Our text archive has over 17 million words!

Social network icons Connect with us on your favourite social network The FBA Podcast Stay Up-to-date via Email, and RSS feeds Stay up-to-date
download whole text as a pdf   Next   Previous   

The Magic of a Mahayana Sutra

You can also listen to this talk.

by Sangharakshita

... taught their disciples, and in this way, the teachings, the whole of the Buddha's Dharma were handed down, handed down orally in fact for several centuries in India, and eventually after 3, 4, 5 centuries, they were committed to writing - not all at once; bit by bit. And in their written form, these oral traditions constitute the Buddhist Canonical texts, the Buddhist Canonical literature.

These Buddhist 'Scriptures' as we call them in English, it's important to understand, are not a Bible in the Christian sense. They're not some infallible revelation from God. They're the written record, based on an oral tradition, of the life and teaching of a supremely and perfectly enlightened human being. A human being who was the embodiment, the living embodiment of absolute wisdom and infinite compassion. So we can now see what a Mahayana Sutra is. Broadly speaking, a Mahayana Sutra is a canonical text, in which the Buddha is represented as teaching, directly or indirectly, the Bodhisattva Ideal - that is to say, the ideal of supreme perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings.

There are many many Mahayana Sutras in existence. Among them we have the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, including the very well-known Diamond Sutra, and the equally well-known Heart Sutra. We have the White Lotus Sutra, we have The Sutra of Golden Light, and so on and so on. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Sutras. Some Mahayana Sutras are still extant in the original Sanskrit in which the oral traditions were written down, but other Mahayana Sutras are known to us only through ancient Chinese, and ancient Tibetan translations.

Now The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, or Teaching of Vimalakirti - this text is a Mahayana Sutra. Though it's not a Sutra quite in the sense that I've defined, but I'll be going into that in just a minute. As a literary Lecture 142: The Magic of A Mahayana Sutra Page 2 document, as distinct from an oral tradition, as a literary document The Vimalakirti Nirdesa appeared not later than the end of the 2nd century A.D. When the scribes, by the way, wrote down the oral traditions in literary form, they didn't date them. The Indians we might say were not very time-conscious in the way that we are. They didn't think that dates mattered very much. But anyway we know that The Vimalakirti Nirdesa appeared as a text, as a literary document, not later than the end of the 2nd Century A.D., and it's thus one of the older Mahayana Sutras. And we know that it cannot be later than the end of the 2nd Century A.D., because at the beginning of the 3rd Century, it was translated for the first time into Chinese.

And the Chinese nearly always dated their translations; they not only gave the name of the translator, and where he translated the text, and who assisted him, but also the day of the week and the month and the year when he started, and also when he finished. The Chinese were much more historically and chronologically minded you can see, than were our Indian friends, who lived only too often completely above and beyond time in some space of their own. Altogether in the course of centuries, some seven Chinese translations remain, so you can see from this that The Vimalakirti Nirdesa must have been a very popular text - there were seven translations into Chinese altogether made. And among these there were the versions by Kumarajiva and Hsuan Tsang - that is to say, by the two greatest translators of Buddhist texts to appear in the entire history, the entire, practically 2000 year history, of Chinese Buddhism.

Kumarajiva's version is remarkable, as all his versions of Buddhist texts, especially of Mahayana Sutras are remarkable, for fidelity to the spirit of the original, and great literary beauty. Hsuan Tsang's version on the other hand is remarkable for scholarly accuracy and precision. And needless to say, Kumarajiva's version has always been by far the more popular of the two. There is also in existence, one complete Tibetan translation that's still extant. There are also fragments of translations of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa in different Central Asian languages; The original text, the original Sanskrit Text of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, unfortunately has not survived, except for a very few short passages, which are quoted in Sanskrit Buddhist writings, Indian Sanskrit Buddhist writings, of a later period - especially for instance, we get in the Siksasamuccaya of Santideva whose Bodhicarya avatara many of you will be familiar.

In recent times, The Vimalakirti Nirdesa has been translated into quite a number of modern languages, both Eastern and Western, and there are to my personal knowledge, at least six versions already in English, and three of these are in print. These three versions are first of all by Charles Luk, and then secondly by Etienne Lamotte - this is an English rendering from a French version - and thirdly by Robert Thurman.

Luk's version is based on Kumarajiva. Lamotte's is based on the Tibetan version as well as upon Hsuan- tsang and Thurman's version is based on the Tibetan version. So you can see from this, we've plenty of material already available in English, for the study of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, for the study of this very important text, and this is as it should be, because The Vimalakirti Nirdesa in fact is one of the very most important of all Mahayana Sutras, as well as one of the most fascinating, one of the most readable, one of the most inspiring.

Luk's version is the most traditional perhaps of the three, in the rather strict sense of the term traditional.

Lamotte's is the most scholarly in the academic sense, and Thurman's, which is the most recent, comes somewhere in-between, and I may say above. Thurman's version is both traditional, and scholarly, but scholarship has been subordinated to the needs of spiritual understanding, subordinated to the needs of the spiritual life. Thurman has also taken very great pains with the language, in the literary sense, of his translations, and the result is, I may say, almost a model version of an English translation of a Mahayana Sutra. It's a version which is traditional in the best sense of the term, scholarly, and also very readable, and such a combination of qualities, of characteristics, is quite rare, so far as translations of Buddhist texts are concerned, as those of you who have ploughed your way through some of the English translations of some Buddhist texts will know only too well - they're not always the most readable of things. So reading Thurman's version is not only we may say, a spiritual experience, but also a literary one. And this brings me to the point that I mentioned a little earlier - that is to say the point that The Vimalakirti Nirdesa is not quite a Mahayana Sutra in the usual sense. To begin with, in Sanskrit, it's not actually called a Sutra at all.

It's called 'Ching' or 'Sutra' 'Ching' meaning 'Sutra' in Chinese, in Chinese translations, but nowhere else.

This is perhaps because in any case 'Ching' originally meant a classic in the literary sense, rather than in the religious sense. But be that as it may, The Vimalakirti Nirdesa is not actually called Sutra. It's title is simply 'The Vimalakirti Nirdesa' that is to say the Teaching, if you like, the exposition, if you like the Instruction, of Vimalakirti - whose name literally by the way means something like 'Stainless Glory', or 'Immaculate Fame'.

So the Teaching of Vimalakirti. This is the name of the text. And this is in the main what it actually is. It's not primarily the teaching of the Buddha, that is to say Gautama the Buddha, Shakyamuni, at all. The Buddha, Shakyamuni, does of course appear in the text - especially at the beginning and again at the end - but the teaching primarily is that of Vimalakirti, though the Buddha himself, Shakyamuni does as it were adopt the work at the end. There could be another reason why the Vimalakirti is not actually described as a Sutra. 'Sutra' perhaps suggests something as it were spiritually, dare I say it, authoritative. It's not really so of course, because 'spiritually authoritative' in fact is a contradiction in terms. But it may seem like that, Lecture 142: The Magic of A Mahayana Sutra Page 3 at least to some people. After all the Sutra comes from the Buddha, or a Sutra comes from the Buddha - it contains the Buddha's teaching, and the Buddha is the supremely, the perfectly enlightened one. So we hearing, or reading, the Sutra may feel we've no choice but just to accept whatever the Buddha says, because after all, he knows, and we don't know, so we may feel we've no choice but to accept what the Buddha says in the Sutra whether we like it, or whether we don't. And this may create we may say, in our minds, some little resistance. But suppose a text is not actually labelled a Sutra. Supposing you don't have to regard it as 'spiritually authoritative'. Suppose we can read it quite straightforwardly, just as we read through any other work of imagination - a novel, a poem a short story. Suppose we can read this Buddhist text more or less like we read literature - read it as literature, rather than as dogma. Read it more as poetry, than as a statement of scientific fact, or philosophic truth. If we could read it in that sort of way, perhaps we then might be more open to its spiritual influence, might be more receptive to its message, might allow ourselves to be captivated a little bit by its magic. And this suggests a further thought. If it might be helpful to read Sutras more as works of imagination. It might be equally helpful, to read works of imagination more as Sutras! But I've no time to pursue this thought further. Perhaps I'll be able to do so on some other occasion. But in the meantime, I'll simply point out that such a thought suggests a profounder ...

download whole text as a pdf   Next   Previous