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Vimalakirti Sutra

Vimalakirti Sutra is a scripture, which is considered as one of the most profound, as well as literarily excellent of the Indian Mahayana Buddhist sutras. The sutra expounds the profound principle of Mahayana as opposed to Theravada teachings, focusing on the explication of the meaning of nonduality. Nondualism may be viewed as the belief that dualism or dichotomies are illusory phenomena. Examples of dualisms include self/other, mind/body, male/female, good/evil, active/passive, and many others.

A nondual philosophical or religious perspective or theory maintains that there is no fundamental distinction between mind and matter, or that the entire phenomenological world is an illusion. A significant aspect of the scripture is the fact that it is a teaching addressed to high-ranking Buddhist disciples through the mouth of the layman bodhisattva Vimalakirti, who expounds the doctrine of emptiness in depth, eventually resorting to silence. Mahayana is one of the major branches of Buddhism. Relief images with many arms represent the bodhisattva’s limitless capacity and commitment to helping other beings.

While the Mahayana tradition acknowledges the validity of the arahant path (noble one), it holds as its own ideal figure the bodhisattva. The word bodhisattva means “enlightened essence”, or “enlightened being”. Probably the most important characteristic of the Bodhisattva path is the increased emphasis that it places on “compassion” (karuna). Along with those ideals are six perfections to be acquired. The giving (dana), morality (sila), patience (ksanti), vigor (virya), meditation (dhyna) and wisdom (prajna). As its core is the conception to postpone enlightenment for the sake of others.

The greatest of Bodhisattvas are fully attained beings — that is, they have reached a state where they could extinguish their own individual existence in Nirvana/Nibbana (the ultimate goal of Buddhism, the third noble truth; the suffering and the desire that causes suffering have come to an end, as has the cycle of birth and death). They have vowed to remain in the midst of Samsara (wandering; refers to the cycle of birth and death of which there are said to be six worlds containing six types of being: hell beings, ghosts, animals.

humans, jealous gods, gods) to help other beings reach enlightenment. It is typical of the Bodhisattva path that one makes a vow not to achieve one’s own final liberation from samsara until a specified number of sentient beings have been brought to liberation. These vows sometimes use astronomical numbers to specify the number of beings to be saved, and this symbolizes the intent of Bodhisattvas to develop their spiritual abilities to very high levels so that they might be used in service of others.

This is an especially important characteristic of Celestial Bodhisattvas, such as Manjushri or Avalokiteshvara (Guan-Yin), whose spiritual powers are so great that they are, in effect, gods. As such, they have many devotees, both among the laity and in monastic communities. It is important to recognize, however, that normal people can also be understood as Bodhisattvas, since their own quest for enlightenment is very closely commingled with works of compassion for others.

Within Mahayana compassion for the suffering of others tends to be a higher priority than liberation for one’s self. Or, more properly put, focus on compassion is understood to be one of the most powerful vehicles to facilitate liberation, both for others and for one’s self. Since, after all, being concerned with the welfare of others diminishes selfishness; Mahayanists understand the cultivation of compassion to be one of the best ways towards the elimination of ego, desire, and suffering for one’s self. Bodhisattvas are not limited to those who have followed the arhant path.

Though Mahayana Buddhism also depends heavily on monk experts to maintain and transmit the tradition, it also acknowledges that non-monks can attain levels of understanding that surpass that of the acknowledged experts. Certain sutras (such as the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra) even show lay experts putting monks and other acknowledged experts to shame by means of their superior comprehension of Buddhist truths. Bodhisattva’s tool of skill-in-means, also called expedites means and upaya is a prominent virtue of Bodhisattvas is their ability to use appropriate methods to reach as many suffering beings as possible.

According to one standard program, not everyone will be saved. The Bodhisattva has the skill to employ just the right means in getting someone to make steps towards understanding the Dharma (often refers to the doctrines and teachings of the faith, but it may have broader uses; an important technical term meaning something like “phenomenological constituent. ”, regardless of who that person might be). This focus on upaya also characterizes Mahayana’s diversity of practice.

Since only a certain number of people are suited to take advantage of the strictest forms of monastic practice that are outlined in the vinaya (rules of monastic life), various other forms of religious practice have been established within Mahayana to provide methods of spiritual development that correspond to the varieties of people who exist within any given population. Among the sorts of practices that have arisen within Mahayana are devotional practices directed at Celestial Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas, such as Guan Yin.

Such devotional practices include chanting the name of deities, directing prayers to them, revering their images in the form of icons (e. g. , paintings and statues), and participating in public ceremonies in which people bow in reverence. There have also developed a variety of practices from contacts with the cultures that embraced Buddhism from missionary contacts. For example, Tibetan Buddhism includes various visualization techniques that derive from older forms of Himalayan shamanism. Zen Buddhism can be understood as the combination of Buddhist thinking from India and the traditions of Taoism in China.

The emergence of these various forms of practices have been labeled, by the opponents of Mahayana, as deviations from the original Buddhism that pander to local culture, and are thus understood (again, by the opponents) to be a watering down, even a perversion, of what the Buddha originally intended. However, Mahayanists have their answers to these accusations. Perhaps most important are that most of these practices were present alongside monastic practice in early Indian Buddhism, and that Buddhism as preached by its founder is expansive enough to accommodate a wide range of practices, such as the reverence for celestial beings.

As a deeply compassionate religion in which true wisdom derives from putting others first, no matter what the cost to oneself, Bodhisattvas ideal and the tool of skill-in-means is significant and have relevance of today’s world. Many people never find contentment in this world because of their desire of one’s own happiness. To achieve such intimate and real happiness is a give and take process, the selfless aspiration to win also for the benefit of others. The many eyes of Avalokiteshvara depicted in the ideal reflect that people should perceive also the suffering of others.

The many eyes are also symbolic of the help that is ready to give to those who need it. The Bodhisattva ideal is a high ideal, a process which will take many lifetimes, the development of generosity and not of selfishness, patience, vigor, compassion and many more which is very much needed in this very much hard and changing world.


Thurman, Robert, ed. Vimalakirti Sutra: The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

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