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On Being All Things to All Men

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 145: on Being All Things to All Men

Mr Chairman and friends.

Some of you, whether you've already seen the posters for these talks, or whether you've just heard the Chairman's announcement of the title of this talk this evening, some of you might be thinking that the title of tonight's talk has a rather familiar ring, "being all things to all men". It's as though one has heard it before. You might even be wondering which particular text, which particular Buddhist text, which particular sutra, this expression, this phrase, "Being all things to all men" comes from. Well I'm sorry in a way to have to inform you that it doesn't come from a Sutra at all.

I must confess it comes from the Bible. In fact it comes from the New Testament. And if we turn as I trust we rarely do, to the New Testament, as I trust we rarely have need to do except when perhaps preparing talks, we find that the apostle Paul, of whom some of you might have heard, is writing to some people called the Corinthians, and these Corinthians in case you're not quite sure, these Corinthians were the Christians of the city of Corinth. It seems, reading between the lines so to speak that Paul, the apostle Paul had been having a certain amount of trouble with some of these Christians, some of these Corinthians, these Christians in the city of Corinth. And it seems as though he's in a way defending himself in the course of this letter, this epistle as it's usually called, defending himself against some charge or other.

So in the course of his defence, so to speak, he says, by way of justification it seems, that he has made himself every man's servant, in order to win over as many people as possible; in order to win over the Jews he has become like a Jew; in order to win over the Gentiles, that is to say the non- Jews, the heathen, he has become like a gentile. In short he says, he has become all things to all men, that happily some might be saved. Now you may be wondering why I have used a quotation from the bible, a quotation from the New Testament, from this letter of Paul, as the heading of a talk on a theme from a Mahayana Buddhist scripture. Well you could say that I've done it as an Upayakausalya - as a "skilful means" - after all some people like the sound of these old biblical, especially authorized version, Jacobean, post Shakespearian, phrases, even without knowing perhaps always exactly where they do come from. After all, they have become for better or for worse, a part of our English language.

So it might be that some people at least might be all the more inclined to come along to hear a talk with this sort of title, with this sort of familiar ring to the title. And moreover of course, the theme of tonight's talk is in fact Upayakausalya, or "skilful means" so that in a way, it seemed quite appropriate to give as a title to this talk, or rather to give this talk a title which was in a way itself a soft of skilful means, at least so far as some people are concerned.

So the theme tonight which has been indicated by this title, comes of course from The Vimalakirti Nirdesa, or Teaching of Vimalakirti. As we saw not only last week, but also the week before, The Vimalakirti Nirdesa is a Mahayana scripture. It's based on oral tradition, coming down from the time of the Buddha. It teaches the Bodhisattva Ideal, that is to say, it teaches the ideal of attaining supreme perfect enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. Last week our theme was taken from the first chapter of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa - last week you may recollect, those of you who were here, the scene was laid in Amarapali's garden or Amarapali's Park, on the outskirts of the city of Vaisali in North Eastern Indian, some 2500 years ago. And you may remember that on that occasion so to speak, we -met the Buddha, we met Ratnakara the Bodhisattva, as well as some 500 Licchavi youths, as well as Arahats, Bodhisattvas, and so on, all of whom made up the great assembly listening to the Buddha.

So this week, our theme is taken from the second chapter of the work, the second chapter of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa. On this occasion, in this chapter the scene is laid in Vaisali itself. And this time, this week, this evening, we meet Vimalakirti himself whose name means something like "immaculate repute", or perhaps better still "stainless glory". And he is described in the Sutra, in this chapter as an advanced Bodhisattva. In later chapters of the text as we may see later on in the series, he is described in even more exalted terms. But in this chapter, in chapter 2, he is described as follows.

The Sutra says of him, "He was liberated through the transcendence of wisdom, having integrated his realization with skill in liberative technique, he was expert in knowing the thoughts and actions of living beings; and knowing the strength or weakness of their faculties, and being gifted with unrivalled eloquence, he taught the Dharma appropriately to each; having applied himself energetically to the Mahayana, he understood it, and accomplished his tasks with great finesse. He lived with the deportment of a Buddha, and his superior intelligence was wide as an ocean. He was praised honoured and commended by all the Buddhas, and was respected by Indra, Brahma, and all the Lokapalas. In order to develop living beings with his skill in liberative technique, he lived in the great city of Vaisali." This is what the text in chapter 2 has to say about him. The translation by the way, the translation which I've read, is Thurman's translation about which I said a few words in the first talk. But you noticed this expression 'skill in liberative technique'; this is Thurman's translation of 'Upaya- kausalya' which is usually rendered as 'skilful means' and Thurman says in a note that he has chosen the word 'technique' in preference to the more usual, 'method or 'means' because it has a stronger connotation of efficacy in our technological world. Well, this may well be so, but I can't help wondering whether it connotes the right kind of efficacy in this particular connection, but however we will be going into that a bit later on.

The text goes on to describe Vimalakirti's practice of the Six Paramitas, the Six Perfections of the Bodhisattva. It says... perhaps I should just remind you what the Six Paramitas or Six perfections are so that you can follow this passage of the text more easily. The Six Paramitas of the Bodhisattva are first of all: generosity, then morality, then patience and tolerance we may say, then vigour or energy, concentration and meditation and finally, wisdom. So describing his practice as a Bodhisattva of theses Paramitas or perfections, the text says: "His wealth was inexhaustible for the purpose of sustaining the poor and the helpless; he observed a pure morality in order to protect the immoral; he maintained tolerance and self-control in order to reconcile beings who are angry, cruel, violent and brutal; he blazed with energy in order to inspire people who are lazy; he maintained concentration, mindfulness and meditation in order to sustain the mentally troubled; he attained decisive wisdom in order to sustain the foolish."' Now this is very important of course; the general description of Vimalakirti, the description of his practice of the Six Paramitas, the Six Perfections but we still haven't come to the real Vimalakirti so to speak. And we come to him now in a quite long passage, part of which I am going to read.

The text says here: "He" (that's is to say Vimalakirti) "wore the white clothes of the layman, yet lived impeccably like a religious devotee. He lived at home but remained aloof from the realm of desire, the realm of pure matter and the immaterial realm. He had a son, a wife, and female attendants yet always maintained continence. He appeared to be surrounded by servants, yet lived in solitude. He appeared to be adorned with ornaments, yet always was endowed with all the auspicious signs and marks; he seemed to eat and drink yet always took nourishment from the taste of meditation; he made his appearance at the field of sports and the casinos but his aim was always to mature those people who are attached to games and gambling; he visited the fashionable heterodox teachers, yet always kept unswerving loyalty to the Buddha; he understood the mundane and transcendental sciences and esoteric practices yet always took pleasure in the delights of the Dharma; he mixed in all crowds yet was respected as foremost of all; in order to be in harmony with people he associated with elders, with those of middle age and with the young, yet always spoke in harmony with the Dharma; he engaged in all sorts of businesses yet had no interest in profit or possessions; to train living beings he would appear at crossroads and on street corners and to protect them, he participated in government.

To turn people away from the Hinayana and to engage them in the Mahayana, he appeared among listeners and teachers of the Dharma; to develop children he visited all the schools; to demonstrate the evils of desire he even entered the brothels; to establish drunkards in correct mindfulness he entered all the cabarets." It's a rather vivid translation you will agree! And there is quite a bit more to the same effect but I think we've already got, with the help of these few passages, a sufficiently clear and vivid picture of Vimalakirti, 'Stainless Glory', a picture of what was most characteristic of him, and the passage - this whole sort of descriptive passage about Vimalakirti - concludes by saying: "Thus lived the Licchavi Vimalakirti in the great city of Vaisali, endowed with an infinite knowledge of skill in liberative technique" (again Thurman's translation) in other ...

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