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The Way of Non Duality

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 148: The Way of Nonduality

Mister Chairman and Friends - and enemies if I have any! Tonight, as you've already heard, tonight we come to our sixth talk and when it's finished in an hour or an hour and a quarter's time we shall be three quarters of the way through our present Autumn series of talks, and we will have dealt with six out of our seven themes from The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, a Mahayana Buddhist Scripture.

By this time we've got, I think, some idea of the nature of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa. We've had perhaps, even, some experience of the magic of a Mahayana Sutra, and one of the things that we've noticed, I think, is that The Vimalakirti Nirdesa is a very rich work indeed. It contains quite a number of different elements. it contains pieces of straightforward, doctrinal exposition in which some of the profoundest philosophical themes of Buddhism are adumbrated. It contains also passages of lavish description including descriptions of all sorts of magical feats and happenings. It contains poetry, even poetry in the more formal sense of the term. It contains specimens of biography and autobiography and reminiscence. We might even say it contains episodes of high drama, and it even contains - believe it or not - quite a bit of humour. So that altogether it is a very rich, a very complex, work indeed.

Especially when one considers how short in fact The Vimalakirti Nirdesa is. It consists or only fourteen quite brief chapters. And the English translation of the whole work consists of about one hundred pages, that's all. The Vimalakirti Nirdesa is no longer in fact than a long short story. Yet at the same time it's full of insights, it's full of inspiration, and it brings together quite a number of very important 'themes', as I've called them. And in the course of this series we've time to consider only seven of these themes taken from seven different chapters of the work.

So tonight we come to 'The Way of Nonduality', and this theme, tonight's theme is taken from chapter nine of the work which is entitled 'The Dharma Door of Nonduality'. Last week's theme most of you I think will recall was 'History versus Myth in Man's Quest for Meaning' and it was taken from chapter five where Vimalakirti and Manjusri come face to face, where they have their vigorous dialectical exchanges, where Vimalakirti explains that he's sick because beings are sick, and where he explains also how a sick Bodhisattva should control his mind.

Since then quite a lot has happened. Quite a lot has happened that is to say in the three intervening chapters. At the beginning of chapter six entitled 'The Inconceivable Liberation' or 'Inconceivable Emancipation' Sariputra has a problem. You may recollect that Vimalakirti by his magical power has made his house with its furniture and all his attendants, disappear, so that all that can be seen is Vimalakirti himself lying on his couch. But quite a number, in fact an immense number of Bodhisattvas and Arahats have accompanied Manjusri on his visit to Vimalakirti, and amongst them is our friend, Sariputra. So Sariputra cannot help wondering where they are all going to sit, all these thousands of Arahats and thousands of Bodhisattvas. He just can't help wondering, apparently, where they're all going to sit. After all perhaps he is thinking Bodhisattvas and Arahats shouldn't remain standing while Vimalakirti is lying on his couch, even though he is sick. Guests in any case according to Ancient Indian etiquette, Buddhist etiquette, shouldn't be kept standing.

Now Vimalakirti of course knows what Sariputra is thinking. He has this uncomfortable faculty. He is telepathic. So knowing what Sariputra is thinking, he puts to him quite a pointed question. He says, "Reverend Sariputra, did you come here for the sake of the Dharma or did you come here for the sake of a chair?" Well you can probably imagine Sariputra's feelings. Sariputra very humbly replies, "I came for the sake of the Dharma, not for the sake of a chair." And Vimalakirti then continues, saying, "Reverend Sariputra, he who is interested in the Dharma is not interested even in his own body, much less in a chair", and he goes on in this way in this vein, for several paragraphs! There's no need for us to follow him because his initial question gives us quite enough to think about. Did you come here for the sake of the Dharma or did you come here for the sake of a chair? After all just use your imagination, just consider the situation. Here is this great assembly of Arahats and Bodhisattvas. Here is the wise elder Vimalakirti. Here's Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom himself. They've just had a discussion, Vimalakirti and Manjusri have just had a discussion of tremendous spiritual significance. Everybody has been highly delighted by it, everybody has been greatly uplifted in their hearts. Nobody knows what's going to happen next but everybody is wondering what's going to happen next, but what does Sariputra do? He starts wondering about where everybody is going to sit, he starts worrying about chairs. So what does this little incident illustrate? What does it warn us against? It warns us against the danger of getting sidetracked. We get sidetracked due to the operation of the gravitational pull, and it's no use our laughing or even smiling at poor old Sariputra - we have to apply the warning to ourselves.

Because what happens? We go along say to a meditation class at the centre; we go along to a lecture on the Dharma; we even go away on retreat, perhaps in the depths of the countryside and perhaps we get quite deeply immersed, immersed in the meditation, immersed in the lecture, immersed in the retreat experience, but then, what happens? What happens is that our attention wanders. We get sidetracked. We start wondering when the tea and biscuits are going to appear, or we start wondering whether a certain attractive person that we saw last week is going to be there again, or we start wondering, especially if it's a cold day, whether the central heating is going to be turned up.

So, we might well ask ourselves the same sort of question that Vimalakirti asked Sariputra, 'Did you come for the sake of the Dharma or for the sake of the tea and biscuits?' 'Did you come for the sake of the Dharma or for the sake of that attractive person? Did you come for the sake of the Dharma or for the sake of the central heating?' There's nothing easier than to get sidetracked in this sort of way.

There's nothing easier than to succumb to the operation of the gravitational pull. There's a lot more that could be said on this particular subject but sidetracking is not our theme tonight, and in any case I don't want to get sidetracked.

So let's pass on to what happens next, happens next of course in the Sutra, in the text. What happens next is that there's a great display of magical power. Sariputra has been worrying about chairs, so all right, Vimalakirti gives him chairs. He gives him thirty two hundred thousand (3,200,000) of them. Not chairs but thrones in fact and he brings them by his magical power from a distant Buddha land in the eastern direction. And all these thrones, these thirty two hundred thousand thrones, fit into his house without crowding. The house in fact seems to enlarge itself accordingly. And this gives Vimalakirti the opportunity of explaining the Inconceivable Liberation or Inconceivable Emancipation. The Bodhisattva, he says, who lives in this emancipation thoroughly realises the relativity of space and the relativity of time. He can put Mount Sumeru into a mustard seed without making the one smaller or the other bigger. He can make a week seem like an age and an age like a week. He has the power, the magical power of transforming any one into any one and any thing into any thing.

In Chapter seven which is entitled simply, 'The Goddess' Sariputra is again in trouble. First of all though Vimalakirti answers various questions put by Manjusri and there's another vigorous dialectical exchange between them. And at this point a certain goddess appears. This goddess, we are told, lives in Vimalakirti's house and she's so delighted with the teaching that she's been hearing that she showers the whole assembly, the Arahats, Bodhisattvas, everybody, with flowers, and these flowers strange to relate - do not stick to the bodies of the Bodhisattvas but they do stick to the bodies of the Arahats, and of course Sariputra is an Arahat and Sariputra is greatly embarrassed by this fact, by the circumstance, and he tries unsuccessfully to brush off the flowers that have fallen on him, because after all he is a monk and a monk is not supposed to wear flowers.

Well a little later on Sariputra becomes still more embarrassed because quite suddenly he undergoes a change of sex! First of all from male to female, which is bad enough, and then from female back to male which is even worse! And all in the space of a few minutes. Well no doubt there are several themes here but once again we must pass on.

Chapter eight is entitled 'The Family of the Tathagatas', that is to say the family of the Buddhas, and first of all, in reply to a question by Manjusri, Vimalakirti explains how the Bodhisattva follows the way to attain the qualities of the Buddha, and Vimalakirti's reply is highly paradoxical. Vimalakirti himself then asks Manjusri what is the family of the Tathagata or what is meant by the expression 'family of the Tathagata', and Manjusri too replies to Vimalakirti's question in a highly paradoxical fashion, and this reply of his is applauded by Mahakasyapa.

A Bodhisattva called Sarvarupasandarshana then intervenes. His name means by the way universal manifestation, and he asks Vimalakirti a question. In fact he asks him a whole series of questions. He asks or he says, "Householder, ...

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