“VIMALAKIRTI: Lay Bodhisattva”
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
In the Sigalovada Sutta is one of few examples of the Buddha speaking directly to a layperson about Buddhist practice and how it can be effectively applied to life. The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra introduces a layman whose knowledge of the Middle Path, and whose Bodhisattva path is an example of an engaged Buddhist practice that intimidates even the Buddha’s most experienced disciples.
The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra teaches that the Bodhisattva ideal of the “selfless hand” can do more to relieve unsatisfactoriness through the actions of compassion and altruism than the realizing of enlightening moments. It is a core teaching in the Mahayana tradition with its message of social engagement based on Buddhist principles. No matter if you reach out to others out of emotion (compassion) or out of logic (altruism), it is the act of responding to those in need that is the highest Mahayana ideal you can apply effort, energy and commitment to. Your Buddhist study and practice must not be begin and end with your quest for an “enlightenment experience” because to stop there is the act of a selfish human being. A selfless human being reaches past that to a higher goal, one of extending your altruistic and compassionate hand when, and where it is needed.
“His virtuous application is tantamount to his high resolve, his high resolve is tantamount to his determination, his determination is tantamount to his practice, his practice is tantamount to his total dedication, his total dedication is tantamount to his liberative technique, his liberative technique is tantamount to his development of living beings, and his development of living beings is tantamount to the purity of his buddha-field.” Vimalakirti Nirdesa Surta, translation by Robert Thurman
Vimalakirti was an ordinary layperson whose life became a model that the Buddha offers as an example of what my root teacher, Eubanks Sensei terms “perpetual altruism”, what I would term “perpetual mindfulness”. Vimalakirti chooses not to pursue the monastic life. Instead he applies the ideals of human excellence to the reality of his daily secular life. Vimalakirti is offered in Mahayana teaching as representing the ideal layman because he is a Buddhist 24/7/365, no days off. This describes a layperson of the Middle Path who lives the Bodhisattva ideal. His commitment to virtue, and determination to liberate others by aiding their development is the encompassing and corrective example (purity of his buddha-field) he sets. View the concept of “buddha-field” as qi, the connective force that exists between yourself and the world around you. How you are directly affects the strength or weakness of your buddha-field.
A passage from of sutra describes a part of Vimalakirti’s virtuous application. “His wealth was inexhaustible for the purpose of sustaining the poor and the helpless. He observed a pure morality in order to protect the immoral. He maintained tolerance and self-control in order to reconcile beings who were angry, cruel, violent, and brutal. He blazed with energy in order to inspire people who were lazy. He maintained concentration, mindfulness, and meditation in order to sustain the mentally troubled. He attained decisive wisdom in order to sustain the foolish.” Vimalakirti Nirdesa Surta, translation by Robert Thurman
This passage reveals that Vimalakirti had mastered the Six Refinements of Mahayana practice – generosity, morals, tolerance, energy, meditation and wisdom, the final three traditionally practiced only by monastics. Not only did he master them for himself, for personal positive development but he took that next crucial step, the step of the engaged Buddhist by offering his altruistic hand with equanimity. Vimalakirti’s story is one meant to empower laypeople with the knowledge that walking the path of the Bodhisattva is achievable by all. One just has to realize their own Buddha-nature.
In the beginning of the sutra the Awakened One asks that his closest disciples, Ananda and Sariputra among them, to go the home of Vimalakirti and speak with him. In a show of ego they choose not to go because Vimalakirti’s knowledge and practice is known to exceed their own. They fear he will ask them questions they would not be able to answer. The sutra tells that hearing this a group of bodhisattvas including Manjushri attended to the home of Vimalakirti. There Manjushri questioned Vimalakirti on living the Bodhisattva ideal. The ordinary man gave answers that could be understood by other ordinary men.
Manjushri: What is the great compassion of a bodhisattva?
Vimalakirti: It is the giving of all accumulated roots of virtue to all living beings.
Manjushri: What is the great joy of the bodhisattva?
Vimalakirti: It is to be joyful and without regret in giving.
Manjushri: What is the equanimity of the bodhisattva?
Vimalakirti: It is what benefits both self and others.
Manjushri: Where should he who wishes to resort to the magnanimity of the Buddha take his stand?
Vimalakirti: He should stand in equanimity toward all living beings.
Manjushri: Where should he who wishes to stand in equanimity toward all living beings take his stand?
Vimalakirti: He should live for the liberation of all living beings.
Manjushri: What should he who wishes to liberate all living beings do?
Vimalakirti: He should liberate them from their passions.
Manjusri: How should he who wishes to eliminate passions apply himself?
Vimalakirti: He should apply himself appropriately.
Manjushri: How should he apply himself, to “apply himself appropriately”?
Vimalakirti: He should apply himself to usefulness and productiveness.
Skillful is Vimalakirti’s description of how one lives the Bodhisattva life. To practice Buddhism is to give freely of one’s resources, one’s skills, and one’s time to liberate all beings, including the not-self from suffering, discontentment and anguish.
In the book Ordinary Enlightenment, Charles Luk writes, “This sutra is particularly applicable to Western students of Buddhism because it teaches that people in the secular life [layperson] can practice Buddhism as effectively as members of monastic communities.”
In the sutras Vimalakirti is also an example of equanimity because his practice of generosity spanned all castes, something revolutionary in the culture of that time. His compassion and altruism were not limited to the members of his own station in life.
“Wanting to save people, [Vimalakīrti] used his excellent skillful means to reside in Vaiśālī, where with wealth immeasurable he attracted the poor, with the purity of his morality he attracted the miscreants, with the moderation of his forbearance he attracted the angry, with great exertion he attracted the indolent, with singleminded concentration he attracted the perturbed, and with deﬁnitive wisdom he attracted the foolish.”
It doesn’t take living the monastic life to live the Bodhisattva ideal. It doesn’t take the walls of monastery to engender the Bodhisattva ideal. All around you are opportunities to engage Buddhist practice, to be a positive agent of change. Offer your time and skills to a local organization. Look for a group or cause that you have interest in and that is doing positive work in your community. Volunteer what time you can and what skills you can. Doing so may require that you get out of your “comfort zone” and that too is part of the practice of human excellence. Become part of a social network of people with a like determination to do good for others. It isn’t important or necessary that it be a Buddhist organization.