The Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra is a Mayahana Buddhist scripture that dates from the second century CE. It was originally composed in Sanskrit and produced in India, but was later translated into many other languages, including Chinese, Tibetan, Sogdian, Khotanese, Uighur, Mongolian, and Manchu.1,2 The original Sanskrit text was subsequently lost, and the most influential Chinese translation became that of the Buddhist monk Kumarajiva (406), on which the English translations by Charles Luk (1975)3, Burton Watson (1997)4, and John McRae (2004)5 are based. Robert Thurman’s English translation (1976)6 is based on the Tibetan translation by Chos Nid Tshul Khrims (ninth century CE). Étienne Lamotte’s French translation (1962)7 is based on both Chos Nid Tshul Khrims’s Tibetan translation and Xuanzang’s Chinese translation (650), and was translated into English by Sara Boin (1976)8.
The following summary of the Vimalakirti Sutra is based mainly on Robert Thurman’s translation, which is perhaps the most helpful and rewarding one for beginner students like myself who are interested in Buddhist philosophy. Thurman’s translation is clearly presented, extensively annotated, and beautifully rendered in prose and poetry. It includes a preface, introduction, translated text, and glossaries of Sanskrit terms, Buddhist numerical categories, and technical terms.
“Vimalakirti Nirdesha” can be translated as “Discourse of Vimilarkirti.”9 The setting of the sutra is the garden of Amrapali, in the ancient city of Vaisali, India. Buddha appears before a large assembly of Brahmas (creator gods), Sakras (heavenly kings), Lokapalas (guardian deities), and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who follow the way of the Buddha, and who dedicate themselves to enabling all beings to attain Buddhahood). The assembly also includes heavenly musicians and various supernatural beings, as well as bhikkus (monks), bhikkunis (nuns), laymen, and laywomen.
Buddha (whose name in Sanskrit means “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One”) explains that a Buddha-field (buddhakshetra) is a field of skillful means and virtuous application. It is a field of high resolve and total dedication. It is a field in which human beings are freed from all hindrances and afflictions. It is the state of an upright mind, a deeply searching mind, and a mind that aspires to enlightenment.10
A Buddha-field (or Buddha land, or pure land) is also a field (or land) of the four immeasurables,11 the four means of unification,12 the four stations of mindfulness,13 the four right efforts,14 the four bases of power,15 the five spiritual faculties,16 the five moral powers,17 the seven factors of enlightenment,18 the eightfold path of righteousness,19 and the thirty-seven aids to enlightenment.20
Vimalakirti (whose name in Sanskrit means “undefiled fame or glory”21) is a wealthy layperson, public servant, and teacher of the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha, the lawful order of the universe), who lives in the city of Vaisali. He is a model of wisdom, understanding, patience, and generosity. In order to gain further opportunity to teach the Dharma, he makes it appear that he is sick, and a vast multitude of people come to visit him in order to inquire about his health. He teaches them that the body of a Buddha is born of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. It is born of the knowledge and vision of liberation. It is born of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. It is born of awareness (chitta), quiescence (samatha), and transcendental insight (vipashyana).22 It is born of the four kinds of fearlessness,23 the six transcendental powers,24 the ten powers,25 the eighteen unshared properties,26 and the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment.27
Buddha knows that Vimalakirti would like others to take pity on him, but when Buddha asks his disciples to visit the layman and inquire about his health, they all are reluctant, because they are so in awe of his extraordinary wisdom. Each of the disciples recounts an episode that left him awed and astonished by Vimalakirti’s powers of insight and understanding.
Maudgalyayana, for example, recalls Vimilakirti’s telling him that the Dharma is like infinite space. Vimilakirti had said that the Dharma is empty of self, and that it cannot be made an object, because it transcends all movements of mind. It is without any coming or going, any beginning or ending. It is remarkable for its emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness. It cannot truly be taught, and thus the attempt to “teach the Dharma” is presumptuous.28 Maudgalyayana had been left totally speechless by Vimalakirti’s wisdom, and thus he now is reluctant to visit him in order to inquire about his health.
The bodisattva Maitreya (whose name means “Loving One”29) recalls Vimalakirti’s telling him that enlightenment is perfectly realized neither by the body nor by the mind. Vimalakirti had said that enlightenment is the eradication of all signs, and that it is free of all presumptions concerning objects. It is also free of the functioning of all intentional thoughts. It is the annihilation of all convictions, and it is free from all mental constructions. It is without subjectivity, and is completely without object.30 Maitreya had been left totally speechless by Vimalakirti’s wisdom, and thus he also now is reluctant to go see him in order to inquire about his health.
The bodisattva Prabhavyuha (whose name means “Light Array”31) recalls Vimalakirti’s telling him that the seat of enlightenment is a seat of generosity, morality, patience, and perseverance. It is a seat of meditation and wisdom. It is a seat of truth and understanding. It is a seat of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. It is a seat of liberation, and a seat of the means to unification. Prabhavyuha had been left totally speechless by Vimalakirti’s penetrating insight, and thus he also now is reluctant to go see him in order to inquire about his health.
The bodhisattva Jagatimdhara recalls Vimalakirti’s telling him that the joy in the pleasures of the Dharma is the joy of unbreakable faith in the Buddha. It is the joy of renunciation of the whole world, the joy of helping living beings, and the joy of sharing through generosity, morality, patience, and effort.32 It is the joy of extending enlightenment, the joy of exploring the three doors of liberation,33 and the joy of the realization of liberation. Jagatimdhara had been left in awe by the superiority of Vimalakirti’s wisdom, and thus he also now is reluctant to visit him in order to inquire about his health.
Finally, the bodhisattva Manjushri (whose name means “Noble and Gentle One”34) consents to go see Vimalakirti, and the others follow him to Vimalakirti’s house.
Manjushri enters, and asks Vimalakirti how he is feeling. He also asks Vimalakirti whether he knows what is causing his illness. Vimalakirti answers that his illness is due to ignorance and the thirst for existence, and that it will persist as long as the illnesses of all living beings persist, because for the bodhisattva, the illnesses of all living beings are his own illness, and his own illness can only be relieved by relieving the illnesses of all living beings.35
Manjushri then asks Vimalakirti why his house is empty, and Vimalakirti answers that his house is empty because all Buddha-fields are empty. All Buddha-fields are devoid of any fixed nature, and they are empty of any differences or distinctions.
Manjushri then asks Vimalakirit again what kind of illness he has, and Vimalakirti answers that his illness is formless and invisible, and neither mental nor physical, but due to disturbance of the elements of all living beings. The illness can only be eliminated by the elimination of egoism and attachment, which arise from dualistic conceptions of the world. Dualistic conceptions such as self and non-self, mental and physical, internal and external are empty constructions and have no reality.
Vimalakirti explains that in order for the bodhisattva to liberate others from bondage, he himself must be liberated from bondage. Liberation is attained by the integration of wisdom (prajna) and skillful means (upayakausalya). Wisdom without skillful means is bondage (bandha). Wisdom with skillful means is liberation (moksha).36 The liberation of wisdom with skillful means consists of not only concentration on the development of living beings, but also concentration on the adornment of Buddha-fields, by planting the roots of virtue in them for the sake of enlightenment.37
The domain of the bodhisattva is the domain of the four immeasurable minds, the four right efforts, the four bases of power, the five spiritual faculties, the five moral powers, the six perfections,38 the seven factors of enlightenment, and the eightfold path of righteousness.
The domain of the bodhisattva is also the domain of cultivation of the aptitude for mental quiescence and transcendental insight,39 the domain of realization that all Buddha-fields are uncreatable and indestructible, and the domain of the realization of the unborn nature of all things.40
Whoever is interested in the Dharma is uninterested in attachment, even attachment to liberation.41 Whoever is looking for secure refuge is not interested in the Dharma, but rather in secure refuge. Whoever holds onto things or lets go of things is not interested in the Dharma, but rather in holding on or letting go of things.42
The bodhisattva generates the kind of love that is peaceful, because it is free of grasping, the kind of love that is serene, because if is not disrupted by afflictive emotions, and the kind of love that is non-dual, because it is involved neither with the external nor with the internal.43
A goddess in Vimalakirti’s house suddenly makes herself visible to the assembly, and she scatters heavenly flowers over the disciples and bodhisattvas. The flowers adhere to the disciples, but not to the bodhisattvas, because they do not engage in dualistic thinking. To illustrate the teaching that all dharmas (all phenomena) are without determinate characteristics, the goddess transforms her own body into a male body like Shariputra’s, and she transforms his body into a female body like her own. Then she reverses the process, and their bodies return to their previous form. She explains that all dharmas are similarly without occurrence or non-occurrence, existence or non-existence, birth or death. Enlightenment or Buddhahood is not something that is attained; it transcends present, past, and future. To say that enlightenment is, or has been, or will be attained is to say that it is not, or has not been, or will not be attained.
When Vimalakirti asks all the bodhisattvas to explain how they may enter the Dharma door of nonduality, they each provide an example of a kind of dualistic thinking that must be avoided, e.g. the separation of creation and destruction, the separation of sinfulness and sinlessness, the separation of happiness and misery, and the separation of knowledge and ignorance. Manjushri tells them that they all have spoken well, but that their explanations, by focusing on some particular teaching of the Buddha as distinguished from other teachings, are themselves dualistic. Manjushri therefore tells them that not to say or explain anything is the way to enter the door of nonduality. When he asks Vimalakirti for his response, Vimalakirti merely remains silent. Manjushri applauds, having seen that remaining silent is the way to enter the door of nonduality.
Buddha later asks Vimalakirti how he would see the Tathagata (the “Thus Come One,” one of the ten honorific titles of the Buddha), and Vimalakirti replies that he would see the Tathagata by not seeing him at all. That is to say, he would see him as not being born from the past, not passing on to the future, and not residing in the present. He would see him as neither present nor absent, neither here nor there, neither this way nor that way, because the Tathagata is neither weak nor strong, neither concentrated nor distracted, neither conditioned nor unconditioned, neither compounded nor uncompounded.44 The Tathagata is without equal, and yet equal to the ultimate reality of all things.45
Still later, after the Buddha has explained to the assembly how to investigate, uphold, and correctly teach the Dharma, he transmits his teachings to Maitreya, so that under his protection they may be transmitted to others. Maitreya and the other bodhisattvas vow to transmit the Dharma to the rest of the world. Buddha then bestows upon his disciple Ananda (whose name means “Bliss”) an exposition of the Dharma, and the name of the exposition is “The Discourse of Vimalakirti.”
1Robert A.F. Thurman, The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti  (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), p. ix.
2Burton Watson, The Vimalakirti Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 2.
3Charles Luk (Lu K’uan Yu), The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (Boston: Shambhala, 1975).
4Watson, The Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997.
5John McRae, The Sutra of Queen Srimala of the Lion’s Roar and the Vimalakirti Sutra (Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist translation and Research, 2004).
6Robert A.F. Thurman, The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti  (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).
7Étienne Lamotte, L’Enseignement de Vimalakirti (Louvain: Institut Orientaliste, 1962).
7Étienne Lamotte, L’Enseignement de Vimalakirti (Louvain: Institut Orientaliste, 1962).
8Lamotte, The Teaching of Vimalakirti, translated by Sara Boin (London: The Pali Text Society, 1976).
9Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, et al., The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1994), p. 406.
10Watson, The Vimalakirti Sutra, pp. 26-27.
11The four immeasurable qualities of mind are love (metta), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha).
12The four means of unification are generosity (dana), loving speech (priyavadita), beneficial activity (arthacharya), and exemplication (samanarthata).
13The four stations of mindfulness are mindful contemplation of the body (kayanupassana), mindful contemplation of feelings (vedananupassana), mindful contemplation of the mind (chittanupassana), and mindful contemplation of phenomena (dhammanupassana).
14The four right efforts are the effort to avoid unwholesome states, the effort to overcome unwholesome states, the effort to develop wholesome states, and the effort to maintain wholesome states.
15The four bases of power are: concentration of intention, concentration of energy, concentration of consciousness, and concentration of investigation.
16The five spiritual faculties are faith (saddha), energy (viriya), mindfulness (sati), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna).
17The five moral powers are: the power of faith, the power of energy, the power of mindfulness, the power of concentration, and the power of wisdom.
18The seven factors or limbs of enlightenment (sambodhyanga) are: mindfulness (sati), investigation of phenomena (dharmapravicaya), energy (viriya), joy (priti), tranquility (passaddhi), concentration (samadhi), and equanimity (upeksha).
19The eight paths of righteousness are: right views, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
20The thirty-seven aids to enlightenment include the four stations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the five spiritual faculties, the five moral powers, the seven limbs of enlightenment, and the eightfold path of righteousness.
21Taigen Dan Leighton, Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and their Modern Expression (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2003), p. 275.
22Thurman, The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, pp. 23-24.
23 The four kinds of fearlessness of a Buddha are (1) fearlessness because knowledge of all knowledge has been acquired, (2) fearlessness because all afflictions have been eradicated, (3) fearlessness in explaining hindrances that obstruct realization of enlightenment, and (4) fearless in explaining the right path to end suffering (Rulu, Bodisattva Precepts, Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2012, p. 285).
24The six transcendental powers are supernatural powers that are said to belong to Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and include (1) the power of being anywhere at will, (2) the power of seeing anything anywhere, (3) the power of hearing any sound anywhere, (4) the power of knowing the thoughts of all other minds, (5) the power of knowing past lives, and (6) the power of eradicating all illusions. (Watson, p. 156.)
25The ten powers of a Buddha are: (1) the power of knowing what is right and wrong, (2) the power of knowing the karmic consequences of actions, (3) the power of knowing the various inclinations of living beings, (4) the power of knowing the various realms of living beings, (5) the power of knowing the capacities of living beings, (6) the power of knowing where all paths lead, (7) the power of knowing all stages of meditation, liberation, and concentration, (8) the power of knowing the past lives of living beings, (9) the power of knowing the deaths and future lives of living beings, and (10) the power of knowing the destruction of all illusions. (Thurman, p. 154.)
26The eighteen unshared properties belonging only to Buddhas and bodisattvas include (1) freedom from illusions, (2) eloquence, (3) absence of attachments, (4) impartiality, (5) constant concentration of the mind, (6) insight into all things, and absence of attachment to them, (7) untiring intention to lead beings to salvation, (8) incessant endeavor, (9) consistency of teachings with those of other Buddhas, (10) perfect wisdom, (11) perfect emancipation, (12) perfect insight, (13) consistency of words with wisdom, (14) consistency of mind with wisdom, (15) knowledge of the past, (16) knowledge of the future, and (17) knowledge of the present. (Watson, p. 149.)
27Watson, p. 36.
28Thurman, p. 25.
29Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, et al., The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, p. 217.
30Thurman, p. 35.
31Ibid., p. 120.
32Ibid., p. 38.
33The three doors of liberation are: emptiness (shunyata), signlessness (animitta), and aimlessness or desirelessness (apranita).
34Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, et al., The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, p. 219.
35Thurman, p. 43.
36Watson, p. 71.
37Thurman, p. 47.
38The six perfections (paramitas) are: generosity (dana), morality (shila), patience (kshanti), perseverance or exertion (virya), meditation (dhyana), and wisdom (prajna).
39Thurman explains that this kind of insight is called “transcendental,” “because it does not accept anything it sees as it appears,” but instead “penetrates to its deeper reality.” (p. 165)
40Ibid.,, p. 49.
41Ibid., p. 50.
42Ibid., p. 51.
43Ibid., pp. 56-57.
44Ibid., p. 91.