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History Versus Myth in Mans Quest for Meaning

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by Sangharakshita

... this language is that he's not going to see Vimalakirti under his own steam, as it were. He's not going to Vimalakirti with any fixed idea. He's going to deal with the situation as it arises. He's going to deal with it spontaneously. At the same time he has no idea, he goes with no idea, of acting spontaneously.

Lecture 146 : History Versus Myth in Man's Quest for Meaning Page 2 So when Manjusri expresses his willingness to go, to go and see Vimalakirti, to enquire after his health, everybody in the assembly is very excited, except of course the Buddha. He just sits there smiling through it all. But everybody else was quite excited because everybody thought that if these two came together there would be a wonderful discussion, there'd be a real clash perhaps just like between two cymbals, between Manjusri and Vimalakirti, and they thought, they believed, that something really profound was bound to emerge from this encounter, from this clash, of the two, the Bodhisattva and the wise old elder.

So what happened? A quarter of the Bodhisattvas and one sixteenth of the Arahats decided to accompany Manjusri on his visit. I'm sure there's some significance in these figures but we've no time to go into that now, in fact I haven't yet worked it out! And together as well as the Arahats and the Bodhisattvas, many hundreds of thousands of gods and goddesses also decided to go with Manjusri to accompany him on this great visit of his. So Manjusri entered the city of Vaisali with a great retinue as you can imagine. Vimalakirti knew that they were coming, of course. So what did he do? He exercised his magical power. He made everything around him disappear. The house itself, all his attendants, all the furniture, the seats, the couches, everything just disappeared, swallowed up, and all that was left, all that could be seen was just old Vimalakirti lying there on his couch, suspended as it were in mid air, suspended in a great void, and at this point Manjusri enters - though I suppose one can't really say that he enters, there's nothing to enter because the house has been made to disappear, there's no door, there's no floor to walk upon - but no doubt Manjusri got over that little problem. After all he was the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.

On seeing Manjusri Vimalakirti takes as it were the initiative - he calls out, he says, "You are welcome Manjusri. You are very welcome. There you are without any coming. You appear, without any seeing. You are heard without any hearing." Manjusri however was quite equal to the occasion. He replies, "Householder it is as you say. Who comes finally comes not. Who goes, finally goes not. Why? Who comes is not known to come. Who goes is not known to go.

Who appears is finally not to be seen." So he was really quite equal to the occasion and he then goes on quite cooly to ask Vimalakirti about his sickness, because that's why he's come. He tells Vimalakirti that the Buddha has been enquiring after him, and finally he says, "Householder, whence came this sickness of yours? How long will it continue? How does it stand? How can it be alleviated?" These are the standard polite Indian enquiries. and Vimalakirti's reply which is not at all standard constitutes one of the most famous passages and also one of the most impressive in the whole of The Vimalakirti Nirdesa text. So let's see what it is that Vimalakirti says. He says, "Manjusri, my sickness comes from ignorance and thirst for existence and it will last as long as do the sicknesses of all living beings. Were all living beings to be free from sickness, I also would not be sick. Why? Manjusri, for the Bodhisattva, the world consists only of living beings, and sickness is inherent in living in the world. Were all living beings free of sickness the Bodhisattva also would be free of sickness. For example, Manjusri, when the only son of a merchant is sick, both his parents will suffer as long as that only son does not recover from his sickness.

Just so, Manjusri, the Bodhisattva loves all living beings as if each were his only child. He becomes sick when they are sick and is cured when they are cured. You ask me, Manjusri, whence comes my sickness; the sicknesses of the Bodhisattva arise from great compassion." So this is what Vimalakirti says and these words we may say, these words of Vimalakirti in this place, ring so to speak, all through Mahayana Buddhism.

Lecture 146 : History Versus Myth in Man's Quest for Meaning Page 3 But Manjusri is not going to let it rest there. That's all very sublime, it's very deep, it's very true, it's very heartfelt, but he's not satisfied, he's not going to let it rest there as it were. So more dialectics between Manjusri and Vimalakirti - very brisk dialectics - follow and in the course of these dialectics, in the course of these exchanges Vimalakirti becomes very paradoxical indeed.

We're not going to follow him into those paradoxes but you can take it from me that the paradoxes are very paradoxical indeed! Eventually in reply to a question by Manjusri Vimalakirti explains how a Bodhisattva should console another Bodhisattva who is sick. He also explains how a sick Bodhisattva should control his mind.

But we're not concerned with all that. That's not our theme tonight. We're concerned with these two figures. We're concerned with the figures of Manjusri and Vimalakirti. Concerned just with the figures themselves. We're concerned with them as I saw them facing each other, confronting each other, in that ancient Chinese mural in 1957. We're concerned with them as representing history versus myth in man's quest for meaning.

Now at this point surely various questions present themselves. In what sense do we speak of man's quest for meaning? What is the meaning of meaning anyway? as some modern scholars, critics, philosophers have asked. What do we mean by history? and that's not altogether self evident. There are quite a number of books I believe entitled 'what is history?' And what do we mean by myth? And in what way do Vimalakirti and Manjusri represent them? Represent history, represent myth.

And in what way are they in opposition to each other? So we'll be trying to answer these questions but we're not going to be answering them very systematically, perhaps not very directly even. In any case the answers are to be sought and hopefully found in the painting, in the mural, itself.

Found that is to say in visual terms, found in imaginative terms, and what I'm going to say is in a sense a bringing out of the implications, or some of the implications, of that mural painting.

So let's start with the figure of Vimalakirti. First of all of course he's an old man. He has this long white, wispy beard. I believe he's even got long white, wispy eyebrows, and he's got a puckered, wrinkled, but cheerful and humorous, old face. In other words old Vimalakirti is subject to the process of time, as we all are, even though we might not be white haired and wrinkled, with or without the wispy beard, yet. Not only that, not only is Vimalakirti subject to time, he lives at a particular point in time. He lives in the days of the Buddha and according to modern scientific scholarship, that is in the sixth century BCE. He's also subject to space. He lives in a particular part of the world. He lives in Jambudvipa, in India as we would say. He lives in the great mercantile city of Vaisali. He lives in a particular part of the city, he lives in a particular house, even though at the beginning of chapter five he makes it disappear. He has a particular personal identity. He's known by a particular name, the name of Vimalakirti, which as I think I said, if not in the previous talk, in the one before, means immaculate or stainless glory or fame. He belongs to a particular social group. He follows a particular occupation. He's engaged apparently in some sort of business, and he has, or appears to have, a wife and children. Vimalakirti thus has an historical existence.

He's an historical personality. He has an existence which is specific, concrete, contingent and determinate. He has an existence which is determined by time, space and causality. Vimalakirti therefore represents history. Represents the historical reality.

Now when I say that Vimalakirti has an historical existence, that he's an historical personality, I don't necessarily mean that he actually existed. Modern western scholars in fact dispute this. What I mean is that Vimalakirti is depicted in The Vimalakirti Nirdesa as an historical personality so that's what he represents.

But what about the figure of Manjusri? It's time we passed on to him. To begin with he's a young man, in fact he's eternally young. That is to say he's not subject to the process of time, not subject to time itself at all. Not only that he doesn't live at any particular point in time, though he can appear at any time. In the same way he's not subject to space. He doesn't live in any particular part of the world. He can appear in any part of the world, appear in any place. The Chinese Buddhists did try to tie him down, as it were, to Mount Wu Tai, one of the five sacred mountains of Buddhist China, but they weren't very successful.

Lecture 146 : History Versus Myth in Man's Quest for Meaning Page 4 Moreover, while Manjusri has a particular personal identity, it's not a mundane identity. His name is a no-name. He doesn't belong to any particular group. He doesn't follow any particular occupation. He just does whatever is necessary to help living beings develop as occasion arises and he certainly doesn't have a wife and children, not even in appearance. Manjusri thus has no historical existence. He's not an historical personality. He has an existence, in a manner of speaking, which is specific and concrete but which is non contingent ...

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