakriti tries to reassure him to not be afraid. Ultimately everything on that plate is just an illusion—a conjurers trick. He even tells him to refrain from taking “words” so seriously, too—what are they after all but mere trinkets emanating from the mouth of a phantom. The truly wise are not affected by words, because they know that they are mere pointers to something far greater and profound than just amassed accumulated conjectures of speculative thought. But Subhuti just doesn’t get it. We shouldn’t be too hard on him, though—Subhuti is a metaphor for the common person, who just can’t handle and who doesn’t deal well with emancipation. We are more comfortable with our demons—those forces and influences that keep us perpetually bonded to our illusion of separation from the Real. The great Bodhisattva Jesus the Christ knew this only too well; many have mistaken throughout the millennia that the “masses” are assured salvation through his message—yet the true import of his vehicle of emancipation was just too much for them to swallow—that’s why at the Wedding Feast in Cana the “choicest wine” was reserved and served last for the best at heart.
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Purna-maitrayani-putra, “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 a jackal! “‘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 accomplished Buddha.’
The encounter here with Purna Maitrayaniputra deals with proper spiritual discernment or the lack thereof; Vimalakriti scolds him for serving the young novice monks rotten-discourses that were really far beneath their stature. Before one even dare to teach the Buddhadharma to others, there must be proper discernment of the workings of their inner-spirit. What was really happening here involved some past-karma from these young novices, who were strongly engaged in heightening their bodhipower—hence they needed the real stuff of the Buddhadharma in order rekindle their proper spirit of Bodhi. What this story is revealing is—don’t be so sure about the level of someone’s Buddha-gnosis without first spiritually inquiring into their past efforts and abilities. Jesus named this, “Don’t put new wine into old wineskins”—meaning, don’t keep shoveling people shit when their true spiritual potential is being left by the wayside. Vimalakriti saves the day, though, by entering into a deep Samadhi* that revealed to these spiritual novices their former rootedness in the Dharma empowering them to attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.
*This type of Samadhi, possible only by those Bodhisattvas who have attained the 10th level of Buddha-gnosis, is known as Sūraṃgamasamādhi.