Lesson
8

Vimalakirti

5 of 13

Vimalakirti's room

When Manjushri agrees to visit Vimalakirti and engage him in dialogue, all the disciples and bodhisattvas, including those who had declined to visit him, suddenly decide they want to go and observe this spectacle. Manjushri arrives, accompanied not only by the main disciples and bodhisattvas but by a great many heavenly and other extraordinary beings, all eager to witness the conversation of these two bodhisattvas renowned for their wisdom.

Vimalakirti, with his special powers, is aware of their impending arrival and magically transforms his single-room house into emptiness. Although the room is small, all the myriad bodhisattvas, disciples, and spirits miraculously are able to find space in it. Vimalakirti tells Manjushri that his room is empty because all buddha fields are empty, and that all buddha fields are empty even of emptiness, because all imaginings and views are empty.

The disciple Shariputra wonders where all the guests will sit, since there are no chairs in the room. Knowing Shariputra's thoughts, Vimalakirti asks him if he came for the dharma or for a place to sit. Shariputra, always the target of Vimalakirti's sharp tongue, avows that he came for the dharma, not for a chair. Vimalakirti chastises Shariputra, saying that one truly interested in the dharma of buddhas is not concerned about his own body, much less a chair.

Vimalakirti proceeds to again undercut usual views of the teaching as being no more than illusory and to show up all attempts to appropriate dharma as an object.

The dharma is not an object. He who pursues objects is not interested in the dharma, but is interested in objects. The dharma is without acceptance or rejection. He who holds on to things or lets go of things is not interested in the dharma but is interested in holding and letting go.

Fangzhang

In the seventh century, the Vimalakirti Sutra was so highly valued in China that a Chinese imperial envoy made a pilgrimage to the supposed site of Vimalakirti's house in northern India to measure the ruined foundations of the room where this miraculous scene was supposed to have transpired. The ruins that were shown to the envoy were one square zhang, or fangzhang, which is about ten feet square. Thereafter Vimalakirti's room was referred to by this term throughout East Asia.

Vimalakirti's room size established the model for all Chan/Zen abbots' quarters, which are still named fangzhang in Chinese, or hojo in Japanese, after Vimalakirti's room. Of course not all abbots' quarters have been a mere ten feet square, but in modern Chinese and Japanese this term is still used for the person and the title of a monastery abbot, as well as for his residence.