Friday, September 28, 2007

Tenpa Rinpoche on the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra

Introduction (by Susan Rockefeller-Nevis:

Urgyan Tenpa Rinpoche has an affinity for the great Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra that expresses itself in the most wonderful form of commentary. When he speaks on this sutra, it is precisely as if he is speaking from direct personal experience.

We are in the process of editing and preparing a book of his spoken and written commentaries on the Vimalakirtinirdesa, entitled The Exquisite Expedience of Mercy, which is tentatively scheduled for publication in 2008. We wanted to give you all the early opportunity to sample this work, and so we have decided to publish this brief excerpt here:

The Exquisite Expedience of Mercy
The Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra: a Commentary

The Vimamalakirtinirdesa Sutra, or “Discourse on the Expositions of Vimalakirti,” was originally composed in the Sanskrit language. We do not know precisely where or when it was first written, nor do we know the author. Hermeneutic conjecture indicates its origin to Northern India, sometime between 100 and 180 ce. Since the text does not appear until after Nagarjuna’s time, it is tempting to think this was composed by Nagarjuna, himself. Unfortunately, we cannot determine much with any certainty because the original text is lost. For over one thousand years, the work itself existed because of reconstructions from quoted fragments in other Sanskrit texts, and translations in other languages, principally Chinese and Tibetan. However, soon we may learn more. In July 1999, a group of Japanese academics working in the Potala, in Lhasa, chanced to find a Sanskrit-language edition of Vimalakirtinirdesa dating to the ninth century. In 2004, Taisho University published a facsimile of this edition, capturing the attention of Buddhist scholars the world over.

This sutra is ostensibly the story of a Buddhist layman from northeastern India who in some respects appears normal, but who is actually rather unusual. He seems to have a mysterious, chameleon-like ability to “fit in” with others no matter who they may be. Nobody knows who this man “really is.” The priests all think he is a priest. The businessmen all think he is a businessman. The lawyers all think he is a lawyer. The criminals all think he is a criminal. Everybody seems to know, and to like, this man—named Vimalakirti—and to enjoy his company, except that strangely enough, the bodhisattvas are very reluctant to see him. They are so intimidated by his radiant intelligence they even refuse Shakyamuni Buddha’s request to go inquire after Vimalakirti’s welfare. They beg off, explaining that they do not know where to begin.

As the story progresses, Vimalakirti reveals an extraordinary understanding and mastery of the Buddhist teachings—surpassing that of the bodhisattvas and equal to Buddha himself—and he begins to display siddhis, or supernatural powers unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. Ultimately, we are left with the inescapable notion that Vimalakirti and the Buddhist teachings are identical; that on the one hand, because of his acts, and on the other hand, despite or regardless of his acts, the man himself is the lesson.

During the approximately nineteen centuries since we first hear of Vimalakirti, scholars, priests, and practitioners have repeatedly embraced his story as the sine qua non of Mahayana Buddhism. This sutra is an immensely popular and influential work, which became the subject of numerous learned commentaries. Some of these claim Vimalakirti was the first “Zen Master,” and his story the foundation of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism. However, while everyone agrees this sutra is a Mahayana work, when I read it, I get the impression it is the sine qua non of Vajrayana Buddhism and that Vimalakirti was the first Dzogchen Master.

I do not know anything about Ch’an or Zen Buddhism because I do not yet know how to differentiate between this or that Buddhism. I also do not know anything about Dzogchen, so maybe I am terribly wrong. Many scholars have written about these things, but I am not a scholar and I have not read what they wrote. Instead, to investigate further I decided to re-tell Vimalakirti’s story to myself, in the way my understanding allows. Since I have no understanding, that which I am able to re-tell is only a product of this one re-telling, not of any knowledge or insight.

Perhaps you, who know and understand these things so much better than me, will do me the small courtesy to read this book and tell me where I have gone wrong. If our spiritual practice is a failure, as mine is, we cannot be angry, or depressed, or run around trying to fix things. All we need to do is just stop whatever we are doing and admit the truth. I admit that this is an imperfect commentary on a sublimely magnificent teaching, so now I have stopped explaining it and instead let it explain itself.

I. The Buddha Fields

I heard that there is a place in India: a city called Vaishali, and in Vaishali they have a place called Amra Gardens. To be fair, I do not think it matters very much at all, and we could just as easily be talking about Beijing, or New York, or Ojai, or San Francisco, or Paris, or Taipei. We could be talking about some miserable town out in the middle of nowhere, where everybody is in a hurry to leave and go somewhere else. We could be talking about somewhere else, where people are in a hurry to leave and go nowhere. This city was the capital city of a republic, so maybe it is useful to imagine that this city is the Gotham City of our human imagination: when we are tired of suffering where we are and we want to go some other place, that holds out hope, or an ideal, or what we imagine as a better life.

I heard that once, Buddha was in residence at Amra Gardens, together with 8,000 saints, 32,000 bodhisattvas, 10,000 creator gods, 12,000 kings of gods, supernatural beings from at least eleven other categories, numerous monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. You could say there were multitudes of beings; hundreds of thousands of them, all expressing the finest qualities. For example: the saints are pure and unafflicted, masters of themselves. Their minds are transcendent and they are calm. They have done what they had to do and achieved what they needed to achieve. They had other qualities, but I am just summarizing. The bodhisattvas are likewise perfected, and the text of the sutra enumerates their qualities in some detail, describing over one hundred perfections such as expertise in knowing the spiritual abilities of all living beings, perfect voices and the ability to comprehend and speak all languages, absolute mastery of medicine, and so forth.

The important thing to grasp is that there is this unimaginably perfect situation, and we are there right now. Through the power of the Dharma, we are sitting right there in Vaishali with the Buddha and all the rest, and we are going to hear what is being said and we are going to know what is being done, just as if we were there whenever this first happened. Maybe the "whenever" is right now. Maybe this is happening right now.

Let me say that another way. Through the power of the truth of things as they are, we are not separate in space or time from the enlightened display of primordial wisdom. Sutras, tantras, and termas are not dead books with shuttered pages, recording philosophy, but direct, actual manifestations of enlightened activity. Merely reading them or hearing them is enough to make contact with that which is always present. Some things we think of as static are in fact so direct that merely seeing them or wearing them is enough.

Why is this possible? This is possible because a perfect assembly of that which is beneficial is constantly available, at every moment. This is happening right now, and is completely open and accessible to us. This is mind, of and in itself.

So often, we constrain our appreciation of Dharma’s inherent power to liberate in terms of past or future. We read sutras and hear stories about things that happened in some hypothecated golden age, or we imagine that someday, in the future, a Buddha is going to come again and fix everything that is broken. Stop and think what we are doing. This sort of ideation is actually insulting the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Instead of just stripping away our dirty clothes and running for refuge to the Three Jewels, we are sitting around saying, “Oh, well… wish I had lived in Buddha’s time,” or, “I just can’t wait until Maitreya gets here.” Do we ever stop to think that maybe Buddha is here right this minute? Do we ever stop to think that Maitreya is walking around with us when we walk and sitting with us when we sit? Does Buddhism’s ability to liberate us through the power of truth diminish, or is it merely our ability to hear the truth which diminishes?

Human life is precious, human life is in fact rare, and there is no guarantee we will be reborn human next time around. Circumstances surrounding our present status rather militate against this. I am not saying we are all going straight to Hell because of what we did or did not do, or cannot undo, but it is far more certain that some of us will go to Hell compared to our chances for human rebirth.

If Buddha’s mercy were confined merely to this or that epoch, or this or that situation, or this or that world system, then it would make a mockery of mercy, which I understand to be one eternal and infinite, spontaneously perfect, unconditional, and continuous heart-stream. Therefore, if human life is uncertain and mercy is unconditional, then mercy must have a face for every vagary of this or any other arising situation. Such mercy must be accessible to us at all times and in all places. We can never be separate from this mercy. The only fire we need to quench is the one consuming our own hearts, fueled with our passions and our aggressions; the burning fire we make of the ever-present possibility to give and receive mercy.

That day in the grove at Amra Gardens, a local rich man’s son named Jewel Mine came, together with 500 other sons of wealthy men. All bore parasols, made of gold, silver, pearl, sapphire, ruby, emerald, and diamond. Each one of them stood before the Buddha, bowed, circumambulated him clockwise seven times, laid down the parasol as offering, and stepped aside.

The Buddha then caused all 501 parasols to be transformed into a single parasol so vast that it covered the entire billion-world galaxy. Every aspect of the galaxy was reflected: heavenly bodies, supernatural realms, mountains, oceans, rivers, wildernesses, cities, and villages. The voices of all the Buddhas of the ten directions were heard, preaching the Dharma to all the worlds in the space within the great parasol.

(from The Exquisite Expedience of Mercy, Copyright (c) 2007 by Tulku Urgyan Tenpa Rinpoche. Rights reserved.)

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