This sutra is comprised mainly of the teaching of Vimalakirti, an exemplary Awakened lay person. It also includes Shakyamuni's teaching, as well as that of other disciples and Boddhisattvas. Yet the heart of this sutra is Vimalakirti's teaching, thus it is also called The Sutra of Vimalakirti's Teaching.
Though he is usually simply called Yuima, Yuimakitsu is a transcription into Chinese characters of his Indian name. Vimala means something like defilement-free or pure, although it is also translated as eliminating impurities. The word kirti has the sense of praised, ringing or renowned. Thus the name Vimalakirti is usually translated as "Renowned for Purity, but it also can mean "Praised for Freedom from Defilement" or even "Defilement-free Ringing.
In fact, this sutra is also called The Renowned-for-Purity Sutra, and Vimalakirti has come to mean the one who has eliminated all impurity, or the one renowned for accomplishing this. The point is, the fundamental character of Vimalakirti is purity, a purity concerning emancipation, and this emancipation is given great importance in this sutra. The most profound meaning of having eliminated all impurity is, after all, being one who is emancipated from all things.
Recently, historical studies of Buddhism have become more and more scientific and text critiques are scrutinizing the history of the sutras. Although the sutras were believed to have had their beginnings in Shakyamuni's day, scholars are now claiming that most of them were composed much later. The Vimalakirti Sutra also seems to have been composed six years after Shakyamuni's death, at the beginning of the second century AD.
As a matter of historical fact, we cannot be certain whether Shakyamuni or Vimalakirti really said what is recorded in the sutra. But rather than focus on this problem of historical facts, let us focus on the content itself.
I consider myself a Buddhist, but I neither approve of Shakyamuni's words nor think they are true simply because he is supposed to have said them. And, to be frank, I don't want to assume such things at all. My attitude is one of agreeing with what he said if it really convinces me, and if it doesn't, I will continue to doubt.
Even if I am doubtful, however, I will never insist that only my view is correct. I think I am flexible enough to learn from the sutras where I am wrong or my understanding is insufficient.
Thus, whether The Vimalakirti Sutra is considered a sermon directly from Shakyamuni's "golden lips" or from a later date, I want to find a way to live in truth by learning from it and understanding it for myself. This is my present attitude.
I have decided to lecture on The Vimalakirti Sutra because its superb Buddhism for lay people, like us, appeals to me. There has been an undeniable tendency to think that only monks can thoroughly understand Buddhism, or be thoroughly Buddhist. But this idea that lay Buddhist must acquiesce and let monks take the lead is utterly destroyed by The Vimalakirti Sutra. The possibility of lay people far exceeding monks is clearly presented here!
For example, the sutra describes how Shakyamuni requested Mahakasyapa, his leading disciple, as well as Sariputra and Ananda, visit Vimalakirti when he was ill in bed, but they all refused out of fear. These leading disciples were afraid that, even though they were going to visit him in his illness, they wouldn't be able to respond to Vimalakirti if he criticized them from his thorough and superb Buddhist Awakening. Thus, each of them submitted apologies to Shakyamuni saying why he was unqualified to visit Vimalakirti. This is one place where the sutra indicates the possibility of a lay man with a wife and children being a better Buddhist than monks. This has a great significance for lay people like us, and allows us to really identify closely with the sutra.
It is well known that Shotoku Taishi [Japanese Prince, statesman, and devout Buddhist; 574-622] wrote a commentary on The Vimalakirti Sutra; I suppose he was deeply interested in this sutra not just because he was a fine Buddhist, but because he was a lay person.
We must now think about the meaning of lay Buddhism has at present, and for the future. I have been working on this problem for years, and it comes down to this: which is more fundamental, monastic or lay Buddhism? I am afraid my view will not be understood well without going into some detail, but my conclusion is that for true Buddhism, it is lay Buddhism that is fundamental, monastic Buddhism being only one of its particular forms. Speaking in terms of universality, monastic Buddhism can only exist based on the universality of lay Buddhism. Thus I think that lay people now are necessary, not conventional Buddhist monks.
Is it even possible, given the present situation, to maintain conventional monastic Buddhism? Looking to the future, monastic Buddhism should be disbanded; in fact it already is in the process of falling apart.
Saying this, monastic organizations and monks may criticize and denounce me. But the actual fact is that monastic Buddhism has already virtually disappeared. Even if it can be said to still exist, what is truly worthy of the name monastic Buddhism has been relegated to one special corner of society. there may be hundreds of thousands of people called monks here in japan. but it must be said that very few of them maintain the traditional ways of monastic life. Of course, they are not entirely responsible for this. There are other causes, so we can't blame the monks alone. But anyhow that's the situation right now.
If we think a little more seriously about this, we realize that monks today have to live their whole lives feeling somewhat inferior and constantly- in anguish over being false. It's a real tragedy. In Zen, at least the people called shike or roshi (masters) are supposed to be authentic. But again, we must ask ourselves who really is authentic. And even if most of the masters are, what about the others? They, at any rate, are actually considered as second or third rate.
I suppose such monks feel somewhat hopeless and are never satisfied. they can practice earnestly to become masters, but very few really accomplish this. And I'm afraid there will be fewer and fewer in the future. To make matters worse, a person who traveled in India and Sri Lanka a few years ago told me that people called masters here in Japan would certainly be considered totally depraved in Sri Lanka. They would not even qualify as monks if judged by the precepts of Theravada Buddhism.
Thinking in the conventional way, there can be no salvation for lay people if there is no recovery of monastic Buddhism from the present situation. Needless to say, there would be no salvation for monks either. This is the problem for today's monks. Where in the world is the solution to be found? Monks can't go on as they are; all they will do is sink to the same level as lay people. It's not clear where they are supposed to be, so they don't even know how far they've fallen. Is this how Buddhism should be?
I have already presented in theory my idea that lay Buddhism must be established as fundamental Buddhism, and I have just stated why lay Buddhism must actually be realized as such. Without establishing such a lay Buddhism, the essential meaning of Buddhism itself will deteriorate. I think we must have a Buddhism which can save monks as well, and which will also remain as true Buddhism for the future. A lay Buddhism like this must be established. This is the way to save present-day Buddhism, and is also what Buddhism in the future must be like.
In this context The Vimalakirti Sutra has profound significance. I always keep in mind this sutra's most condensed and simplified expression:
Realizing the affairs of an ordinary person without abandoning the Dharma-Way.
I think this is the fundamental principle which runs through the entire sutra, clearly expressing the true way of being in Buddhism.
The active life of Buddhism is found in this "realizing the affairs of an ordinary person," and without it Buddhism cannot truly function in this world. Not only realizing the affairs of an ordinary person but also realizing them without abandoning the Dharma-Way, indicates the profound Buddhist ground which transcends actuality. In the intimate union of these two lies the fundamental principle of a life free and unhindered, creating the actual world even as one transcends it. The real Dharma-Way is a garba (womb), the self-as-subject which can actively realize the affairs of an ordinary person. And when we have, through our own practice, established this Dharma-self-as-subject, we can actualize the active life of an ordinary person.
Conventional Buddhism has had a strong tendency to emphasize only going to paradise and being born in the Pure Land. The ultimate goal of Buddhism does not lie there; it is found where the Dharma-Way and the affairs of an ordinary person are completely at-one and non-dual, what in The Vimalakirti Sutrais called,
"Entering the Dharma Gate of Non-duality."
This expresses the true way of being in Buddhism, the goal of which is not to live in one world part from this actual one, but to live where the actual and what transcends it are completely one.
I would like to discuss this Dharma gate of Non-duality as Buddhism's new true way of being. And I think this should be advocated not just as a true way of being for Buddhism, but for all human beings. In one sense this can be called a new humanism. Our F.A.S. Society's Vow of Humankind expresses such a way of being. If we look for such a vow of humankind in the ancient sutras, we can find it in The Vimalakirti Sutra: and the simplest, most modern working of The Vimalakirti Sutra is crystallized in the "Vow of Humankind."
Translated by TAKAHASHI Nobumichi in collaboration with TOKIWA Gishin and Jeff SHORE