Lesson
8

Vimalakirti

3 of 13

Critic of disciples and bodhisattvas

In the realm of spiritual teaching and practice, Vimalakirti is the expert practitioner as critic, affording disciples and bodhisattvas the opportunity to develop their practice through his critiques. This quality is revealed in the sutra when Shakyamuni Buddha, knowing telepathically that Vimalakirti is sick in bed, asks his disciples to call on the layman and inquire after his health, a familiar activity for monks ministering to the laity.

One by one, the Buddha's disciples express their reluctance to visit Vimalakirti. It turns out that each of them in a previous encounter has been criticized in detail by Vimalakirti, who has exposed flaws in the disciples' understanding or practice, specifically on points in which each was most accomplished and respected. Disclosing these incidents to Shakyamuni, the disciples relate that after Vimalakirti's rebukes they were intimidated and rendered silent, unable to respond.

  • Shariputra, a leader among Shakyamuni's disciples, is sitting beneath a tree in silent retreat, so Vimalakirti discusses true contemplation as not abandoning ordinary behavior and people.

  • Mahakashyapa, who is on begging rounds when seen by Vimalakirti, is instructed by Vimalakirti to maintain equanimity with whatever is offered.

  • Rahula, Shakyamuni's son who renounced a kingdom for monkhood, is asked by some young gentlemen about the benefits and virtues of renunciation. As Rahula expounds on the value of renunciation, Vimalakirti intrudes to point out that true renunciation forsakes all benefits

When we take on bodhisattva practice, whoever appears as our critic or enemy, or presents us with problems, is actually our spiritual friend, helping us shed obstructions and make progress on our path.

Commitment to lay practice

Vimalakirti's critiques express his special commitment to lay practice as a bodhisattva model. Many of his admonitions address the tendency of the disciples to withdraw from engagement with the ordinary world. He criticizes priestly roles and religious trappings for masking inauthenticity of practice or interfering with the full development of spiritual potential of common people. Vimalakirti upholds the value of the universally available personal experience as the true criterion of spiritual teaching, understood in the light of the insubstantiality of all views and designations.