The Doctrine of Non Duality in the
Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra
By Dharmachari Ratnaguna
of Non-duality - A Restatement of the Buddha's Teaching of The Middle Way.
of the alternative titles for the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (Teaching of Vimalakirti)
is The Reconciliation of Dichotomies , an idea which is scattered throughout
the text, but which is exemplified most fully in chapter nine, The Dharma Door
of Non-duality, in which thirty one Bodhisattvas each propose a dichotomy, which
they then resolve with a 'Dharma Door of Non-duality'. The chapter ends with Manjusri,
the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, asking Vimalakirti to give his own 'entrance into Non-duality',
his answer being the famous 'thunderous silence'.
But what is duality, and
what is Non-duality? And why does duality need to be resolved into Non-duality?
Duality consists (usually, but not always) of a pair of opposites, whereas non-duality
is the Middle Way which is between, and which also transcends, these opposites.
In the Dhammachakkappavattana-Sutta , The First Turning of the Wheel of the
Dharma, the Buddha taught the Middle Way between the extremes of attachment to
sense pleasures on the one hand, and self-mortification on the other - the Middle
Way between the two being the Noble Eightfold Path leading to Enlightenment. This
teaching is a practical application of the central insight of Buddhism, an insight
which is put in metaphysical terms in another discourse - the Kaccaayanagotta-Sutta.
In this Sutta Kaccaayana asks the Buddha what he means by the term right view
(sammaa-di.t.thi) and the Buddha answers "This world, Kaccaayana, usually
bases [its view] on two things: on existence and on non-existence....... Everything
exists:- this is one extreme. Nothing exists:- this is the other extreme. Not
approaching either extreme, the Tathágata teaches you a doctrine by the
middle [way]."  But what did the Buddha mean by existence and non-existence?
Existence (atthitaa) means absolute existence - that is the idea that things have
eternal existence, and need no other conditions for their existence. Non-existence
is absolute non-existence - that is, things don't have any existence at all -
they are completely illusory. The Middle Way between and above these two extremes
is expressed in the doctrine of Conditioned co-production (pra.titya-samutpaada),
which states that all things arise in dependence on conditions, and cease when
those conditions cease. Things have neither absolute existence nor absolute non-existence
- they have relative existence.
Vimalakirti, like The Buddha, is not concerned
with philosophical problems for their own sake. His main concern is the alleviation
of suffering, which is achieved by treading the path to Enlightenment, so the
question arises, what does this metaphysical discussion have to do with suffering
and its alleviation? The answer occurs in chapter five of the text - The Consolation
of the Invalid. Vimalakirti is ill, or at least pretends to be, his illness being
a metaphor for suffering (dukkha). At one point he says,
in his own suffering the infinite sufferings of these living beings, the Bodhisattva
correctly contemplates these living beings and resolves to cure all sicknesses.
As for these living beings, there is nothing to be applied, and there is nothing
to be removed; one has only to teach them the Dharma for them to realize the basis
from which sicknesses arise. What is this basis? It is object perception. Insofar
as apparent objects are perceived, they are the basis of sickness. What things
are perceived as objects? The three realms of existence are perceived as objects.
What is the thorough understanding of the basic, apparent object? It is its non-perception,
as no objects exist ultimately. What is non-perception? The internal and the external
object are not perceived dualistically. Therefore, it is called non-perception.
Robert Thurman translates as 'object perception', Sara Boin, in her English rendering
of Etienne Lamotte's French translation, uses 'the grasping of an object'. Thus:
is the foundation of sickness? The foundation of sickness is the grasping of an
object. This grasping being the foundation, as long as there is grasping, there
I have quoted Boin's rendering of Lamotte's French because
it makes clear the connection between the metaphysical and the practical levels
of the Middle Way: because we imagine that things have absolute existence, we
grasp them. In other words we have in this statement of Vimalakirti the first
two of the Four Noble Truths: Sickness equals suffering (dukkha). Object perception
equals grasping (tanha).
So far then Vimalakirti's message is the same as the
Buddha's - the extremes of attachment to sense pleasures and self-mortification,
and absolute existence and absolute non-existence, are to be avoided and transcended.
The first through following the path to Enlightenment, the second by thoroughly
comprehending the truth of Conditioned Co-production. However, Vimalakirti takes
the idea further than this:
What is the elimination of sickness? It is the
elimination of egoism and possessiveness. What is the elimination of egoism and
possessiveness? It is the freedom from dualism. What is freedom from dualism?
It is the absence of involvement with either the external or the internal. What
is absence of involvement with either external or internal? It is non-deviation,
non-fluctuation, and non-distraction from equanimity. What is equanimity? It is
the equality of everything from self to liberation. Why? Because both self and
liberation are void. How can both be void? As verbal designations they are both
void, and neither is established in reality. Therefore one who sees such equality
makes no difference between sickness and void-ness; his sickness is itself void-ness,
and that sickness as void-ness is itself void.
In the first part of this
statement we are still on very familiar ground: suffering arises due to egoism
(aatmagraaha - self-grasping) and possessiveness (aatmiiyagraaha - grasping that
which I believe to be mine). To overcome this we need to overcome the duality
of 'involvement with the external and the internal' - the belief in an enduring
and separate self on the one hand, and the corresponding belief in enduring and
separate objects on the other. How do we do this? Through "non-deviation,
non-fluctuation, and non-distraction from equanimity." Here Vimalakirti introduces
a crucial idea in the text, one that stretches the Buddha's practical teaching
of the Middle Way between opposites to include all categories whatsoever. "Equanimity"
in Thurman's translation Lamotte Sanskritizes as samataa, which means sameness,
and this sameness includes
everything from self to liberation (Nivarana). Why?
Because both self and liberation are void. How can both be void? As verbal designations
(naamadheya) they are both void.
Verbal designations, or concepts, are all
the same because they are all empty - empty that is, of absolute existence. Therefore
the ideas (verbal designations) of both self and Enlightenment are a duality,
which has to be transcended. Once Vimalakirti has said this, he is free to set
up any (and all) categories as dualistic, including all the categories of the
Dharma, which is exactly what he does. He does this because at every stage of
the path to Enlightenment the practitioner is confronted with the two extremes
of existence and non-existence at ever more subtle levels. The skilful treading
of the path consists in recognizing these subtle dichotomies and choosing the
Middle Way between, or better, above them. Existence and non-existence are basic
categories of thought and we can't help but think in those terms, even when talking
about ideas or experiences which transcend those categories. So, even though the
Buddhist is aware that Nivarana is neither eternal existence nor annihilation,
he cannot help but imagine it to be, in some subtle way, either one or the other
of these two options, that is, as being either an eternal continuation or the
annihilation of the self. (The literature of the Pali Canon tends to veer towards
non-existence in its depiction of Enlightenment, even though there are many passages,
which deny this, whereas some of the Mahayana schools tend to depict it as a state
of eternal existence).
Skill In Means
Vimalakirti's Resolution of dichotomies
is one of the aspects of his Skill In Means (Upaaya kau'salya), which is the Bodhisattva's
ability to adapt the Buddha's teaching to suit the capabilities, inclinations,
and spiritual development of whoever he is talking to. In other words, skill in
means is the skill to teach the Dharma appropriately. Vimalakirti himself is a
master of this skill - in fact he is the supreme exemplar of it. In chapter two,
called Inconceivable Skill In Means (acintya upaaya kau'salya) the text tells
He was liberated through the transcendence of wisdom. Having integrated
his realization with skill in means, he was expert in knowing the thoughts and
actions of living beings. Knowing the strength or weakness of their faculties,
and being gifted with unrivalled eloquence, he taught the Dharma appropriately
to each. 
Throughout the text we see him employing this skill again and
again, and we see him exhorting others, Disciples and Bodhisattvas, to do the
In chapter two, Inconceivable Skill In Means, we meet him for the first
time, and we see him pretending to be ill. This is itself a Skill In Means in
order to get the people of the city of Vaisali to visit him so that he can teach
them the Dharma. To them he gives a teaching on the un-satisfactoriness of the
Friends, this body is so impermanent, fragile, unworthy of confidence,
and feeble. It is so insubstantial, perishable, short-lived, painful, filled with
diseases, and subject to changes. Thus, my friends, as this body is only a vessel
of many sicknesses, wise men do not rely on it.
And thus he goes on for two
paragraphs, ending with
Therefore, you should be revulsed by such a body. You
should despair of it and should arouse your admiration for the body of the Tathágata..
is this body of the Tathágata?
Friends, the body of the Tathágata
is the body of Dharma, born of gnosis. The body of a Tathágata is born
of the stores of merit and wisdom. It is born of morality, of meditation, of wisdom,
of the liberations, and the knowledge and vision of liberation. It is born of
love, compassion, joy, and impartiality. It is born of charity, discipline, and
And so on for a full paragraph. Here Vimalakirti is pointing
out the dichotomy of attachment to sense pleasures, and its inevitable con-commitant
- suffering. The Middle Way between the two is the aspiration for the Body of
the Tathágata - a body which is not physical, and so not subject to physical
At the beginning of chapter three Vimalakirti thinks
I am sick, lying
on my bed in pain, yet the Tathágata, the saint, the perfectly accomplished
Buddha, does not consider me or take pity on me, and sends no-one to enquire after
The Buddha knows what Vimalakirti is thinking, and proceeds
to ask each of the disciples (500 in all) and the Bodhisattvas (how many? The
text doesn't tell us) to visit Vimalakirti. Every one of them admits that they
are reluctant to visit Vimalakirti, and to explain their reluctance they each
tell a story of a time when Vimalakirti approached them as they were practicing
or teaching the Dharma. In each case he took them to task for practicing or teaching
wrongly, that is, inappropriately. It was not that any of the practices they were
engaged in, or teachings they were giving, were wrong in themselves, it was that
they were not appropriate - they were not suited to the people who were practicing
or hearing the Dharma at that time.
In chapter five, The Consolation of the
Invalid, the Buddha at last finds someone who is willing to visit him - Manjusri,
the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Even Manjusri, we are given to believe, has to overcome
his reluctance -
Lord, it is difficult to attend upon the Licchavi Vimalakirti.
He is gifted with marvelous eloquence concerning the law of the profound. He is
extremely skilled in full expressions and in the reconciliation of dichotomies.
His eloquence is inexorable, and no one can resist his imperturbable intellect....
Thus, although he cannot be withstood by someone of my feeble defenses, still,
sustained by the grace of the Buddha, I will go to him and converse with him as
well as I can. 
The Vimalakirti Nirdesa is a drama, and here the tension
is being built up - Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, is about to meet Vimalakirti.
What is going to happen?
Thereupon in that assembly, the Bodhisattvas, the
great disciples, the 'Sakras, the Brahmas, the Lokapaalas, and the gods and the
goddesses, all had this thought: 'Surely the conversations of the young prince
Manjusri and that good man will result in a profound teaching of the Dharma' ,
they all follow Manjusri to listen.
Vimalakirti, meanwhile, is lying sick on
his couch, but he knows that Manjusri is coming and transforms his house into
Even the doorkeeper disappeared. And, except for the invalid's
couch upon which Vimalakirti was lying, no bed or couch could be seen anywhere.
is not only dramatic, it is also highly significant. Vimalakirti has just been
teaching the good people of Vaisali about the suffering inherent in the physical
body, and exhorting them to aspire to the body of the Tathágata. Now he
transforms his house into emptiness. Emptiness, ('suunyataa) is non-dualistic.
It is beyond the realm of this and that, good and bad, skilful and unskillful.
In transforming his house into emptiness Vimalakirti is preparing us for a shift
in the content of his teaching, and it comes immediately:
Manjusri! You are very welcome! There you are, without any coming. You appear,
without any seeing. You are heard, without any hearing." Manjusri declared,
"Householder, it is as you say. Who comes, finally comes not. Who goes, finally
goes not. Why? Who comes is not known to come. Who goes is not known to go. Who
appears is finally not to be seen. 
What does this mean? Vimalakirti and
Manjusri are giving expression to the fact that, as far as they are concerned,
such ideas as Vimalakirti, Manjusri, coming, appearing, seeing, hearing, and going,
are empty - they are merely 'verbal designations', and as such not to be taken
very seriously. We have moved from the simple Middle Way of the Buddha's teaching
to the more philosophically sophisticated Non-duality of the Perfection of Wisdom
Manjusri then comes to the point of his visit - he asks Vimalakirti
about his sickness, and Vimalakirti utters what has become, in China and Japan,
a very famous reply:
Manjusri, my sickness comes from ignorance and the thirst
for existence and it will last as long as do the sicknesses of all living beings.
Were all living beings to be free from sickness, I also would not be sick. Why?
Manjusri, for the Bodhisattva, the world consists only of living beings, and sickness
is inherent in living the world. Were all living beings free of sickness, the
Bodhisattva would also be free of sickness...Manjusri, the Bodhisattva loves all
living beings as if each were his only child. He becomes sick when they are sick
and is cured when they are cured. You ask me, Manjusri, whence comes my sickness;
the sickness of the Bodhisattvas arise from great compassion.
that sickness here is a metaphor for suffering (dukkha). Try substituting the
word sickness for suffering in the above and other passages where Vimalakirti
is expounding on sickness and notice the effect.)
Manjusri then asks Vimalakirti
a number of questions, one of which is "Householder, how should a Bodhisattva
console another Bodhisattva who is sick?" Vimalakirti's reply is very important:
should tell him that the body is impermanent, but should not exhort him to renunciation
or disgust. He should tell him that the body is painful, but should not encourage
him to find solace in liberation. 
This is rather different to what Vimalakirti
said in chapter two, to the people of Vaisali. There, you will remember, he told
them that the body was impermanent, painful and insubstantial, and that they should
therefore feel revulsion for it, renounce their attachment to it, and should aspire
to the Body of the Tathágata, which is liberation. Here though, in speaking
to a Bodhisattva he says that, although the body is impermanent, he should not
exhort him to renunciation or disgust. Even though the body is painful (dukkha),
he should not encourage him to find solace in liberation. What should he do then?
He should encourage his empathy for all living beings on account of his own
sickness, his remembrance of suffering experienced from beginning-less time, and
his consciousness of working for the welfare of living beings.
To the people
of Vaisali Vimalakirti points out the suffering inherent in having a physical
body so that they will aspire to Enlightenment. To the Bodhisattvas he does so
so that they will feel compassion for other living beings - just as they suffer,
so all other living beings suffer, so rather than aspire to Enlightenment for
their own sake, they should try to alleviate the suffering of others. However,
Vimalakirti is not here telling Bodhisattvas to choose a path of altruism instead
of the path to Enlightenment. That would be to choose one side of a dichotomy
rather than another and Vimalakirti is the great reconciler of dichotomies.
next question allows Vimalakirti to explain further what he means. He asks
sir, how should a sick Bodhisattva control his own mind? Vimalakirti replies,
Manjusri, a sick Bodhisattva should control his own mind with the following consideration:
Sickness arises from total involvement in the process of misunderstanding from
beginning-less time. It arises from the passions that result from unreal mental
constructions, and hence ultimately nothing is perceived that can be said to be
sick. Why? The body is the issue of the four main elements, and in these elements
there is no owner and no agent. There is no self in this body, and, except for
arbitrary insistence on self, ultimately no 'I' that can be said to be sick can
be apprehended...What is the elimination of this sickness? It is the elimination
of egoism and possessiveness. What is the elimination of egoism and possessiveness?
It is the freedom from dualism. 
The Bodhisattva's compassion is based
on Wisdom - the Wisdom that sees through the deluded notion of a separate self,
from which delusion there arises the apparent dichotomy of either gaining Enlightenment
or helping others. A little later in the text Vimalakirti makes this clear in
a passage about bondage and liberation, in which he stresses the importance of
integrating Wisdom and Skill In Means.
What is bondage, and what is liberation?
To indulge in liberation from the world without employing skill in means is bondage
for the bodhisattva. To engage in life in the world with full employment of skill
in means is liberation for the bodhisattva....Wisdom not integrated with skill
in means is bondage, but wisdom integrated with skill in means is liberation.
Skill in means not integrated with wisdom is bondage, but skill in means integrated
with wisdom is liberation.
In other words, any ideas of gaining Enlightenment
for oneself without also helping others result in bondage, not liberation. Conversely,
any ideas about helping others without also working one one's own spiritual development
also result in bondage. Both sides of that dichotomy result in bondage because
they are based on false notions of self and other, which is the basis of all 'sickness',
The Dharma Door To Non-Duality
Vimalakirti though, is not
content to restrict his teachings to reconciling the basic duality of self and
other, and throughout the text many other dualities are 'reconciled'. This reconciliation
of dichotomies is explored most fully in Chapter nine, The Dharma Door of Non-duality,
where Vimalakirti asks the Bodhisattvas present to "explain how the Bodhisattvas
enter the Dharma-door of Non-duality." Thirty-one Bodhisattvas, including
Manjusri, give their own sets of dualities, which they then reconcile into Dharma
Doors of Non-duality. For instance,
The Bodhisattva 'Sriigandha declared, '"I"
and "mine" are two. If there is no presumption of a self, there will
be no possessiveness. Thus, the absence of presumption is the entrance into non-duality.
Bodhisattvas take different Dharmic categories:
The Bodhisattva 'Saantendriya
declared, 'It is dualistic to say 'Buddha', 'Dharma', and 'Sangha'. The Dharma
is itself the nature of the Buddha, the Sangha is itself the nature of the Dharma,
and all of them are uncompounded. The uncompounded is infinite space, and the
processes of all things are equivalent to infinite space. Adjustment to this is
the entrance into non-duality.'
The Bodhisattva Subaahu declared,
(bodhisattvacitta) and 'Disciple-spirit' ('sraavakacitta) are two. When both are
seen to resemble an illusory spirit (citta), there is no Bodhisattva-spirit, nor
any Disciple-spirit. Thus the sameness of natures of spirits is the entrance into
So far this is quite uncontroversial. However, some of the
Bodhisattvas say some quite shocking things, apparently demolishing Buddhism itself.
Ma.nikuu.taraaja, for instance, says,
It is dualistic to speak of good paths
(maarga) and bad paths (kumaarga). One who is on the path (maarga) is not concerned
with good or bad paths. Living in such unconcern, he entertains no concepts of
'path' or 'non-path'. Understanding the nature of concepts, his mind does not
engage in duality. Such is the entrance into non-duality.
'Knowledge' (vidyaa) and 'ignorance' (avidyaa) are dualistic. The
natures of ignorance and knowledge are the same, for ignorance is undefined, incalculable,
and beyond the sphere of thought. The realization of this is the entrance into
Or Ti.sya, who says,
'Good' (ku'sala) and 'evil' (aku'sala)
are two. Seeking neither good nor evil, the understanding of the non-duality of
the significant and the meaningless is the entrance into non-duality.
should they say such things? What do they mean, and of what benefit could they
be to anyone? One of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa's main concerns is to try to get
people to let go of their various attachments, and this is really all that Vimalakirti
himself does throughout the whole of the text - his Skill In Means consists solely
in encouraging, cajoling, and exhorting people to go forth from their attachments,
whatever they are, and to take the next step in their spiritual development, whatever
that might be. In the Pali Canon there is a list of four kinds of attachment (upaadaana),
and it may be useful see the Vimalakirti Nirdesa as an assault on each of these.
They are: attachment to sensuous pleasures (kaama); to views (di.t.thi); to ethics
(síla) and external observances (bbata) merely for their own sakes; and
to the belief in a 'soul' or unchanging essence to phenomena (attavaada). Depending
on who he is talking to Vimalakirti tries to get his hearers to give up one or
more of these attachments. So, for instance, in the second chapter he encourages
the people of Vaisali to give up their attachment to their physical bodies, which
are the source of both sensuous pleasure and suffering, and also, to a large extent,
their belief in a fixed and separate self. In the following chapters, when he
is speaking to Disciples and Bodhisattvas, he tries to get them to let go of the
last three kinds of attachment: to views; ethics and external practices (merely
for their own sakes); and self-view - it being understood that they have already
renounced attachment to sensuous desire.
So when 'Shariputra is meditating
at the foot of a tree Vimalakirti tells him that he is meditating wrongly:
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.
'Shariputra has got attached to a 'view'
about meditation - that it consists in the rejection and abandonment of certain
aspects of life, when meditation is actually the embracing of all. When Maha Maudgalyayana
is teaching the Dharma to some householders Vimalakirti tells him that he is teaching
them wrongly, i.e. with the idea that there is a really existent self teaching
really existent people:
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.
Maha Maudgalyayana is still subtly attached to the
notion of a self. Mahakashyapa is famous for his asceticism, and made it his practice
to beg food only from the poor - these being in more need of merit than the rich.
This is what he is doing when Vimalakirti confronts him, telling him that he is
guilty of "partiality in benevolence", and that he should
the fact of the equality of things, and ... should seek alms with consideration
for all living beings at all times.
Mahakashyapa has become attached to
It is important to remember that here, as in all other
parts of the text, Vimalakirti is practicing Skill In Means - he is adapting the
Dharma to the capabilities, inclinations, and spiritual development of whoever
he is talking to. What he says to 'Shariputra, Maha Maudgalyayana, and Mahakashyapa
is probably not what he would say to you or I. 'Shariputra is meditating in the
forest, Maha Maudgalyayana is teaching the Dharma, and Mahakashyapa is practicing
renunciation and compassion. These are very skilful actions, which the vast majority
of Buddhists would do well to try to put into practice. Because Vimalakirti points
out the limitations of their respective practices to these three great disciples,
this should not give us any reason for not practicing, or for giving up our practice
prematurely. Nor should it give us any reason to feel superior to the Disciples
- if we feel that then we have completely missed the point the text is trying
to make. On the contrary, we should feel the greatest respect, admiration and
devotion towards them. After all, how many of us have reached their level of spiritual
development? How many of us are ready for such teachings that Vimalakirti gave
to them? In criticizing them in these ways Vimalakirti is paying them the highest
Let us return now to the ninth chapter, The Dharma-Door of Non-Duality,
and try to understand the Bodhisattvas statements in the light of all I have just
said. Once again, it is important to remember the context of these statements
- who is talking to who? Bodhisattvas are speaking to Bodhisattvas, and they are
very advanced Bodhisattvas:
Their mindfulness, intelligence, realization, meditation,
incantation, and eloquence were all perfected. They were free of all obscurations
and emotional involvements, living in liberation without impediment.... They were
expert in knowing the spiritual faculties of all living beings.... They were experts
in the way of the Dharma....They were endowed with the wisdom that is able to
understand the thoughts of living beings, as well as their comings and goings.
Each of the Bodhisattvas' Dharma Doors are concerned with letting go
of attachment to views, many of them views about the Dharma - about the spiritual
In the Mahacattarisaka Sutta  the Buddha discusses three kinds of
view (ditthi): wrong view, and two kinds of right view:
there is right view
that is affected by the taints, partaking of merit, ripening on the side of attachment;
and there is right view that is noble, taintless, supra-mundane, a factor of the
The first kind of right view is that understanding of the Dharma which
has not yet been informed by Transcendental Insight, while the second kind has.
In a sense the second kind of right view is not a view at all, in the sense of
an opinion, or doctrine, but is a direct understanding of Reality. So there is
a hierarchical arrangement: we have to move from wrong view to the first kind
of right view, and from there to the second kind of right view. One of the characteristics
of the first kind of right view is that it ripens "on the side of attachment"
- we can possess right view while at the same time being subject to attachment,
including, presumably, attachment to views, even right views. This attachment
to right views, although helpful in the early stages of our development, later
becomes a hindrance, because we have eventually to let go of all attachments,
even skilful ones. The Buddha makes this clear in his Parable of the Raft, 
when he says,
You should understand, monks, from the Parable of the Raft that
good things (Dhamma) must be left behind, much more so evil things (adhamma).
need the raft to cross over the river, but once we reach the other side we have
to leave it behind.
The Bodhisattvas in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa are very close
to Enlightenment - they are at the stage where they need to start leaving the
raft behind. To leave the raft behind means to let go of one's attachment to it.
The Bodhisattvas have to let go of their attachment to those doctrines and practices,
which have helped them, progress on the path - not let go of the doctrines and
The Bodhisattva Manikutaraja declared, 'It is dualistic
to speak of good paths (marga) and bad paths (kumaarga). One who is on the path
(marga) is not concerned with good or bad paths. Living in such unconcern, he
entertains no concepts of 'path' or 'non-path'. Understanding the nature of concepts,
his mind does not engage in duality. Such is the entrance into non-duality'.
his first sentence Manikutaraja proposes 'good paths' and 'bad paths' as a duality,
which has to be reconciled. In his next he says that he who is on the path is
not concerned with good paths or bad paths. The word Thurman translates as 'good
path' is the same as the one he translates as 'path' - marga. Presumably he does
this to show that the Bodhisattva who is on the path does not make a conceptual
distinction between good paths and bad paths. But in doing this he obscures a
very important point - that it is only from the viewpoint of the 'good path' that
the Bodhisattva is able to see through the conceptual distinction between 'good
paths' and 'bad paths'. It is not that the Bodhisattva leaves the path, it is
that he has let go of his attachment to the concept of the path. Put in another
way the Bodhisattva has moved from the first kind of right view - that is "right
view that is affected by taints, partaking of merit, ripening on the side of attachment"
- to the second kind, "right view that is noble, taintless, supra-mundane."
If this all seems rather abstract, perhaps a mundane analogy would help. Someone
learning to drive a car has to think about each action that they make - turn the
ignition key while pressing down a little with the right foot on the accelerator,
press left foot down on the clutch, get into first gear, take off hand break,
look into mirror to see if it is safe to pull out, if it is, put on right hand
indicator, press down a little more on the accelerator with right foot, and, simultaneously,
slowly release pressure from clutch with left foot; as the car starts moving forwards,
turn the steering wheel with both hands slightly to the right ...etc. I have been
driving cars for 25 years and I do all that automatically, so much so that to
write down what I do has cost me some effort of memory and analysis. I may even
have made a few mistakes in writing it down, although when I drive I invariably
do it all effortlessly, unselfconsciously, and correctly. The Buddhist who is
consciously practicing the good path is analogous to the learner-driver, whereas
the Bodhisattva who is not concerned with the practice of the path is like the
skilful driver who no longer thinks (conceptually) about practicing the path -
he just does it. The analogy is not perfect - even the experienced driver can
make a mistake and cause a bad accident, whereas the Bodhisattva who has gone
beyond good paths and bad paths will always act skillfully, for it has become
The Bodhisattva Vidyuddeva is talking from the same standpoint
when he says
'Knowledge' (vidyaa) and 'ignorance' (aavidyaa) are dualistic.
The natures of ignorance and knowledge are the same, for ignorance is undefined,
incalculable, and beyond the sphere of thought. The realization of this is the
entrance into non-duality.
When he says that knowledge and ignorance both
have the same natures he does not mean that they have the same value, and that
we may just as well be ignorant as wise. After all, ignorance is suffering: "Sickness
(suffering) arises from total involvement in the process of misunderstanding from
beginning-less time" and the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, like all Buddhist texts,
is concerned to alleviate ignorance because it is concerned to alleviate suffering.
Vidyuddeva means that someone who possesses Knowledge (the second kind of right
view) lets go of his attachment to the concepts of knowledge and ignorance. But
he can only do that because he is wise - someone who is ignorant cannot afford
to let go of the concept of knowledge.
We can understand the Bodhisattva Ti.sya's
statement in the same way:
'Good' (ku'sala) and 'evil' (aku'sala) are two.
Seeking neither good nor evil, the understanding of the non-duality of the significant
and the meaningless is the entrance into non-duality.
I have already mentioned
the Buddha's threefold distinction of wrong view and the two kinds of right view.
Elsewhere the Buddha makes a similar distinction, but in terms of ethical behavior
(síla): here the disciple has to move from unethical behavior to ethical
behavior, at which point unethical behavior 'ceases without remainder'. But he
then has to move to the point where even ethical behavior 'ceases without remainder'.
In answer to the question 'where do skilful moral actions (kusala-síla)
cease without remainder?' the Buddha replies: when one 'possesses virtue (siilavant),
not when one is regulated by virtue (siilamaya).' One who possesses virtue
no longer has to practice virtue - they have become virtuous.
ends with a climax, and it is the climax of the whole text. When thirty Bodhisattvas
have all proposed their own Dharma Doors of Non-Duality they ask Manjusri to give
his own Dharma Door. He replies,
Good sirs, you have all spoken well. Nevertheless,
all your explanations are themselves dualistic. To know no one teaching, to express
nothing, to say nothing, to explain nothing, to announce nothing, to indicate
nothing, and to designate nothing - this is the entrance into non-duality.
then asks Vimalakirti to give his own entrance in the Dharma Door of Non-duality,
the Licchavi Vimalakirti kept his silence, saying nothing at all. The crown
prince Manjusri applauded the Licchavi Vimalakirti: "Excellent! Excellent,
noble sir! This is indeed the entrance into non-duality of the Bodhisattvas. Here
there is no use for syllables, sounds, and ideas.
The Danger Of Pseudo
Although This Is The Climax of the text, it is not the end - there
are three chapters left, and the next chapter, 'The Feast Brought by the Emanated
Incarnation' is very significant. Vimalakirti magically emanates an incarnation-Bodhisattva
and sends him to the universe Sarvagandhasugandhaa (Sweetly Perfumed with all
Perfumes) to ask the Buddha of that universe, Sugandhakuuta (Mountain of Perfume)
for the remains of his meal. The ninety-million Bodhisattvas of that universe
wish to go back with the incarnation-Bodhisattva to see the Buddha 'Shakyamuni,
Vimalakirti and the other Bodhisattvas, and they ask the Buddha Sugandhakuta for
permission. He allows them to go, but warns them to go without their perfumes,
"lest those living beings become mad and intoxicated". The incarnation-Bodhisattva,
along with the ninety-million Bodhisattvas, returns to this universe with the
remains of Sugandhakuta's meal, and Vimalakirti invites 'Shariputra and the other
great disciples to eat it, which they do, as do all the Bodhisattvas, 'Sakras,
Brahmas, Lokapaalas, gods and goddesses. As a result of eating this food they
all experience great bliss, and a wonderful perfume pervades from the pores of
their skin. Vimalakirti then asks the Bodhisattvas from Sarvagandhasugandhaa how
their Buddha teaches the Dharma. They reply,
The Tathágata does not
teach the Dharma by means of sound and language. He disciplines Bodhisattvas only
by means of perfumes. At the foot of each perfume-tree sits a Bodhisattva, and
the trees emit perfumes like this one. From the moment they smell that perfume,
the Bodhisattvas attain the concentration called 'source of all Bodhisattva-virtues'.
From the moment they attain that concentration, all the Bodhisattva-virtues are
produced in them.
Those Bodhisattvas then ask Vimalakirti how the Buddha
of this universe, 'Shakyamuni, teaches the Dharma. He replies,
Good sirs, these
living beings here are hard to discipline. Therefore he teaches them with discourses
appropriate to the disciplining of the wild and uncivilized. How does he discipline
the wild and uncivilized? What discourses are appropriate? Here they are:
is hell. This is the animal world. This is the world of the lord of death. These
are the adversities. These are the rebirths with crippled faculties. These are
physical misdeeds, and these are the retributions for physical misdeeds. These
are verbal misdeeds, and these are the retributions for verbal misdeeds. These
are mental misdeeds, and these are the retributions for mental misdeeds. This
is killing. This is stealing. This is sexual misconduct. This is lying. This is
backbiting. This is harsh speech. This is frivolous speech. This is covetousness.
This is malice. This is false view. These are their retributions. This is miserliness,
and this is its effect. This is immorality. This is hatred. This is sloth. This
is the fruit of sloth. This is false wisdom, and this is the fruit of false wisdom.
These are the transgressions of the precepts. This is the vow of personal liberation.
This should be done and that should not be done. This is proper and that should
be abandoned. This is an obscuration and that is without obscuration. This is
sin and that rises above sin. This is the path and that is the wrong path. That
is virtue and that is evil. This is blameworthy and that is blameless. This is
defiled and that is immaculate. This is mundane and that is transcendental. This
is compounded and that is uncompounded. This is passion and that is purification.
This is life (samsára) and that is liberation (nivarana)'.
is one of the most powerful passages in the whole book, not least because of where
it comes in the text. After all those Bodhisattvas' statements on Non-duality,
ending with Vimalakirti's 'thunderous silence', we have come to inhabit a rarefied
world where all dualistic distinctions are refined away to nothing. This is followed
by the episode in which the emanated incarnation travels to the wonderful universe
of perfumes, where Bodhisattvas sit at the foot of perfume-trees, imbibing the
Dharma by means of beautiful fragrances - an image which strengthens our sense
of subtle non-dualism and adds to it the refined attractions of beauty and pleasure.
At this point Vimalakirti brings us down to earth with an unpleasant shock, reminding
us of the suffering involved in the world, and warning us not to let go of our
dualistic frameworks prematurely. Highly advanced Bodhisattvas may be able to
play with the concepts of good paths and bad paths, knowledge and ignorance, good
and evil, but we badly need them. We see things dualistically and we must hold
fast to the positive side of the duality, otherwise we suffer:
This is hell.
This is the animal world. This is the world of the lord of death. These are the
adversities. These are the rebirths with crippled faculties.
me of another of the Buddha's teachings - the Parable of the Water Snake, which
the Buddha used, significantly, just before he told the Parable of the Raft.
A man goes in search of a water snake, finds one, and grabs it by the tail. The
snake rears round and bites the man, and he suffers agonizing pain before eventually
dying of the poisoned bite. Another man goes in search of a water snake, finds
one, but carefully catches it by the neck so that it cannot bite him. The first
man is like the man who misunderstands the Dharma - it causes him suffering. The
second man is like the one who understands the Dharma - he comes to no harm. Naagaarjuna
used this simile in his Verses on the Middle Way, when he warned that a wrong
grasp of the doctrine of Emptiness (sunyata) will lead to suffering, and the
same could be said about the doctrine of Non-duality in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa.
The passage I have just quoted is Vimalakirti's warning to us, and the danger
is very real.
I Have Argued That the doctrine of Non-duality
is essentially a re-statement of the Buddha's teaching of the Middle Way. However,
I have also stated that the Vimalakirti Nirdesa takes this doctrine further than
did the Buddha, stretching the application of it to include all concepts whatsoever,
including those (necessarily dualistic) concepts which constitute the doctrines
of Buddhism. Whereas the Buddha spoke simply of the Middle Way between the extremes
of indulgence in sense pleasures and self-mortification, or, more metaphysically,
between (absolute) existence and (absolute) non-existence, the Vimalakirti Nirdesa
teaches the Middle Way (Dharma Door of Non-duality) between such things as skilful
and unskillful, knowledge and ignorance, good paths and bad paths. This 'stretching'
of the idea of Non-duality is dangerous, the danger being that people reading
the text may assume that such teachings are appropriate to their level of spiritual
development when they are not. Of course that danger is often present when we
read a Buddhist text, even in the 'basic' or 'simple' teachings of the Buddha
that we find in the Paali Canon. (That is why the Buddha told the parable of the
water snake). When we read those texts we should constantly bear in mind that
the Buddha was often talking to a particular person, and what may be good for
that person may not be good for us. However, the danger inherent in The Vimalakirti
Nirdesa's Dharma Doors of Non-duality is particularly acute, because to some people
it could appear to be saying that all those doctrines and practices which make
up the Buddhist path to Enlightenment are to be discarded because they are dualistic:
there is no difference between good paths and bad paths, skilful and unskillful
actions, knowledge and ignorance. Hence, some Buddhists may dismiss such 'basic'
teachings as the five precepts, or the necessity for renunciation, with the retort
"Oh, but that is dualistic isn't it?" Or "There is no path, and
no-one to tread it". Such a misunderstanding is tantamount to seizing the
poisonous water snake by the tail, or stepping off the raft in midstream, only
to drown in the deep waters of Samsára.
If the teachings in the Vimalakirti
Nirdesa such as those in chapter nine are only for advanced Bodhisattvas and Arahants,
not for ordinary Buddhists, the question could be asked, is there any point in
us reading and studying it (assuming that we are neither advanced Bodhisattvas
nor Arahants)? I think there is, as long as we do not assume that all the teachings
in it are meant for us. First of all, the text is a great piece of Buddhist literature
- it is profound, moving, funny, shocking, and inspiring. Vimalakirti himself
is a wonderful character, absolutely uncompromising, delighting in taking the
ground from underneath the feet of the mighty, but with a light touch, with great
wit and humor.
But what about those teachings meant for advanced Bodhisattvas
and Arahants? I have just referred to the humor in the text. Usually the humor
is at the expense of one of the great Arahants or Bodhisattvas, as Vimalakirti
exposes the limitations of their way of practicing, or their literal mindedness.
There is no reason why we shouldn't sit back and laugh at these episodes - they
are meant to be enjoyed. But it might also be useful if we asked ourselves what
Vimalakirti might say to us if he turned up at our place one day - which particular
weakness, attachment, or pretension would he expose to ridicule?
There is one
more thing we can gain from reading this text. I have pointed out that in chapter
nine, The Dharma Door of Non-duality, highly advanced Bodhisattvas are talking
to highly advanced Bodhisattvas. However, they have an audience - 500 great disciples,
as well as a great number of 'Sakras, Brahmas, Lokapalas, and many hundreds of
thousands of gods and goddesses are listening, and I assume that not all of these
beings are spiritually advanced. What can they, (or we), get from listening to
these Bodhisattvas expound on Non-duality? It is worth listening to great minds
conversing even though we may not understand what they say, or put into practice
what they do. It is valuable because, although we may not understand them, we
are able to catch a glimpse of a reality far beyond our own. The great Bodhisattvas
are leaving the raft. We must hang on to it for the time being. But it can be
very inspiring to watch them step off it onto the other shore. In reading the
Vimalakirti Nirdesa we are witnessing living beings of all kinds - with differing
capacities, inclinations, and at different levels of spiritual development, from
the people of Vaisali, to the gods and goddesses, to the great Disciples and Arahants
- we are witnessing them letting go of their attachments and experiencing a new
freedom. In watching them we take our own place in the spiritual hierarchy, and
can ourselves be inspired to let go of our own particular attachments and take
our next step towards freedom.
For this process to be most effective I would
recommend that the whole text be read in a ritual context, that is, in the context
of meditation, chanting, and ritual. Listening to a good reading of chapter nine,
for instance, in a concentrated and devotional state of mind can be an extraordinary
experience - at least I have found it so. At first, as the first few Bodhisattvas
propose and resolve different sets of dualities, your discursive mind tries its
best to follow them. After a few minutes however, it becomes too much - there
are too many of them coming too quickly, one after another - and you eventually
have to give up and relax into a calm, non-discursive state in which you can hear
what is being said, but you are not thinking about each statement. In this state
of mind it is possible to get a feeling for, even to catch a glimpse of, a mind
which has let go of everything - a mind which is completely free.
 According to tradition the first and, by implication,
the most fundamental teaching by the Buddha. Samyutta-Nikáya, v. 420.
Samyutta Nikáya. ii, 17.
 Trans. Woodward. Pali Text Society.
P. 45 of Robert Thurman's translation. Pennsylvania State University Press. I
have used Thurman's translation throughout, except where stated. I have also used
alternative renderings to some of Thurman's translations of key terms. See for
instance, note 10.
 P. 124. Pâli Text Society. From the French translation
by Etienne Lamotte, rendered into English by Sara Boin. There are no extant versions
of the original Sanskrit text - Thurman and Lamotte have translated from Tibetan
and Chinese translations. Lamotte 'Sanskritises' all the key terms, in this case
the term being adhyaalambana - alambana meaning object, adhyaa meaning to move
towards. Therefore both Thurman's and Lamotte/Boin's translations are correct,
although Lamotte/Boin's brings out the Buddhist connotation - there is nothing
wrong with 'perception' in itself, it is the 'grasping' that causes suffering.
P. 45 (Thurman's translation).
 External = bahirdhaad.r.s.tii. Internal
 Ibid. p. 45.
 P.20. I have used the term 'skill
in means' in place of Thurman's 'liberative technique'. Lamotte Sanskritises the
term into upaaya kau'salya..
 P. 22.
 P. 23.
 P. 24.
 P. 42.
 P. 43.
 P. 43.
 P. 43.
44. I have changed Thurman's 'miserable' to 'painful' (dukkha).
 P.75. Here is an example
of a 'duality' made up not of opposites, but of a triad of complementaries - in
this case, the Three Jewels - the highest values for all Buddhists.
 See, for instance, Sammaditthi Sutta,
iii.70 Wisdom Publications. Translation by ~Naa.namoli and Bodhi.
 Damien Keown's translation, from The Nature of Buddhist
Ethics. P. 101. From chapter 4, 'The Transcendency Thesis'. Here Keown argues
that the idea that ethics is merely a stage on the path that eventually has to
be left behind stems from a misunderstanding of the Parable of the Raft, based
on I.B. Horner's interpretation.. In telling his disciples that they have to leave
the raft behind the Buddha is not, according to Keown, saying that an Enlightened
being is 'beyond good and evil'. He is saying that we have, at some point in our
spiritual lives, to renounce our attachment even to Buddhist practices.
 Sama.nama.ndikaaputta Sutta (MN. ii.27). Robert Morrison's translation,
from Nietzsche and Buddhism. OUP.
 Alagadduupama Sutta. MN. i.133. It is significant
that the Buddha told the Parable of the Water Snake just before the Parable of
the Raft, because in doing so he made it clear that the doctrines and practices
have to be grasped first of all. Only later in our spiritual careers should we
let go of them.
 Muulamadhyamakaarikaa. XXIV.11.