Lesson
8

Vimalakirti

x of x

The goddess and the sexism of Shariputra

I am taking this out. It's all so wonderful, but it's too much for this course. We will do a course on the Vimalakirti Sutra......

Throughout the sutra, Vimalakirti performs various tricks, some miraculous, others subtle transformations of our usual worldview and expectations. But he leaves one of the most dramatic tricks in the sutra to a colleague, a highly skillful goddess bodhisattva who is never named, but who has been living with Vimalakirti in his house for twelve years.

The scene begins with Vimalakirti instructing Manjushri on the illusory nature of all beings, and how a bodhisattva nevertheless generates great loving-kindness toward them. A bodhisattva desires to teach the dharma he has realized. He produces loving-kindness that is truly a refuge for beings, that is serene because free of grasping, that accords with reality and is free of passions.

The bodhisattva's love does not get caught or warped by dualistic discriminations between self and other.


Upon hearing Vimalakirti's responses to Manjushri about the essential reality and function of the bodhisattvas' love, this goddess friend of Vimalakirti manifests herself in material form and, full of delight, showers beautiful heavenly blossoms on the bodhisattvas and great disciples. The flowers fall to the ground from the bodies of the bodhisattvas but stick to the disciples, much to Shariputra's consternation. As Shariputra unsuccessfully tries to shake or brush the flowers away, he complains that wearing flowers or other ornaments is improper for monks. The goddess reprimands Shariputra, saying that flowers are free of conceptualizations and discriminations and are thus proper, whereas the disciples themselves are full of improper conceptualizations. The flowers do not stick to the bodhisattvas, who have dispelled such fabricated discriminations and are not afraid of worldly sensations, forms, and beauty.

The goddess said, "Do not say that, reverend Shariputra. Why? These flowers are proper indeed! Why? Such flowers have neither constructual thought nor discrimination. But the elder Shariputra has both constructual thought and discrimination.

"Reverend Shariputra, impropriety for one who has renounced the world for the discipline of the rightly taught Dharma consists of constructual thought and discrimination, yet the elders are full of such thoughts. One who is without such thoughts is always proper.

"Reverend Shariputra, see how these flowers do not stick to the bodies of these great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas! This is because they have eliminated constructual thoughts and discriminations.

Impressed by the goddess, Shariputra asks how long she has been in Vimalakirti's room. She in turn asks Shariputra how long he has been liberated. Shariputra remains silent for a while, finally muttering that liberation is inexpressible, so he does not know what to say. She responds that liberation is the nature of every syllable and not apart from language, as liberation is the sameness of all entities. She tells him that to see liberation as the freedom from desire, hatred, and confusion, as Shariputra does, is just pride and distraction. The true nature of desire, hatred, and confusion is itself liberation.

Shariputra is now overwhelmed by the goddess and her sharp wit. He respectfully asks her what level of achievement she has realized or obtained. The goddess avows to the disciple that she has attained nothing, that to claim any attainment is only pride. She merely expresses whatever teaching would be useful to beings.

Thoroughly undone by the brilliance of this goddess, Shariputra asks her why she does not transform herself into a man. While this question would be astonishingly rude in contemporary cultural contexts, Shariputra is echoing the prevalent prejudice in early Buddhism, which held that a woman is incapable of becoming a buddha. In exceptional cases, when a woman became sufficiently adept and spiritually proficient, she might transform herself into a man and then would be qualified to become a buddha. Such prejudice has nothing to do with the philosophy or teaching of spiritual awakening and Mahayana Buddhism, which holds that all beings are imbued with buddha nature. Rather, it is a reflection of the patriarchal culture that has dominated Asian as well as European history for the past few millennia.

The goddess tells Shariputra that she has sought to identify in herself some essential "female nature" but has failed to find it. She receives Shariputra's agreement that if a magician produced a mirage of a woman she would not really exist, and that Shariputra would not ask such an illusory woman about changing her gender. The goddess states that, in the same way, all things only exist as illusions.

The goddess clarifies that all qualities, including gender, are not in reality created. Similarly, the perfect enlightenment of a buddha is simply a conventional distinction, not a fixed or actual condition.

Goddess: Reverend Shariputra, the expression, "the Buddhas of the past, present and future," is a conventional expression made up of a certain number of syllables. The Buddhas are neither past, nor present, nor future.

Their enlightenment transcends the three times! But tell me, elder, have you attained sainthood?

Shariputra: It is attained, because there is no attainment.

Goddess: Just so, there is perfect enlightenment because there is no attainment of perfect enlightenment.

As the scene ends, Vimalakirti reveals to Shariputra that this goddess has served billions of buddhas, has fulfilled all her vows, and has achieved complete acceptance of the unconditioned nature of all things. She can play freely with superpowers and knowledges, and she goes where she desires in order to mature beings.