The Sutra that Vimalakirti Speaks is about a householder friend of the Buddha who is both deeply awakened and very ill. The sutra mentions that Vimalakirti is only pretending to be sick, using skillful means in order to teach others. Judging from the reactions of those who gather around him, it’s an unsettling method, as he embodies an apparent contradiction—enlightened, sick—they are reluctant to confront.
The Buddhist concept of skillful means is a tricky one; it’s possible to make big, consequential mistakes when you believe you know how to bend your message, circumstances, or other people in the service of (your idea of) helpfulness. And realizing that you’re on the other end of someone else’s attempt at skillful means can sometimes just feel icky. The skillful means interpretation in Vimalakirti’s case feels a bit pious to me, or like the sutra-makers are trying to distance themselves from something they too find unsettling in Vimalakirti’s message. Anyway, there are some less orthodox and perhaps more fruitful ways of looking at this “pretending.”
That Vimalakirti might be pretending to be sick is reminiscent of something the Chan teacher Huangbo says: “Teaching Chan is like casting fake pearls before people pretending to be beggars.” Huangbo knows that he’s offering his “pearls of wisdom” to people already in possession of the greatest jewel, the awakening inherent in each of us. In other words, whatever our circumstances, even if we’re in need or ill, that doesn’t make us essentially beggars or sick people; it makes us beings in a world that includes poverty, disease, and many other sorrows. It’s a call to see, in addition to wounds and scars, the small glow of awakening in each of our bellies.
The invitation is to open some space between the natural condition of being alive in a world of birth and death, and an unchanging identification with some aspect of that condition. The nature of being alive in such a world is to be a little tilted, because the world is tilted. That’s different from saying that your identity is most significantly the particular way you’re tilted. I’ve lived with a chronic health condition, and I can remember early on having to decide whether I was going to go through life taking that one fact of life, putting it at the center, and hitching everything else up to its tethering post. What would it be like to keep company with it instead, remembering that I was also keeping company with so much else?
Vimalakirti’s suggestion is that you let your vow of awakening, for yourself and others, settle at the center. Over time the vow spreads out into a kind of field, and everything from the fleeting moments to the longstanding circumstances of your life will arise in that field, and the vow will help hold them. This field tends to have fewer fortifications linked by deep grooves of habit, more spacious views, and a milder climate on most days.
Hanging out in such a field can bring ease, and ease can bring openness. The bodhisattva of compassion is called Guanyin in Chinese, which means “Listens.” This vow we’re talking about is her vow, and so it calls us to listen with a simple heart to our kin of all kinds when they speak, roar, cry, and whisper about the sorrows of a tilted world. Held together by scars and radiance, all of us. Often in need, all of us, and sometimes some of us in great need. The filaments that connect us vibrating with prayers and exhortations. The vow at the center, the small glow in our bellies, listening, sending out its own filaments in reply.
It’s starting to go a bit dreamlike and mysterious inside this “pretending.” Yunmen, another Chan teacher, asks a question that takes us further along that path: “See how vast and wide the world is. Why do you get up and get dressed at the sound of the morning bell?” Why, in the midst of the unfathomable vastness, do you wake up every morning when the alarm goes off and start another ordinary day? Why do I come out of the deep space of sleep every morning to put on my human skin and go out to live a human life?
Maybe it’s because each of us is the vastness manifesting in a particular way. You’re this person, I’m that person, there are the bird persons under the eaves and the ground cover persons just beginning to spread in the courtyard. We put on our clothes when the alarm goes off because, for another day, we accept the invitation to be the vastness taking this form, and we’ll try not to be stingy about it. We’ll “pretend” to be human beings in our human being skins, not in the sense of a false performance but remembering that we’re both born and unborn, named and unnamed—everything in the universe at once, taking the form of a particular human being. There’s a sense of play about this: the performance today is heavily flavored by memories of childhood summers at the beach or by comically ramifying lists of tasks, or it is stained and dyed by silence.
In a koan from the Book of Serenity, the Chan teacher Dongshan is dying, and a student asks him, “You’re unwell. Is there someone, after all, who isn’t sick?” In other words, is there an aspect of you unaffected by illness? Is there some eternal buddhanature part of you that isn’t experiencing the sickness you’re experiencing?
Dongshan says, “There is.”
So the student asks, “Does the one who isn’t sick take care of you?” That’s a natural way of thinking about it: If there’s something we believe in, like buddhanature or God or Goddess or whatever we identify as that-which-is-not-sick, do we find consolation and comfort there? Are we being taken care of by the not-sickness of the universe?
But Dongshan says the opposite: “I’m actually taking care of that one.” In other words, the life I have been given is shaped like this right now. Even when it’s hard, it’s an extraordinary gift, the vastness swirling into form to experience itself like this, like me, and in exchange I’m living my life as generously as I can, which is the way I take care of that one. In another koan, someone remarks on how hard his friend is working. The friend replies that he’s doing it for another. When he’s asked why he doesn’t get that other to do it for themselves, the friend replies that it’s because they have no hands: The vastness has no hands but ours.
Dongshan’s student goes on to ask, “What’s it like when you take care of that one?”
Dongshan says, “Then I don’t see that there is something called illness.” I might be sick, but I don’t have preconceived ideas about what illness is. I’m not going to start from the position that illness is a failure of life to go as it should, or that it’s some kind of gift. Let me be sick and find out what it means.
Once when a particularly bad patch of illness stretched on for months, I’d wake in the morning and sometimes, just for a moment, I was in the sweet, calm space before the illness constellated around me, and I could remember what not-sick was like. Then the symptoms would start blinking, and I’d realize that it was going to be another long, challenging day. I’d stumble out of bed, make tea, and weep. Both things were true, the sweetness of a moment of physical ease and the weeping. Denying neither of them, living them both as uncomplicatedly as I was able, was what I could do those days to care for that one, to stay close to the vow.
Unbeguiled by the lure of skillful means, I marvel instead as my hand figures out, moment by moment, what it means to be a hand, and my heart learns what a heart is on a sunny morning after days of fog. Are they, am I, pretending? Not exactly, but sort of, if pretending means a series of assays and approximations, one not-knowing flowing into another, with lots of pauses to listen. Outside my window, are subatomic particles pretending to be trees? The world isn’t only a dream, but it is, in part. How do we take care of a dream?
This excerpt is a chapter from Vimalakirti and the Awakened Heart: A Commentary on The Sutra that Vimalakirti Speaks (Following Wind Press, 2016). Used with permission. The book may be purchased here. Support Joan Sutherland, Roshi on Patreon.
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