The Vimalakirti Sutra: The Emancipation that is Impermanent and Permanent

I will tell you how I think of people: I try to forget myself and everyone and merge myself, for their sake, in unity. – Meister Eckhart (Walshe, Vol. II, Sermon 78)

The Vimalakirti Sutra

Translated by Burton Watson in 1997 from the Chinese version by Kumarajiva (T.475) (Wisdom Library)

Chapter 11 – Actions of the Bodhisattvas

The Buddha announced to the bodhisattvas, “There is the doctrine of the emancipation that is impermanent and permanent: you would do well to learn this. What does impermanent mean? It means those things that are conditioned. What does permanent mean? It means those things that are unconditioned. But beings such as the bodhisattvas do not shun the conditioned, nor do they dwell in the unconditioned.

“What is meant by not shunning the conditioned? It means not forgetting great compassion, not renouncing great pity. It means giving profound expression to the mind of comprehensive wisdom and never forgetting it. It means teaching and converting living beings without ever wearying. It means being ever mindful of the four methods of winning people and applying them in season. It means guarding and upholding the orthodox Dharma without a thought for life or limb. It means working tirelessly to plant the roots of goodness, keeping the will at all times fixed on expedient means and the transfer of merit to others. It means seeking the truth without ever slacking, preaching the truth without ever stinting. It means diligently making offerings to the Buddhas. It means intentionally entering the realm of birth and death with never a thought of fear, facing all sorts of honor or disgrace with never a thought of joy or sadness. It means not viewing with contempt those who have yet to learn and respecting the learned as though they were the Buddha himself. It means arousing correct thoughts in those sunk in earthly desires, but without unduly prizing one’s own desire to be free of passion. One should not cling to one’s own desire [for emancipation], but instead applaud others’ desire [for emancipation].1

“It means looking on the form and the formless realms as though they were one of the hells and on the realm of birth and death as though contemplating a garden. It means viewing those who come seeking instruction with thoughts of how one may be a good teacher. It means renouncing things and meditating on how to acquire perfect wisdom. It means seeing those who violate the precepts and meditating on how to save them.

“It means viewing the paramitas as one’s father and mother,viewing the elements of the Way as one’s retinue of followers. It means working ceaselessly to nourish the roots of goodness. It means using the adornments of other pure lands to complete a buddha land of one’s own.2 It means practicing unlimited charity and thereby acquiring auspicious physical characteristics. It means putting aside all evil and purifying body, speech, and mind. It means dwelling in the realm of birth and death for countless kalpas, ever valiant in mind. It means listening to the immeasurable virtues of the Buddha. It means never flagging in determination. It means using the sword of wisdom to cut down the thieves that are earthly desires, going beyond the realm of skandhas, elements, and the senses. It means shouldering the burden of living beings and bringing them to permanent emancipation. It means employing great assiduousness in driving back and vanquishing the armies of the Evil One. It means constantly seeking to practice the wisdom that is without discriminating thought, the true aspect of the Dharma. With regard to worldly things, it means lessening desires, knowing what is enough; with regard to unworldly things, it means tirelessly seeking them, yet not shunning the things of the world.

“It means never breaking the rules of proper demeanor, yet being able to conform to worldly ways. It means summoning transcendental powers and wisdom and using them to guide living beings; acquiring concentration and retention so that one never forgets what one has heard; being able to discern the different capacities of people and freeing them from doubt; expounding the Dharma with a pleasing and appropriate eloquence that flows unimpeded. It means scrupulously carrying out the ten good actions and receiving the blessings of human and heavenly beings. It means cultivating the four immeasurable qualities of mind and opening up the Brahma way. It means earnestly beseeching to hear the preaching of the Dharma and receiving it with joy and praise. It means acquiring the voice of the Buddha and the excellence of his body, speech, and mind. It means acquiring his proper demeanor, practicing his good Dharma with profound diligence, ever more accomplished in action. It means using the Great Vehicle teachings to create a community of bodhisattvas. It means never being self-indulgent in mind, never missing an opportunity for acts of goodness. One who practices these methods may be called a bodhisattva who does not shun the conditioned.

“What is meant by saying that the bodhisattva does not dwell in the unconditioned? It means that one studies and practices the teachings on emptiness, but does not take emptiness to be enlightenment. One studies and practices the teachings on formlessness and stillness, but does not take formlessness and stillness to be enlightenment. One studies and practices the teachings on the non-rising [of the phenomenal world], but does not take non-rising to be enlightenment. One views things as impermanent, but does not neglect to cultivate the roots of goodness. One views the world as characterized by suffering, but does not hate to be born and die in it (see note 1). One sees that there is no permanent ego, yet is tireless in instructing others. One sees that there is such a thing as tranquil extinction, but one does not dwell in extinction for long. One views the world as something to be cast off, withdrawn from, yet with body and mind one practices goodness. One sees there is no goal, yet one makes the good Dharma one’s goal. One sees there is no birth, yet one takes on the form of birth in order to share the burdens of others. One sees that outflowings (asava) should be cut off, yet one does not cut them off. One sees that there is nothing to be practiced, yet one practices the Dharma in order to teach and convert living beings. One embraces the view of emptiness and nothingness, yet does not discard one’s great pity. One embraces the view that the true Dharma (enlightenment) can be attained, yet one does not follow Lesser Vehicle (Hinayana) doctrines in this matter. One embraces the view that all phenomena are empty and false, lacking in substance, egoless, unattainable, formless; yet as long as one’s original vow remains unfulfilled, one does not regard merits, virtues, meditation, or wisdom as meaningless. When one practices these methods, one may be called a bodhisattva who does not dwell in the unconditioned.”

1. Craving (thirst), which is the origin of suffering, is principally a craving becoming (bhava), and for the worldly or sensual. But there is a third kind of craving, which is the craving for “not-becoming” (vibhava).

Samudaya (origin): Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving (tanha – “thirst”) which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and covetousness, seeking delight here and there; thus there is the craving for sensual pleasures, the craving for becoming, the craving for not becoming. – Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

2. A buddha land consists of a buddha and disciples; adornments may be expedient teachings borrowed from other masters. Burton Watson writes: “To purify the Buddha lands here means to work diligently to lead the beings of various realms or Buddha lands to enlightenment, which is one of the chief aims of the bodhisattva’s activities.”

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