Vimalakīrti, or Why Bad Boys Finish First
Vimalakīrti, or Why Bad Boys Finish First
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter presents an overview of the text of early Mahayana literature, the Vimalakirti, which presents an example of textual patriarchy overcoming prior forms of Buddhism. Old-style Buddhists and their uncomplicated beliefs and practices are humiliated by the image of perfect tradition condensed in the figure of Vimalakirti. The narrative resolves with the Buddha explaining that the book form of this narrative of humiliation and overcoming should be revered as the font and totality of real Buddhism. The chapter also offers some reflection on what is implied by Mahayana authors rewriting each other's attempts to make texts into tradition. This kind of literary borrowing suggests a complex literary culture in which writers were reading each other in just the way that these texts hoped not to be read, that is, as literature.
In a sense, language is always about itself: in interior monologues, just as in dialogue, there are no “thoughts”: there is only the speech that speech elicits.
MERLEAU-PONTY, La prose du monde
Overview and the Anxiety of Influence
Of the texts selected in this survey of early Mahāyāna literature, the Vimalakīrti presents the brashest example of textual patriarchy overcoming prior forms of Buddhism. In an unusually hard-hitting narrative, the action produces the image of perfect tradition condensed in the figure of Vimalakīrti who, in a series of set pieces, humiliates old-style Buddhists and their uncomplicated beliefs and practices. In the wake of this moral and philosophic devastation, the narrative resolves with the Buddha explaining that the book form of this narrative of humiliation and overcoming should be revered as the font and totality of real Buddhism. In an equally conservative moment in the closing section, the Buddha reestablishes the flow of authority by conferring the text on Maitreya, thereby fully regathering tradition and setting it within its most familiar conduits, despite the havoc that the text wrought on tradition throughout the earlier phases of the narrative.
Of course, this narrative sequence has much in common with the three texts considered in the preceding chapters, and in fact the author seems particularly influenced by several elements and episodes from the Lotus Sūtra. At the end of this chapter and in thefinal chapter, I offer some reflections on what is implied by Mahāyāna authors rewriting each other's attempts to make texts into tradition. For now, suffice it to say that this kind of literary borrowing suggests a complex literary culture in which writers were reading each other in just the way that these texts hoped not to be read, that is, as literature. Thus, instead of seeking in these works the pristine orality of the historical Buddha and the totality of tradition that these texts proffered, writers read against the grain looking to understand how these works formulated seductive reading experiences, and all in order to (p.237) write new seductive narratives and develop alternative motifs that implicitly negated the value of the texts they had worked from.
Thus when we try to conceptualize the origins of Mahāyāna literature, we need to imagine a complex ongoing reinvention of tradition that, in part, was authored by figures who not only read, for instance, the Lotus Sūtra and dodged its centripetal pull, but then turned on it to cannibalize it for new writing projects. In short, each of these narratives, insofar as they repeat and deny their antecedents, represent a history of writing in which authors sought to do to readers exactly what other texts had at best only partially done to them—seduce them into accepting a Mahāyāna sūtra as the totality of tradition. Presumably, then, even within the Mahāyāna effort to overcome traditional Buddhism there is another track of competition in which each text is silently, yet undeniably, attempting to overcome its textual precedents.
Perhaps even more interesting is the possibility that the very gesture that predominates in these Mahāyāna sūtras—that movement “up” to overcome a prior meaning system by creating a new master signifier—allowed for all sorts of flexibility in how these authors participated in meaning systems. That is, if the fundamental gesture in the sūtras considered so far is one of sublation in which the standard form of tradition still stands even as it is turbocharged via rhetorics of negation, then isn't that sublation structure also visible in the space between reading a Mahāyāna sūtra and trying to write an improved one? In both cases, the defining structures of the prior form—be it the standard contours of traditional Buddhism or the narrative arc of an antecedent sūtra—are replicated, consumed, and, after a fashion, abused, even though it is just through such a process of consumption that tradition moves forward.
Of course, here we again have reason to speak of the metastasis of patriarchy since we cannot avoid the likelihood that these patriarchal systems were replicated by those who maintained a rather ambivalent attitude toward paternal figures, be they lodged in tradition or in prior narratives. Or more precisely, in the case of these sūtras, “better,” or at least, more accessible versions of the father were written by rather ironic and complicated sons who had learned where fathers come from—from narratives of seduction whose linguistic matrixes disappear into truth and the patriarchal essences they create. And yet this very discovery was also the basis of wishing to pass on yet another version of the father. Though such an ironic vision of the Mahāyāna tradition has been far from our imagination, still I think it ends up being the most defendable position for understanding the evolution of rewriting textual fathers. And, unlike most models for imagining the re-creation of Buddhist traditions, which tend to treat cultural innovators as basically unironic and beholden to tradition, the evidence here suggests much more agency, cleverness, and capacity for “double vision” in the (p.238) reworking of tradition through reconstructing and repositioning master signifiers and the seductive matrixes that support them.
Apples and Elephants: A Review of an Earlier Reading of the Vimalakīrti
Until the recent discovery of a Sanskrit manuscript of the Vimalakīrti in Japan, the work survived only in Chinese and Tibetan translations, save for a few stray quotes in later Indian compendiums and treatises.1 In fact, there are good reasons for thinking that the later forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism, in India and Tibet, had little use for this text. On the other hand, there were at least six translations of the text into Chinese, along with numerous commentaries, attesting to a deep and abiding Chinese interest in this work. Of these six translations, Kumārajīva's of 406 has been received as the most authoritative over the centuries, and so it is from that text that I am working.
If we are to believe the Chinese translation histories, and they are often misleading, the Vimalakīrti was first translated in 188 C.E., suggesting that the text must have been in circulation in India sometime earlier. Hypothesizing that the text was authored near the beginning of the common era, or slightly thereafter, makes good sense, because though the text seems more developed than some of the other early Mahāyāna sūtras, it appears nonetheless to belong to that early phase of Buddhist writing that probably began a century before the common era.
Unlike the Diamond Sutra and the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, the Vimalakīrti has drawn considerable attention to itself in the twentieth century, and one can find numerous translations of the text into Occidental languages. Though I have only canvassed the French and English presentations of the text, it is clear that a certain style of reading this text has emerged, which, though arguably rather misdirected, has taken hold. For those modern scholars reading the text in Chinese, the dominant trend is to interpret it as a freewheeling, good-humored, populist critique of the Buddhist institution that is of a piece with the Chinese classic, the Zhuangzi. In framing the Vimalakīrti in this manner, we are asked to believe that despite belonging tovery different cultures and eras, the Vimalakīrti of first-century India engages in the same irreverent and subversive philosophy as the Zhuangzi of fourthcentury B.C.E. China.
Burton Watson, who has translated both the Vimalakīrti and the Zhuangzi, introduces his 1997 translation of the Vimalakīrti with a reference to the (p.239) Zhuangzi: “In philosophical depth and brilliance of language it rivals the Zhuangzi.” This casual comparison is underscored in the following paragraph when he claims that the Vimalakīrti is “a work that in many ways so closely resembles the Zhuangzi.”2 Though apparently confident of this resemblance, Watson does not explore these “many ways,” nor does he anywhere develop the logic or viability of this comparison that bounds from the social and political angst of Warring States China to the complex refiguration of Indian Buddhism that began slightly before the beginning of the common era under the title of Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Even at first glance, this comparison ought to trouble us; in terms of form, structure, and narrative voicing, one could not find two more different texts. As for the Zhuangzi, it appears as a haphazard work, completely underproduced. No one could say that its loose compilation of stories, short essays, and anecdotes is organized to produce a linear, unified reading experience— chapter 1 does not suggest chapters 2, 3, 4, and so on, and they could be reordered with little effect in the reading experience. And the same could be said of the contents of each chapter. The charm and brilliance in the Zhuangzi are not on the level of an overarching argument or a progressively developing reading experience. Instead, the Zhuangzi is enchanting on the level of its individual pieces: the hilarious talking animals, the insouciant inversion of social expectations, and the disarmingly honest essay-voice that now and again appears between the stories. In fact, the Zhuangzi arguably is not a “text” in the formal sense of the word as it shows no internal logic, a fact supported by the way that many new chapters seem to have been inserted around older sections.
The Vimalakīrti, in contrast, has a linear plot and a unifying narrative structure. Moreover, actors in the narrative speak of the text and its title, spending considerable time in the final chapters explaining to the reader how the narrative, as textual object, ought to be worshipfully received. Thus, like the prior three sūtras, actors in the narrative explain their relationship to the text, thereby creating a system of autoreference that works to determine the reader's relationship to the text. In fact, and again like the other three texts, the Vimalakīrti's interest in itself even extends to explaining how it is to be copied and reproduced for other readers and what meritorious effects this will have within the Buddhist system of reckoning value. In short, the Vimalakīrti is a fully developed text, self-conscious or even hyperconscious of itself as an object within a wider economy of human exchange, and equally articulate about its desired place at the top of various hierarchies in the Buddhist tradition.
Given these pronounced differences between the Vimalakīrti and the (p.240) Zhuangzi, Watson's breezy comments are puzzling. What would have ledWatson to believe that his position did not need to be developed or defended? The most likely answer is simply that Watson is rehearsing a position that has, for rather unclear reasons, gained a kind of naturalness in our reading of East Asian literature, and thus he felt no obligation to explain the logic or relevancy of this comparison.
As I argue in the rest of this chapter, adopting this Zhuangzian reading of the Vimalakīrti effectively blocks a careful assessment of the text in the Indian context, just as it blocks appreciation for the work that went into reinterpreting it in China. On the other hand, close reading the Vimalakīrti in light of the arguments developed in the preceding chapters gives us two important advantages: another angle from which to appreciate textual patriarchy in early Mahayana rhetoric; and solid footing for reassessing, in a future work, the historical significance of Chan's success in redeploying these various imported rhetorics.
Heroes on Paper
Before more closely evaluating the oddness of equating the Vimalakīrti with the Zhuangzi, let me point out that Watson's comments leave no doubt that sameness between the two texts is found strictly on the level of content. It is the particular passages, the modes of reasoning, the irreverence, the supposed humor, and so on, that warrant putting these two works in the same boat. Evidently, Watson has tacitly decided that texts do not need to be read as literature or placed within specific institutional settings.
In brief, the danger of not reading the Vimalakīrti for the plot is a little like noting that in the Gospels, Jesus is presented attacking the traditional Jewish hierarchy of priests and scribes and then assuming that the Gospel authors positioned him to be completely against traditional Judaism. A more sensible reading would argue that Jesus as a literary figure is set up to overcome prior Jewish forms of authority by employing reworked elements of just that tradition. Of course, to do this he needs a direct conduit back to the ultimate source of Jewish tradition—God. No surprise, then, that Mark, the earliest Gospel, opens with a narrative description of Jesus' baptism that concludes with the voice from heaven acknowledging Jesus as his son (Mark 1:11), thereby securing a kind of perfect transmission that supports and legitimizes all the damage Jesus will go on to do to traditional Judaism in the rest of the narrative. Once we reposition the figure of Jesus within that narrative process of overcoming tradition based on being more “deeply” traditional than tradition, it is perfectly logical how often Jesus is shown quoting from the Old Testament, or that in the Gospel of Mark he is three times called “Rabbi” and attached to the House of David (10:47; 11:10), not to mention the secret scene on the “high mountain apart” where something (p.241) like a virtual lineage running from Moses to Elijah to Jesus is concretized in the vision granted to Peter and James (9:2). In short, reading the synoptic Gospels without a sensitivity for dialectical engagements between tradition, “higher” patriarchy, and the reinvention of a supposedly deeper and more authentic kind of tradition is to invite darkness just where we need light.
I risk this hasty Buddhist-Christian comparison because it seems to me that Watson has chosen to read the Vimalakīrti in a manner that reflects two millennia of reading the Gospels. He has adopted a hermeneutic that focuses on Vimalakīrti the man and his message, instead of the literary framing that makes the man and the message worth focusing on. Against this kind of unliterary reading, I want to reflect on how antinomian rhetoric works in the full matrix of the Vimalakīrti narrative, not only to argue for a better reading, but also to suggest that reading to get at the heroes-in-literature, apart from their narrative housing, meshes altogether too neatly with the West's cultural heritage of ingesting “revolutionary” rhetorics with gusto and with little regard for the finer literary machinery that supports those rhetorics.
For Official Use Only: Some Serious Irony in the Vimalakīrti
To begin such a reading, let me clarify that there is, in fact, plenty of antinomianism in the Vimalakīrti, and Vimalakīrti as a figure in the drama uses rather dangerous-sounding rhetoric to humiliate the standard pantheon of Buddhist heroes as he hollows out the validity of a range of Buddhist beliefs and practices, from meditation to begging for alms. However, these acts of negation are not presented for the reader's simple and straightforward edification. Instead, they proceed according to a steady arc of reordering authority—a progression that works like a plot, that is. Thus these acts belong to a dialectic that maintains itself throughout different zones of narrative activity, including the antinomian phase, and finally recuperates itself at the end of the narrative where authority appears in an enhanced form, suitable to reconstruct both tradition and legitimate Buddhist identity within tradition.
In the plot of the Vimalakīrti there are four distinct elements that never allow antinomianism to slide away from the tasks that the author expects of it. First, the sanctity of the Buddha as an all-knowing figure is never directly questioned; Vimalakīrti's cutting analyses and insulting questions are never turned on the Buddha who, from beginning to end, holds the text together. Thus Vimalakīrti's negativity and antinomianism are formally encapsulated and domesticated by the Buddha's unassaulted authority and perduring presence. Also, from beginning to end, Vimalakīrti is made submissive to the Buddha even though a close reading of Vimalakīrti's feigned sickness in chapters 2 and 3 reveals that the author implicitly demotes the Buddha when he involves him, as a believing participant, in a (p.242) scheme that Vimalakīrti has concocted to lure the totality of tradition to his room where he plans to convert them to “real” Buddhism.
Second, the triumphalism of Vimalakīrti's message is left uninflected, with no winks or snickering along the way that would let you laugh at him. Even though Vimalakīrti is introduced as the impossible combination of all sorts of dualities, in terms of authority he is a completely monochromatic figure: he never stumbles in his oration, never reverses himself, and never allows for the impression that he's been had. And, contrary to what is often said of his character, I do not think he is playful, and in fact it is hard to see what is funny about anything he says. Certainly no one laughs in the text. Instead there are three dominant emotions spoken of in the text: (1) joy in devotion to the Buddha and the Vimalakīrti; (2) shame at failing to live up to the higher demands that Vimalakīrti asserts are sine qua non for being a real Buddhist; and (3) dissatisfaction with old-style tradition. Arguably just the right combination of these emotions is what the text is seeking to generate in the reader.
Third, as mentioned above, the text is especially preoccupied with itself as an object. The Buddha and others speak of the text as the sole means for obtaining truth and value in the cosmos. In fact, by the end, the Buddha explains that the text is something like his double, suggesting that the whole work of the text ought to be interpreted as another example of the “King's Two Bodies.”3 In the course of the following discussions, I argue that just as with the sutras considered in previous chapters, this doubling of authority actually is the primary task of the text: to produce a new form of the Buddha and a new form of authentic tradition that is housed in the text itself.
Fourth, in the final three chapters, the tough-talking Vimalakīrti disappears and the narrative shifts levels as the Buddha is shown transmitting the story of Vimalakīrti as a text to Maitreya, the coming buddha, in a gesture that is clearly performed to fully domesticate this antinomian language. There is no question, then, that this is a story with a very “happy ending” since everything resolves perfectly, and the reader is left holding the key to recovering perfection and the totality of Buddhism.
That the narrative of Vimalakīrti concludes with the Buddha's investiture of Maitreya with the Vimalakīrti text itself is curious as earlier in the narrative Maitreya had been philosophically abused by Vimalakīrti and yet now regains his buddha-status by accepting the text that includes within it his own humiliation. Assuredly this is a complicated gesture worth careful reflection, but by noting how Maitreya first takes a fall and then regains his legitimate status as the coming buddha by accepting the very narrative of (p.243) that fall, we clearly are not far from recognizing the basic dynamics that drive the text. In fact, quite parallel to the plot structures at work in the Lotus Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, Maitreya's loss and recovery of authenticity seem to serve as a template for the reader who loses his secure position in old-style Buddhism as he reads but gains a higher authenticity once he confirms that the text has the right to reorder tradition, identity, and authenticity in these ways.
The Full Textual Jacket in a Reading of the Vimalakīrti
The Vimalakīrti, as we have it translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva, has fourteen chapters that move through five identifiable zones of activity:
1. The introduction of the Buddha, Śāriputra, and others at a teaching site in Vaiśālī, where the Buddha performs a miracle that negates the validity of traditional Buddhism;
2. the introduction and description of Vimalakīrti in another part of town where he has, unlike the Buddha, actually been instructing beings in “valid,” Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism;
3. a string of formalized confessions in which the Buddha's principal disciples resist visiting Vimalakīrti, explaining to the Buddha their past failures in the face of Vimalakīrti's discourses;
4. a move to a magical teaching session, not attended by the Buddha,4 at Vimalakīrti's house where Vimalakīrti and Mañjuśrī exchange a series of “authentic” teachings; in between these discussions Śāriputra is thrice scolded and unmanned by an unnamed goddess;
5. the return of the group to the Buddha's original teaching site for more discussion and closure, with the Buddha explaining how the textual version of this narrative should be transmitted after his death.
Not surprisingly in a text dedicated to reordering authority, these five narrative zones create and negotiate five kinds of authority. In order of appearance, there is the authority of the Buddha, old-style tradition, Mañjuśrī, Vimalakīrti, and the text itself. Clearly, just in terms of the flow of staged authority, the end goal of the text is to move authority from the Buddha to the text via the mediating figure of Vimalakīrti. To give a more detailed account of this flow of authority throughout the narrative, I have broken the narrative into six stages that roughly match the five zones of activity listed above.
At the beginning of the first chapter, the Buddha's perfect and unshakable authority is put before the reader. In a typical Mahayana format, he is described seated on the Lion Throne in Vaiśālī, surrounded by a vast array of bodhisattvas, heavenly beings, and eight thousand monks. Throughout the narrative he never leaves this throne, nor does he engage in any other kind of motion. This fixity implies that in the narrative he is established as a well-anchored pylon of authority that serves to ground the shifts in authority that the text seems intent on effecting. As the above sketch of the text's five zones of action suggests, there is a distinctive “to and fro” movement in the text as narrative action leaves the Buddha's presence to travel to Vimalakīrti's room, after which action returns to the Buddha who verifies the entire “episode” and packages it for the reader's lawful consumption. Obviously, for this movement to work well, the rootedness of the Buddha has to be established in the first chapter.
In the opening scene, action begins when five hundred sons of rich merchants in Vaiśali each offer the Buddha a jeweled parasol. On receiving them, the Buddha magically turns them into one giant parasol under which all universes become visible, along with all the buddhas in those universes. In this gift exchange, the Buddha's rights as a worthy recipient are demonstrated, and more important, we are made aware of his ability to provide a total overview of the Real since, through his powers, everyone onstage can see all things and even all other buddhas. This vision also comes with the comforting detail that these immense universes all rest under this magical jeweled canopy.
Hence, as with the Lotus Sūtra and the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, the text's action opens up with a legitimized authority figure revealing an extensive, and unrequested, view of the Real that radically exceeds the boundaries of the participants' expectations. Paralleling the Lotus Sūtra and the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, this initial magical event appears as a metaphor for the textitself since both event and text will be relied on to reveal higher forms of truth and unity even as they disturb prior forms of truth and unity. Or, put slightly differently, all three texts begin with a magical event wherein the specificity of the particular historical “teaching” moment is conjoined with access to the totality of timeless truth, a conjunction that seems to match each text's claim that this specific text will be the final narrative on truth in the Buddhist tradition.
Also, like the Lotus Sūtra and the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, this magical vision produces a conversation that seeks to understand this unexpected revelation. In this case, this conversation is between the Buddha and Śāriputra, a conversation that is actually created by the Buddha who magically impels Śāriputra to wonder about the contradiction between this perfect (p.245) universe just revealed by the parasol trick and the apparent defects of the world as it is normally known. The Buddha, who reads the thoughts that he has just instilled in Śāriputra's mind, then explains to Śāriputra that he specifically intended to give us earthlings a lousy degraded world as part of our instruction, even though it actually is perfect in its own nature. To prove his point about his deception of the world's inhabitants, the Buddha taps his toe on the ground to manifest the world in its “real” purity, completely decked out in jewels.
This opening exchange is crucial for understanding the text's positioning of old-style tradition as it is the only time in the narrative that the Buddha directly gives Śāriputra instruction. Actually, despite the clarity of the vision and the subsequent toe trick, neither demonstration seems to improve Śāriputra or nudge him closer to truth and understanding. Given that this demonstration does not serve to convert or educate Śāriputra, we ought to suspect that this exchange is put here to establish two basic subtexts that frame the rest of the text. First, assuming that Śāriputra stands in for old-style tradition, as he usually does in Mahayana literature, the reader learns that reality in the eyes of the Buddha is altogether different from that which tradition, and presumably the reader, had imagined. And, second, the toe trick proves that the Buddha has split reality, and corresponding forms of Buddhism, into two radically different versions: the pure form of reality versus the impure and deluded form that we had thought was the only one.
For readers who come to the text with some allegiance to Śāriputra and the set of traditional Buddhist heroes, this miraculous disclosure certainly would appear disturbing. But even more shocking is the Buddha's explanation that this distorted and impoverished version of the Real that he gave to us earthlings is created precisely for the very purpose of leading degraded and deluded tradition into the correct appropriation of the Real. Thus, as in the Lotus Sūtra, the Buddha is depicted as an “author” of sorts who purposefully creates false appearances, along with their attendant narratives, in order to lead his disciples into truth. Not only that, this deception is explained as the effect of Śāriputra's, and presumably tradition's, shortcomings. As the Buddha says to Śāriputra, “My buddha land has always been pure like this. But because I wish to save those persons who are lowly and inferior, I make it seem an impure land full of defilements, that is all.”5
It is important to note that instead of simply generating “false” teaching, as he did in the Lotus Sūtra, the Buddha is shown as one who has created a (p.246) false and even evil world, along with a benighted form of Buddhism that knows neither this basic distortion in the appearance of reality nor its higher purposes. Thus the relatively comprehensible activity of teaching partial or distorted truths, as found in the Lotus Sūtra, has now been developed into the mind-boggling reorganization of reality. Undeniably, the duplicity attributed to the Buddha has grown to epic proportions, shifting from the construction of deceptive narratives to generating entirely fabricated world systems.
Hence much like the plots in recent films such as The Matrix and The Truman Show, the author of the Vimalakīrti has doubly destabilized apparentreality by suggesting that not only is apparent reality not final reality, but this apparent reality is generated according to a master narrative. Clearly, though, this means that there are in fact three narrative zones at work. There is the Real, the fake, and the account of those who participate in both, knowing that these two versions of reality fit together as parts of a master narrative. Too, there are various styles of participating in these narratives. The Buddha, Mañjuśrī, and Vimalakīrti manage to participate in all three narratives with apparent ease, while Śāriputra and the rest of the world remain in awe and wonder, never really coming to terms with this double exposure. Actually, the disciples are not alone in being able to accommodate but one version of the Real. Later we will be introduced to bodhisattvas who have existed only on the pure side of the Real, and respond to the Buddha's explanation of the dual tracks of Reality—distorted and Real—with similar surprise and bewilderment.6
Reading over the shoulder of Śāriputra, the reader comes to wonder how exactly to take hold of this narrative that explains these two split tracks of reality and which so thoroughly undercuts traditional Buddhist assumptions of value and legitimacy. Arguably, in line with the previous sūtras considered in this book, the Vimalakīrti resolves this crisis by offering itself as the solution to the impasse it has created. Thus those readers who continue reading the narrative as an account of a factual historical event in which the inconceivable version of the Real punched through the narrow confines of tradition will gain an explication of the dual levels of the Real, along with the “tool” for moving between those versions of the Real. The tool, of course, will be the narrative itself, which will present itself as the physical object that confers legitimacy and magically ensures the possessor access to the higher version of reality.
The end of this introductory scene mentions that the five hundred boys who gave the parasols gained a kind of enlightenment, but Śāriputra, as just mentioned, remains unaffected and apparently makes no progress. In fact, (p.247) throughout the text he will remain immune to nearly everything he sees and hears. This failure, though, seems to be softened by adding that the eight thousand monks in attendance did make progress: “[They] no longer took in the various dharmas [of the world], cut off the outflows [of desire], and understood the meaning.”7 Hence the Buddha's authority and power is shown to work on the old-school monks, even if this power is limited and in the end largely ineffective. Thus, in the miraculous toe trick, the Buddha's limitless power is demonstrated but in the context of exposing a rupture with tradition that cannot directly absorb this higher narrative about narratives.
Stage Two: Meanwhile, on the Other Side of Town
The first chapter concludes with the Buddha ending the vision by withdrawing “the supernatural power that he had exercised with his toe, thereby causing the world to return to its former appearance.”8 With the world again appearing as it previously had, the plot advances, though Śāriputra and the reader are now aware of this huge narrative that overshadows and effectively annuls the much smaller narrative of the historical Buddha that they had taken to be final. And, as usual, Śāriputra is shown reacting in shock to this revelation by saying, “[It is] something I have never seen before, and never even heard of—now all the marvelous purity of the buddha land is visible before me.”9 After this revelation and without any sophisticated transition, the second chapter introduces Vimalakīrti with the phrase, “At that time” (er shi).10
Vimalakīrti, it turns out, will be the mediator who negotiates these two narratives, so it is no surprise that he is introduced right here where the narrative would otherwise be at an impasse. The problem is that the author of the Vimalakīrti is not allowing for Śāriputra's conversion since this scene is paradigmatic for Śāriputra's performances throughout the rest of the text: he is shown truth and cannot assimilate it. Unlike the Lotus Sūtra, which is built around the conversion of traditional icons like Śāriputra, the Vimalakīrti is much stingier with regard to the conversion and improvement it allows for tradition. Tradition, as represented by these stalwart figures, never gains a foothold in the “real” form of Buddhism that the text is displaying, and forever remains bereft of what the reader is being offered. Assuming that the point of the text is to reveal the authenticity of a higher narrative within (p.248) Buddhism that was specifically withheld from normal tradition because of its shortcomings, the author needs to find a place to install this higher narrative. Moreover, he needs to make that higher narrative, and its payload of legitimacy, accessible to the reader who will essentially leapfrog over tradition's representatives, though the reader's attraction for the narrative, and the text that holds it, will be stoked by watching tradition repeatedly fail in its attempt to understand and incorporate Real tradition via Vimalakirti.11
The figure of Vimalakīrti appears well designed to fulfill this role of mediator. His first advantage is that he is elsewhere, away from the Buddhist tradition that has been so thoroughly undermined in this opening sequence. Vimalakīrti lives somewhere else in the same town of Vaiśāli, and in fact it seems that he is living with a family and conducting various kinds of business. Below I deal more explicitly with the details of his character as offered here at the beginning of the second chapter, but first it is important to note that the narrative has arranged a kind of tension based on knowledge and locale.
In short, unlike the conversion sequences that remained rooted in one locale in the Lotus Sūtra, here discourse develops in a to-and-fro movement away from the Buddha, with another fully defined authority—the figure of Vimalakīrti—doing the heavy lifting of executing old tradition and establishing the basis for new tradition. Thus, whereas the Buddha was expected to play all these roles in the Lotūs Sutra and the Diamond Sūtra, here a large portion of the task of overcoming and evacuating tradition's authority has been separated from the Buddha's person and lodged in the figure of Vimalakīrti. Hence we learn that the entirety of Vimalakīrti's life is arranged in order to benefit his neighbors by leading them into the Mahayana. Thus:12
Desiring to save others, he employed the excellent expedient of residing in Vaiśālī. His immeasurable riches he used to relieve the poor, his faultless observation of the precepts served as a reproach to those who would violate prohibitions. Through his restraint and forbearance he warned others against rage and anger, and his great assiduousness discouraged all thought of sloth and indolence. Concentrating his single mind in quiet meditation, he suppressed disordered thoughts; through firm and unwavering wisdom he overcame all that was not wise.
In this description of Vimalakīrti's actions, we see that the author has presented him as a paragon of perfection. In fact, this description is literally built out of the Six Perfections that range from giving to wisdom. What all (p.249) this means is that the real form of Buddhism—the one that knows about the higher narrative and how to act on it—has been working just fine, it is just that it has been working far from the confines of tradition. Thus, though the Buddha presumably is at home in this higher narrative, and its accompanying degraded version that tradition relied on, the author of the text has chosen to install that higher narrative in the supposedly flesh-and-blood figure of Vimalakīrti. Moreover, it is Vimalakīrti who is defined as actively negotiating the two levels of Buddhism, while the Buddha seems rather passive in this role. Actually, the rest of the narrative will work at negotiating the inclusion of “the higher narrative” from its place in Vimalakīrti's body back into the space between the Buddha and his entourage and then into the reader's hands. Thus there is an odd kind of telescoping to the narrative in which real Buddhism is found at a remove from the Buddha, folded back into him and then offered outward to the reader in the form of the text.
At first the structure of this sequence might be read to imply that the author is allowing that the Buddhist tradition is effectively being assaulted from beyond its perimeters. Of course, this is suggested by making Vimalakīrti's residence exterior to the Buddha's teaching site and by emphasizing his lay status. However, there are good reasons to read this apparent exteriority as a variation on the theme of two fathers in which Vimalakīrti is the new radicalized version of authority that I called Father2 in chapter 4. Though the Buddha will from the outset be made to incorporate both versions of the father (traditional and Mahāyāna), it is Vimalakīrti who in fact plays out the role of Father2, who executes the traditional symbolic world of Father1 and demands a whole new structure of faith and obedience from the reader. This keeps the Buddha out of the fray and certainly keeps him from having to be responsible for the shortcomings of old-style tradition, but it also gives the author more room for serving up a radicalized version of the execution of tradition. Furthermore, by giving Father2 a full-bodied presence in the text, the author has opened up a range of possibilities, including the possibility that the reader is being tempted to adopt a subject position based on the image of Vimalakīrti, a problem I return to below.
As the extensive description of his character makes clear, Vimalakīrti's authority neither derives directly from the current Buddhist tradition nor coexists with it: he is not currently with the Buddha or the traditional Buddhists, and though it is emphasized that he scrupulously served buddhas in past lives, he now represents a threat in the form of a fuller version of tradition outside the limits of conventional tradition:13
At that time in the great city of Vaiśāli there was a rich man named Vimalakīrti. Already in the past he had offered alms to immeasurable numbers of buddhas, (p.250) had deeply planted the roots of goodness, and had grasped the truth of birthlessness. Unhindered in his eloquence, able to disport himself with transcendental powers, he commanded full retention of the teachings and had attained the state of fearlessness. He had overcome the torments and ill will of the devil and entered deeply into the doctrine of the Law, proficient in the Perfection of Wisdom and a master in the employing of expedient means. He had successfully fulfilled his great vow and could clearly discern how the minds of others were tending. Moreover, he could distinguish whether their capacities were keen or obtuse. His mind was cleansed and purified through long practice of the Buddha Way, firm in its grasp of the Great Vehicle, and all his actions were well thought out and planned. He maintained the dignity and authority of a buddha, and his mind was a vast as the sea. All the buddhas sighed with admiration, and he commanded the respect of the disciples, of Indra, Brahma, and the Four Heavenly Kings.
This passage, which gives us our first information about Vimalakīrti, makes clear that he is one who has accomplished a number of things. He has already served innumerable buddhas in the past, mastered various forms of wisdom, and “commanded full retention of the teachings.” Obviously, he has been set up as a perfect reservoir for the higher form of tradition. Vimalakīrti, then, stands in that esoteric tradition that the Buddha revealed in the first phase of the narrative, and we are told in several direct ways that he has the respect of all the buddhas—they sigh with admiration—and “he maintained the dignity and authority of a buddha.” Also, Vimalakirti is one who, like Mañjuśrī in the Lotus Sūtra, not only remembers all prior teachings but also is at ease maintaining these monstrously large narratives over the course of eons. Thus, like the restructuring of authority in the Lotus Sūtra's first two chapters, Vimalakīrti's authority is essentially produced by generating a grander timeline along which he has performed in a way that currently grants him these extensive, extratraditional privileges.
Apparently, like the Lotus Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, the text has organized a reading program that begins with an authoritative framing that nonetheless reveals the “death” of normal Buddhist meaning and tradition, and yet promises that tradition is recoverable elsewhere, provided that one will assent to the reconstitution of tradition amidst the ashes of old tradition. In short, another Mahāyāna author has created narrative figures who appear to have the right to “kill” tradition, with this right again appearing as the most convincing proof of access to higher authority and the tradition through which it flows.
Faking It: Vimalakīrti's Peculiar Illness
Following the omniscient narrator's description of Vimalakīrti at the beginning of the second chapter, the next section narrates a particular trick that (p.251) Vimalakīrti performs. This trick has specific “historical” effects, effects that in fact will drive the narrative forward and begin the process of negotiating the two forms of Buddhism that the narrative has created. In both sections of this chapter, Vimalakīrti is depicted as one who functions perfectly as a crossover figure between the two forms of Buddhist tradition that the Buddha explained to Śāriputra in the opening chapter.
Vimalakīrti's deception is a feigned illness that he generates in order to draw all of the city's inhabitants to his sickroom to ask about his illness. Then with the public at his bedside, Vimalakīrti “preaches the Law” to them (shuofa). What exactly “the Law” is, especially spoken of in the singular whenthe preceding chapter already made clear that there were two forms of truth, two forms of reality, and two forms of Buddhism, will be a recurring question in my reading. For now, suffice it to say that the passages from this setting show Vimalakīrti teaching how to exchange your physical body for the body of a buddha. Having outlined, with various analogies, the evils of a normal human body, Vimalakīrti explains:14
“Good people, a thing like this [human body] is irksome and hateful, and therefore you should seek the buddha body. Why? Because the buddha body is the dharma body. It is born from immeasurable merits and wisdom. It is born from precepts, meditation, wisdom, liberation, and the insight of liberation. It is born from pity, compassion, joy, and indifference. It is born of the various Perfections … of the thirty-seven elements of the Way … of the four fearlessnesses … Good people, if you wish to gain the buddha body and do away with the ills that afflict living beings, then you must set your minds on highest enlightenment.”
The content and circumstances of this teaching are provocative in several ways. First, it is clear that the text, like the Lotus Sūtra and the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, is offering to the reader, who now has received what the citizens of Vaiśāre being encouraged with the teaching that by simply setting their minds on highest enlightenment they will be able to exchange their ordinary bodies for the timeless bodies of the buddhas. Key in his description of this exchange is the emphasis of the buddhabody being born from various Buddhist practices that are listed in an exuberant manner that rehearses cherished lists drawn from both traditional and Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism. In the narrative's enthusiasm for offering this higher body and identity, it seems that the reader is being presented the ingredients for turning himself into a replica of the father by rebirthing himself through Buddhist practices.
The problem, though, is that these directions remain altogether vague (p.252) and imprecise. There is no mention of specific practices or stages along the way or the manner in which one might actually engage in these methods. Instead it is the promise that predominates. Also, there are no particular individuals onstage to receive this teaching, and when we learn at the end of the chapter that numberless individuals set their minds on attaining perfect enlightenment, it seems that not much has changed. There are no wellarticulated conversion moments or actors who are now taking hold of their identities and enacting the practices as they were exhaustively listed.
The work that this brief account accomplishes, I would argue, is found on another level. Vimalakīrti's teaching to the faceless public demonstrates that he has the right to be teaching. Also, it shows that his offering of the recipe for buddhahood was faithfully received by the public and sanctified by the omniscient narrator who concludes the chapter with the two lines: “In this manner the rich man Vimalakīrti used the occasion to preach the Law to those who came to inquire about his illness. As a result, numberless thousands of persons were all moved to set their minds on the attainment of highest enlightenment.”15 Clearly, then, Vimalakīrti has what the narrative calls “the Law,” and in dispensing it, he sets his audience on track for becoming buddhas.16
Portraying this successful accomplishment of Buddhist teaching away from the Buddha and his institution poses some other problems, especially since this teaching seems to have laid claim to every important list of Buddhist practices. Though most modern commentators have been eager to see this as evidence that the text is promoting a laicized form of Mahayana Buddhism, I see it rather differently. In fact, reasons for resisting the straightforward interpretation of “lay Buddhism” can be found on several layers that I explore throughout the rest of this chapter. For now, let me note that simply in terms of narrative development, energy has been put into convincing the reader of Vimalakīrti's authenticity, his awareness of real tradition, and his teaching prowess. The scene just mentioned in which he instructs the visiting citizens does not seem to highlight his creation of a lay Buddhism redesigned for a nonmonastic group. Instead it works more as a set piece proving Vimalakīrti's powers, via his control over all those forms of practice, and preparing the reader for the next set of encounters between Vimalakīrti and the Buddhist establishment. Thus this generic description of his successful teaching figures as part of a longer sequence in which this moment proves that Vimalakīrti is the singular figure in the narrative who does what the Buddhist institution ought to be doing—instructing and aiding (p.253) its supporters through offering a panoply of practices that the reader would likely have identified as being a summation of various earlier summations of Buddhism.
In fact, once we have been given Vimalakīrti's sickbed teaching, the narrative moves immediately to the problem of contact between Vimalakīrti as the site of authentic and effective teachings, and traditional figures of the Buddhist tradition that the reader would have expected to be responsible for managing, controlling, and conveying tradition. Thus it isn't that the narrative is interested in explaining how perfect Buddhism got into the layman Vimalakīrti—that was covered easily enough by giving him a long cosmic history of serving buddhas. Nor is the narrative interested in the gathered laity's reception of this teaching at his bedside—that was covered in one sentence. Rather, the narrative is interested in playing up how this perfect form of Buddhism was beyond tradition, as it would have been known, and how old-style tradition had to submit to him and his perfect form of tradition. This latter topic will occupy the next two chapters and clearly is the point of focus that the opening two chapters were building up to.
Consequently, I read Vimalakīrti's lay status not as the direct promotion of lay Buddhism but rather as the logical opposite of the monastic form of tradition. If the text's work is dedicated to revamping tradition, it needs, as I have shown with the preceding texts, to locate authority somewhere else and then draw that perfect and hitherto externalized form of tradition into itself. While I am not adverse to the possibility that structuring a narrative about tradition recovering itself in this manner might have profound implications for lay-monastic relations, I still would insist that in the narrative, Vimalakīrti's lay status is arranged to be a cudgel to beat tradition and the reader's expectation that tradition as he had known it was the reservoir of truth. This, of course, doesn't necessarily mean that the text is designed to open up lay Buddhism; rather, it is designed to open up a higher version of tradition, which might take a variety of forms.
Tricking the Buddha
The arrangement of Vimalakīrti vis-à-vis the monastic tradition is made clearer in the crucial narrative device that will bring them into contact. The end of the second chapter explained that all levels of society in Vaiśāli had come to visit Vimalakirti, and yet ironically it was only the Buddhists who did not visit. Thus Vimalakīrti's expedient means of faking this illness worked to engage normal society who responded according to standard Indian etiquette and rendered visits to Vimalakīrti during which they received authentic and enlightening teachings. As just mentioned, however, this success is not of much interest to the narrative. What is of interest is the gap between this fine and workable form of Real tradition in the form of Vimalakīrti and (p.254) old-style tradition in the form of monastic Buddhism, which has failed even to live up to standard levels of etiquette to which everyone else in Vaiśālī conforms.
This tension is heightened when, at the beginning of third chapter, in one of the few moments in the entire story when we get to hear Vimalakīrti's internal monologue, Vimalakīrti complains, “I am lying here sick in bed. Why does the World Honored One, the Great Compassionate One, not show concern?”17 The Buddha is aware of his thoughts and orders Śāriputra to visit him to ask about his illness. This moment is pivotal as it begins the lengthy process of negotiating high and low versions of tradition, but it also reveals much about the tension in this kind of reordering of authority. First, in the only other prior full conversation in the text, Śāriputra had spoken under the magical power of the Buddha, and yet here Vimalakīrti speaks through his own will, suggesting that the author is willing to grant full agency to this character. This impression is strengthened when we realize that Vimalakīrti is tricking the Buddha and, moreover, has begun to function as the principal site of authorship, producing a seductive narrative that will work on the internal audience, including the Buddha. Actually, it seems that Vimalakīrti's expedient means here is of a different order from the Buddha's. Whereas the first chapter had explained that the Buddha created our world and its degraded form of Buddhism in order to lead us to truth, nothing seemed to be moving in that direction until Vimalakīrti arrived. Thus Vimalakīrti's expedient means are alone effective in negotiating a problem that the Buddha caused—the separation of truth from tradition.
Though the Buddha immediately knows Vimalakīrti's thoughts, he seems to be taken in by the surface layer of Vimalakīrti's feigned illness. Thus the Buddha telepathically “hears” Vimalakīrti's complaint in earnest and acts to fulfill his wishes by ordering Śāriputra to go to visit him. Never does the narrative return to dress up this mistake of the Buddha's. Nor does the narrative explain the Buddha's participation in this duping as part of the Buddha's higher reading of the situation, which complies with Vimalakīrti's pretenses, presumably knowing the positive outcome to follow.18
What this distinctly implies is that though the Buddha was presented in the first chapter as the great author who knew both big and little narratives of truth and negotiated easily between them, here the Buddha is made to suffer the fabricated narrative of another being. Vimalakīrti has, after all, performed an act of expedient means, and the Buddha is shown responding to that fabrication with the earnestness parallel to all the other citizens (p.255) of Vaiśālī. In short, this is a truly dangerous place in the narrative where the structure of the text is allowing for the emergence of yet another narrative that had not been included in the initial construction of authority. Vimalakīrti was not part of the Buddha's initial revelation to Śāriputra, and the Buddha's account of how big and little narratives of Buddhist truth existed together did not include mention of Vimalakīrti, who was obviously at that time negotiating just those two narratives on his own and for the benefit of all. Moreover, as the rest of the narrative will show, even though Vimalakīrti's skill in expedient means roughly matches the Buddha's toe trick, in fact, Vimalakīrti's sickbed routine appears to do what the Buddha was not doing all this time—bringing these two versions of traditiontogether and negotiating a happy settlement of their differences.
The Buddha as Straight Man
The inversion of authority implied by the Buddha's participation in Vimalakīrti's ruse is made more evident in the conversations that follow. Now aware of Vimalakīrti's illness, the Buddha orders Śāriputra to visit him. Śāriputra, however, refuses and then gives a long account of an embarrassing encounter with Vimalakīrti that supposedly prevents him from fulfilling the Buddha's command. By developing this theme, which will be replayed ad nauseam for the following two chapters, the author has clarified a number of points.
First, discipline, control, and the flow of information are breaking down in the sphere of old-style tradition. Clearly, Śāriputrais appearing very different from his performance in the opening chapter, where he was a docile puppetlike interlocutor to whom the Buddha magically fed lines and who acquiesced in every way to the Buddha's discourse. In this chapter he is a node of resistance. He refuses to comply with the Buddha's order to visit Vimalakīrti and, equally interesting, gives the Buddha information that the Buddha apparently did not have before. Thus Śāriputrais positioned now as a real Other to the Buddha, an Other with his own will, his own memory of events, and his own judgment about how to act in the present.
What seems to be happening is that narratives emanating from contact with Vimalakīrti are being relayed to the site of old-style tradition where they arrive as news to the Buddha (and the reader) and prevent the normal performance of discipline in the Buddhist hierarchy. The Buddha wants someone to visit Vimalakīrti, and in the course of the chapter he will systematically go down the list of his ten best disciples with no success as each has been touched by Vimalakīrti in a manner that precludes further contact with him. Then, in the following chapter, Maitreya and three other bodhisattvas will reject the Buddha's command in a similar manner. It will only be with Mañjuśrī that the Buddha will find an end to this impasse, a solution (p.256) that will include pulling all the erstwhile reluctant members of tradition into Vimalakīrti's sickroom.
Thus the introduction of Vimalakīrti in the narrative reveals two things: first, he is an independent site of action, information, and initiative; second, he has already been “getting at” tradition, even if the Buddha and the reader are only now becoming aware of this problem. This implies, among other things, that old-style tradition had been vapid and “overcome” even before the narrative about Vimalakīrti got started. That is, as the disciples confess their past failures in the face of Vimalakīrti, the reader gains confidence that the coming crisis in the narrative had long-standing antecedents that the disciples themselves knew of, even if the Buddha did not. And, of course, it makes the real time of the narrative appear to have the support of a much longer history that “reliable” figures in the narrative vouch for.
What is really curious in these two chapters of confessions is that instead of reading over Śāriputra's shoulder, or Subhūti's, as we have been accustomed to in the other Mahayana sutras, here we are reading over the Buddha's shoulder, receiving information that is ostensibly destined for him but comes to us nonetheless. On one level, this radical shift in the structure of voicing in this narrative is due to the author's need to have “truthful history” spoken about Vimalakīrti and his ascendancy over normal tradition, and this is achieved by having the disciples address the Buddha, to whom these disciples would, presumably, be most reluctant to lie. But, on another level, something more invidious is being implied. As the disciples turn to the Buddha to confess their failures they are essentially saying, “The teachings that you gave us, the teachings that we thought defined our relationship to you, were after all insufficient.”
Stage Three: A History of Failures
These confessions are crucial for staging the text's basic agenda, and the form of these encounters between high and low tradition is essentially defined by the first example in which Śāriputra recounts a ruinous discussion with Vimalakīrti. Śāriputra says to the Buddha:19
“World Honored One, I am not competent to visit him and inquire about his illness. Why? Because I recall one occasion in the past when I was sitting in quiet meditation under a tree in the forest. At that time Vimalakīrti approached and said to me, ‘Ah, Śāriputra, you should not assume that this sort of sitting is true quiet sitting. Quiet sitting means that in this threefold world you manifest neither body nor will. This is quiet sitting. Not rising out (p.257) of your samādhi of complete cessation and yet showing yourself in the ceremonies of daily life—this is quiet sitting. Not abandoning the principles of the Way and yet showing yourself in the ceremonies of everyday life—this is quiet sitting. Your mind not fixed on internal things and yet not engaged with externals either—this is quiet sitting. Unmoved by sundry theories, but practicing the thirty-seven elements of the Way—this is quiet sitting. Entering nirvana without having put an end to earthly desire—this is quiet sitting. If you can do this kind of sitting, you will merit the Buddha's seal of approval (yinke).’”
In this mini-history, Śāriputra explains that he was doing what he took to be an authentic Buddhist practice, which he presumably had learned from the Buddha—sitting meditating under the tree—when Vimalakīrti came along and required that his practice take on these cosmic dimensions. This set of higher requirements, which involves the combination of elements normally thought to be antithetical, such as mixing ordinary life with nirvana, leave Śāriputra speechless and effectively void his practice of meaning and authenticity. Obviously, Śāriputra cannot perform in this higher manner, and, as the last sentence makes clear, his legitimacy is revoked by Vimalakīrti's new rules about who should and should not receive “the Buddha's seal of approval.” Thus, as in the Lotus Sūtra, the reader is shown tradition's most stalwart figure essentially committing identity-suicide by admitting that he is not in fact suitable to be counted as part of legitimate tradition.
A closer look at this passage makes clear several other things. First, Vimalakīrti isn't really giving a teaching. He is challenging Śāriputra with a series of questions that demand a higher level of practice than Śāriputra had previously been aware of. Crucial to note, though, is that Vimalakīrti's requirements are all of one type: they require that opposites be combined. Of course, this matches the description that the omniscient narrator had given Vimalakīrti himself, since he was a layman but behaved like a buddha and so on. While it is true that Vimalakīrti's demands point to a kind of unthinkability, it is also the case that even here that unthinkability is coming as part of a definition, and on two levels. As the passage makes clear, Vimalakīrti is acting as a law-giving figure who offers new definitions of old projects, much as the Buddha had in the Diamond Sutra. And, second, these new hyped-up versions of basic Buddhist practice are tied, again like the Diamond Sūtra, to rightful inclusion in the Buddha's preferred group. Inshort, Vimalakīrti knows the real definitions of Buddhist practice, and he knows that performing accordingly is the key to gaining authenticity from the Buddha. He is, then, first giving a new form of the law, which comes with a second law that specifies that this new version of the law can be trusted to get one back to the Buddha, with the added caveat that failure to perform in this manner cancels one's legitimacy as a Buddhist.
In effect, Vimalakīrti is giving Śāriputra “the drain plug” treatment. Each (p.258) of these questions does not seem to have an answer, and each appears as a completely impossible project that ruptures the fundamental logic of Buddhist practice and the Buddhist cosmology. In essence, then, Vimalakīrti's questions have taken the form and content of the old Buddhist world and spun them together in impossible combinations that suggest he has completely mastered all these levels and exists on a plane where Śāriputra's logic, and the reader's, could in no way apply. Thus this passage, among other things, serves to demonstrate for the reader the possibility of this higher plane of being where normal logic is inapplicable and where the contours of the old world are burst asunder. Of course, the form and content of this literary ploy become clearer once we realize that producing in the reader an image and desire for just such a plane is the overall goal of the text. Conversely, as long as we read naively assuming that Vimalakīrti is a somewhat real character who in fact knows of such a real and unthinkable mode of being, then the function of this rhetoric will remain unnoticed, even as it succeeds in evoking the desires and fears it was designed to elicit.
The rest of the third chapter is dedicated to replaying versions of this basic scene as nine other well-known old-style Buddhist leaders confess their past failures. What is particularly odd in this set of confessions is that they are all introduced identically. Each of the ten confessions replays the framing of the Buddha saying, “You must go visit Vimalakīrti and inquire about his illness,” and the disciple responding, “World Honored One, I am not competent to visit him and inquire about his illness. Why?” Given this fixed pattern, a modern reader might sense a kind of parody here with humor emerging from the absurdity of sustained repetition. I am not sure how to interpret the repetition, though it seems to me that the text gains from this Wring squad-like definiteness: each major disciple is lined up and given the same devastating treatment, leaving the distinct impression that there is nowhere to hide and that this devastation is total and irrevocable.
In moving through this list of normally beloved disciples, it becomes increasingly clear that the Buddha is now even more thoroughly separated from his traditional followers, since it has been proved that while he has truth in its multiple forms, they clearly don't have a clue. Then, with even Maitreya explaining his failures, it seems that old-style tradition is about to collapse in the face of Vimalakīrti, who now glows with the aura of being the sole representative of the higher tradition that, according to Vimalakīrti, is the only tradition.
It is only Mañjuśrī, the timeless bodhisattva of wisdom, who has not collapsed in front of Vimalakīrti in the past and won't in the present either. Playing a kind of uncle's role that allows the Buddha to stay put, he shepherds the sheepish disciples off to again meet this feared master on the other side of town. Thus, under Mañjuśrī's tutelage, the traditional figures of tradition are peeled away from the Buddha and taken to the house of a (p.259) kind of “anti-Buddha” who instructs and insults them in ways that the Buddha never would, and decisively drives a wedge between the Buddha and tradition, a wedge that, however, will turn out to be none other than Real tradition. Important to note in this movement is that again the Buddha's will is being ignored and the plot advances only when the will of another actor is brought to bear—this time it is Mañjuśrī, who actually accomplishes the task of moving the entirety of tradition away from the Buddha and over to Vimalakīrti's abode.
By this time in the text a much bigger narrative problem ought to be evident. The discussions that are unfolding around the Buddha as he sits on the Lion Throne in the Āmra gardens of Vaiśālī are discussions that, clearly, the Buddha had not planned on. Presumably, the teachings the Buddha had begun to give on this day have been completely eclipsed by Vimalakīrti's feigned illness and the series of refusals by his disciples. He had received the five hundred parasols, performed a magic trick, and answered Śāriputra's question with his toe trick. So, with such a large audience gathered and primed, the Buddha was poised to launch into a wonderful teaching, but something else in fact is happening. Much like the arrangement of the Lotus Sūtra, we have a perfect setting for a splendiferous teaching, and yet thisteaching never arrives, and instead the narrative will wend its way forward by explaining more about that teaching moment and the histories that led up to this most momentous moment, when in fact the only teaching given will be a final validation of the various discourses and actions performed on that strange day in Vaiśālī. Thus the very explicit form of the text is a kind of meta-arrangement, with the Buddha simply reacting to action onstage and then giving his blessing to the various histories that were recounted on that day. In short, the Buddha is made to watch the dialectical conflict of these two forms of tradition, whereupon he legislates a resolution such that the “higher” form of tradition is solidly enfranchised, with the added boon that, like the Lotus Sūtra, the higher version contains the lower version as part of its own machinations.
This problem of “no-teaching” in the narrative's construction of the Buddha becomes more evident if we return to question the arrangement of that simple contemporaneous event that opens the second chapter: with the Buddha ready to teach, we learn that elsewhere in town Vimalakīrti is feigning illness and complaining to himself that the Buddha has not come to visit him. As mentioned above, these two events had simply been introduced with no logic or causality connecting them, even though, in fact, these two events are what holds the entire narrative together. Imagine what would happen to the narrative if this action had not been arranged to occur just at this moment. The Buddha would have had nothing to speak of, since no other speech is given to him. His own speech, as it emerges in the narrative, is nothing but an effect of this other event elsewhere in (p.260) Vaiśālī—Vimalakīrti's feigned illness. Thus it is only by having the Buddha clairvoyantly hear Vimalakīrti's thoughts that discourse moves forward at the Buddha's own site in the Āmra gardens. In essence, then, the Buddha's voice and intentionality have been stolen since his chance to teach disappears and his discourse is invaded first by Vimalakīrti's complaint and then by the mini-histories that his disciples give him regarding their past failures to live up to Vimalakīrti's expectations.
Structurally, this narrative situation represents perfectly what is happening on the ideological level. Whatever straightforward discourse on content that the Buddha might be expected to give is being taken over by an interloper who hijacks the mind of the Buddha with his feigned illness and sets the agenda for the day's discourse so that it turns into a long exposition of old-style tradition's failure to live up to what is being touted as Real tradition.
Given the interesting way that the narrative upsets direct causality in establishing the day's activities, it is worth pointing out a related problem. Who is the narrator who so easily has access to both spheres in either site in Vaiśālī? One narrator introduced the Buddha's retinue at the Āmra gardens and recounted the miracles that were performed there. Another narrator, who presumably is no different from the first, introduces Vimalakīrti elsewhere in town describing what he is doing “at that time.” Thus we have a kind of split-screen narrative that is being managed by someone who appears able to be in both places at once and, given how important shuttling between these two spheres is for the narrative's development, moves between these two zones effortlessly. Of course, when put this way, the narrator appears as the master puppeteer who has arranged his actors to perform according to his overall designs. This problem of the master puppeteer will deepen in the final chapters when, after the Buddha's discourse is lead into Vimalakīrti's zone and then given back to the Buddha for his approval, the Buddha recommends a book version of the entire teaching that requires jumping into yet another frame of reference. I explore this problem in detail below, but for now we ought to appreciate the agility with which the narrator-author is moving between these narrative zones.
Before exploring the events that unfold at Vimalakīrti's, I want to mention several elements of the disciples' confessions that present particularly interesting material. First, and generalizing only slightly, the conversations that the disciples recount regularly include a meta-view on Buddhism such that Buddhist principles are turned on Buddhist practices and beliefs. In other words, concepts such as emptiness or renunciation or ineffability are turned on previously established forms of Buddhism, thereby taking what had been the effect of Buddhist practice and superimposing it on what had been the cause of those effects. Thus Śāriputra's practice of meditation, which traditionally would have been expected to lead to the cessation of (p.261) desire and the achievement of nirvana in an understanding of the unreality of the world, is itself now the target for such a critique that presumably would be available after one had gained success in meditation.
This confusion of levels is clearer in the second confession when Maudgalyāyana explains how Vimalakīrti upbraided him for his limited style in teaching laymen and laywomen. Maudgalyāyana confesses to the Buddha, “At that time Vimalakīrti approached and said to me, ‘Ah, Maudgalyāyana, when you expound the law (dharma) for the white-robed lay believers, you should not expound it in the way you are doing! Expounding the law should be done in accordance with the law itself.”20 Here there is clearly a play of words and a mixing of levels. With the word dharma meaning both “reality” and “teaching,” Vimalakīrti's commentsessentially demand that Maudgalyāyana make signifier and signified conform in his teaching. The rest of Vimalakīrti's diatribe is dedicated to listing the impossibility of all concepts such as “living being” or “names,” including the impossibility of teaching the dharma, given its unspeakable nature. In making such a requirement, Vimalakīrti is giving the law about giving the law, and he is doing so by confusing a Buddhist ontology of “lack” with the language that evokes that ontology, even as this produces more language.
The irony of this encounter is brought home when Maudgalyāyana closes out his account by mentioning that having witnessed this conversation, “eight hundred lay believers set their minds on highest enlightenment.” This detail makes clear that Vimalakīrti's devastating critique of teaching was itself a workable teaching with results that the narrative verifies.21 Clearly, for the narrative, Vimalakīrti's discourse on lack is signaled as effective for advancing Buddhist agendas, even though it exists on a level won by passing the basic level of Buddhist practice through a disturbing negation. Given what we have seen in the Diamond Sūtra, this kind of Buddhist critique of Buddhism isn't that shocking or new.
Subhūti's account of his failure, which comes fourth in the list, is arguably the most radical of the ten vignettes. Subhūti explains how Vimalakīrti challenged him to be a Buddhist by, quite literally, not being a Buddhist. First, Vimalakīrti demands that Subhūti see the different types of food that he has collected for alms as completely equal. In line with his comments to Maudgalyāyana, emptiness as the final mode of being is superimposed on the structured rules of traditional practice with rather disturbing, and even catastrophic, effects. Taking this position on sameness a step further, Vimalakīrti demands that Subhūti abandon the standard divide between good and bad mental states. Thus Subhūti is challenged with the requirement that he is only worthy of his alms if he can practice a form of (p.262) meta-practice in which he rejects the very act of rejection that had defined the standard form of practice. Vimalakīrti says:22
“Subhūti, if you can not cut yourself off from lewdness, anger and stupidity and yet not be a part of these; if you can refrain from destroying the idea of a self and yet see all things as a single nature; if without wiping out stupidity and attachment you can find your way to understanding and freedom from attachment; if you can seem to be a perpetrator of the five cardinal sins and yet gain liberation; if you can be neither unbound nor bound, neither one who has perceived the four noble truths nor one who has not perceived them, neither one who obtains the fruits of religious practice nor one who does not obtain them, neither a common mortal nor one who has removed himself from the ways of the common mortal, neither a sage nor not a sage—if in this manner you can master all phenomenal things and yet remove yourself from the ways that mark them, then you will be worthy to receive food.”
Clearly, this set of requirements is again taking the discovered truths of Buddhist doctrine—lack of self, sameness of reality, liberation, and so on—and turning them on the codification of those findings. On this hyperlevel of Buddhist rhetoric, one only gains legitimacy by being Buddhist about being Buddhist, with the consequence that authentic perception is defined by perceiving Buddhist items, such as the four truths, with the very content that those items were designed to represent. Thus, as in the previous Mahāyāna sūtras, form and content are being reorganized so that what was content in a prior formulation of Buddhist truth is extracted and made to work on the form of that categorization. Consequently, Vimalakīrti's remarks demand that one be sagely about being a sage and thereby master this higher form of authenticity.
The next set of questions pushes these inversions further and makes explicit the logic of “being Buddhist about being Buddhist.” Vimalakīrti says:23
“Subhūti, if without seeing the Buddha or listening to his Law you are willing to take those six heretical teachers, Purāna Kaśyapa, Maskarin Gośālīputra, Samjayin Vairatiputra, Ajita Keśakambala, Kakuda Kātyāyana, and Nirgrantha Jñatīputra, as your teachers, leave the household life because of them, and follow them in falling into the same errors they fall into, then you will be worthy to receive food.”
This command to be more fully Buddhist by showing one's renunciation of Buddhism through the adoption of the teachings of the non-Buddhist “heretics” presents some very interesting problems. Obviously, this project requires a level of doublethink: one's task, as Vimalakīrti establishes it, is to pass through a negation of one's Buddhist identity in order to regain that (p.263) Buddhist identity. Of course, we have seen versions of this structure in both the Lotus Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, but here the bar has been raised since the execution of one's prior Buddhist identity is now confirmed by the positive identity of consorting with the out-group heretics.
Vimalakīrti raises the bar even higher in the following paragraph when he requires that Subhūti join with the host of devils and make defilements his companions, including having “hatred for all living beings, slandering the buddhas, vilifying the Law, not being counted among the assembly of monks, and in the end, never attaining nirvana.” “If you can do all this,” the narrative continues, “then you will be worthy to receive food.”24 Clearly, the author is delighting in having Vimalakīrti develop that anomic space of negation in the movement from lower to higher forms of Buddhism. Unlike the Lotus Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, the Vimalakīrti expands simple negation and lack into positive forms of specifically anti-Buddhist acts such as hatred, lust, slandering of the buddhas, and so forth. However, all this is set up so that in the end Subhūti can rightfully reclaim his alms gathered according to traditional forms of practice. In short, we are again faced with a rhetoric that implies a self-consuming logic, even though this process is destined to return the Buddhist subject to the same Buddhist world with its traditional practices still in place, albeit now destabilized to some degree.
Subhūti explains that he was devastated by this encounter and only finds an exit when Vimalakīrti tells him to continue begging without being afraid since, “If some phantom person conjured up by the Buddha were to reprimand you as I have just done, you would not be afraid, would you?”25 Subhūti agrees that he would not be afraid, and Vimalakīrti drives his point home by saying that all language is separate from reality and therefore should not be feared. The irony of this closing is that Subhūti, like Maudgalyāyana, concludes his mini-history by adding, “When Vimalakīrti expounded the Law in this manner, two hundred heavenly beings gained the purity of the dharma eye.”26 Thus, though the closing topic is the phantomlike quality of the encounter and the unreality of language, still there is a choruslike group of observers who faithfully receive the language about unreal language and thereby advance—the two hundred heavenly beings win the dharma eye, an advance that the narrative chooses not to deconstruct in any manner. In short, just as in the Diamond Sūtra, the cutting edge of the negation is applied to various aspects of tradition, but the net result of this operation is the reproduction of traditional gains—merit, the dharma eye, and so on—and in a form that never again has to face the knife of negation.
(p.264) Much could be gained from closely reading the play of these ten mini-histories, but for the purposes of my arguments, I will leave this section of the narrative with the case of Ānanda, who is the final disciple to confess his failures. Ānanda's story is built around the replay of a well-known story in which Ānanda went to beg milk for the Buddha, who was ill. Ānanda explains why he will not visit Vimalakirti:27
“World Honored One, I am not competent to visit him and inquire about his illness. Why? Because I recall once in the past when the World Honored One was feeling somewhat ill and needed some cow's milk. I at once took my begging bowl, went to the home of one of the great Brahmans, and stood by the gate. At that time Vimalakīrti approached and said to me, ‘Ah, Ānanda, what are you doing standing here early in the morning with your begging bowl?’ I replied, ‘Layman, the World Honored One is suffering from a slight bodily illness and needs some cow's milk. That's why I've come here.
But Vimalakīrti said, ‘Hush, hush, Ānanda! Never speak such words! The body of the Tathāgata is diamond-hard in substance. All evils have been cut away, manifold good things gather there. How could it know illness, how could it know distress? Go your way in silence, Ānanda, and do not defame the Tathāgata. Don't let others hear you speaking such coarse words. Don't let these heavenly beings of great majesty and virtue and these bodhisattvas who have come from pure lands of other regions hear such utterances. … If the non-Buddhists and Brahmans should hear such talk, they would think to themselves, ‘Why call this man Teacher? He cannot save himself from illness, so how could he save others from their illnesses?’ Slip away quickly so no one will hear what you have said!”
Here the narrator has provided Vimalakīrti with an altogether different script. As the passage makes clear, two main issues are put forward. First, the author is reworking this story to correct what he takes to be a serious misunderstanding of the Buddha's body and identity. In line with the speech that he put in Vimalakīrti's mouth as he lectured the visiting citizens of Vaiśālī, the Buddha's perfect diamond-like body is upheld as a truly magical item free from all the shortcomings of normal bodies.
The second issue is more interesting and revolves around the issues of public perception. Vimalakīrti, for all the tough talk he dished out to the other disciples, even daring them to be truly Buddhist by taking up with non-Buddhist teachers, is here shown acutely anxious over what the non-Buddhist public might think of Buddhism if it became known that the Buddha became ill and needed this cow's milk. Here the phantomlike quality of language that he pushed on Subhūti in the passage cited earlier has completely disappeared. In a near panic, Vimalakīrti keeps trying to silence (p.265) Ānanda's comments that seem to undercut what the author wants to put forward as the real definition of the Buddha's physical being.
What are we to make of these apparent inconsistencies in the author's presentation of Vimalakīrti's evaluation of the power of language? The best answer to this question seems to be that as long as Vimalakīrti as a literary figure attacks old-style Buddhist notions of value and closure, he can be as radical and threatening as necessary. When, on the other hand, he produces language that is floating into the truly public sphere of competitive Indian religions, he becomes altogether circumspect, worrying about the effect misguided language might have on Buddhism and its public cachet. Once we categorize Vimalakīrti's evaluation of language in this manner, we are quite close to the two-pronged problematic organizing the entire text: as long as old-style Buddhism is the target, there are no holds barred, but for turning that attack into a new, packaged form of Buddhism, much care is exercised in rendering language attractive, effective, and altogether consonant with the author's sense of various expected audiences. That is to say, Vimalakīrti's concern for the public perception of Buddhism cannot be far from the author's concerns for public perception as he presents a narrative that he has calculated to be effective in shifting the reader's notion of Buddhism.
The absolute impasse presented in Ānanda's story is avoided in an odd way that will be relied on again at another particularly important moment in the narrative. The author has Ānanda explain, “But at that moment I heard a voice in the sky saying, ‘Ānanda, it is as the layman has said. But the Buddha has appeared in this evil world of five impurities and at present is practicing the Law so as to save and liberate living beings. Go, Ānanda, get the milk and do not feel ashamed.’”28 This voice from heaven certainly resolves the conflict and returns the basic integrity of the story as it would have been known to a traditional reader, even as it also confirms Vimalakīrti's authenticity.
The chapter closes by noting that the other five hundred disciples likewise refused to visit Vimalakīrti, “each declaring, ‘I am not competent to visit him and ask about his illness.’” In sum, then, this chapter has effectively eviscerated all the standard heroes of earlier Buddhism and established Vimalakīrti as the preeminent spokesperson for this higher and uniquely legitimate form of Buddhism. Furthermore, this chapter has excited the reader with all sorts of impossible and unthinkable goals and desires while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of maintaining order and decorum, especially in the face of the public.
The fourth chapter continues in the same vein of the Buddha serially requesting members of his audience to visit Vimalakīrti. The difference, though, is that this chapter is dedicated to four mini-histories given by bodhisattvas. Again maintaining order and a sense for hierarchy, the narrative has separated ordinary disciples from the more elevated bodhisattvas, both in putting them in separate chapters and in building something of a ladder of ascent that will culminate in the next chapter when Mañjuśrī finally accepts the Buddha's charge and leads the entire entourage off to visit Vimalakīrti. In short, there is an ordered plot here that is designed to build tension by working through a set of categories that the author seems to have expected his reading audience to recognize.
In addition to the shift to an “all-bodhisattva” review, these four vignettes differ from the previous ten in three ways. First, each is significantly longer and more developed in terms of narrative. Second, in the four bodhisattvas' stories, Vimalakīrti is asked questions instead of posing questions as he had for the hapless disciples. Third, whereas the disciples' vignettes often led to silence or awkward impasse, the bodhisattva stories open up to well-developed teachings with Vimalakīrti being given significant space to explore rather positive teaching that, for instance, cover all the Six Perfections. Thus whereas in the disciples' stories Vimalakīrti's main narrative work is to overcome and destroy any of the particular positions or practices that the various disciples were engaged in, here he is made into a spokesperson for more positive-sounding tenets of the Māhāyana.
First on the list of these four bodhisattvas is Maitreya. As in the Lotus Sūtra, Maitreya's identity as the coming buddha draws particular attentionto itself. Given that the Vimalakīrti has already offered buddha-bodies to all listeners at the site of Vimalakīrti's public teaching in the second chapter, the problem is the same: traditional Buddhism only allowed that Maitreya would inhabit a buddha's body and the rest of us could hope for no more than nirvana and liberation. Here, as in the Lotus Sūtra, all of that needs to be upended—the uniqueness of Maitreya has to be voided to allow all beings the possibility of being a future buddha, that is, a bodhisattva. Thus, though the story that Maitreya tells parallels those already told by the disciples, the topic of his failure focuses on destroying his unique rights to accede to the throne as the next buddha. As the following passages make clear, the author seems highly aware that the problem of Maitreya's singular identity needs to be overcome and opened up to all.
Equally clear, the author is addressing what in many ways was an unavoidable problem: how to push a view of emptiness, and the impossibility of categories, and yet avoid the collapse of meaning and hierarchy, and, in particular, the flow of authority in some predictable and legitimate form of (p.267) transmission. In short, these passages temporarily ruin Maitreya's identity and authority with an emptiness critique that will withhold transmission from him, leaving him essentially stranded until the final chapter, where he receives this book as the emblem of his regained status as the coming buddha. Hence, whereas the above critiques of the disciples took the effect of Buddhist practices and turned it on the causative practices of Buddhism, here the process is reversed: Maitreya's failure, as the effect of this discourse, is turned into the cause for his future authenticity. Thus, as is usual in early Māhāyana sūtras, this discourse is appearing on two levels where it is both the corrosive problem and the healing solution to that problem.
Taking liberties with standard Buddhist cosmology, the author first allows that Maitreya is actually on site at Vaiśālī—Maitreya is normally imagined in Tuşita Heaven during Śākyamuni's lifetime. Then, in an equally brazen detail, the author allows that Vimalakīrti was recently in Tuşita Heaven, asking Maitreya about his identity. Essentially apropos of nothing, Vimalakīrti approaches Maitreya in heaven and begins undermining his unique identity as the coming buddha.29
At that time Vimalakīrti approached and said to me, “Maitreya, the World Honored One prophesied that with one more birth you will be able to attain highest enlightenment. Now just what birth does this prophecy apply to? Does it apply to your past birth, your future birth, or your present birth? If it applies to a past birth, that past birth has already passed into extinction. If it applies to a future birth, that future birth has yet to arrive. And if it applies to a present birth, this present birth lacks permanence. For as the Buddha has said, ‘Monks, one moment you are born, the next you grow old, the next you pass into extinction.’”
The questioning continues in this vein as the author supplies the Vimalakīrti figure with a very standard Buddhist rhetoric regarding the lack of substance in any particular happening. It is crucial to note that this critique is being directed at the transmission of authority. Thus, just as in the section of the Diamond Sūtra where the Buddha's teaching and his relationship to Dīpamkara were unhinged, the rhetoric of negation here is directed to the prophesy that holds Maitreya in line to be the next buddha. Emphasizing the impossibility, or at least impropriety, of claiming to be the next buddha, Vimalakīrti shifts from an argument of time to an argument of nonproduction: “If you were given this prophesy because of some birth that pertains to suchness, you should know that in suchness there is no birth. And if you were given this prophecy because of some extinction that pertains to suchness, you should know that in suchness there is no extinction.”30
(p.268) While upsetting Maitreya's plans at first seems without a clear agenda, the following section leaves little doubt that the “philosophic damage” that Vimalakīrti is shown inflicting on Maitreya has some very pointed objectives that have everything to do with opening up Maitreya's identity as a site to be inhabited by all. Following the just quoted line, Vimalakīrti begins to structure the gains of his assault:31
All living beings are a part of suchness, and all other things as well are a part of suchness. The sages and worthy ones too are a part of suchness; even you, Maitreya, are a part of suchness. So if you have been given a prophecy of enlightenment, then all living beings should likewise be given such a prophesy. Why? Because suchness knows no dualism or differentiation. If you, Maitreya, are able to attain highest enlightenment, then all living beings should likewise be able to attain it. Why? Because all living beings in truth bear the marks of bodhi. If you, Maitreya, are able to gain nirvana, then all living beings should likewise be able to gain it. Why? Because the buddhas know that all living beings bear the marks of tranquil extinction, which is nirvana, and that there is no further extinction. Therefore, Maitreya, you must not use doctrines such as this to mislead these offspring of the gods.
In Vimalakīrti's attack, the author has scripted an apparently logical argument that first moves from claiming that because ontologically all beings are equal, phenomenologically or “spiritually” they all ought to be the same too. That is, Vimalakīrti puts forward the argument that there can be nothing inherently special, unique, or distinctive about anyone—given the same suchness of being in all living beings—and thus Maitreya's uniqueness in the lineage of buddhas is untenable. In effect, Vimalakīrti is arguing that lineage is an absurdity in view of suchness and the other Buddhist perspectives on impermanence and birthlessness just mentioned in the preceding lines.
Thus, again quite in line with the Diamond Sūtra's rhetoric that problematized that link between the Buddha and Dīpamkara, here Vimalakīrti is performing in such a manner that produces a higher version of authority that arrogates to itself the power to remove the legitimacy of that traditionally constructed moment of transmitting authority forward in time. Unlike the Diamond Sūtra, the Vimalakīrti more directly points to the untenable nature of unique transmission in order to explicitly open up future buddhahood for all. Also, unlike the Diamond Sutra, the Vimalakīrti is taking a version of the Buddhist teaching of emptiness and applying it in a democratizing manner. The reader is now learning that it is all or none when it comes to becoming a buddha. If Maitreya was to be the next buddha, all beings should be assured of the same destiny based on the structure of the argument of “same ontology means same destiny.”
This, of course, is that moment in the text where the reader is being (p.269) offered everything that had previously been withheld from him in the prior articulation of Buddhist value and hierarchy. If the reader accepts Vimalakīrti's argument as an unmotivated statement of fact that really occurred in some historical sense in Tuşita Heaven, quite separate from the literary framings and calculated agendas of the text he is consuming, then he has just received something like a prophecy of buddhahood. Vimalakīrti has, after a fashion, just been made to perform in a manner that suggests that the good news is that all beings are to become buddhas. Thus just as in the Lotus Sūtra, as Maitreya is opened up into a public identity, the reader istempted with a dialectical promise: believe the legitimacy of the text in order to receive from it that promise of ultimate legitimacy in which legitimacy, in the form of the Buddha's prophecy that his identity will repeat in the future, now will be rightfully attached to the reader.
I explore this rhetoric explaining the transmission of the text below, but for the moment let me note that the story Maitreya offers ends without resolution. Maitreya doesn't have any suitable response to Vimalakīrti's challenges, and no voice from heaven speaks up to resolve the impasse as it did in Ānanda's case and as it will again in the third of these bodhisattva vignettes. Thus the text reveals a bit of sophistication here. It leaves Maitreya hanging in a manner that likely would disturb the believing reader. One might assume that the author expected this destruction of Maitreya to be left here, but in fact, the narrative will return to pick up Maitreya and rightfully reinstall him in his place as the coming buddha. Thus, as in the Lotus Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, the narrative has a distinctive dialectical progression that functions like a plot: dramatic tension is created, spread over a number of narrated scenes, and then resolved in a satisfying manner.
You Can Give the Maidens to Me
The other three bodhisattvas' stories are interesting for their thematics, but to keep my reading reasonably brief, I'll discuss only the particularly interesting third story in which Vimalakīrti inherits twelve thousand maidens and teaches them to shift from the pursuit of pleasure to the pursuit of “dharma pleasure/delight” (fale). The full efficacy of this substitution is confirmed when the narrative has these women resist returning to their original owner, Mara (the Buddhist devil), because they claim that the pleasures that Vimalakīrti has given them fulfill their desires so thoroughly that they can't be bothered with old-style desires. They say to Mara, “You gave us to this layman [Vimalakīrti]. Possessing this Dharma delight that affords us such pleasure, we no longer delight in the pleasures of the five desires (you fale keyi ziyu, bu ying fule wuyu leye).”32
(p.270) This story, which is one of the longer of the fourteen encounters with Vimalakīrti, invites a number of readings. On one level, this is a racier version of what overcoming might imply. The pleasure of overcoming lower-level pleasures is spoken of not as a divorce or an extraction from that lower level but as a form of satisfaction that returns to that prior zone and fills it out completely, and then some.
Arguably, just this same structure defines the author's reconstruction of Maitreya; in both cases particularity and a kind of uncomfortable closure are first overcome by a universalism won through negation and transcendence, which then, nonetheless, returns to inhabit that space, even as it radically redefines that space. Maitreya will, in the end, hold total legitimacy in the book form of this narrative, but it is a legitimacy that ironically speaks of the legitimacy of every reader and the reader's deep sameness with Maitreya. Just so, these maidens will return to Māra and live with him in the world of lust and desire, but only after their transcendence over desire has been vouchsafed through their grander desire for the higher form of “dharma pleasure.” Moreover, this return will be guided by the teaching named “Inexhaustible Lamp” (Wujin deng) that Vimalakīrti transmits to them, a teaching that will presumably light their way as they return to the netherworld of Māra. Though the actual content of this teaching of the “Inexhaustible Lamp” is left vague, the narrative explains its powers, and it turns out that this teaching does exactly what the Vimalakīrti promises to do:33
Vimalakīrti replied, “Sisters, there is a teaching called the Inexhaustible Lamp. You must study it. This Inexhaustible Lamp is like a single lamp that lights a hundred or a thousand other lamps, till the darkness is all made bright with a brightness that never ends. In this same way, sisters, one bodhisattva guides and opens a path for a hundred or a thousand living beings, causing them to set their minds on attaining highest enlightenment. And this desire for the Way will never be extinguished or go out. By following the teaching as it has been preached, one keeps adding until one has acquired all good teachings. This is what is called the Inexhaustible Lamp.”
Clearly, what the narrative is offering here is an alternative mode of transmitting the totality of Buddhist truth in which the anxieties over the linear reproduction of truth and authenticity, as described in the prior story of Maitreya, are overcome as the reception and reduplication of a certain magically inexhaustible teaching allows one to correctly convert numberless bodhisattvas and lead them to truth as a single lamp lights many other lamps. Notable, too, is that the analogy for this process of endless reproduction of authenticity takes the form of a lamp, implying again the desire to make language look natural and as effulgent and unavoidable as light.
(p.271) Also, we should not miss the obvious fact that this is another Mahāyāna seduction story that seems intended to aid the text in seducing the reader. Thus it is not by accident that the story is a story of the shifting of desire from one locale to the person of Vimalakīrti who satisfies the maidens so thoroughly and offers them a gift that will keep on giving, just as this text hopes to do. Thus, in line with the way the Burning House parable showed Śāriputra, and the reader, the power and usefulness of desire, this story demonstrates that what at first seemed like a problem—these maidens with their desires for the five sense realms—could be reconfigured so that those very desires become the solution to being authentic and then bind, at least temporarily, these maidens to the truth-giving Vimalakīrti. In the end, though these maidens are returned to Māra, they have fallen in love long enough to have received a transmission that will fill them with satisfaction and generate more authenticity as it moves outward.
But why did the author choose to depict this vignette as one of carnal desire reformed? Is this simply the recycling of the old Buddhist motif of overcoming desire via a Buddhist satisfaction born of renouncing desire? Or is the text interested in evoking the maidens and their desires for other purposes? If we are right in seeing the text as a sustained attempt to evoke and direct the reader's desires, then we ought to interpret this vignette more in line with the arc of the narrative. In that case, this mini-history is lodged here as a kind microcosm of the text's more general project—how to seduce the reader with the figure of Vimalakīrti and then enlist the reader in the work of seducing others. This vignette shows that Vimalakīrti is just the kind of person to effect such a transformation and redirection of desire, but the mode in which this is proven no doubt generates other layers of desire in the reader, who now knows that bodhisattvas get to work with maidens and furthermore can be expected to succeed in satisfying them so completely that they never want to go back to carnal lust, even when, in fact, they do go back to carnal lust. Arguably, then, this story is tantalizing the reader with all sorts of possibilities for the way that engaging Vimalakīrti and his teachings might play out in the world.
Furthermore, despite the light metaphor that closes out the mini-narrative, there is an undeniable kind of underground feeling to the whole situation of the maiden's return to Mara's palace. What might this imply? Since these women aren't ever named or in any way identified as particular individuals, I hesitate to assume that these details serve to promote a straightforwardly pro-feminist version of Mahāyāna Buddhism. This hesitation is further warranted when we note that we never hear again of these women or the Inexhaustible Lamp teaching. The gift downward of pleasure and truth seems to function in the narrative more as a spur to desire what Vimalakīrti has to give, and to set up a template for the reader's own reception of the text “from” Vimalakīrti. Thus in consuming this story the (p.272) reader is encouraged to believe that however distant and underprepared he or she might feel vis-à-vis these difficult discussions, still he or she should not lose hope in receiving from Vimalakīrti a full transmission of truth and tradition.
Of course, too, this image of the maidens returning to Māra, albeit with the lofty teachings of the Inexhaustible Lamp, maps on to the reader's intended reaction. The reader, too, will receive magical teachings from Vimalakīrti in accepting the text as authentic but then will have to return to the confines of his or her prior life. In particular, this likely means that the reading Buddhist is being given a template for his consumption of the text in which the text describes itself as the pleasure-giving item that, once received with desire, will be forever present as the reader returns to the “normal” world where he might appear to be engaging in the old-style activities but will in fact be filled, and fulfilled, by this higher teaching, which explodes, on one level, the coordinates of that traditional space, even as it continues to occupy that space.
These tracks of interpretation are strengthened when we notice that at the end of the maiden story Vimalakīrti adds, “Although you live in the palace of Māra, with this Inexhaustible Lamp you can enable countless heavenly sons and heavenly daughters to set their minds on attaining highest enlightenment. Thus you will repay the debt of gratitude (foen) you owe the Buddha and at the same time bring great benefit to all living beings.”34 This final line in the story suggests a kind of underground populism reaching to men and women beyond the Buddhist institution, but it is populism that moves under the pulsion of a debt structure that links all participants back to the Buddha to whom all owe a “debt of gratitude” just as the Lotus Sūtra did. Presumably, this debt structure works like patriarchal forms of identity: it is an invisible presence that the recipient carries from the paternal giver, a presence that forever shapes and dictates subjectivity and the goal of action, whatever circumstances one might find oneself in. Thus, while women do seem to be included as intended recipients of truth, the fathergiving structure of truth and legitimacy remains androcentric in both form and logic.
Stage Four: A Room With a View
With the four bodhisattva stories told, the narrative finally moves into chapter five where Mañjuśrī, unlike all other figures in the text, accepts the Buddha's command and prepares to visit Vimalakirti. Before leaving the Buddha's company, Mañjuśrī produces a statement that confirms Vimalakīrti's (p.273) perfection in every way, thereby sealing Vimalakīrti's identity as the incarnation of perfect Buddhism, saying to the Buddha:35
World Honored One, that eminent man is very difficult to confront. He is profoundly enlightened in the true nature of reality and skilled in preaching the essential of the Law. His eloquence never falters, his wisdom is free of impediments. He understands all the rules of bodhisattva conduct and nothing in the storehouse of the buddhas is beyond his grasp. He has overcome the host of devils and disports himself with transcendental powers. In wisdom and expedient means he has mastered all there is to know. Nevertheless, in obedience to the Buddha's august command, I will go visit him and inquire about his illness.
Besides authenticating Vimalakīrti as a zone of perfect mastery and legitimacy, this passage sheds some light on a lingering problem in the narrative—the disciples' disobedience. As Mañjuśrī's final line makes clear, all the other disciples have failed not only in their encounters with Vimalakīrti, but they have also failed to follow out the Buddha's command to go to visit him. This failure is more notable given that a visit to Vimalakīrti would presumably enlighten the disciples, just as it did for all the other townspeople mentioned in the second chapter. What this means is that the narrative has triply shamed the disciples. They are made to confess past failures as grounds for currently disobeying the Buddha's orders and are then further insulted in that they are shown resistant to go to truth, preferring instead to linger next to the Buddha where clearly they are not so challenged.
Now with Mañjuśrī assenting to the Buddha's wishes, the entire assembly that had been grouped around the Buddha anticipates that this is certainly going to be a spectacle and decides to quit the Buddha, saying, “Now these two great men, Mañjuśrī and Vimalakīrti, will be talking together, and they will surely expound the wonderful Law (miaofa).”36 That the narrative requires this exit is, of course, a little troubling. The assembly is overtly leaving the Buddha to find truth elsewhere, implying thereby that the Buddha's presence was insufficient for their needs. Lurking here, too, is that narrative problem that I brought up above. If this series of confessions had not occurred and culminated in Mañjuśrī's decision to lead the assembly off to see Vimalakīrti, then the Buddha would have been provided with no discourse to give on this particular occasion. Thus the author has triply hijacked the Buddha's teaching sphere: he provides the Buddha with nothing to say, requires the Buddha to submit to Vimalakīrti's narrative of his feigned illness, and has his assembly leave to find “the wonderful Law” elsewhere.
(p.274) Although a line-by-line analysis of chapter 5 through 10, in which Vimalakīrti explains to various interlocutors the details of his version of Buddhism, would be rewarding, I will limit myself to comments on three themes: Śāriputra's humiliations, the goddess's appearance, and being Buddhist about being Buddhist. Before exploring these themes, though, it is worth pointing out that with regard to the fairly heterogeneous content in these middle chapters there are some observable patterns. First, there is a steady fluctuation in speakers—Vimalakīrti speaking with Mañjuśrī and then Vimalakīrti speaking to Śāriputra. Though other speakers will arise, such as a nameless goddess and an equally nameless phantom bodhisattva, along with a list of named bodhisattvas who make paragraph pronouncements throughout the ninth chapter, the basic structure of the discussions alternates as Vimalakīrti addresses Mañjuśrī and then Śāriputra.
This pivotlike role given to Vimalakīrti is evident, too, in the way that Mañjuśrī never addresses Śāriputra. Similarly, none of the other actors or actresses onstage ever addresses anyone but Vimalakīrti, save for a phantom bodhisattva and the goddess who both address Śāriputra and in fact temporarily play roles that match Vimalakīrti's. Consequently, though we are invited to imagine all these figures in the same room, the author works up discourses that remain bounded by some fairly simple rules that do not allow for an “open” and free-ranging discussion. Except for the scene between Śāriputra and the goddess, all discussion focuses on the figure of Vimalakīrti who receives all discourse, implying that the author is writing from a rather limited notion of subjectivity, with Vimalakīrti ever at the center, engaging various figures who perform functions that are always defined by their relationship to him. Also, the transitions between different discussions are nearly absent, and thus there is a noticeable bumpiness as the author forces the narrative to move between these sectioned-off discussions without building a plotline that could explain their causal connections.
More interestingly, in these conversations Mañjuśrī seems not to be developed as a full Other to Vimalakīrti. He simply asks a series of questions and never shows any reaction to Vimalakīrti's answers. Nor does he demonstrate any emotion or actual involvement in the discussion. In fact, reading through Mañjuśrī's lines gives the distinct impression that he is little more than a foil for the author to construct an essay in the image of a conversation. The basic template followed has Mañjuśrī ask a one-sentence question to which Vimalakīrti gives a paragraph-long answer to which Mañjuśrī asks another one-line question and so on. In fact, this pattern of eliciting language from Vimalakīrti is so relied on in the fifth chapter, that halfway through the chapter Mañjuśrī is dropped altogether, and Vimalakīrti alone poses questions to himself in defining the bodhisattva practices that he is promoting.
(p.275) This style of exchange shifts noticeably when Vimalakīrti speaks with Śāriputra. Śāriputra, for the various insults that are heaped on him, actually is a much more fully developed character and responds to Vimalakīrti not simply with leading questions but also with responses that show that he has actually received Vimalakīrti's comments and has some opinion about them, along with an emotional reaction. Moreover, whereas Mañjuśrī's questions simply lead Vimalakīrti through his virtuoso performance of topics such as nondualism, Śāriputra's questions and responses serve to move the narrative forward. Thus when Śāriputra worries about chairs or food for the gathered audience, these worries result in long discussions from Vimalakīrti and the intervention of beings from other world systems who arrive and perform major narrative tasks. In sum, oddly enough, Śāriputra's persona is designed to do much more heavy lifting in the way of narrative development than any other figure in the drama. Similarly, Śāriputra is the main figure onstage who is shown responding emotionally to anything that is said or done. Vimalakīrti is never described emoting, a crucial distinction for evaluating the reader's place of identification.
Cut Off at the Knees: Śāriputra's Humiliations
Within the bumpy alternating sequence of discussions, there are three distinct episodes in which Śāriputra is humiliated in ways that prove the grandeur of Vimalakīrti's Mahayana teachings and the insufficiency of standard tradition. Though these moments of humiliation are marked as more proof of the end of Śāriputra's notion of the Real and the legitimacy of old-style tradition and though he and Mahākāśyapa are shown responding in dismay to the information from Vimalakīrti, modern commentators have insisted that these episodes are funny. As I mentioned above, no one laughs at any time in the text, nor is humor explicitly mentioned as the emotion experienced by the internal audience. The attribution of humor, it would seem, then, is produced when we read these passages with a Mahayana perspective that enjoys the humiliation of Śāriputra and old-style tradition, not for humorous reasons per se, but rather in a spiteful sense of enjoying seeing someone undone—a kind of schadenfreude.
In the first of the three humiliations, the narrative moves from the initial discussion between Vimalakīrti and Mañjuśrī on emptiness and the liberation of the buddhas to take us into Śāriputra's thoughts. It seems that while this heady discussion is going on, Śāriputra is wondering where everyone is to sit since now all the figures of tradition are lodged in Vimalakīrti's rather ordinary room. This thought is intercepted by Vimalakīrti, who pulls it from Śāriputra's mind, publicizes it for the internal audience, and then uses it as the basis for the next round of action.
(p.276) The rich man Vimalakīrti, knowing what was in his mind, said to Śāriputra, “Did you come here for the sake of the Law, or are you just looking for a place to sit?” Śāriputra said, “I came for the Law, not for a seat.” Vimalakīrti said, “Ah, Śāriputra, a seeker of the Law doesn't concern himself even about life or limb, much less about a seat. A seeker of the Law seeks nothing in the way of form, perception, conception, volition, or consciousness; he seeks nothing in the way of sense-realms or sense-medium; he seeks nothing in the threefold world of desire, form, and formlessness.”37
The level of insult in this exchange isn't fully perceptible unless modern readers switch to a more familiar format. For instance, consider what it would be like reading a narrative in which Jesus pays a visit to a fictive character who insults him in this most demeaning of ways. There obviously will not be anything funny about such a story if the reader is reading with Christian allegiances. On the other hand, switching to this Christian setting is useful as one can read many segments of the Gospel narratives as parallel to this Vimalakīrti setup. Jesus, as a Vimalakīrti-like narrative creation, is put in a series of set pieces in which he humiliates figures of authority that, for first-century Jewish readers, would have been assumed to have authority and status—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin Council, and so on.
In either case, I suggest that understanding Christian or Mahayana rhetorics of overcoming requires a good bit more sensitivity to the way readers process such turning of the tables and the way various pleasures and excitements are generated by narratives in which superficially antinomian characters unseat figures assumed to have power and legitimacy. Clearly, these sequences serve to replace one version of the Law with a higher Law, even as this changing of the guards is joined with a moment of pleasure in dismissing the old form of the Law. Whether or not this moment of pleasure ought to be labeled funny remains debatable. As a moment of surprise and release, it shares basic structures with humor, but it seems much more fraught and unsettling than standard notions of something being “funny.”
In the case of the Vimalakīrti, Śāriputra's consternation about the chairs is really a matter of etiquette that evokes concern for upholding Buddhist rules for conduct, the vinaya. Given that the next humiliation is about flowers adorning his body and the third is about eating after noon, it is clear the author has positioned Śāriputra as one who engaged Vimalakīrti with concerns from the standard law code that legislates basic aspects of the Buddhist community, with seating, flowers, and eating after noon being standard topics in the Buddhist vinaya. Thus Śāriputra's thoughts are shown to be focused on fulfilling the old version of the Law, and each time he seeks to fulfill the Law he meets with rebuke, and in that rebuke a higher form of (p.277) the Law is demonstrated in four ways. First, Vimalakīrti has direct access to Śāriputra's mind while the opposite is never allowed. Second, Vimalakīrti will provide a rhetoric that swallows the old version of the Law and leaves Śāriputra with no ground to stand on. Third, Vimalakīrti will rely on magic to simultaneously fulfill the old version of the Law even as he does so on a scale that completely ruptures the coordinates of the old legal form. Fourth, the narrative always credits Vimalakīrti with doing everything with ease whereas Śāriputra is forever awkward, stymied, and off balance.
Vimalakīrti's rebuke of Śāriputra only begins to find resolution when the conversation abruptly shifts as Vimalakīrti addresses Mañjuśrī about where he might find the best chairs in the universe. Based on Mañjuśrī's suggestion of enormous chairs from some far-off galaxy, Vimalakīrti magically imports enough of these chairs for every member of his audience. Of course, the next problem is that Śāriputra and the representatives of old-style tradition cannot sit in the chairs; they do not have the magical powers to change their forms in accordance with the chairs' size. This results in a second layer of humiliation as Vimalakīrti commands Śāriputra and the major disciples to sit down in the massive lion thrones. Śāriputra responds, “Layman, these seats are too tall and wide—we can't climb up in them.”38 Vimalakīrti's solution is to recommend that they pay obeisance to the buddha of the buddha land that provided the chairs and thereby gain access to their seats. That is, now Śāriputra is given an order to submit to the Law in the form of that distant buddha, all in order that he may fulfill the basic rules of etiquette in the vinaya and properly occupy his chair with the others.
Looked at holistically, this vignette accomplishes two major points besides simply humiliating Śāriputra. First, it shows that Vimalakīrti's rhetoric is not simply empty talk. He is able to perform in a way that completely outclasses traditional figures such as Śāriputra, and he has contacts with Mañjuśrī and other cosmic buddhas that allow him to engage powers on a scale that tradition had not imagined. Thus the vignette has framed Śāriputra's philosophic humiliation with a “prowess” humiliation that reinforces the philosophic rebuke but also essentially “proves” it by narrating visually irrefutable acts, such as the appearance of the cosmic chairs. Second, and this is probably already obvious, the vignette is translating philosophic sophistication into size. This is evident with the chairs, but it is emphasized in another manner that clarifies the thematic of containment and sets the stage for one of the narrative's preferred devices for shifting scenes—having Vimalakīrti gather up a world system and transport it elsewhere without the inhabitants' knowledge. Again, this motif seems to resonate with the objectives of the entire narrative, which likewise are focused (p.278) on shifting the reader's entire notion of the Real, even as nobody else seems to notice.
Commenting on these chairs, Śāriputra says, “Layman, I have never seen such a thing. A little room like this and still it can hold seats as tall and broad as these. And the city of Vaiśālī is in no way crowded or obstructed, nor are any of the towns or villages of Jambudvīpa or of the other of the four continents cramped or inconvenienced, or the palaces of the heavenly beings, dragon kings and spirits.”39 Vimalakīrti confirms the reality of this insertion of the chairs and the entirety of tradition in his little room and then gives a series of examples of how he and other bodhisattvas can work the Real so that what had seemed like a fixed plane of reality can be contained and manipulated within another zone of reality. Emphasizing the absolute transcendence of the bodhisattva's powers, Vimalakīrti offers this example:40
“Or again, Śāriputra, this bodhisattva who dwells in Unthinkable Liberation (zhu bu ke siyi jietuo) can slice off the thousand-millionfold world, grasp it in the palm of his right hand like a potter's wheel, and toss it beyond the lands numerous as the sands of the Ganges, and the beings in that world will not know or realize where they have gotten to. The bodhisattva can then bring it back and put it in its original place, and none of the people will have any idea they have gone somewhere and come back, and the world will have the same shape as before.”
This kind of vast transcendence over space, place, size, and closure is followed by another example in which Vimalakīrti asserts that such bodhisattvas also exercise transcendence over time, stretching or condensing it as they see fit. Of course, this domination of time is of particular interest in a text that seems interested in just such movements in time that allow the Buddha's “words” to move forward in time to the reader, via the timeless and perfect conduit of the text, even as the reader is moved backward to the font of tradition.
There is one other point to be made about this play of space and time. As the above passage reveals, the author is playing with a mimetic relationship between the state occupied by the bodhisattva with such world-overcoming powers and the alternative name of the Vimalakīrti text. Both are called “Unthinkable Liberation,” and as the opening line makes clear, bodhisattvas who dwell in such a zone appear to have the rights to these magnificent powers. Also, by giving his text this secondary title, the author can cloak the manner in which players in the text are advocating the text that they are inhabiting. Thus to abide in “Unthinkable Liberation” means to abide both in this transcendental state and in the text. Of course, there is then the (p.279) deeper tie that the text hopes to produce in the reader—his or her sense of abiding in just such an “Unthinkable Liberation,” thereby making the text both cause and effect of itself. And, similarly, such a seduced reader will find an analogue for himself in the text as these onstage actors speak of abiding in the “Unthinkable Liberation,” just as the reader is.
Similarly, since the title “Unthinkable Liberation” is based on the negation “unthinkable,” the author can treat it as a quasi-place to dwell, despite having had Vimalakīrti berate Śāriputra for seeking a place to dwell. This takes us back to the problem, discussed in chapter 4 of this book, of interpreting a zone or object, which though identified as the opposite of something like a zone or an object still functions in parallel ways, even as it carries within it—via negativity—the charm of supposedly not being in the class of such items. Clearly, though place is being negated, one can still profitably inhabit the space of no-space and thereby gain wonderful powers and pleasures.
Śāriputra's humiliation over the seating problem is driven home as the narrator supplies a member of the internal audience to comment on the happenings. Mahākāśyapa, another traditional leader, on hearing this discourse in Vimalakīrti's house, sighs and says to Śāriputra:41
“It is like someone displaying various painted images before a blind man when he cannot see them. In the same way when we Hearers hear this doctrine of the Unthinkable Liberation, we are all incapable of understanding it. If wise persons hear it, there will be none who do not set their minds on attaining highest enlightenment. But what of us, who are forever cut off at the root, who with regard to these Mahāyāna teachings have already become like rotten seed? When Hearers hear this doctrine of Unthinkable Liberation, they will surely all cry out in anguish in voices loud enough to shake the whole thousand-million fold world. But bodhisattvas should all accept this teaching with great joy and thanksgiving. For if there are bodhisattvas who put faith in this doctrine of Unthinkable Liberation, then none of the host of devils can do anything to them.”
This passage is remarkable in the way it makes use of the internal audience for several agendas. First, it makes clear that old-style tradition has been completely cut off from being legitimate and is left howling at the moon. Key again is the fact that despite attending this teaching, the standard disciples are not benefited. In fact, the following line emphasizes that “thirtytwo thousand offspring of the gods set their minds on the attainment of highest enlightenment,”42 yet Śāriputra, Mahākāśyapa, and the other Hearers, aren't making any progress.
Second, the author has given a distinct emotional register for reading (p.280) Śāriputra's humiliation. In Mahākāśyapa's eyes, there is nothing funny here at all. Traditional figures, labeled Hearers, are shown crying in anguish at hearing this text, which again refers to itself with the secondary title, “Unthinkable Liberation.” Third, Mahākāśyapa, even in light of his distress at this teaching, is turned into a promoter of the text. He encourages bodhisattvas to eagerly receive this teaching and promises that it will effect the task of keeping away demons, a promise that might seem a little mundane in the wake of what Vimalakīrti had just said about this discourse. So despite their endorsement of this new teaching, Śāriputra and the other traditional figures remain unimproved by this version of Truth, which they recognize but claim is beyond their purview. Naturally, this puts tradition in the awkward position of validating its own destruction for clearly Mahākāśyapa has been co-opted to announce tradition's estrangement from final truth, though he is relied on as a trustworthy narrator for the assessment of truth's locale.
Given that the text is offering these self-reflective appraisals of itself at this point, we need to appreciate how well designed the whole work is as it stretches from the initial setting with the two miracles by the Buddha into this zone at Vimalakīrti's house. Not only is there structural continuity, but thematically what is happening in Vimalakīrti's room matches well what the Buddha said in the opening chapter about the inadequacies of traditional disciples such as Śāriputra and Mahākāśyapa. In fact, given Mahākāśyapa's comments, we need to admit that there is a triple-layered narrative at work here that parallels the Lotus Sūtra's structure. Thus the Vimalakīrti begins with a narrative describing a teaching scene but then breaks off into mininarratives from the disciples and bodhisattvas who are at the teaching site. These excursions lead off into Vimalakīrti's room where teachings are given and received by the internal audience, who comment on them in a mannerthat reaffirms and underscores what was previously staged in the opening narrative zone. The teaching at this offstage site then is returned to the Buddha, who ratifies it and further legitimizes it with another historic excursion legitimizing textual transmission and then almost literally hands the text, as text, to the reader.
Looked at for its assumption in developing and negotiating between zones of the law, it is worth pointing out that the author is acutely aware of defining his reader's responses and develops a single thematic by combining action and response in these various zones of the Law, which, like the other sūtras considered above, are then consolidated into the Law about receiving the Law in textual form. In fact, given how the narrative explains the recovering of truth from Vimalakīrti's room through Vimalakīrti's gathering up of the entire audience in his right hand, we might wonder if the entire plot of the text is only thinkable with textuality as a handy analogy for the movement of language between zones of creation and consumption. That is to say, the staging of the play seems to move truth forward, scene by (p.281) scene, with the same efficiency of the textual transmission of language designed to move from author to reader. Of course, the total, and shameless, manipulation of Mañjuśrī, Śāriputra, Vimalakīrti, and the Buddha to play out the narrative's will only would occur once the realm of textuality opened up and authors felt free enough of received tradition to create “living” replicas of these figures who could be manipulated as needed.
Big Nothing and the Basis of Community
At the beginning of the seventh chapter, Mañjuśrī, in a question that seems to echo the Diamond Sūtra, asks Vimalakīrti, “How does the bodhisattva regard living beings?”43 Vimalakīrti launches into a long discourse on the phantomlike nature of living beings. Along the way, Mañjuśrī, as usual, only asks perfectly composed leading questions and does not respond to any of the answers. Mañjuśrī, in short, is nothing but a rhetorical device for the author to put definitions into the mouth of Vimalakīrti. What appears to be accomplished in this exchange is again much like the work of the Diamond Sūtra. The reader is bombarded with lists of impossible combinations thatdefy logic and the standard forms of tradition. In fact, many of these phrases are constructed from extending standard Buddhist lists by one term, thereby breaching the normal lines of closure that define the Buddhist world. Hence early on in his litany, Vimalakīrti recommends that living beings be viewed as “a fifth great element” or the sixth skandha when all Buddhists would know that there are only four great elements and five skandhas. Thus the author has Vimalakīrti manipulate recognized categories to produce that sense of rupture and extension into some unknown zone that he alone is comfortable speaking of. Naturally, the reader is left feeling flummoxed and out of his depth.
Abrogating established categories continues as Vimalakīrti takes up Mañjuśrī's next question, which, too, seems parallel to the template articulated at the beginning of the Diamond Sūtra: “If the bodhisattva looks on beings in this way, how can he treat them with compassion?”44 Vimalakīrti builds a long answer to this question by postulating a seemingly endless variety of compassions built by combining compassion with other Buddhist lists and categories. Thus he gives the reader a “compassion of tranquil extinction,” a “compassion unburning,” a “compassion free of contention,” a “compassion nondualistic” and so on. As in so many of Vimalakīrti's expositions, the author seems to delight in giving him a superabundance of verbiage that works to overwhelm the reader with its plenitude and its extravagant traversing of all sorts of Buddhist lists and dogmatic categories.
(p.282) For instance, what exactly are those various kinds of compassion that Vimalakīrti is shown speaking of? Their actual content and particularities are of little interest to the text, and certainly there is no attempt to offer them to the reader as particular practices. Instead it is the ring of these odd coinages and their accumulated sense of presence that seem to matter. These lists and their reordering of Buddhist categories are virtuoso performances pointing, it would appear, to their performer and not to particular referents. Thus there are good reasons for seeing that even these supposedly more philosophic sections are performative set pieces arranged, not to convey information per se, but to structure the reader's reaction to the entire text. Thus the hugeness and unthinkability that are regularly attributed to Vimalakīrti and his version of Buddhism appear tool-like and altogether limited in the author's hand, since he creates that image and wields it with precision in his effort to seduce the reader into accepting the text as real tradition.
Obviously, once we consider unthinkability as a narrative tool we have invited reflection on a range of fascinating topics, including the possibility that the radical unthinkability of reality, as the author sees it and as he assumes his reader will see it, is being employed to draw author qua text and the reader together. In this light, it clearly is not that unthinkability will render the text's agenda void and impossible, or that such impossibility will ruin the reader's taste for the Law and for the Lawgiver. Quite the contrary, the basic impossibility of describing reality, a fact widely discussed in traditional Buddhism, has now been extracted and turned into a kind of carefully revealed black hole that consumes prior theories of the Real only to make new ones. Unavoidably, then, we need to consider that the author had a sense for the limits of any symbolic order and cleverly demonstrated those limits in such a way as to reconstruct them. Thus, as in the Diamond Sūtra and the Lotus Sūtra, total impossibility comes as a domesticated and domesticating narrative-item that can be relied on to destroy, create, and seduce.
Moreover, this black hole of impossible designation is, as in those other works, turned into the basis of patriarchal truth, appearing as the most fecund place to rebuild tradition and construct at least imagined community if not real community. Hence, in the end, all of Vimalakīrti's negations flow into the construction of the patriarchal transmission. And, again, the Law and finding one's “home” in and through the Law seem to emanate from the zones of darkness and impossibility that negation produces, even as they more rightly ought to be identified as emanating from the narrative. The major difference in reading in this literary manner, though, is that we begin to appreciate not “the black hole of the impossibility of being,” which other modern commentators seem endlessly delighted by, but rather the much more interesting human effort to work with that impossibility and even build community on “its back.”
The flow of the discussion between Mañjuśrī and Vimalakīrti is broken when the narrative turns with the same flimsy phrase that it has used for other transitions, “at this time,” to introduce an altogether new figure, “a heavenly being, a goddess.”45 This goddess, who remains nameless, manifests herself for Vimalakīrti's audience in response, the narrative informs us, to the exposition of the Law that was under way. Thus she, too, is an effect of the onstage performance, and her own performance will serve to validate Vimalakīrti's discourse. In particular, she gives testimony to the eight “rare and unprecedented phenomena” that are found in Vimalakīrti's room. These rare phenomena even include the detail that all the buddhas jointly occupy Vimalakīrti's room when he thinks of them, a detail that will return when near the end of the text we learn that the presence of the text will confer a parallel boon.
Her arrival is marked by flowers falling on the other members of the onstage audience, flowers that oddly stick to the disciples and not to the bodhisattvas. The unspoken problem here, which the author is assuming the reader will immediately appreciate, is that Buddhist monks are forbidden to adorn their bodies with flowers or jewelry, and thus her flowery arrival has suddenly put the disciples in a state of illegality vis-à-vis the rules of the vinaya. A struggle of supernatural powers then ensues in which Śāriputra and the other disciples try to brush off the flowers but to no avail. Asked by the goddess for his motivation in attempting to remove the troubling flowers, Śāriputra says, “Such flowers are not in accordance with the Law (bu rufa), that's why I try to brush them off.”46 The goddess responds with a teaching that castigates Śāriputra for misinterpreting the Law.
In rhetoric that seems largely indistinguishable from Vimalakīrti's, she argues that the real Law is about avoiding distinctions, and thus one must, in particular, apply the Law to the Law. As she says, “If one who has left the household life to follow the Buddha's Law makes such distinctions, that is not in accordance with the Law. One must be without distinctions to be in accordance with the Law.”47 Clearly, we are back to the standard format of writing a higher form of the Law that takes the lower form of the Law to task with the content of the Law now turned on the form of the Law as object. Too, as in the Diamond Sūtra, this doubling of the Law is left unannounced and unexplained, making it seem that the goddess's new version of the Law is nothing but a restatement of the Law as it was originally given. Thus as her comments include reference to leaving “the household life to follow the (p.284) Buddha's Law” there is a clear suggestion of continuity with older strains of Buddhist discourse and practice, and yet they are being fully overcome and rewritten by the goddess's definition of the Law of nondistinction. The obvious irony is that though the goddess is arguing that the Real version of the Law is about eschewing distinction, just this quality of nondistinction is being used to distinguish high and low versions of the Law.
The goddess and Śāriputra then debate a number of points about the irreality of time, about Śāriputra's supposed achievements, about language and writing(!), and about the Three Vehicles and so on. What seems undeniable in this section is that the goddess is playing Vimalakīrti's role—she distinctly appears as a kind of female double for him. Throughout her discussion, Vimalakīrti does not intrude, and she carries on the debate in exactly the same terms that he had used, never contravening the principles that he had established in his prior statements. To justify her stunning eloquence, the narrator adds that she has been living in Vimalakīrti's room for twelve years, the standard length of time for apprenticeship in India, which would explain her prowess as simply the effect of the proper transmission of truth from master to disciple. Then, to again secure her authority at the end of her discussion, Vimalakīrti explains to Śāriputra that in the past she “made offerings to ninety-two million buddhas” and that she has “accepted the truth of birthlessness” and “she can show herself anytime she wishes to teach and convert living beings.”48 Thus it would seem that Vimalakīrti is endorsing her in terms that are quite close to those that the narrator used in introducing Vimalakīrti at the beginning of the second chapter.
Whereas the goddess performs in a way that mirrors Vimalakīrti in the first half of her exchange with Śāriputra, the second half, when she magically switches bodies with Śāriputra, works in a decidedly different manner. Śāriputra is distraught, and even more when he is helpless to recover his masculine form. Then, the goddess launches into a discussion of the insubstantiality of the distinction between male and female. Though this conversation soon moves into less gender-focused accounts of the unreality of living beings, I think that something rather dramatic has happened. Śāriputra has, essentially, been temporarily castrated. He has lost his masculinity, his oral authority in the debate, and his claim to Buddhist authenticity. With all forms of his prestige completely removed, and the vinaya turned against him in public humiliation (the flowers are still stuck on his robes), it is clear that the author has created in the goddess a figure who can completely hollow out Śāriputra qua tradition in a manner even more devastating than Vimalakīrti.
In considering the structural organization of her entrance and performance, (p.285) it seems that she represents another segment in the telescoping of the text. In the first segment, the zone of the Buddha is left to move to Vimalakīrti's zone where the omniscient narrator assures us that they are entering a sanctified and legitimate zone. Once in that zone, the process is repeated as Vimalakīrti's zone is left for the goddess's, who continues Vimalakīrti's work but pushes it to new levels. The crucial question in framing the text's development in this telescoping manner is, What is gained by this movement of authority away from the Buddha? Why bother with this odd figure of Vimalakīrti and then this rather unlikely goddess who seems to be a virtual double of Vimalakīrti in female form who speaks the same language but humiliates Śāriputra in even more outrageous ways? The most comprehensive answer to this question has to be that both Vimalakīrti and the goddess are deployed to humiliate tradition in a way that might look rather untoward should it be performed by the Buddha or other figures recognized by the reader as being in tradition. Thus both figures are marked by being outside the purview of normal, traditionally recognized models of authority, even though the narrative clearly identifies them as authentically Buddhist in deeper ways.
As for functions, in the case of Vimalakīrti, he humiliates Śāriputra and the other disciples and “smaller” bodhisattvas in philosophic and magical ways that show their limitations and their distance from truth and power. Presumably, this humiliation is felt even more acutely by the reader because it is coming from one who is, at least partially, identified as a layman. That is, status reversal between laity and clergy is counted on to further condemn the old form of clergy. The goddess certainly continues in this vein but directs her humiliation of Śāriputra toward a more sensitive topic—gender. Thus, whereas Vimalakīrti is rarely shown interested in broaching the symbolism of masculinity and femininity, or in playing magical games to reverse them and upset Śāriputra's, or anyone's, gender, this is exactly what the goddess is made to do.49 Quite literally, she is designed to go where no man can go, and this dangerous zone of unmanning Śāriputra is presented not to advance the cause of women, a topic hardly of any concern for the rest of the narrative, but to reinforce the charges against Śāriputra and old-school tradition.
Against this reading of her use for the narrative's polemic is the standard explanation of the goddess as evidence of Mahayana authors' higher appreciation for women's spirituality and their willingness to grant women exalted status in the Buddhist world. While it may be that the long-term effect of this episode may, in some cultures, have led in that direction, I think the logic of her encounter with Śāriputra and its place in the text suggest (p.286) a rather different interpretation. First, on a very basic level, the text has no overall use for her. She disappears just as suddenly as she appears, and she never reappears to be granted a place in the reconfiguration of tradition that happens in the final three chapters of the text. Of course, this mixed message is basically the same treatment given to Vimalakīrti, so they both appear to be “disposable” figures within the arc of the narrative's agenda. Similarly, there are no other female actors in any of the other scenes in the text, which casts serious doubt on reading this section as revealing a feminist orientation. Then, too, feminist concerns never reappear in other zones in the text. And, perhaps most telling, the goddess does not have a name. This might seem trivial, but in Indian culture, which puts high value on names, this lack speaks to her vaporous and ultimately unimportant role as nothing more than the mouthpiece for the author's relentless assault on old-school tradition. To appreciate the carefully circumscribed nature of her attack, one only need imagine how different this passage would have looked if she had turned this gender rhetoric, and her magic, on Vimalakīrti or the Buddha.
This rupture in Śāriputra's male gender is not matched by anything else in the narrative.50 There is nothing else so pointed and so marked by distress and horror. Śāriputra is completely distraught at losing his masculinity, and the narrative explicitly plays up that bewilderment. Thus if we agree that up to this point Śāriputra has been the character designed for the reader to most easily identify with—he is after all, the only one besides Mahākāśyapa whose emotions are noted—then the text is none too subtly threatening the reader with castration. The flow of the narrative event likely would make the reader reason: “Śāriputra couldn't hold his own against this kind of goddess, and given the power of her rhetoric and magic, I surely couldn't imagine doing any better.” The conclusion of identifying with Śāriputra would certainly qualify for what I called the drain-plug effect in chapter 4—the text has created a form which threatens the reader with total loss, and this fear is directed toward staying on the “good side” of this new version of the Law.
There is also a more structural reason for reading the goddess in this manner. If it makes good sense to read Vimalakīrti as a figure essentially created to push tradition through the dialectic of negation and reconfiguration, then the goddess appears as a further extension of this principle. She, too, is a figure who will put tradition through its paces and then disappear as tradition is regrouped around the old authority figures who, though they are now pumped up with this hydrogen from the sphere of unthinkability, (p.287) still hold many of their old boundaries. It is primarily because both the goddess and Vimalakīrti quietly disappear after their tasks are accomplished that they are best read not as proponents of rights and powers of laity and women, but rather as “hit-men” in the service of Mahāyāna authors who needed to create authority in a manner that most thoroughly discounted and disgraced the authority that had been imagined in the prior version of tradition.
To push this a step further, given that the final sections of the text will explain that the text itself is the reservoir of tradition and truth, I wonder if it might not be sensible to see both Vimalakīrti and the goddess as precedents for locating truth outside of tradition and in some unexpected vessel far from the figures of normal authority such as Śāriputra and the monastic tradition. In this reading, the goddess has extracted Śāriputra's authority, and his masculinity, and though at least his masculinity have been returned, his authority hasn't been and instead seems loose and liable to be lodged in some equally unexpected form.
In line with the alternating sequencing that marks these middle chapters, the humiliation of Śāriputra at the hands of the goddess abruptly returns to Mañjuśrī's questioning of Vimalakīrti. Thus, this interlude with the goddess seems all the more like a further extension of the telescope without any narrative effects—it was simply a deeper intrusion into the symbolic structures that supported the glory and authority of old-style tradition. This time Mañjuśrī questions Vimalakīrti about the Buddha Way (fodao), and Vimalakirti gives a tantalizing account of recovering the value of desire and the passions. This passage is, arguably, quite risqué in the world of Buddhist logic. Vimalakīrti gets Mañjuśrī to agree that the “seeds of buddhahood” (rulai zhong) are only activated when planted in the fecund ground of those whostill belong to this world.51 This passage clearly valorizes those readers who judge themselves to be far from attaining the desirelessness that was the hallmark of the early disciples like Śāriputra. In response to this discourse, Mahākāśyapa is again given the role of validating the discourse and concludes:52
“In this sense, Mañjuśrī, the common mortal (fanfu), responds with gratitude to the Buddha Law but the Hearer [the Hinayānist] does not. Why do I say this? Because when the common mortal hears the Buddha Law, he can set his mind on attaining the unsurpassed way, determined that the Three Treasures shall never perish. But the Hearer may hear of the Buddha's Law and powers and fearlessness to the end of his life and yet never be capable of rousing in himself an aspiration for the Unsurpassed Way.”
(p.288) This passage uses tradition to annul tradition even as it creates a new figure—this “common mortal who hears the Buddha Law” who, presumably, represents the reader consuming this discourse. What the reader is learning at this point is that his role has been well provided for in the narrative and that he will triumph over the standard traditional receptacle of tradition, the Hearer, who cannot accept the narrative.
The key to the reader qua common mortal's success is, not surprisingly, the desire for this very discourse, which is clearly what Mahākāśyapa is saying is beyond the ken of the old-school disciples who mistakenly take the end of desire to be the goal of Buddhism. Thus the very thing that old-school disciples were known for—their mastery of desire—is taken now to be their most basic lack, the element that will assure them of forever remaining strangers to truth. On the plane of the narrative, it would seem that the author is “getting at” the reader by showing him how truth and tradition cannot get at the traditional figures who would have been expected to have received truth and tradition. Moreover, it is exactly on the line that formerly demarcated the early disciples from “common mortals” that truth will be granted. Thus the prior markers of truth's owner-ship—the end of desire and the end of one's identity as a common mortal—are now taken to be markers of eternal failure. This, in effect, translates into the following two-part meta-law: wherever the law worked before, there it will work no more; and if you accept this new law about the (old) law, you'll win what the old law offered. Thus, as usual, the reader is being offered a quid pro quo exchange much like those found in the three other sūtras: produce desire and awe for this discourse, through seeing it as the legitimate, living (i.e., unconstructed, nonliterary) form of the Law, and you will in turn be declared the crucial node where tradition legitimately reproduces itself.
What is even more interesting to consider is that desire is now being promoted, not as some inherent part of a Mahāyāna platform, but as a necessary element for consuming and adopting Mahāyāna rhetoric that appears due to the medium that houses that rhetoric. The author seems fully aware that without the reader's desire his project will flop. And, given that restraint, he has taken the additional step of encoding desire into his version of the Law to facilitate just that desire for the text and its Law.
What's for Lunch?
Following a long poem given by Vimalakīrti and then a series of definitions for entering the gate of nonduality given by various unknown bodhisattvas that, together, take up the eighth and ninth chapters, the narrative returns to action closely related to the events as they are supposedly evolving on this (p.289) particular day in Vaiśālī. It seems that it's getting to be noon, and in accordance with the vinaya rule that monks are not to eat after noon, Śāriputra is wondering what they are going to do for lunch. Completely in keeping with the pattern first established in his concern over the seating, Vimalakirti again reads Śāriputra's mind and uses Śāriputra's concern as a springboard for pushing the narrative into a distant perfect buddha land.
As with the magically huge chairs, Vimalakīrti will again import magical items, along with more confirmation of his legitimacy. Depending on this distant buddha land as a kind of staging area for bringing things into the Real of the narrative also establishes a flow of items and discourse that moves from that distant Pure Land and its pure form of Buddhism back up through the chain of segments to the Buddha who remains unmoved in the Amra gardens and then ultimately to the reader. This time, in exercising his magical powers to move between zones, Vimalakīrti creates a phantom bodhisattva to retrieve some magical rice from a distant buddha land, “Many Fragrances.” Unlike the huge chairs that are not important once they are brought back to the Buddha's zone, the rice functions as an important narrative element, and its enduring presence, albeit in the stomachs of the audience, allows the plot to more fully join these three zones: the Buddha Land of Many Fragrances, Vimalakīrti's room, and the Āmra gardens. Thus though this excursion to this distant buddha land functions as another telescope segment in the narrative, it moves in the opposite manner than the goddess's did. Whereas she worked to empty tradition, this segment will serve to fill tradition up, literally, with its magic rice and the Real form of tradition. Similarly, whereas she disappeared after giving her lines, the rice will stay onstage and will be returned to the Buddha's presence to participate in the validation of this version of the Law.
Before following the rice, though, let's note that in the coming account of the humiliation of Śāriputra over this lunch problem, we learn specific information that confirms the Buddha's statements in the first chapter about the two versions of worlds. As the phantom bodhisattva sent by Vimalakīrti engages the buddha of that Buddha Land of Many Fragrances, their conversation touches on a number of points that śākyamuni was shown trying to convince Śāriputra of at the beginning of the text. In particular, bodhisattvas in that distant buddha land are so fully ensconced in that higher version of Buddhism that Śākyamuni had demonstrated with the toe trick that they cannot understand what the term “lesser doctrine,” that is, old-style Buddhism, might mean. They ask their resident buddha, who explains that unlike their perfect situation, far away in a land called “Saha” (our world) there is a buddha named Śākyamuni who “is manifesting himself in that evil world of the five impurities in order to expound the teachings of the Way to living beings who delight in a lesser doctrine. He has (p.290) a bodhisattva named Vimalakīrti who dwells in the Unthinkable Liberation and preaches the Law for the many bodhisattvas.”53
This explanation by the distant buddha, in addition to once again confirming the narrative, inspires his resident bodhisattvas, and all nine million of them decide to set off for our world carrying the bowl of rice that Vimalakīrti has requested via the phantom bodhisattva. Echoing more explicitly the opening scene and the toe trick, the buddha of the Buddha Land of Many Fragrances requires the visiting bodhisattvas to rein in their bodily fragrances and to hide their real forms so that they do not ruin the schema of the degraded world that our resident Buddha Śākyamuni has designed for us. That buddha says to the exiting bodhisattvas:54
“But draw in your bodily fragrances so that you will not cause living beings to be deluded or beguiled by them. And you should put aside your real form so that the persons in that country who are striving to become bodhisattvas will not feel intimidated or ashamed. … It is just that, since the buddhas wish to convert those who delight in the lesser doctrine, they do not reveal the full purity of the land.”
This passage seems straightforward at first, but from the reader's point of view, it requires negotiating several versions of Buddhism. First, it serves to enhance that double vision of fake and Real Buddhism that was so crucial to construct at the beginning of the reading experience. But in returning to reaffirm this split-screen vision of two forms of Buddhism that the Buddha Śākyamuni had established in the first chapter, the narrative is also making the reader feel that he is gaining a perspective on that split in a manner that will encourage him to leave the old narrative for this higher narrative, even when in fact he is consuming yet a third narrative that is playing these two narratives off each other.
Moreover, the above passage contains another element seemingly designed to excite the reader's desire for this third narrative that explains the other two. That distant buddha requires the visiting bodhisattvas to hide their purity for fear that it will disturb the inhabitants of our land. Like the desire-producing construction in the Prodigal Son parable in the Lotus Sūtra, the reader's privileged access to this news from the other side—noone onstage seems privy to it—seems designed to stoke the reader's desire all the more since he now knows the Real and wishes that it would just be directly revealed to him without these dampening devices in place. Ironically, then, the text works at convincing the reader to shift to the Mahāyāna identity by showing him or her how the process has already been working at half speed. Or, in the language that I developed in my reading (p.291) of the Burning House parable, the real expedient means at work in the narrative is the revelation of the previously established use of expedient means. Clearly, the import of this passage is to show the reader how he has been worked on by this world's wily Buddha Śākyamuni, even as it is this revelation that leads the reader to hope for more direct access to this fullest version of tradition that is newly being proffered.
Once this rice has been delivered to Vimalakīrti's room in Vaiśālī, its wondrous aromas pervade Vaiśālīand all its inhabitants are “delighted in body and mind.”55 However, seeing only the single bowl of rice, Śāriputra and the other disciples are worried that it will not feed the assembly. Of course, this is but another occasion for the narrative to heap abuse on them, and this time it is the phantom bodhisattva who delivers the tough lines: “Do not try to use your Hearers' petty virtue and petty wisdom in appraising the immeasurable blessings and wisdom of the Tathāgata. Though the four seas run dry, this rice will never come to an end.”56
As all the gathered beings ingest the rice, its powerful aroma fills the world, and this universalizing of pleasure is explicitly used as a metaphor for spreading the dharma. The bodhisattvas from the distant land explain, “The Tathāgata in our land does not employ words in his exposition (wu wenzi shuo). He just uses various fragrances to induce heavenly and human beings to undertake the observance of the precepts.”57 Thus the narrative has conjured up a zone of perfect tradition where narrative is overtaken by the more direct and reliable medium of aromas. Of course, this zone is revealed here to more fully engage the reader's desire for the Vimalakīrti's narrative by showing that communication could be otherwise and in fact should have been otherwise; it was just that this perfect form of aromic Buddhism could not be given to us because the inhabitants of our world were, and still are, so inferior.
After this account of our traditional form of Buddhism as seen from the sphere of perfect Buddhism in the Buddha Land of Many Fragrances, Vimalakīrti moves into an unusually clear and topical explanation of the two different styles of Buddhism that the reader is now quite acquainted with. In a fully developed speech, the author has Vimalakīrti state clearly that Buddhism, as it had been known until now, was just a crass and downgraded version of the pure, celestial form of Buddhism that all the visiting bodhisattvas thought was the only Buddhism extant. Thus Vimalakīrti explains that the precepts, the teachings of karma, bad rebirth, samara, and nirvana, are coarse and even vicious teachings given strictly in accord with the beastly level of the audience in our world. Concluding his speech, Vimalakīrti (p.292) resorts to animal analogies to explain the creation of traditional (read, “faux”) Buddhism:58
“These people who are dificult to convert have minds like monkeys. Therefore one must resort to various methods in order to control and regulate their minds. Only then can they be tamed and made obedient. It is like dealing with an elephant or horse that is wild and unruly. One must apply sharp blows, till it feels them in its bones, and then it can be tamed. And it is the same with these stubborn and strong-willed beings who are difficult to convert. Therefore one uses all sorts of bitter and piercing words, and then they can be made to observe the precepts.”
The visiting bodhisattvas, who are the target audience of this speech, respond by claiming that all this is news to them:59
“We have never heard of such a thing before! A World Honored One like Śākyamuni who conceals his immeasurable powers of freedom and preaches the Law in a manner that will please the mean in spirit in order to save and liberate all beings!”
This vignette again supports the opening toe trick, but it also makes clear that on either side of the divide between the two narratives being developed there is a lack of recognition. Thus these bodhisattvas are shown reacting to our form of Buddhism in a manner that mirrors Śāriputra's reaction when he saw the “real” buddha land version of Buddhism that these bodhisattvas know. The visiting bodhisattvas, for their part, appear uneducated in the many ways of Buddhism because, though they have the perfect form of Buddhism, they cannot imagine that Buddhism could be any other way.
Thus, though it might first appear that the narrative simply wants to get the reader to adjust his world-narrative from traditional Buddhism to this “perfect” form of Buddhism known to the visiting bodhisattvas, in fact, the narrative seems most intent on seducing the reader into the third narrative that sees both forms of Buddhism and, like Vimalakīrti, can inhabit both in one way or another. These remarks on the Buddha's extreme deformation of Buddhism in light of the beastly inhabitants of our world are extended with both the bodhisattvas and Vimalakīrti adding that bodhisattvas who “condescend” to be born in this land certainly get a tough row to hoe. After reading these passages, few believing readers could wish to remain identified with old-style Buddhism that has been cast in such a dark and dismal light, and yet they are also gaining an appreciation for the Buddha's patience with this bad form of Buddhism and the heroic value that attaches to those who function in this world knowing how fabricated and unsavory it (p.293) really is. Thus, like the other sūtras considered here, the actual subject-position tendered to the reader is construed largely in the appreciation of a gap between “Real” tradition and its traditional, degraded form. Thus, to be fully Mahāyāna, in the sense that both Śākyamuni and Vimalakīrti articulate, is not to simply lodge oneself in the perfect Tradition but rather to inhabit and enjoy just that space between Real and dastardly tradition.
Despite promoting the active participation in the two narratives of tradition, the differences between these two narratives are treated in a radically dualistic manner. Above, Vimalakīrti has veered into the simple Manichaean rhetoric of good and bad, even as he labels traditional Buddhism “bad” precisely because it takes good and bad too seriously. Or, to return to language that appeared around the goddess's speeches, Vimalakīrti's distinction of traditions is as distinct as any other distinction he can point to in the bad version of tradition that the text is trying to overcome. Equally clear, the text has veered off into a kind of hysteria of name calling where there clearly is no room for honorable opposition. Just as when the Lotus Sūtra warmed up in its promise of brutal punishments for those who would resist the narrative, here, too, the animal insults come piling out for those who will not side with the text's version of tradition.
What is even more damning of a reading that would take the entire text as an example of dangerous, nondualistic antinomianism is the following speech in which Vimalakīrti gives the ten good practices and the eight methods for bodhisattvas to practice in our world. Explaining that these practices are not found in perfect lands and that therefore they generate a million times more merit, Vimalakīrti gives a set of activities that are little different than those offered by old-school Buddhism. First, the Six Perfections are listed, but they are given in rather un-Mahāyānic forms and appear completely stripped of the hyped-up rhetoric that they had been spoken of in the earlier chapters. For instance, here one practices “wisdom which does away with stupidity.”60 The prosaic nature of bodhisattva practice is made even clearer in the following lines where Vimalakīrti advocates the eight methods of converting beings in our land. Here a range of self-humbling practices are listed, along with prohibitions against being envious of the alms that others might be collecting. Surely we now are a long way from Vimalakīrti's rebuke of Subhūti's attempt to collect alms in the second chapter. Arguably, we are close to being right back to a position not too different from Subhūti's or the other disciples'—the straightforward practice of Buddhism as it had been explained with the collection of alms, precepts, meditation, and so on.
Despite this section, which suggests that in terms of practice the text has (p.294) not prepared much to replace old-style tradition, there is a major hint about what the reorganization of authority might accomplish. In one of the eight practices that Vimalakīrti lists, he says that bodhisattvas “shall regard other bodhisattvas as though they were looking at the Buddha himself.”61 This line makes very clear that despite the replay of common Buddhist practices, authority and perfect presence are being redirected from the figure of the Buddha into one's colleagues. Thus one is to see one's compatriots, and be seen by them, as identical to the font of tradition—the Buddha. And to secure the ideological basis of this radical shift, a following line mentions, “When they hear a sutra they have not heard before, they shall not doubt it, and they shall not dispute with or oppose the Hearers.”62 Apparently, the text is hoping to soften up the reader for new and unratified versions of tradition and is also inviting the reader to leave off debate with the Hearers regarding what is and is not to be regarded as traditional and authoritative Buddhism. In short, the text is offering itself as the authority for tradition with the added encouragement to the reader that he should find like-minded Buddhists to keep company with, seeing in them the Buddha and the essence of tradition.
Stage Five: He's Got the Whole World in His Hands
Once a satisfactory explanation of the two radically different versions of Buddhism has been reached, the narrative moves to rejoin Vimalakīrti's zone with the Buddha's. This rejoining is orchestrated by describing how back at the Āmra gardens, where the Buddha has been apparently inactive this whole time, the surroundings are spontaneously turning into a Pure Land. Except for this preparatory magic, the narrative, as usual, supplies no more causality for its flow than the standard “at this time (shi shi).” And yet, as the story unfolds in the eleventh chapter, it is clear that the narrative has reached a critical moment where it must now regather its telescoped segments and begin to consolidate, into one overview, the various narratives of Buddhism that it has generated. Moreover, whereas the Buddha had to perform the toe trick in the first chapter to manifest the Pure Land version of our world, the regathering of the narrative's zones naturally, and effortlessly, produces the same effect. This implies that the author is subtly signaling that the regathering of the visions displayed in the telescoped narrative, alone, ought to shift the appearance of the Real, thereby transforming the initially prosaic setting in the gardens into a Pure Land and offering the reader a template for his own work of regrouping these fantasies back into his symbolic world.
(p.295) Despite the presence of grand bodhisattva figures in the returning entourage, the first conversation held at this reunion is between the Buddha and Śāriputra, as the Buddha requires Śāriputra to narrate what he has seen, an obvious redundancy given the Buddha's clairvoyancy established in the first chapter. Moreover, one would have thought that the Buddha would immediately engage Vimalakīrti, if Vimalakīrti was in fact the center of the story. Actually, a chapter will pass before the Buddha addresses Vimalakīrti, whereupon he will ask him only one question. Clearly, instead of negotiating an encounter between the Buddha and Vimalakīrti, the author arranges this chapter to have the Buddha address a number of issues regarding bringing these three zones together, a mediation that clearly is the telos of the text.
In an equally telling detail, Vimalakīrti's powers—now well established—are relied on to initiate the collapse of these zones. Whereas in the narrative's initial move away from the Buddha it was Mañjuśrī who led the assembly to Vimalakīrti's room, presumably on foot, now it is Vimalakīrti who leads tradition back to the Buddha—but now in an altogether miraculous manner. Fulfilling a prior description of how bodhisattvas perform grand “earth-moving” gestures, Vimalakīrti picks up the entire assembly of monks, bodhisattvas, chairs, and so on, in his right hand and carries them from his room to the Buddha. Accepting this hand-held version of tradition with its overpowering aromas and cosmos-tripping bodhisattvas, along with the humiliated and disenfranchised traditional disciples, the Buddha first receives the worship of the arriving bodhisattvas, whose devotion serves to reinscribe hierarchy and order in the text. In fact, the narrative specifies that it was first Vimalakīrti who bowed down to the Buddha, and circum-ambulated him seven times in accordance with Indian custom. The other bodhisattvas then perform the same salutation, followed by the disciples and the heavenly beings and so on.
Evidently, in this return to the zone of the Buddha Śākyamuni, the reader is to see that a new hierarchy of Buddhism is officially recognized by the presiding Buddha. In line with the text's highly selective application of negative rhetoric, this demonstration of hierarchy and order never comes under review for its dualism or its irreversibility. Notable, too, Mañjuśrī drops out of the narrative at this point, never speaking again as attention is turned toward discussions between the Buddha and the disciples who are instructed, along with the reader, in the ways that they ought to comprehend what they have “seen” and “heard” and how all that happened in Vimalakīrti's room was legitimate and trustworthy.
Once everyone is seated again, the Buddha turns to question Śāriputra, who now must account for what he has witnessed. “The Buddha said to Śāriputra, ‘Did you see what these bodhisattvas, these great men, did through (p.296) their freely exercised supernatural powers?’”63 As usual in these early Mahāyāna sūtras, what was narrated in a prior section by an omniscient narrator is reconfirmed by a figure produced in the narrative who vouches for what he saw. Ironically, then, the author has made his rhetorical structures appear more real through the use of yet another rhetorical structure. In his recap, Śāriputra's humiliation and estrangement are again announced as Śāriputra confesses his failure: “World Honored One, what I saw them do was incredible. My mind cannot comprehend it, it is beyond my fathoming.”64 This conversation is interrupted by Ānanda, who is wondering about the aroma: “This fragrance I smell is like nothing I have ever known. What fragrance is this?”65
Obviously this question about the fragrance will require the Buddha's zone to come to terms with what has happened in the other zones established in the narrative, since the narrative is allowing that this aroma passed, intact, from one zone to the other two. Explaining the arrival of this wonderful and unknown aroma in the Āmra gardens then becomes a clever way for the narrative to connect all three zones: the Buddha's, Vimalakīrti's, and the distant Buddha Land of Many Fragrances. Each zone represents different forms of knowledge, which at first were limited in their views of each other but in these closing chapters are gradually coming to be folded into one full narrative that will, in the end, be offered to the reader.
As for answering Ānanda's question, the Buddha tells him that this fragrance comes from the pores of bodhisattvas, and yet Śāriputra adds that it comes from his pores as well. Śāriputra's hasty statement is curious because it is one of the few signs that he has in fact been moved to accept Vimalakīrti's discourse. Up to this point, Śāriputra has simply suffered Vimalakīrti's rhetoric, or the goddess's, and has not responded with anything but shame and lament. Ānanda, his interest now fully piqued, inquires again about the origins of this aroma and learns from Vimalakīrti about the magical rice that was brought from the distant Buddha Land of Many Fragrances. In explaining to Ānanda the properties of this rice, Vimalakīrti adds a new form of legality that turns this rice into something like an internal litmus test. He explains that the rice emits this fragrance until it is digested and that digestion does not fully occur until the eater has made progress on the Mahāyāna path.
This fragrance trope is not developed much more than this, but the narrative appears to offer the rice as a metaphor for the consumption of Vimalakīrti's teaching. Śāriputra, on whom all attention is currently cast, has attended the teaching and received the rice, as well as the challenge to perform (p.297) in a Mahāyānic manner in order to digest his rice. Presumably, the reader is set in a parallel position: the reader, too, has in effect attended the teaching and, though not having ingested the rice, knows of the expectations placed on those who come away from the teachings and return to the more mundane version of tradition: they must properly digest the teaching in order to properly digest the rice, and both digestions are marked as positive acts as they give off this wonderful aroma.
Regardless of how we read the reader's expected consumption of this analogy for the consumption of Vimalakīrti's teachings, we can see that the author has cleverly supplied something apparently real that will persist as the narrative changes settings. That is, in the narrative, the author has constructed the rice as a prenarrative reality that moves between narrative zones and which requires actors onstage to generate narratives that begin to explain and combine these zones. This implies, again, the author's awareness of the productive layerings in his narrative and the need for the narrative to prove that it can jump frames in order that it may accomplish its more basic task of jumping frames from being another Mahāyāna text to being the Real for the reader who faithfully consumes it.
At this critical juncture when Śāriputra's body becomes the focal point for collecting the three zones and legislating their “digestion,” the Buddha takes over the discourse to explain to all present that just as some buddhas use light or fragrance to do “buddha-work” (foshi), other buddhas use simi les. He says, “There are some [buddha lands] where voices, spoken words (yuyan), or written words (wenzi) are used to do buddha-work.”66 This detail might appear unimportant at first, but by specifically having the Buddha endorse written words, it seems that the author has written a script for the Buddha that includes the author's own exculpation. The Buddha is specifically telling Ānanda, and the reader, that a whole range of items not previously associated with the Buddha can be expected to do a buddha's work—light, aroma, even written words—an explanation that we had been partially prepared for once the visiting bodhisattvas had explained that dharmic “discourse” in their resplendent buddha land of Many Fragrances was conducted via aromas and not with words. Standing back from this particular line, it appears that the teachings and deeds of the historical Buddha are getting redefined and redistributed in items and zones that need to be justified by writing just these kinds of speeches for the Buddha in which he justifies, among other things, writing itself, even though he is never brought into direct contact with writing.
The Buddha's speech on the various modes of buddhas' work continues to explore the vastness of the buddhas' projects but then curves around to (p.298) belittle Ānanda and to again drive a wedge between old-school Buddhism and the one being revealed here. Taking up Ānanda's talent for remembering what the Buddha had taught, a talent for which he had been famous, the Buddha denies him this glory, claiming that in fact all this is beyond the scope of his talents. Ānanda acquiesces to this loss of his status, saying, “From now on, I will never dare think of myself as a person who has ‘heard many of the teachings.’”67 Though the Buddha encourages him not to be discouraged, he further hollows out the standard icons of tradition:68
“All the deepest places in the sea can still be fathomed, but the meditation, wisdom, power to retain the teachings, eloquence, and all the various merits of the bodhisattvas are immeasurable. Ānanda, you and the others had best forget about the actions of the bodhisattvas. This manifestation of supernatural power that Vimalakīrti has just now shown us no Hearer or Pratyekabuddha could equal in a hundred thousand kalpas, no matter how he might exhaust his powers of transformation.”
With old-school tradition thoroughly cut out of true tradition, the narrative moves to take care of a lingering problem in negotiating the unification of the three zones. The visiting bodhisattvas from the Buddha Land of Many Fragrances had at first belittled the teaching in our land but now, presumably after seeing Śākyamuni at work, change their minds and realize his genius and fortitude. They say, “World Honored One, when we first saw this land, we thought of it as base and inferior, but now we regret our error and have put such thoughts out of our minds.”69 This change in heart, then, is an occasion for Śākyamuni to address bodhisattva teachings to them before they exit to return to the Land of Many Fragrances. Of course, too, it is an important step in that process of getting the various narrative zones to ratify each other and to admit to the initial limitations in their respective perspectives.
Moreover, bringing these visiting bodhisattvas into the Āmra gardens provided the pretext for having the Buddha, finally, give supposedly undistorted teachings on the higher version of tradition. Without these bodhisattvas on hand to serve as a suitable audience, the Buddha, according to his earlier assessment of the bestial inhabitants of our world, would not dare to engage in this kind of direct teaching. In line with my argument about “the narrative about the two different Buddhist narratives,” what I am calling undistorted teaching is actually just that rather complicated third narrative that supports, and is supported by, the other two. As the Buddha lectures the visiting bodhisattvas, they in fact learn a new Buddhism that was (p.299) not included in their perfect form of Buddhism. What they learn is the tension between the two narratives of good and bad Buddhism, and in this awakening they begin to realize the depth of the complication of moving between them. And, as the above quote attests, the visiting bodhisattvas end up conferring on Śākyamuni a greater respect than their own buddha in the Land of Many Fragrances deserved, since, in fact, they realize that Śākyamuni's buddha-work is a good bit more involved and trying than the buddha-work of their land.
At this juncture the visiting bodhisattvas are essentially conferring on Śākyamuni the honor of teaching an even higher version of Buddhism than what had first been heralded as perfectly pure Buddhism. Śākyamuni, since he patiently feeds the inhabitants of our world bad Buddhism while waiting to give them Real Buddhism, is in fact performing in an altogether more exemplary manner. Once these bodhisattvas have played out their role of receiving and ratifying these “overview” teachings that meld the visions of the two narratives of Buddhism into one that is judged supreme, they finally return to their zone.
As they exit at the end of the eleventh chapter, the narrative gives them a line that reveals that however perfect Buddhism might be in the Land of Many Fragrances, these bodhisattvas have not really been aware of the higher narratives that govern Buddhism throughout the cosmos. Having been delighted by the Buddha's teachings, and strewing flowers around as an offering to the Buddha and this sutra-teaching (gongyang yu fo ji ci jingfa), they “sighed at having heard what they had never heard before, explaining, ‘Śākyamuni Buddha knows how to employ expedient means in a truly skilful manner.’”70 Obviously, comparing these bodhisattvas to the Buddha or to Vimalakirti shows what limited access they have to the very overview that the text is trying to generate in the reader's imagination. As I just mentioned, the supposedly perfect form of Buddhism in their land is far from being the final form that the text is most interested in. Instead, the visiting bodhisattvas are deployed as placeholders in the long dramatization of tradition overcoming itself by creating a higher version of itself and then folding that higher form back into its prior forms, with that resulting fusion declared the highest form of tradition.
The twelfth chapter begins with the now-weary conjunction “at this time,” as the text now devotes a chapter to fully bringing Vimalakīrti's and the Buddha's zones into contact, even if this contact is kept to a minimum and is treated very gingerly. Their contact, in fact, is limited to the Buddha asking Vimalakīrti one question, What is the nature of the Buddha's body?—a topic that has, on and off, been central to various discussions in the text. (p.300) Vimalakīrti's long answer, however, is side-tracked as Śāriputra intrudes to ask about Vimalakīrti's past lives. Vimalakīrti dodges the question and retorts that birth and death are fictitious so there is no point in debating the matter. The Buddha, however, steps in to give Vimalakīrti a pedigree that leads back to the distant buddha land named Wonderful Joy where the Buddha Akṣobhya resides. This mini-history then opens up as yet another opportunity for Vimalakīrti to show off his magical abilities—again he performs the “earth-moving” gesture by gathering up that distant world in his right hand and delivering it to the audience in the Āmra gardens, creating awe and wonder.
This demonstration resolves as the Buddha then makes Śāriputra again speak to what he saw in Vimalakīrti's performance. Oddly enough, in response to this question, Śāriputra initiates a much longer comment that begins by shifting from the miracle he just witnessed to recounting the general benefits that he gained back in Vimalakīrti's room. As usual, Śāriputra is used to turn the omniscient narration into firsthand narration, and he locks that narration into the space between a trusted disciple and the Buddha, presumably thereby sealing it with truth and trustworthiness. His long comment, his longest in the text, though, leads in an altogether different direction. Apparently stepping completely out of character, Śāriputra begins to speak authoritatively about the future reception of the text. Suddenly, he has been positioned as a pivot spokesperson who belongs inside the narrative and yet can announce a variety of legalistic definitions structuring and encouraging future reception and consumption of the text.
At this point in the narrative, there is a sea change: the narrative's agenda shifts from proving Vimalakīrti's consummate powers and cosmic authority to making those powers available to readers provided that they consume the narrative “legally,” or as it is put in the text, “in accordance with the Law” (rufa). From this time onward, Vimalakīrti will disappear and say nothing more. In fact, henceforth there will be no more negative dialectics as the text focuses on marketing itself and comparing itself, favorably, with all other forms of Buddhist practice. Apparently, with the work of negation accomplished, it is time to gather the fruits of that overcoming, and this requires shifting to different personae who will be in charge of normalizing and domesticating that negativity. Śāriputra explains the powers and promises that the narrative and text qua object will have:71
“World Honored One, I and the others have happily acquired excellent benefits, being able to see this person and to approach and make offerings to him. And other living beings, either now while the Buddha is here or after he has passed away, if they hear this sūtra, will acquire excellent benefits as well. (p.301) And how much more so if, having heard it, they believe and understand it, accept and uphold it, read and recite it, expound it to others, and practice it as the Law directs. One who holds the sūtra in hand (you shou de shi jingdian zhe) has thereby acquired the storehouse of the jewels of the Law. If one readsand recites it, understands and expounds it, and practices it as the Law directs, the buddhas will guard and keep in mind that person. And if there are those who give alms to such a person, let it be known that this is giving alms to the Buddha. If there are those who copy and preserve these sūtra scrolls (jingzhuan), let it be know that the Tathāgata will visit their rooms.”
Without a doubt this passage reveals that the author is quite concerned with his narrative as a physical text and has created speech in his characters to guide the reader in receiving both the content of the narrative and its physical presence. Thus the author has Śāriputra speak to the benefits of physically receiving the text “in hand” and the protection that will be bestowed on those who read it and preserve it in its scroll form. Also in line with the way the author has structured his seduction of the reader, what is simply and boldly stated here by Śāriputra will be “proven” by a complicated history of the Buddha that will take up the final two chapters.
Before considering the content of these final two chapters, I want to emphasize that this notable fold in the text's rhetoric matches the narrative's to-and-fro movement through space. As the narrative action left the Buddha and went to Vimalakīrti's room, the negative rhetoric designed to overcome all prior teachings and perspectives was the focus. Once the narrative returns to its place of origin, those topics disappear and are replaced by overriding conservatism and value-claims that direct the reader's interest to the medium that supports these conversations—the text itself. Thus the author now is carefully bundling up the violent authority produced in the middle section in order to capitalize on the tradition-smashing transcendence of Vimalakīrti so that the reader can be offered the standard Mahāyāna sūtra package: accept this narrative as true, and you will receive, in return, the essence of tradition and the identity of being a bodhisattva destined to replicate the truth-father.
As I argued from the outset of this chapter and in chapter 1, the reason that the negation of tradition comes with the possibility of recovering it is that to stand in a position to negate tradition requires having a higher or more extensive form of authority that can “oversee” little tradition and know that it is but a defiled sliver of Real tradition.
Final Truth: Another Revised Lineage for Śākyamuni
Just as the twelfth chapter ended with Śāriputra's dramatic character shift and a notable shift in tone toward conservatism, the thirteenth chapter continues in the vein of canalizing the narrative's ideological gains but now by (p.302) introducing the figure of Indra, lord of the gods. With this impressive figure as his interlocutor, the Buddha tells of his distant past in a way that would have surprised most traditional readers aware of the other more established histories that explained the Buddha's lineage running through Dīpaṃkara and the other buddhas listed in the set of seven and twenty-eight buddhas. The autobiography that the Buddha is made to give in the Vimalakīrti seems to make allusions to several other sets of writing, a fact worth noting for gauging the emergence of a literary culture of borrowing and recycling that appears evident in this early strata of Mahayana writing.72 In the wake of explaining the vastly greater powers of text-worship over relic-worship, Śākyamuni says to Indra:73
“You should understand that if there are good men and good women who, on hearing this Sūtra on Unthinkable Liberation, believe, understand, accept, uphold, read, recite, and practice it, their blessings will be even greater than those such person [who practice stūpa worship described in the preceding paragraph]. Why? Because the enlightenment of the buddhas is born from this sūtra.”
In this self-promoting passage, which refers to itself by its secondary name, Unthinkable Liberation, the narrative is setting itself up, like the other three sūtras covered in this book, as that which both ontically precedes the buddhas and that which allows those who live in the time after the death of the buddha access back to his essence and presence. Thus the narrative is conferring on itself that timeless quality of being both the parent of the buddhas and the product of this particular buddha. And this ability to transcend time is again evident when it is claimed that this text is the item that is also offered to future beings who, wishing to join the buddha-legacy, are advised to take the text as the conduit back to recovering a connection with the Buddha, a conduit that will function so much better than the relics did.
The out-of-time quality of the text, as well as the practical implications of a cult of the text, become clearer as the Buddha embarks on an autobiography that seems to mimic two stories in the Lotus Sūtra both of which work at rewriting the Buddha's lineage and are devoted to convincing the reader of lineages built on text transmission. Likely borrowing the character and plotline of the Medicine King Buddha from chapter 23 of the Lotus Sūtra, the Buddha is made to once again reconstruct his lineage for the benefit of promoting a Mahāyāna sūtra as the cause of tradition. Very closely in line with the structure of the story of the Medicine King Buddha in the Lotus (p.303) Sūtra, where a new style of offering titled “true dharma offering” (zhenfa gongyang)74 is defined, the Vimalakīrti version of the story is focused on transmission and evolves from negotiating a new lineage for the Medicine King Buddha and a sage-king named Jeweled Parasol. The result of their engagement is a composite lineage that merges an at-home patriarchy and a buddha-patriarchy, and gives birth to a new tool—this text—that will allow the reader access to the buddha patriarchy. Of course, this theme of interweaving patrilines of different levels and zones matches quite closely the overall work of chapter 23 in the Lotus Sūtra, just as it appears as the widest agenda apparent throughout the initial chapters of the Lotus Sūtra.75
In the Vimalakīrti the basic plot of this mini-history begins as Śākyamuni describes a time countless eons ago when there was a sage-king Jeweled Parasol who led his thousand sons in worshiping the Medicine King Buddha for five eons, providing him with the material goods that he required. At the end of this time, he commanded his sons to continue this practice: “You too should make offerings to the [Medicine King] Buddha with the same deeply searching mind as I have shown.”76 Thus the story begins with a transmission of the will-to-sacrifice to a buddha, a transmission of discipline and devotion that occurs at home but seals the connection between lay donors and a perfect Buddhist recipient—the Medicine King Buddha. Then, as in the Lotus Sūtra, the plot takes an unexpected turn when this parallel track of patriarchs is explicitly interwoven to create new opportunities for everyone to gain entrance into the buddha-family.
Before this shift in levels is inaugurated, we learn that this initial structuring of father-son transmission from Jeweled Parasol to his thousand sons was effective, with the sons performing as expected, and yet simple success was disrupted by a certain son wishing to make a better sacrifice, a trope also found in the Lotus Sūtra version of the Medicine King Buddha. In the Vimalakīrti, it is just this extraordinary desire to be more “lawful” that will result in the emergence of a supposedly higher form of devotion to the Law, a form that brings with it the command for a complete revolution in patron-priest relations. Thus, as in the Lotus Sūtra, the author of the Vimalakīrti is trying to make his rewriting of the Law look like the effect of the desire to fulfill the Law, hence the narrative is propelled by the desires of this especially devoted and filial son.
Temporarily ignoring the other 999 sons, the narrative of the Vimalakīrti turns to focus on just that one preternaturally devoted son named Moon (p.304) Parasol.77 In response to Prince Moon Parasol's longing for a better offering, the narrative introduces a heavenly being who explains to him that “dharma offering is the finest of all offerings” (fa zhi gongyang sheng zhu gongyang) and that he ought to ask the Medicine King Buddha about how toperform it.78 Keeping in mind that dharma means, among other things, “Law,” “dharma offering” really means “offering of the Law,” thereby revealing that the text is stepping into a kind of circularity with the Medicine King Buddha oddly explaining, as his law, an offering that is again about giving the Law. As we will see, this circularity is precisely what the text needs as it begins to endorse itself as the final form of tradition (dharma), supported, too, by other laws that it articulates about how that final form of the Law is to be engaged, exchanged, and reproduced.
Moreover, once this definition of offering has veered away from standard patron-priest relations that had been in force between King Jeweled Parasol and the Medicine King Buddha, the narrative turns to have the Buddha tell a history of his past in which the will to engage in textual transmission appears as the crucial element in the lineage that supposedly gave birth to Śākyamuni and which can, in turn, give birth to the bodhisattva identity of those who commit themselves to trafficking in Mahāyāna texts. Of course, since the author has relied on heavenly beings and voices throughout his narrative to advance the story through difficult zones, we presumably ought to see this moment as one such structurally difficult juncture. Also, in the details that follow we will see that this kind offering, though useful for securing a cult of the text, is structurally rather unstable in the story.
Following the god's directions, Prince Moon Parasol goes to the Medicine King Buddha where he receives an unusual explanation of “dharma offering.” It turns out that in a very long and involved explanation of this offering, the answer to Prince Moon Parasol's question about the nature of dharma offering is this: the best way to offer to the buddhas is to not offer to them at all but to traffic in Mahāyāna texts, and that this is what was meant by “dharma offering.” Without explicitly using the category “Mahāyāna sūtras,” the Medicine King Buddha describes these “profound texts” in a way that leaves no doubt that the author intends to limit “dharma offering” to trafficking in Mahāyāna texts. He describes them as those wonderful and pure texts that are difficult to believe and, among other things, “hold the bodhisattvas' dharma storehouse” (pusa fazang suoshe) and lead to (p.305) the accomplishment of the Six Perfections.79 Having identified these texts as the essence of tradition that causes those who accept them to perfectly manifest the cardinal virtues of the tradition, or at least the virtues that this particular Mahāyāna proponent supports, the Medicine King Buddha says:80
“If one hears sūtras such as these, believes, understands, accepts, upholds, reads, and recites them, and by employing the power of expedient means makes distinctions and expounds them for the sake of living beings, rendering their meaning perfectly clear, one is thereby guarding and protecting the dharma, and this is called dharma offering.”
Even on the surface it is evident that something radical is being proposed here. The narrative of Prince Moon Parasol started off with his father instructing him to worship and provide useful physical items to the Medicine King Buddha. In that phase of the mini-history, the father at home replicated himself in his princely sons by instructing them in the worship of an external father figure who apparently lives on a larger time circuit than do kings and princes. But once this particularly inspired son wished for something better, his desire produced direct teachings from that external Buddha-father who explained to him, oddly it would seem, to engage in a kind of offering that leaves buddhas out of it altogether, even as switching to this mode of offering is exactly what produces buddhas. The Medicine King Buddha, in essence, has said, “Your offering to me is fulfilled by trafficking in these Mahāyāna sūtras—once that is performed all Buddhist tasks can be counted as accomplished, and the reproduction of buddhas and tradition will be assured.” Of course, the reason for this shift away from engagement with a living buddha seems to have everything to do with the context of when this text and the other early Mahāyāna sūtras were written. That is, the narrative is trying to locate trafficking in Mahāyāna textuality at the font of buddha-production so as to locate itself as that which came before buddhas and that which makes them. Once lodged there, the text can then, of course, offer legitimacy to any recipient.
Recognizing this reconstruction of devotion so as to make textual devotion the reproductive act in manifesting tradition takes us very close to my basic argument about these early Mahāyāna texts, since narratives are producing buddhas and other authority figures who baldly assert that the texts they inhabit sum up tradition and are to be treated as buddhalike Things. Furthermore, this kind of reading-for-tradition and reading-for-buddha-presence seems to match, in tenor, Vimalakīrti's comments in the preceding chapters where he urged that bodhisattvas should see each other as buddhas, implying again that on some level the buddhas are getting cut out of (p.306) the picture as the rhetoric moves to resituate power, prestige, and authority in the matrix of the text that supports these “paper buddhas.”
The anxiety over Buddhist practice in the absence of the Buddha is clear in Prince Moon Parasol's response to this teaching from Medicine King Buddha. Prince Moon Parasol, having subsequently left the family life, offers this buddha his belongings and promises to continue his heritage after his death, saying, “World Honored One, after the Tathāgata has passed into extinction, I will carry out offerings of the Law and guard the correct Law.” The Medicine King Buddha in turn confers on him the prophecy of becoming his successor: “In the Latter Age (moshi), you will guard and protect the citadel of the Law (facheng).”81
This event marks the intertwining of lineages as the Medicine King Buddha confers on Prince Moon Parasol the rights to his teaching. The following lines do not explicitly grant Prince Moon Parasol full buddha-identity, but they do say that this was a prophecy that led Prince Moon Parasol to leave home and “continue to turn the wheel of the Law turned by the Medicine King Buddha”82 and to perform in a buddhalike way by enlightening countless persons. Thus, based on receiving the teaching about “the dharma offering,” the patrimony of the Medicine King Buddha now flows into Prince Moon Parasol who took up the Law and then performed as a buddha would. Thus just as in the Lotus Sūtra, a primal buddha-lineage is cracked open so that buddha-identity can flow through the conduits of proper reading and the reproduction of the texts that explain just this cracking open of the buddha-lineages.
The effect of including the Prince Moon Parasol in the Medicine King Buddha's lineage comes, though, with an odd side effect. We learn that Moon Parasol's father, Jeweled Parasol, has become a buddha named Jeweled Flame and that his other 999 sons have become buddhas too. In fact, we learn that these thousand sons who turned into buddhas are none other than the thousand buddhas of our age. No cause is given for this grand inclusion in the buddha-lineage, and obviously there is a bit of illogic to this claim as the father had not performed “the dharma offering” and had disappeared from the narrative before any of this took place. Thus his buddhahood was really constructed post facto in light of his son's adoption of this new form of “the dharma offering,” suggesting thereby that the two lineages are now “physically” joined such that the buddha-essence could even flow backward in time to buddhify the dead father of the at-home lineage.
Looked at more closely, the entire at-home patriarchal lineage has in effect been refathered as the single son, Prince Moon Parasol, receives the (p.307) Medicine King Buddha's teaching, and this refathering produces a buddha-lineage on top of a lay lineage wherein his father and all his brothers are now turned into buddhas. This detail might seem irrelevant, but I believe it is setting a template for the deepest task of the entire text—producing in the reader the sense that in receiving the text, he has been included in the lineage of buddhas, just as Prince Moon Parasol has been. And, again matching the Lotus Sūtra, this jump “downward” to put the buddha-lineage in the hands of nonbuddhas is softened by having it land on a prior patriarchy, in particular, a patriarchy that had already proven its allegiance to this higher form of patriarchy. This, no doubt, lends a more legitimate cover to what would otherwise seem like the casual dispersal of the most treasured item in the universe. In the Vimalakīrti, it is Jeweled Parasol's thousand sons who receive the buddha-essence based on nothing more than their sonship to Jeweled Parasol and their faithful acceptance of his command to worship the Medicine King Buddha. Of course, in the introduction to the Lotus Sūtra, it was Sun Moon Bright's eight sons who became buddhas based onsimilar devotion to their at-home father.
Bringing this distant patriline and its modes of reproduction even closer to the reader of our age, Śākyamuni explains that Prince Moon Parasol was none other than himself. By recounting his history and lineage affiliation in such a manner, the narrative is poised to turn outward and offer the reader a facsimile of what Śākyamuni received in that distant era when he was Prince Moon Parasol. In arranging for this gift outward to the reader, the narrative has defined “dharma offering” as trafficking in Mahāyāna sūtras, and this has been explained as the cause for the forward reproduction of the buddha-lineage. What this amounts to is a new law about the Law (a new dharma about the Dharma) in which content and form are fused. As Prince Moon Parasol accepted the definition of the “dharma offering,” he was accepting the claim that trafficking in the Law not only fulfills the Law but reproduces Lawgivers as well.
Of course, on one level this makes sense since lawgivers, by definition, traffic in the law. Nevertheless, the proposed massive slide in Buddhist dogma is not to be missed: to be a purveyor of Mahāyāna texts is to find oneself primed to be a buddha. Thus insofar as one mimics Prince Moon Parasol and accepts this law about the Law, along with the account of how just such an acceptance is effective in turning nonbuddhas into buddhas, then the reader finds himself or herself occupying a position parallel to Prince Moon Parasol's, with the implication that he or she too will be lodged in the lineage of buddhas and be worthy of receiving the same kind of prediction that he received from the Medicine King Buddha. Hence as readers receive the answer to that question regarding the practice of “dharma offering,” they learn that they can fulfill just that obligation to traffic in Mahāyāna sūtras.
(p.308) Śākyamuni concludes his story by telling Indra that dharma offering will replace direct offering to the Buddha: “Thus, heavenly lord, you should understand this important point. The dharma offering is the finest of all offerings. It is first in rank and without equal. Therefore, heavenly lord, you should use this dharma offering as your offering to the Buddha.”83 Thus, as in the introduction to the Lotus Sūtra, the narrative has effectively grafted itself onto the tried and true structures of Buddhist authority, even as it uses those structures to overcome Buddhist authority as it had been known. The Buddha has essentially been made to say, I was born of the will to traffic in Mahāyāna sūtras, and you Indra and the reader, will likewise be offering me the highest offering when you offer me nothing but instead likewise traffic in Mahāyāna sūtras. The Buddha's patriarchy has been now resculpted so that its essence is defined not by a gift of truth from the preceding truth-father but by a universal law that states: trafficking in Mahāyāna sūtras produces buddhas and the Law.
Stage Six: Don't Lose This Book—Maitreya Reinstalled as Publishing Impresario
The final chapter of the Vimalakīrti flows directly from the story that the Buddha has told regarding the role of devotion to Mahāyāna textuality in his own lineage. Here, the Buddha formally recognizes Maitreya as his descendant in a manner that Buddhist readers would, at first, accept as fairly normal. This is because though later in the chapter discussion of the transmission will include mention of its textual reality in the form of this very text, the first half of the formal investiture relies solely on a vague item called “this Law of Highest Enlightenment.”84 The Buddha, leaving the identity of this Law decidedly vague, says:85
“Maitreya, I now take this Law of Unsurpassed Enlightenment, gathered over countless millions of uncountable eons, and entrust it to you. In the Latter Age (moshi), after the Buddha has passed into extinction, you must employ your supernatural powers to propagate sūtras such as this, spreading them throughout the continent of Jambudvīpa and never allowing them to be wiped out.”
Though at first this seems normal enough, on reflection it is clear that in light of defining “dharma offering” as that which holds buddhas together, we have in this brief passage the introduction of two more formulations of (p.309) the Law that hold the buddha-lineage together, especially in the Latter Age. In the first line, the law is the Law of Unsurpassed Enlightenment, which seems vague and nonspecific. This vagueness only increases when the second line explains that at this moment the Buddha is also transmitting to Maitreya the will to propagate “sūtras such as this” (rushi beijing)86 in the time after the death of the buddha, never allowing them to be cut off. Clearly, the implication, especially given the definition of the “dharma offering” in the preceding chapter, is that regardless of the nature of the Law of Unsurpassed Enlightenment that Maitreya is receiving, his own work will be to transmit the Law in the form of sūtras, like this one, that will be relied on to extend and preserve the buddha legacy.
We could speculate that the vagueness in defining the item of transmission to Maitreya is designed to keep physical texts out of the hands of buddhas who, at least in this strata of Mahāyāna texts, do not read or traffic in literary forms of sūtras. Maitreya can be in charge of dispensing the text, through his supernatural powers, but there seems to have been some hesitancy to register the text as fully objectified in just this exchange between buddhas.
Reluctance to have buddhas handle texts may be part of the concerns shaping this transmission moment, but I think there is a more pressing dynamic in view. Reading this chapter in the context of the previous chapter, it seems that the author chose not to name his text as the item transmitted at this important juncture because it is still in the midst of a carefully wrought sequence in which the text's presentation of orality is gradually being turned into literature that can be handled by figures in and outside the narrative. Thus, the transmission motifs in these two final chapters make it clear that the author, in giving the history of the Buddha's past, has also been giving the history of the birth of this text, a history that moves from being oral to being substantialized into a text that Maitreya will magically cause to be put into the hands of those who seek the Mahāyāna in the future.
This alchemy of turning orality into literature is further complicated by the way the author is also linking this emerging textual form to the creation of buddha-identity. At the first stage something called “dharma offering” emerged from the fusion of two lineages, the buddha-lineage of Medicine King Buddha and the at-home lineage of Jeweled Parasol. At that point, transmission was explained as the effect of engaging in the “dharma offering,” which boiled down to nothing more than the devotion to receive and reproduce Mahāyāna texts. Though the Vimalakīrti text had yet to formally name itself as the item transacted in history, it had nonetheless prepared a (p.310) place for itself since the “dharma offering” between buddhas was defined by the Buddha of our era as the willingness to transact the Law in the form of Mahāyāna sūtras. Thus, though the form of the law transacted back between the Medicine King Buddha and Prince Moon Parasol (also known as Śākyamuni Buddha) contained Mahāyāna textuality within it, the narrative had not allowed for the obvious presence of textuality to appear. Taking this next step of narrating its own, fully textual presence in the very juncture of transmission is what the following segments of the chapter will seek to accomplish.
To gain some perspective on this convoluted format, let me point out that the text is presenting the by now familiar tension of being both itself and outside itself, so as to be able to speak of its role in history, both in the past and in the future. In constructing this double, the Vimalakīrti text is simply claiming two things: the ultimate Buddhist Law is within its perimeters, yet also within those perimeters is the statement that transacting this version of the Law fulfills the Law, and this is said by the figure known to the reader as the ultimate Lawgiver—Śākyamuni. Put another way, as the narrative moves through these two chapters it is accomplishing the difficult task of explaining its own birth and identity as the ultimate signifier in the sequence of Buddhist legitimacy. Thus, according to the history Śākyamuni gave, the text was not born on this particular day in Vaiśālī. Rather, it had been prepared eons in advance as the buddhas began trafficking in the command to traffic in Mahāyāna textuality, and now as Śākyamuni transmits the text to Maitreya he is fulfilling the Law as it had been given to him so many eons before by the Medicine King Buddha.
This bending over backward to locate the text as both the effect of lineage transmission and the cause of its future propagation resides, of course, exactly at the heart of all patriarchal discourses on truth: truth needs a father who gives it, along with the Law that asserts that there is no other Law, and yet that truth-giving father needs a truth-father too, and hence the bad infinity of trying to find patriarchal truth apart from the patriarchy of truth and the laws that it promulgates in order to promulgate the law of owning truth. To ease the inevitable self-reflexivity structuring the situation, the author of the Vimalakīrti, much as the author of the introduction to the Lotus Sūtra relied on the Sūtra of Limitless Meaning, has created a mediatingtextlike thing that he labels “this Law of Unsurpassed Enlightenment.”
Though this title and its referent remain ill defined, and of virtually no interest to the narrative, the above quote makes clear that it contains all of tradition—“gathered over countless millions of uncountable eons”—and the essence of the lineage that has to be passed on to Maitreya if he is to be the next buddha. Thus when we return to read this statement of transmission it looks just like it should, given the structural exigencies of paternal truth-claims: it is the transmission of the content of truth, referred to by (p.311) name but left undefined, accompanied by the law of its transmission, which legislates the duplication of truth in deserving descendants and provides proof of its own “historical” legitimacy. That is to say, the reader should not be left wondering how the “dharma offering” turned out to be the essence of the law and the lineage. Instead, the reader should simply take up the text and assent to these self-reflexive commandments: (1) take “me,” that is, the text, to be tradition, and (2) accept my statement that in that act of taking me (including my claims about myself) to be tradition, you will have fulfilled tradition.
Maitreya's response to this gift from Śākyamuni and its accompanying discourse is telling. He says to the Buddha:87
“World Honored One, this is something I have never heard before. It is as the Buddha has said. I must remove myself far off from evils such as these88 and strive to uphold this Law of Enlightenment that the Buddha has gathered over numberless uncountable eons. If in the ages to come there are good men and good women who seek the Mahāyāna, I will see to it that Sūtra such as this come into their hands, will lend them powers of memorization, and will cause them to accept, uphold, read, and recite the Sūtra and expound them far and wide for others.”
This passage is very curious and reveals the deft hand of a careful author. Most interesting is the way that it makes Maitreya bounce between two zones of reception. In his initial statement, he receives the discourse as something oral—“this is something I have never heard before.” But then in the following statements, he treats the discourse as something already in literary sutra form, something that one could and should read and pass around to others. In fact, he promises that future seekers of the Mahāyāna will have his magical assistance such that “Sūtra such as this come into their hands” (shoude rushi deng jing). Thus Maitreya, at thisfirst moment of full transmission of legitimacy with the text as the tool of paternity, is lodged in that very uncomfortable place of being in two zones at once and knowing of the text in both oral and written forms. Moreover, though he is inside the text, and thus in the same narrative space as the action the narrative has evoked, he is also outside of the text talking about what he will do in the future with it.
This unstable orality in a text—having actors speak about the text as both oral and textual—takes us to the heart of the Mahāyāna writing project. The text as text first had to create history and orality performed “live” by supposedly real historical figures in order to win legitimacy for itself; yet at the end of the day it has to make that orality endorse the text that holds it. (p.312) Just this return from fabricated orality into textuality is what we are witnessing as Maitreya receives the text in both an oral and a literary format.
Should there be any doubt about the purposeful confusion of these two formats, in the speech that the Buddha gives to Maitreya as he confers on him “this Law of Highest Enlightenment” he explains two types of bodhisattvas who have distinctly different attitudes toward the written word. The Buddha says:89
“Maitreya, you should understand that there are two types of bodhisattvas. What are these two types? The first type loves varied phrases and literary embellishments (hao zaju wenshi). The second is not afraid of deeper principles and is able to enter into the true meaning. If there are those who love varied phrases and literary embellishments, you may be sure that they are beginners in the bodhisattva Way. But if there are those who, approaching these extremely profound Sūtra, with their teachings on nondefilement and nonattachment, are not timid or fearful but can enter into the meaning and, having heard the Sūtra, with pure minds, will accept, uphold, read, and recite them and practice them as the Law directs, you may be sure that they have been practicing the way for a long time.”
Undeniably, this passage shows that the author has prepared a speech for his narrative-buddha that directly addresses how the reader ought to read this work. Thus just as Maitreya's reception speech was poised in two zones, so, too, is this advice. It is ostensibly given to Maitreya, but clearly it is directed to the reader who is warned that if he reads the text for its literary qualities, then he is missing the deeper meaning and will have consequently won for himself the disgrace of being but a beginning bodhisattva.
The Buddha continues in this vein of distinguishing good and bad reception of the text as text when he again defines what he takes to be second-rate bodhisattvas. One version of these beginner types simply lack courage because when they “hear some profound Sūtra they have not heard before, are alarmed and timorous and, giving way to doubt, cannot bring themselves to comply with it.”90 The other type, though they “guard, uphold, understand, and expound profound Sūtra of this type, are unwilling to closely approach them (bu ken qinjin) to offer them alms or treat them with respect (gongyang gongjing), and at times even speak of their faults before others.”91 These passages, too, bounce between the oral and literary form. These second-rate bodhisattvas are described reacting to sutras vaguely defined as “of this type,” but then in the description of the second type of unwanted bodhisattva (p.313) it is clear that the author is having the Buddha indict them for failing to engage in a full-fledged form of sūtra-worship, including approaching them in a ritualistic manner to give them alms and respect. Apparently, the author is still trying to take advantage of the orality of his textually fabricated buddha in order to define the reader's response to the text, a response that is defined in terms of depth of reading, submission to its demands, and a level of worship that one would normally render to a respected teacher. Naturally, all this only makes sense when the narrative was written imagining itself in the future as a worthy physical object of worship that one can approach and treat to the basic modes of obeisance that were traditionally reserved for teachers and relics.
In addition to these complicated attempts to move between oral and literary media in order to bully the reader into accepting the text as the definitive form of tradition, there is of course that other level that we are quite familiar with by now: this transmission moment newly inducts Maitreya into the buddha-lineage through receiving this discourse on the truth about tradition. He admits that he has not heard what the Buddha has said before, with this comment presumably referring to everything that has preceded this moment in the text. Obviously, this response puts him in the same position as all the other traditional figures in the text, such as Śāriputra, who reacted in similar ways. This claim to newness, then, implies that before these events took place in the narrative, tradition, as supposedly present in the traditional Śākyamuni to Maitreya transmission, was not established. But now with the discourse preformed and encapsulated and handed over to Maitreya, Maitreya is for the first time rightfully installed as the Buddha's successor. Obviously, this trope matches rather closely the reformulation of Maitreya's identity that the Lotus Sūtra produced in its opening chapter.
Most important, and again like the Lotus Sūtra, is that in the process of relegitimizing Maitreya a new tool has been produced, the text itself, which Maitreya explains will hereafter be available to everyone—all those “good men and good women who seek the Mahāyāna.”92 When this transmission to Maitreya is fully played out, the author has Śākyamuni give the text as text to Ananda (shouchi shi jing), thereby replaying tradition's assumption that Ānanda is the keeper of the Buddha's word, even though this identity had been thoroughly revoked in the eleventh chapter. And then, with the work of transmitting Tradition now accomplished in the narrative, the text closes out with Mañjuśrī, Vimalakīrti, Śāriputra, and Ānanda rejoicing at “hearing the preaching of the Buddha.”93
To close out this reading of the Vimalakīrti, let me address what this reading implies about the historical forces at work shaping the text: What might have inspired someone to write a narrative devoted to showing how tradition did not have Tradition and then making that very narrative as text into the item that would hold Tradition together and move it forward in time? Evaluating the Vimalakīrti's reworking of authority from this historical point of view requires two things that I advanced in my reading of the Diamond Sūtra: first, locating its authorship roughlyfive hundred years after thedeath of the Buddha—something little disputed in modern Buddhist studies and arguably apparent in the text's interest in what to do in the absence of the Buddha in the time of the Latter Age (moshi), a time that traditionally was understood to mean in the second five-hundred-year period after the death of the Buddha; and second, assuming that in this era of the Latter Age the author of the Vimalakīrti and his anticipated reader were substantially worried about their connections back to the Buddha.94 Evidence for this kind of generic anxiety over distance from legitimate Buddhist authority appears in the text itself, as well as in other contemporary works from this period. If we make these two rather likely assumptions, then I suggest that there are two principal themes that we should focus on in interpreting the dialectical overcoming of tradition that the Vimalakīrti orchestrates.
First, though I have spoken above in the language of “violence” and the text's effort to kill off old-style tradition, in fact, at the time of the text, tradition might have seemed already moribund to some observers, and not due to the machinations of Vimalakīrti-like pranksters. Hence what looks like the uprooting of tradition in the text probably is designed, in part, to make the apparent decline of tradition look comprehensible and even predetermined. Thus a first-century reader would look up from reading the Vimalakīrti to regard with new eyes an uninspired Buddhist clergy and conclude, “Aha, so that's why. The prosaic form of the Buddhist tradition was never really even tradition to begin with, having never been properly inducted into the Buddhist Tradition in the Vimalakīrti's unique sense of Tradition.” Consequently, the narrative serves, on one level, as an etiology: if tradition looks moribund in the forms it took in the centuries after the death of the Buddha, it is just because it was not authentic from the outset, and now you, the reader, know why.
Second, as I have argued above, detaching old-style tradition from the (p.315) Buddha and from any claim to legitimacy comes, part and parcel, with the tool for the reader to reattach himself or herself to the Buddha and Buddhist legitimacy. In fact, the legitimate destruction and reconstruction of tradition are two sides of the same coin: the narrative, to undermine old-style legitimacy, had to create within its borders the image of legitimacy that would appear to have the right to give and take legitimacy. Of course, part of this legitimacy came in the figure of Vimalakīrti, but he was only given license to “kill” tradition by the traditional progenitor of tradition—Sākyamuni—and he was dispensed with once his tasks were accomplished. Thus, on several levels, negative rhetoric and legitimacy came hand-in-hand. The trick, and it required a deft touch, was to then fold that narrative recounting open season on traditional icons into the space of the text and define the rules for textual transmission to take over the role of reproducing tradition.
Reducing tradition to textual presence obviously works to create an alternative track for keeping legitimacy in time, but we shouldn't miss what an important role negative rhetoric played in that redeployment of tradition. With the apparently irrefutable powers of Vimalakīrti's antinomian rhetoric, the reader is tempted into thinking that one can always prove to oneself that the more prosaic representatives of tradition lack the very thing that makes Tradition. Consequently, not only does the text compress time in terms of returning to the Buddha and his paradigmatic dharma offering, but it also frames negation as the most crucial item for overcoming and reconstituting tradition. Thus as the reader reads over Vimalakīrti's shoulder and sees how he eats these little tradition fellows for breakfast, he learns that this act of executing normal sites of tradition is, functionally, the founding gesture of the text and the gateway to reinscribing tradition in another format. Consequently, the killing of old-style tradition in order to reestablish tradition elsewhere needs to be kept in view as the most important literary trope offered by these Mahāyāna sūtras.
Taking the Law into Your Own Hands
Having insisted on reading the Vimalakīrti as a written text fully aware of itself as a literary document, there are a host of questions to pose, questions that easily could require another book. For instance, if we assume with the Russian Formalist Boris Tomachevski that all literary works need a theme, what should we posit as the unifying theme of this work? Without pushing too hard on the evidence adduced above, the theme seems to be none other than the relationship between the reader and the text. Concern for just this relationship is in the end, quite literally, the only thing that matters. The text needs the reader to install pure authority in the text, and this is done with the figure of the Buddha in the first chapter and the “history” of (p.316) Vimalakīrti's teaching that comprises chapter 2 through 12; then, the text requires that the reader extract pure authority from the text, which is arranged for in the three concluding chapters. Arguably, everything else in the text is present as an accompaniment to these two basic gestures. Thus the text is about itself in a fundamental manner that goes much deeper than the claim, for instance, that the novel is about the novel. Here, just as with the sentence, “This sentence is written with 14k gold chalk,” the content of the Sūtra is both implicitly and explicitly about the form of the statement—its residence in the vehicle of the text that will come to hold the essence of tradition and facilitate new forms of authority and legitimacy.
An equally provocative line of inquiry could be opened up around the question of Vimalakīrti as hero. One might immediately think that he fits the hero role quite ably, since, after all, he combats the Buddhist institution and wins his day in the sun. A closer look at the narrative, though, would suggest that many things about Vimalakīrti are unlike the standard hero model. First, he undergoes no change, development, or advancement. And, save for his visit to the Buddha in the Āmra gardens, he does not travel or move through various zones that would increase his powers or resolve internal contradictions. Second, he is never at risk. Risk in the text is borne solely by old-school Buddhists such as Śāriputra and Maitreya. Vimalakīrti is never threatened by anyone's authority or rhetoric and appears as a figure completely consummated before the action begins. Apparently, he has nothing to gain from anyone, and clearly the text is of no value to him. Third, the reader is not directly invited to experience his interior. We hear only one sentence of internal dialogue suggestive of emotion (when he's tricking the Buddha about his sickness), whereas Śāriputra's or Mahakaśyapa's thoughts and feelings are much more in evidence.
Similarly, and perhaps most damning for a theory of Vimalakīrti as hero, Vimalakīrti is not part of the solution that the text finds for itself. He is present as the problem—the Real perspective on tradition that cannot be digested by tradition—and yet in resolving this conflict, he is first folded into tradition in the form of the text that is to be transmitted between Śākyamuni and Maitreya, and then folded into the reader who is holding it in his or her hands. Throughout these final chapters Vimalakīrti is absent and inactive since his function as the “heart of darkness” bludgeon to be used on old-style tradition is no longer needed.
If we do not take Vimalakīrti to be the hero of the drama, then we have two options. We could simply conclude that this text does not require a hero. Perhaps this narrative reconstructing the Law and offering it to the reader produces desire, fantasy, and devotion without needing a hero and the very normal structures of identification with such a hero. This could be argued, but I think another option is more tenable. The identity that is onstage at the beginning, middle, and end is that of the traditional Buddhist. And this is the identity, presumably, that the author is expecting the reader to bring to his (p.317) text. Though we should allow for the possibility that Mahāyāna sītra authors wrote against each other's narratives, the Vimalakīrti does not seem designed to work on an already convinced and converted Mahayana audience. The opposite seems to be the case, and thus I believe it best to read the hero as the reader. His or her identity is well prepared for by the narrative, and represents the place of fullest closure, and this closure comes in the wake of experiencing threats, risks, and identity shifts.
Thus, in line with my readings of the prior three texts, I think we have to situate the reader as identifying not with Vimalakīrti, or at least not directly, and much more with Śāriputra and the other familiar figures of tradition. Hence the reader is hammered on by Vimalakīrti as he reads over the shoulder of Śāriputra and the others, experiencing their humiliations and likely also thinking of no retorts in the face of Vimalakīrti's bewildering challenges. Thus the reader, piggybacked on Śāriputra, moves through a variety of spaces and legal arrangements that work to redefine his or her world and identity. And though this basic sequence of destruction and reconstruction matches other Mahāyāna works, in the Vimalakīrti, Śāriputra never really converts or manifests a full-blown Mahāyāna identity. True, at the end of the twelfth chapter, he is made to endorse the teaching, and to speak of how those in the future can receive the same benefits that he has, through their reception of the text. This endorsement, however, does not compare to his conversion in the Lotus Sūtra, where the reader was taken inside his person to experience both his anguish and his exaltation in receiving the supposedly final version of the Law, in the form of the Lotus Sūtra.
In the Vimalakīrti, the reader realizes, as he or she reaches the end of the narrative, that he or she has, in the very act of reading, received the final version of the Law. Moreover, along with the Law comes the narrative of how that version of the Law had already “killed” old-style tradition and how, by handling the text, the reader had already been performing a good part of the act of text reception so glorified by the Buddha's explanation of how “dharma offering” had been the impetus to buddha-reproduction and the continuation of Tradition. Thus the text has, in an altogether clever way, designed a narrative for the reader in which finishing the text roughly equals gaining a transmission of total Tradition equal to that finally conferred on Maitreya. Reading, as formulated by the author, has already been made into the conduit that conveys authenticity, and precisely because the author has created figures like Śākyamuni who explain that reading and trafficking in textuality are the very practices that made them legitimate.
If we agree to locate the place of reader-identification in the figures of old-school Buddhists, we also need to include the possibility that though the text is dialectically organized for the reader to read from the Hīnayāna (p.318) position into a Mahāyāna identity, it is also likely that the reader is tempted to enjoy Vimalakīrti's position, at least partially. This might not be an outright identification of the nature of “I am not that different from one such as he” but rather a subtler identification along the lines of: “Though I'm not a full-fledged bodhisattva of that caliber, still I can see that Vimalakīrti is right in smashing old-style tradition in this manner, and in fact, I can on occasion win debates of this nature too.”
Thus, just as in the Diamond Sūtra, there are good reasons for thinking that the Vimalakīrti also invites the reader to read over the shoulder of Father2, that speaker of the new Law that ended the reign of the old Law (Father1). Moreover, in reading the middle sections where Vimalakīrti overcomes his various opponents, it is clear that the rhetoric has expanded not simply to drive home the impossibility of old-style perspectives but also to bathe the reader in two emotions—pleasure and dread. Again like the Diamond Sūtra, as the reader receives these passages that pound on theunthinkability of any straightforward presentation of old-style Buddhist practice, he or she is both under assault and seduced with endless flourishes of rhetoric that reveal a higher mastery of the Law, a mastery that ends the Law as it was known and yet still seems to speak with compelling legal authority.
The deep impossibility of responding to his challenges widens the gulf between the reader and Vimalakīrti, and though this seems to be counted on to generate the desire to keep reading, to trade in old-style Buddhism, and to take the text to be tradition, I am not at all sure that this counts as identification per se. Rather there is a sustained aura of awe and attraction generated around his character that is basically summed up in the question, How could this man be so profound, so beyond normal categories, yet so eloquent? That is, how can he both break the rules of tradition, the rules of “normal” logic, and still perform linguistically with such rigor and efficacy? Thus, in the figure of Vimalakīrti, the author has sculpted a version of his textual product, since both Vimalakīrti and the text traffic in the unthinkable and the impossible, and yet this in no way impedes their ability to communicate and effect desired shifts in their audiences—internal and external. Arguably, for both the figure of Vimalakīrti and the text that holds him, it is just that ability to make unthinkability present in the world of language and narrative, and to apply it to making new symbolic orders and communities, that makes the entire project of constructing Vimalakīrti and the text worth achieving.
Hence I conclude that the figure of Vimalakīrti is designed to represent a “living” version of the higher Law that is tantalizing for its excesses, its impossibility, and its power of exclusion, even as all these extremes are precisely what any new symbolic order needs as it overcomes another order and seeks to generate new structures of desire, discipline, and closure. Similarly, (p.319) I conclude that these extreme and impossible attributes that adhere to Vimalakīrti, along with the lack of an interior to his persona, render him a fearsome embodiment of the Law that appears as nothing but the Law, and in just such a way that effectively renders all others guilty, at risk, and in need of access to the very authenticity that the narrative promises to deliver.
Yet there is another problem to confront in a text so clearly dedicated to the reconstruction and transmission of authority. Vimalakīrti is excluded from transmission. Despite the brief mention in the second chapter of how he served innumerable buddhas in the past, he neither directly receives transmission nor works at passing it on. I believe this is because he is only the first half of the mechanism of transmission—the temporary form of killing-legality that extracts identity from one matrix with the expectation of its imminent recollection in another matrix. More exactly, he is the means of mediating the shift from one patriarchal form of truth to another. Once seen in this light, Vimalakīrti appears as pure negation lodged in the figure of a man. Of course, he needed authority to perform this execution, but his authority remains negative and he is never shown endorsing “dharma offering” or explaining the refunneling of authority in a patriarchal conduit. And, similarly, the text never asks the reader or the other members of the narrative to worship him. He leaves, in effect, no personal remainder and is completely a slave to the text's agenda of metastasizing truth's conduit. As we have seen, his work is accomplished when the old Law is destroyed and the audience and reader have been suitably convinced and enthralled by the possibility of a new form of the Law that exists on that unthinkable side of Being that Vimalakīrti was pitching from.
Making sense of the role of unthinkability in the text takes us back to my introductory comments about how Watson misinterpreted the text by ignoring its structure and its organizing agendas. As I hope I have shown, the point is not whether or not Vimalakīrti's position in the middle chapters remains unthinkable and therefore beyond the pale of tradition, order, and the Law. This could be debated, and it might be shown that, logically, in the wake of Vimalakīrti's comments, tradition, transmission, and the Law are fundamentally impossible. Instead, the point is that for the author, the unthinkability in Vimalakīrti's “speech” is completely consonant with the text's larger agendas. Thus, in terms of narrative, Vimalakīrti and his speeches exist for the text and not the other way around, as almost all modern commentators have assumed.
Reading in this manner simply means forever banishing the hope that the text represents some real events—Vimalakīrti actually inhabiting Vaiśālī and carrying on in this fashion. It also means recognizing that an author has organized the text as a reading experience that manipulates the reader in traceable ways that move through Vimalakīrti's calculated “grindings” and concludes by making reading the solution to tradition. If the narrative sucessfully (p.320) works on the reader, the reader will want more than anything to continue the work of conveying Mahāyāna sūtras that are to be read, explained, copied, and so on. Thus, like negation in the Diamond Sūtra, Vimalakīrti as a figure is but the most seductive manner to move from text to text, and this movement was clearly arranged for by the author of the text just as he arranged negation to be the surest way to move from one version of patriarchy to another. In brief, the figure of Vimalakīrti fully represents the extraction of the negative principle in patriarchy to thereby apply that principle of negation on patriarchy in order to overcome it on one level and re-create it on another.
The advantages to reading in this manner are threefold. First, the text's structures and elements are well covered. Second, by reading the text as literature, we see how much the Vimalakīrti shares with other early Mahāyāna Sūtra. This intertextalia opens the door to speculation on the nature of this early Buddhist literary culture, a topic I briefly address below and in the last chapter. Third, when the exuberant language of unthinkability in the Vimalakīrti was appropriated by Chan writers, with and without attribution, it was employed for agendas other than the advancement of the cult of the text. In fact, with the Vimalakīrti arguably the Mahāyāna sūtra of choice for many early Chan writers, it appears that this language of negation was recognized for its ability to overcome tradition and reinstall it elsewhere. The difference was that this time Chan writers took the Law out of Mahāyāna Sūtra, and the reading experience, and lodged it in the bodies of Chinese men who were essentially buddhified and set at the center of a revamped monastic system, endowed with an entirely new form of Buddhist literature to hold truth-in-time within attractive patriarchal forms.
Tradition and the Illusion of Sameness
To draw out some of the implications of the above reading, and to place this argument in the context of recent scholarship in Buddhist studies, I want to close by reviewing Robert Thurman's rather opposite assessment of the text. This quick review of Thurman's position, which dates from his 1975 translation of the Vimalakīrti from Tibetan, and thus may not be his current position, will nonetheless highlight what is gained from choosing to read the text as a literary work.
Like Watson, Thurman imagines that it is possible to treat Vimalakīrti as a figure separate from the textual matrix that he inhabits. Thus Thurman writes, “My main goal in this translation is to recover the authentic teaching of Vimalakīrti and so my focus is philosophical rather than philological.”95 In (p.321) setting up his agenda in this manner, Thurman offers the illusion of getting behind the text to get at the man and his teachings. Interpreting Thurman's opening lines as offering the promise of leaving the script to find the real-life “actors” is borne out by the rest of the introduction in which Thurman speaks of Vimalakīrti on and off as a real person and not a literary creation. Moreover, by page 6 he has moved into describing Vimalakīrti's techniques as parallel to historical teachers such as “the Middle Way masters,” the “Great Sorcerers” (mahāsiddhas), and Chan and Zen masters.
Extracting Vimalakīrti from the text, and then joining him to these historical figures, allows Thurman to argue that Vimalakīrti's message is about practice in some real sense that he takes to be the “essence of the Mahāyāna.” Having distilled Vimalakīrti's message down to the overcoming of dichotomies, he writes of such teachers: “The singular quality of such teachers' use of dichotomies lies in the fact that they relate them to the actual practice of the hearers, forcing them to integrate them in their minds and actions.”96 Practice, as we have seen in the Vimalakīrtii and the other three texts discussed, is rather difficult to find or define. In most cases, practice boils down to dharma offering in the strict sense of becoming a reader, devotee, and promoter of Mahāyāna sūtras. Thurman's reconstruction of the essence of Mahāyāna practice suppresses the cult of the text that the texts apparently care so much about and gives us instead a kind of real-life Zen situation with real teachers “forcing” students to integrate dichotomies “in their minds and actions.”97
In line with these rather unlikely claims, Thurman's introduction is dedicated to showing that the content of the Vimalakīrti's teaching matches the Buddha's teaching, which we are told is not different from Nāgārjuna's teaching, and which isn't that different from later tantric and Tibetan formulations. Blurring all notion of era, Thurman writes, “The Buddha gave this type of deepest teaching only to disciples able to deal with it. Nāgārjuna himself rarely spelled it out explicitly, restricting himself to providing the means whereby the disciplined intellect can strip away its own conceptualizations and habitual notions. But Vimalakīrti felt that such a message should be available to a much larger circle of people, for he expressed himself definitively on all occasions, as recorded in this Scripture.”98 In short, by (p.322) overlooking the very real historicity of the text and its concerns with how to be Buddhist five hundred-plus years after the death of the Buddha, Thurman wants to inscribe the supposed content of the text—the message that Vimalakīrti “felt” should be made available—in a seamless tradition that runs unbroken from the Buddha to the various Mahāyāna writers.
To imagine this deep continuity in tradition, Thurman has to ignore the obvious cult of the text in the Vimalakīrti, as well as its equally obvious attempt to unseat and overcome earlier versions of truth and tradition. Noting either theme would reveal that the text is very much at odds with prior forms of tradition and, ironically, seems to veer away from Buddhist practices as they would have been known. Similarly, it is only by setting Vimalakīrti's teaching apart from the text that he can so smoothly compare the Vimalakīrti with Nāgārjuna 's writing, which, by and large, lacks narratives, characters, and plot development, and likewise the promotion of the cult of the text.
When Thurman turns to imagine later Mahāyāna formulations, be they in India or in Tibet, his assumptions of sameness and continuity persist as he asserts that Vimalakīrti's method of resolving dichotomies “is one of many blatant hints of Tantric ideas in the background of his [Vimalakīrti's] teaching method.”99 By the end of the next paragraph Thurman wrongly asserts that the “culmination of the Sūtra is the vision of the Buddha Aksobhya,” in the twelfth chapter, and that this shows that the entire text is not too far from being a tantric work: “All these lend the Sūtra a certain aura of Tantra. Whatever the ‘historical’ relationship may be, it is safe to say that Vimalakīrti's method of the reconciliation of dichotomies, as based on the inconceivable liberation of the bodhisattva, forms a Tantra in its own right.”100 Obviously, Thurman is working hard to create essences and then use those essences to glide between historical eras and the various kinds of textual evidence that they produced.
Perhaps what is most disappointing in this insistence on sameness in tradition is that it prevents us from seeing that texts such as the Vimalakīrti or the Lotus Sūtra not only broke up tradition as it had been known but then themselves were broken up and reconsumed in order that a later, more established Mahāyāna tradition—which developed a solid institutional-monastic basis—could be reconstituted as the guardian and reservoir of truth and tradition. How this shift away from the restless and floating cult of the text that seems to have first existed on the periphery of traditional monastic Buddhism toward a steadier and enfranchised monastic Mahāyāna occurred has yet to be explained, but we should not avoid a chance to ask the question, which likely will reveal a very rich, active, and uneasy process of (p.323) Mahāyāna writers steadily reading and writing against each other in a manner that, while it suggests a very human situation, ruins the sheen of the stainless transmission of truth and authenticity running from the Buddha into these later forms of tradition that Thurman is dedicated to “recovering.”
Honor Among Thieves: Ironic Authors as Careful Readers
Once we move away from readings of the text that insist on sameness and continuity in tradition, we can begin to explore the very interesting problem of textual borrowing that I mentioned at the outset of the chapter. Though this is an expansive topic in its own right, I want to leave this reading of the Vimalakīrti by questioning the writing process by which the Mahāyānaauthors borrowed and reworked each other's material, as they clearly did. To begin thinking about what had to have been a budding literary world at the beginning of the common era, we need to ask several straightforward questions about lines of influence and borrowing. For instance, given that the Vimalakīrti seems aware of prior Buddhist literature—probably the Lotus Sūtra, the Diamond Sūtra, and other Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras, not tomention a wide variety of pre-Mahāyāna works—might not a part of the radicalism in the Vimalakīrti's rhetoric be due to coming second in the wave of writing?101 That is, as a Johnny-come-lately, might not the content of the text be directly and indirectly the historical effect of coming at a certain point in the development of Mahāyāna rhetoric? Once we position a reading in this manner we can again turn to questions of genre, and development of genre, to wonder if the aggressive antinomianism present in this text is, in part, pushed by a snowball effect tending toward the radicalism that often accompanies a developing literary tradition.
Reading the Vimalakīrti's radicalism in this manner certainly would be of value for reevaluating the importance of Vimalakīrti's lay status and the role of the goddess. Again relying on Tomachevski's arguments, we cannot overlook the possibility that having truth emerge from these extratraditional sites represents the standard trend of high literature mining “low” cultural sources to keep readers' interest.102 Naturally, this trend to ever more dangerous and enticing plots fits well with the general “promiscuous” nature of these texts as they sought support and desire from any reader, regardless of identity or institutional affiliation. At any rate, considering these formal aspects of texts designed to circulate free of institutional strictures raises (p.324) equally useful questions about genre pressures shaping content as sūtra authors developed each other's themes and competed with each other for what must have been a growing body of readers.
Last, and most interesting, it has become altogether too commonplace in religious studies and Buddhist studies to assume that religious writers are like modern scholars—anxious to get the facts right, with sources noted, as they present their work to a reading public. Clearly, many Mahāyāna writers saw it otherwise and felt entitled not only to twist things as they saw fit, but to carefully prepare for the seduction of the Other through the calculated production of images of authenticity and legality. The catch is that they seem to have learned how to write these seductive narratives, in part, from reading other authors' parallel attempts and not falling under the spells of the those narratives, for if they had, they would not have wanted to do anything but copy those narratives. In short, we could well imagine that the author of the Vimalakīrti read the Lotus Sūtra and developed a rather ironic attitude toward that work and the entire project of writing tradition in the form of the cult of the text.
Thus, whereas the author of the Lotus Sūtra took the Law into his own hands and manipulated it as he chose, the author of the Vimalakīrti seems to have read the Lotus Sūtra, and probably other Mahāyāna works, and took away from it not the desire to reproduce the Lotus Sūtra as instructed but the desire to reproduce the more basic act of rewriting the Buddhist tradition. Thus the author of the Vimalakīrti appears to have seen through prior attempts at seduction and, having seen just those attempts at seduction, borrowed key elements that would strengthen his own efforts at the same literary game of seducing readers into a new, more immediate version of the Law. Once looked at in this light, tradition was reconstructed by authors who shared in the unadmitted tradition of stealing from each other the very techniques for stealing the voice of tradition.
Of course, this perspective on how Mahāyāna authors read seduction narratives in order to figure out how to write better seduction narratives invites much more speculation, but for now I would conclude that at least some Buddhists seem to have been reading a good bit more carefully, and more cynically, than we moderns have been. And if this perspective is borne out, then we ought to revisit the standard eulogizing of expedient means in which authors explained how the Buddha told lies in order to tell the truth. Isn't this a doubly ironic admission of the way in which these authors proceeded, since they essentially wrote an image of themselves into tradition so that their own literary creations now matched the highest form of authentic discourse? That is, they rewrote the identity of the Buddha so that he appeared as one who, like themselves, wrote and rewrote tradition as he saw fit, and practiced the art of speaking lies for truth. In short, they figured out how to make the re-creation of tradition look deeply traditional.
(p.325) Writing such an image of an honest and duplicitous Buddha allowed these writers an even more brilliant maneuver. By producing and displaying buddhas who “honestly” showed their listeners within the narrative their various tricks of seduction, these authors were able to turn this revelation of seduction into yet another form of seduction, even as the entire narrative thereby absolved itself of dishonesty and illegitimacy. In recognizing these sophisticated narrative techniques, we have to admit, too, that these texts reveal how Indian writers rather quickly mastered techniques for creating, in literature, images of authority and its twin brother, desire. Naturally, since we have more or less ignored these texts as texts, we have missed a chance to appreciate how much art and brilliance they often contain. Ironically, it is only when we read against the grain that we can begin to appreciate them as delicate works carefully balancing form against content in the courageous attempt to make “timeless” tradition flow through the new format of the text. (p.326)
(1.) For a discussion of this discovery, see Jan Nattier's well-balanced account of the treatment of the Vimalakīrti in recent Buddhist studies: “The Teaching of Vimalakirti (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa): Four Translations of the Vimalakītinirdeśa,” Buddhist Literature 2 (2000):234–58.
(2.) Burton Watson, trans., The Vimalakīrti Sūtra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. ix.
(3.) For this valuable perspective on doubling authority to maintain its presence through death, see Ernest H. Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
(4.) There is some question about whether Ānanda attends. He, like the other traditional figures, recounts his failure in the face of Vimalakīrti, and after which it is said that all the five hundred “Hearers” go off to Vimalakīrti's house. However, before that session is over, Ānanda is shown back with the Buddha, anticipating the return of the disciples. Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 121; T.14.553b.13.
(5.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sutra, p. 30; T.14.538c.25. I suspect that in part this is a reworking of the shorter Land of Bliss Sūtra in which the Buddha Śākyamuni is said to suffer our degraded world, instead of “authoring” it as he does here. For discussion, see my “Of Texts and Tongues: Orality, Textuality, and Pleasure in the Land of Bliss,” forthcoming.
(6.) See Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 114–15; T. 14.552b.
(7.) T.14.539a.5. Watson's translation seems too interpretive, particularly in the final phrase, which he renders as “and eight thousand monks, ceasing to accept the phenomenal world, put an end to all outflows and gained liberation of mind (yi jie)” (Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 31).
(8.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 31, with minor changes; T.14.539a.3. A similar “toe trick” is mentioned in the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, Conze trans., p. 270.
(9.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 30; T.14.538c.24.
(11.) This structure has much in common with the synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, wherein the reader is shown Jesus' real identity as the Son of God, confirmed by the voice from heaven and the sequence of demons and spirits, and yet the other figures onstage, including the disciples, never quite come to terms with this information.
(12.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 32; T.14.539a.15.
(13.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 32; T.14.539a.8.
(14.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 35–36, with minor changes; T.14.539b.29.
(15.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 36; T.14.539b.11.
(16.) Though it is not necessary for my reading of the Vimalakīrti, one could draw a parallel between this initial performance of owning and dispensing truth and the teaching of the Sūtra of Limitless Meaning in thefirst chapter of the Lotus Sūtra.
(17.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 37, with minor changes; T.14.539c.15.
(18.) In fact, in the fifth chapter, Mañjuśrī tells Vimalakīrti, apparently in all earnestness, that regarding this feigned illness, “The World Honored One countless times has made solicitous inquiries concerning you.” Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 65.
(19.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 37, with minor changes; T.14.539c.17.
(20.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 38; T.14.540a.2.
(21.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 39; T.14.540a.23.
(22.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 41–42; T.14.540b.23.
(23.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 42; T.14.540b.29.
(24.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 42–43; T.14.540c.10.
(25.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 43; T.14.540c.15.
(26.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 43; T.14.540c.20.
(27.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 49–50; T.14.542a.2.
(28.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 50–51; T.14.542a.20.
(29.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 52; T.14.542b.1.
(30.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 52–53; T.14.542b.9.
(31.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 53; T.14.542b.12.
(32.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 58; T.14.543a.28.
(33.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 59; T.14.543b.18.
(34.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 59; T.14.543b.25.
(35.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 64; T.14.544a.27.
(36.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 64; T.14.544b.4.
(37.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 75, with minor changes; T.14.546a.5.
(38.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 77; T.14.546b.18.
(39.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 78; T.14.546b.20.
(40.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 78, with minor changes; T.14.546c.3.
(41.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 80–81, with minor changes; T.14.547a.4.
(42.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 81; T.14.547a.13.
(43.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 83; T.14.547a.29 ff.
(44.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 84; T.14.547b.13.
(45.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 86; T.14.547c.23.
(46.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 87; T.14.547c.27.
(47.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 87; T.14.548a.1.
(48.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 92; T.14.548c.24 ff.
(49.) There is one phrase in Vimalakīrti's poem where he mentions that a bodhisattva would appear as a woman to seduce those prone to lechery; see Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 102.
(50.) There are good reasons to suspect that this story is a spinoff of the story of the nāga princess in chapter 12 of the Lotus Sūtra, which, too, contains a castration motif but in reverse: the princess loses her femininity in her encounter with the Law; see Watson, The Lotus Sūtra, pp. 185–89.
(51.) For this phrase “seeds of buddhahood,” see Watson, Vmalakīrti Sūtra, p. 95; T.14.549a.28.
(52.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 96, with minor changes; T.14.549b.16.
(53.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 114, with minor changes; T.14.552b.11.
(54.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 115; T.14.552b.22.
(55.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 115; T.14.552c.4.
(56.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 116; T.14.552c.13.
(57.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 117; T.14.552c.22.
(58.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 118; T.14.553a.12.
(59.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 118; T.14.553a.16.
(60.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 119; T.14.553a.25.
(61.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 119–20; T.14.553b.4.
(62.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 120; T.14.553b.4.
(63.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 122; T.14.553b.26.
(64.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 122; T.14.553b.27.
(65.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 122; T.14.553b.29.
(66.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 124, with minor changes; T.14.553c.25.
(67.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 125; T.14.554a.19.
(68.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 125; T.14.554a.23.
(69.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 125–26; T.14.554a.28.
(70.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 129; T.14.554c.24.
(71.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 135; T.14.555c.19.
(72.) For a discussion of literary parallels between the Vimalakīrti and other Mahayana texts, see Jonathan A. Silk, “Why Has the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Been So Popular?” unpublished manuscript (2004).
(73.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 137; T.14.556a.29.
(74.) T.11.53b.11 ff.
(75.) For a discussion of this chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, see my “Homestyle Vinaya and Docile Boys in Medieval Chinese Buddhism,” positions: east asia cultures critique 7, no. 1 (spring 1999): 5–50.
(76.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 138; T.14.556b.10.
(77.) With the parasol motif in his name and in his father's name, the text is presumably echoing the opening scene in which the five hundred sons of rich men offered parasols to the Buddha.
(78.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 138; T.14.556b.14. The phrase that I am translating as “dharma offering,” fa zhi gongyang, is slightly different from the phrase in Kumārajīva's Lotus Sūtra: fa gongyang.
(79.) T.556b.19 ff. See Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 139, for a slightly different translation.
(80.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 140; T.14.556c.3.
(81.) These two lines are found in Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 141; T.14.556c.17 ff.
(82.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 141; T.14.556c.24.
(83.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 142; T.15.557a.4.
(84.) This language is also used in chapter 23 (on the Medicine King Buddha) of the Lotus Sūtra; see Watson, The Lotus Sūtra, pp. 283–84.
(85.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 143, with modifications; T.14.557a.7.
(87.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 144–45; T.14.557b.4.
(88.) It is hard to know what this phrase means, but it might refer back to Maitreya's earlier failures to understand Vimalakīrti in the third chapter.
(89.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, pp. 143–44; T.14.557a.16.
(90.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 144; T.14.155a.23.
(91.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 144 (emphasis added), with minor changes; T.14.557a.25.
(92.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 145; 14.557a.13.
(93.) Watson, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, p. 146; T.14.557b.22.
(94.) Jan Nattier's fine book, Once Upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991), provides many examples of texts that are probably from this era that predict, or rather, report, the uninspired state of the Buddhist institution. See especially, chapter 3, “Timetables of Decline.”
(95.) The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti: A Mahāyāna Scripture (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975), p. x. “Teachings” is in italics in the original.
(96.) Thurman, Holy Teaching, p. 6.
(97.) The better argument would be to flip this over to say that the image of later teachers of Mahāyāna seems to have been sculpted based, in part, on the literary models of figures such as Vimalakīrti. Of course, whether these teachers actually were successful in performing, in life, the image of such perfection demonstrated in literature will be unknowable as they, historical though they were, are brought to us through the mediating form of Buddhist hagiography. Thus Thurman seems reluctant to consider the dialectical process that moves from text to action back to text, that is, from reading-fantasy to historical reenactment and then hagiography.
(98.) Thurman, Holy Teaching, p. 5.
(99.) Thurman, Holy Teaching, p. 7.
(100.) Thurman, Holy Teaching, p. 8.
(101.) For a discussion of pre-Mahāyānic and Mahāyānic textual precedents, see Étienne Lamotte, L'Enseignement de Vimalakīrti (Louvain: L'Institut Orientaliste de Louvain,  1987), pp. 60–66.
(102.) See his “Thématique” in Tzvetan Todorov's Théorie de la littérature (1965; Paris: Seuil, 2001), pp. 267–312, esp. pp. 303 ff.