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Vimalakirti Nirdesa

by Sangharakshita


with Study Group Leaders
on the VIMALAKIRTI NIRDESA Lecture Series
Padmaloka, May 1987
2 May 1987'The Magic of a Mahayana Sutra'
PRESENT: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Subhuti, Kovida, Prasannasiddhi, Nagabodhi,
Dharmadhara, Bodhiraja.
Subhuti: ...questions on the first lecture in the series on The Inconceivable Emancipation. I
am the quiz master tonight... So we've got nine questions for you, Bhante. They are not
brilliant ones.
S: Well, we'll see what we can make of them. Perhaps we will have to polish them a little.
Subhuti: First of all there is a question from Saddhaloka on the historicity of
Vimalakirti, asked by Kovida.
Saddhaloka's question: Apart from the speculation with regard to Vaisali that you mention at
the start of the chapter on the Vimalakirti Nirdesa in The Eternal Legacy, is there any
evidence for the historicity of Vimalakirti?
S: To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence at all, but that is not to say that someone
like Vimalakirti or someone on whom the scriptural Vimalakirti was based did not actually
live in Vaisali at some time or other. I think one can't really say any more than that.
Subhuti: The second question from Prakasha, on the definition of magic.
Prakasha's question: In the first lecture, you describe the magician conjuring the elephant and
say that magical acts demonstrate the Dharma. However, in this series the term magic is used
very loosely. I have not really found an adequate definition of what the term magic means.
How would you define magic? How can it be differentiated from supranormal phenomena
generally? What is magic? PS: My definition: The art of using the mind to produce effects
directly on the 'material' or sensory plane without 'material' causes.
S: (Pause). Yes, I suppose it's a question of the definition of the term magic. I don't think it's
quite correct to say that in the series I have used the term very loosely. I have and I haven't. In
some contexts I use the term quite loosely, apparently; but in others I use the term in a quite
precise sense. I use the term loosely because in a way one can't do other than use it loosely.
One isn't concerned with the rational; one isn't concerned with the logical. One is concerned
with something of a quite different nature, for which I have simply used the term magical;
and in those contexts where I use the term loosely I am using it, I suppose one could say, to
suggest something, to produce a certain effect. One might say that, used loosely, the term has
much more connotation than denotation. I think at the very beginning of the first lecture I give
a sort of hint of this that magic suggests something out of this world, it suggests something
colourful, it suggests something unusual, [2] something extraordinary, something of a highly
imaginative or even imaginal nature. I am not thinking of magic in the sense that Prakasha
defines it, that is to say 'the art of using the mind to produce effects directly on the "material"
or sensory plane without "material" causes'; I would say that was a quite narrow definition of
magic, because there is such a thing as ritual magic where you produce those sort of effects by
an actual ritual. It is something that takes place on the material plane. I would say what
Prakasha defines as magic is something more like occultism. So there is this first, rather loose
usage of the term, in a semipoetic fashion, just to conjure up a feeling, a sort of atmosphere, a
certain attitude. Then there is this more precise sense in which I have used the term, which I
do go into in this first lecture, which is that in Buddhism the magical illusion illustrates a
specific dharmic point I mention this quite clearly that is to say, that the elephant conjured up
by the magician cannot be said to exist in the absolute sense because it has, after all, been
conjured up and there isn't a real elephant there. On the other hand, it can't be said absolutely
not to exist because people are perceiving it. So phenomenal existence, relative reality or
relative truth is said to be like that; it doesn't have any absolute existence, it isn't Ultimate
Reality, but on the other hand it cannot be said absolutely not to exist, because it is perceived
and it arises in dependence upon causes and conditions. So the magical illusion illustrates that
point that what we ordinarily perceive and experience isn't absolute Reality, it is only relative
reality, it is paratantra satya, in Yogachara terms. It arises in dependence upon causes and
conditions, so it is neither absolutely real nor absolutely unreal. So the illustration of the
magical illusion illustrates that particular point. That is what is meant by magic more
precisely. I do go into that. So on the one hand I've got this more precise sense of the term,
and on the other the looser sense of the term, which is more to create a sort of aura of feeling,
one might say. Is that reasonably clear? One doesn't want to have too rigid a definition of
magic, otherwise the term loses its suggestiveness, and it is in its suggestiveness, to a great
extent, that its usefulness consists.
Prasannasiddhi: Bhante, if everything is in a sense like a magical illusion, you've got this
phenomenon of things that we consider to be real just being, well, like an illusion, but yes, it
would seem that actually we still have to engage with that material, or people still engage
with that material.
S: Yes, Buddhist literature does make that point, because when the magician conjures up the
elephant, the elephant is perceived by people; because they perceive it they may become
frightened; that fright is a real experience and something has to be done about it. Maybe they
run away, etc. So the fact that one's experience, or the fact that relative existence is what we
call illusory doesn't mean that nothing has to be done about it. We experience it as real, just as
the people who perceive the illusory elephant perceive it as real; they don't know that it's
illusory; they don't know that it has arisen in dependence on the complex of causes and
conditions represented by the magician himself. They don't know that. So they act as though
it's real. But they only cease to act as though it is real, only see through the illusion, when they
realize that it has depended on a particular set of causes and conditions, or that their
perception of the elephant, or elephant-perception, has arisen in dependence on a complex of
causes and conditions which are the magician. Then they see through it that there isn't an
elephant there absolutely existing in its own right, but only a phenomenon that has arisen in
dependence on the volition of the magician.
Prasannasiddhi: That almost seems to suggest that an Enlightened person would just not be
affected by anything in the world, as it were; you would hang extremely loose to phenomena.
S: Again, continuing the traditional Buddhist line of thought, the Enlightened person might
well perceive the elephant, but he would know that what he was perceiving was in fact a
magical illusion, therefore he would not react to it in the way that other people, who did not
realize that it was a magical illusion, reacted. He would see it sort of charging towards him,
but he would know that nothing was going to happen, it was only an illusion, only a
hallucination, so he would not try to get out of the way; he wouldn't experience any fear. He
would know it was just a magical creation. One could carry that a little further. Supposing the
elephant is only used as an illustration supposing an Enlightened person saw a real elephant
charging towards him; he would get out of the way because his physical body is on the same
level of existence as the elephant; both are physical bodies. So even though they are illusory
in the metaphysical sense, they exist within the same order of reality, belong to the same
order of reality, and therefore within that order of reality can affect each other. But he would
not experience fear, because his mind would be attuned to Absolute Reality, not to relative
reality relative reality being represented by the level on which his physical body and the
physical body of the elephant exist. So it is very easy to confuse the illusory elephant of the
illustration with the illusoriness of actual existence itself.
Subhuti: The important thing really is: what do we mean by absolutely real? You are not
saying that it is 'unreal' in a
S: Yes, one is not saying that it is not experienced.
Subhuti: So what is ... Is there a formal definition of 'absolutely real'? What would it be?
S: Yes, in a purely negative sense: the absolutely real is that which does not arise in
dependence on causes and conditions. In terms of the older Buddhism, it is what you usually
translate as the Unconditioned, the asamskrta, that which is not put together, literally the
Prasannasiddhi: So you could perhaps say that the Enlightened person would in a sense feel
things and respond to things, but at the same time he would be in contact with a deeper level
of reality
S: Well, he wouldn't feel things or experience things in a certain way. He wouldn't experience
negative emotion, wouldn't experience unskilful mental states. For instance, to take perhaps a
more simple example, things are said to be impermanent, so obviously it is inappropriate to
be attached to things ...

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