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The Transcendental Critique of Religion

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by Sangharakshita

... passing through Vimalakirti's mind. We may say, it's as though a sort of game, a little game was being played between the two, Vimalakirti and the Buddha, because, after all, Vimalakirti was not really sick and presumably the Buddha must have known that too. At least, Vimalakirti was not sick in the ordinary sense, presumably the Buddha knew that too. So, the Buddha was quite happy, so to speak to play his part in this game; he was quite happy to 'play ball' as we say. So what does the Buddha do - knowing this thought that is passing through Vimalakirti's mind - he says 'Sariputra' (in the Mahayana sutras, of course, it is always poor old Sariputra!) 'please go and inquire after the illness of Vimalakirti' or, as we would say, go and inquire after his health; there is an interesting difference Lecture 145: The Transcendental Critique of Religion Page 2 of idiom here.

Sariputra is of course one of the two leading monk disciples of the Buddha, the other being Mahamoggallana. Sariputra of course is an Arahat, he has gained individual emancipation, emancipation, that is to say, for himself alone. In a sense he is liberated; at least liberated from the ordinary passions, liberated from conditioned existence. But what does he say when asked to go and see Vimalakirti, what does Sariputra say? He says, 'I am reluctant to go'; a more literal translation would be, a quite literal translation would be 'I am not very keen on going'! He does not actually refuse to go because, after all, it is the Buddha who is asking him to go; but he would much rather not go and he explains why. He says that one day, he was sitting at the foot of a tree in the forest - as good monks are supposed to do or at least were in ancient India - and he was absorbed, he says, in contemplation, deeply absorbed in contemplation. And suddenly, Vimalakirti came along and he said: 'that's not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation' and he proceeded to explain what absorbtion in contemplation really was and the explanation was so profound that Sariputra was left dumb-founded; he was quite unable to reply, he says, he remained silent. And this is why he is unwilling to go and ask Vimalakirti about his illness, he had some experience of Vimalakirti before. He is not very keen on encountering him again. So the Buddha tries again (probably The Buddha is quite enjoying this little game!) The Buddha asks Mahamoggallana to go; but strange to say Mahamoggallana is also reluctant because he too has had some experience of Vimalakirti. One day he says he was teaching the Dharma to some householders and Vimalakirti came along and he told Mahamoggallana how the Dharma should really be taught to householders and Mahamoggallana also was left dumbfounded.

In this way, the Buddha asks all the great Arahat disciples to go; he asks Mahakasyapa, he asks Subhuti, he asks Purna, he asks Katyayana, he asks Aniruddha, he asks Upali, he asks Rahula, he asks Ananda; but one-and-all they are reluctant to go, they have all some previous experience of dear old Vimalakirti. He has exposed the spiritual short comings of all of them. He has exposed the spiritual shortcomings of the Hinayana, taken literally. He has exposed the spiritual shortcomings of the Hinayana taken as an end in itself. So what does the Buddha do? He turns to the Bodhisattvas who are also in the great assembly, also in the congregation and He asks Maitreya to go and inquire about Vimalakirti's illness. Maitreya of course is the leading Bodhisattva, he is, (perhaps I should say for the benefit of those who perhaps have not been before) a Bodhisattva is one who has dedicated himself to supreme, perfect Enlightenment for the benefit of all. And Maitreya, as the leading Bodhisattva, as the future Buddha, at present, according to Buddhist tradition, resides in the Tushita devaloka, the Tushita heaven, the contented heaven, and he is waiting for the time to come for him to descend to earth for his last life; that is to say the life in which he will gain himself supreme, perfect Enlightenment as a Buddha. But even he, even Maitreya, is reluctant to go because he too has encountered Vimalakirti. He says that one day, he was talking to the gods of the Tushita heaven and they were talking about the stage of non- regression of the great Bodhisattvas; that is to say the stage of no falling backwards - I can assure you is a very advanced stage indeed. Vimalakirti came along and he said: "Maitreya, the Buddha had prophesised that after one more birth, you will attain supreme perfect Enlightenment; but what is the nature of that birth? Is it really past, present or future?" And he goes on to show with great dialectical skills that it cannot be any of these; it cannot be past, it cannot be present, cannot be future. He shows in fact that the notion of birth itself is self contradictory; he shows that the notion of birthlessness is also self contradictory; he shows that there is no such thing as non regression; no such a thing as the attainment of Enlightenment - not in reality - no such thing as Enlightenment itself at all. He shows that there is no such a thing as 'Maitreya' (!), no such thing as a future Buddha! It is not surprising that Maitreya too was rendered speechless.

He is therefore reluctant to go to Vimalakirti and inquire about his illness. So the Buddha asks Prabhavyuha to go, but Prabhavyuha has had a similar experience. One day he just happens to meet Vimalakirti so Vimalakirti asked him where he was coming from - apparently quite a simple and innocent question. So Prabhavyuha replied that he was coming from 'Bodhimanda'; so 'Bodhimanda' means the place of Enlightenment, in other words he said he was coming from Buddhagaya where the Buddha gained supreme perfect Enlightenment and in particular coming from the 'Vajrasana', the so called diamond throne on which the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree at Buddhagaya when He gained Enlightenment. So that's where he was coming from he said. So Vimalakirti had thereupon explained to him at some length what the 'Bodhimanda' really was; he Lecture 145: The Transcendental Critique of Religion Page 3 explained that it was not a place at all but a state of mind; he explained that it's something from which there is no question of the Bodhisattva coming at all because he's in it all the time, everything that he does is an expression of it. So not unnaturally Prabhavyuha too was rendered speechless. So he too is reluctant to go to Vimalakirti; he doesn't particularly want another dose of the same medicine. So in this way, the Buddha asks all the great Bodhisattvas to go; He asks Jagatimdhara, asks Sudatta, but they too had their own experiences of Vimalakirti, they too are unwilling to go. In the end the Buddha asks Manjusri - Manjughosa, the Bodhisattva of wisdom himself, to go but that is another story as they say. And what that story is we shall be seeing in our next talk, the week after next. Meanwhile, Vimalakirti has exposed the spiritual shortcomings of Maitreya and the rest; he's exposed the spiritual shortcomings of the Mahayana taken literally, he has exposed the spiritual shortcomings of the Mahayana taken as an end in itself.

So what does Vimalakirti represent here; it is quite easy I think to see what he represents. But it's not so very easy to put it into words. We could say that Vimalakirti represents truth or reality itself devoid of all concepts, and that will do provided we don't take it too literally, provided we don't let the phrases roll off our tongue too glibly. We could say that Vimalakirti represents the Enlightenment experience itself and what is it that happens when our partial spiritual experiences are brought in contact with truth or reality itself? What is it that happens when the means to Enlightenment are brought in contact with the Enlightenment experience itself? What happens when our doctrines, our institutions, our rules, are brought into contact with it? What happens is that their limitations are revealed and this can be a very painful experience. Indeed, it can be a very traumatic experience; painful that is to say, traumatic that is to say for those who identify themselves with their own partial spiritual experiences, who derive in fact their emotional security from them, from that identification, because it means that their own limitations are revealed and this can be a very shattering experience. So Vimalakirti is like a high voltage current of electricity: you touch him at your peril except of course that you don't touch him, he comes along and touches you. In traditional terms, Vimalakirti is like a great vajra, that is to say a great thunderbolt, a great diamond; he is powerful, he is incisive; at the same time he is brilliant and scintillating. He bursts through all your defences, all your limitations. He destroys what you are so that you are free to become what you can be.

I am reminded at this point of a film I saw some years ago; this might help to give us a little illustration. The film - I think, it was Passolini's "Theorem" - some of you, some of our older friends perhaps, may remember it! In this film as far as I can remember - my recollection may not be perfectly correct - a young salesman, in fact a rather attractive young salesman, spends the weekend with a middle class Italian family. It's an Italian film of course. It seems, it transpires, that he has some business with the father of the family who apparently is the head of some industrial firm or industrial project or other. And the family consists of father, mother, grown up son, grown up daughter and not so young maid servant. Now in the course of the weekend the young man manages to have affairs with all of them and the rest of the film shows the results of their contact with him. The mother becomes a nymphomaniac; the daughter has a nervous breakdown (you see her being taken away in an ambulance, ...

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