3. The Disciples’ Reluctance to Visit Vimalakirti
One perhaps asks the question, why do such noble personages—like Sariputra, Subhuti, and later the Bodhisattvas themselves—have such a reluctance to go and visit the ailing Vimalakirti? They are not, says Thurman, “pretending” but rather through their previous encounters with Vimalakirti, are indeed unwilling to make a return visit. My sense is that their lack of enthusiasm in this enterprise is, in effect, a literary device to quicken Vimalakirti’s resolve to heighten the adept’s determination to break-free from all dichotomies. One needs to have a steady resolve in avoiding all extremes—the dualistic quagmire of falling into all frames of attachment, from sense-gratification, to self-mortification and even Absolute categories of existence and non-existence. Vimalakirti is emphatic that these extremes are not just meant to be avoided…but unequivocally transmuted, through Buddha-gnosis into Bhutatathata—Deathless Suchness.
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 illness. 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 Vimalakirti.” 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.
Sariputa’s encounter extracts Vimalakirti’s gnosis on proper-dhyana (meditation). Those from the Soto school of Zen should take particular note, because Vimalakiriti takes issue that this has to do with “sitting”. Dhyana is not about self-absorption in either body or mind—neither within nor without, neither action nor non-action, not even wiping the slate clean because there is no slate to begin with. In terms of practicality, nothing needs to be abstained from or transcended since liberation itself is void in light of Bhutatathata.
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 realitylimit, 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 or activity.
“‘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.
Firstly, Maudgalyayana is attempting to teach the Dharma to a group of retired scholars (in their white clothes). It’s like he’s entertaining a group of retirees in a group nursing home, yet he’s negligent as to their level of Buddha-gnosis; these particular individuals have spent many lifetimes studying and applying the Buuddhadharma, and yet Maudgalyayana is attempting to teach them at a basic-Hinayana level. As Thurman states, “Vimalakirti chastises him basically for failing to use his “wisdom eye”, his super-knowledge of telepathy (paracittajnana), to determine that his listeners were willing and able to learn and understand the Mahayana teaching of the profound nature of reality.” (Dharmadhatu) In fact, the above portion from the Sutra is a wonderful summation of Dharmadhatu: the true nature of reality as seen through the eyes of the Tathagatas. In this sense, one must have their own “Dharma-eye” properly attuned to be able to discern the real forest (Dharmata) through the trees (Phenomena). Dharmata (the inner essence that is realized inwardly by onself) is not to be confused with dharmatas, which are phenomenal manifestations; what is more, because it is an inward self-realization, it cannot, as Vimalakirti states, be taught. What Maudgalyayana had been doing was basically playing parlor tricks with his audience’s mind—much like contemporary priests and ministers trying to convey the gospel message in a weekly homily—utter rubbish as compared to knowing (gnosis) the inner-kingdom of Self—the Dharmakaya, via the Dharmata. To attempt to do so otherwise is just like the blind leading the blind.
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.
Apparently Mahakasyapa was afflicted with the demon of false-humility, still prevalent in our present age with those like Mother Theresa who incessantly attempt to treat the symptom (abject poverty) whilst being blinded to (and not treating) its root source (excessive materialism). Both are really incommensurate with samatâ—or the essential sameness of the undivided nature of the Element of Truth—the Dharmadhatu. Vimalakriti recommends that he just as well beg from the rich, since both poverty and luxury are divided facets of samatâ. Ultimately, though, he just might as well beg from the standpoint of the non-existence of food, or the voidness of an apparent township, sans sight, smell and touch—all just figments of improper discrimination from an ill-clad mind devoid of Buddhagnosis that would help to shed Unborn Light that there is no intrinsic substance apart from the Unborn Mind.