Though dressed in the white robes of a layman, Vimalakirti observed all the rules of pure conduct laid down for monks, and though he lived at home, he felt no attachment to the threefold world. One could see he had a wife and children, yet he was at all times chaste in action; obviously he had kin and household attendants, yet he always delighted in withdrawing from them. Although he wore jewels and finery, his real adornments were the auspicious marks; although he ate and drank like others, what he truly savored was the joy of meditation.
If he visited the gambling parlors, it was solely to bring enlightenment to those there; if he listened to the doctrines of other religions, he did not allow them to impinge on the true faith. Though well versed in secular writings, his constant delight was in the Buddhist Law. Respected by everyone, he was looked on as foremost among those deserving of alms; embracing and upholding the correct dharma, he gave guidance to old and young. In a spirit of trust and harmony he conducted all kinds of business enterprises, but though he reaped worldly profits, he took no delight in these.
He frequented the busy crossroads in order to bring benefit to others, entered the government offices and courts of law so as to aid and rescue all those he could. He visited the places of debate in order to guide others to the Great Vehicle, visited the schools and study halls to further the instruction of the pupils. He entered houses of ill fame to teach the folly of fleshly desire, entered wine shops in order to encourage those with a will to quit them.
If he was among rich men, they honored him as foremost among them because he preached the superior Law for them. If he was among lay believers, they honored him as foremost because he freed them from greed and attachment. Among Kshatriyas [those of the warrior caste] he was most highly honored because he taught them forbearance. Among Brahmins he was most highly honored because he rid them of their self-conceit. The great ministers honored him as foremost because he taught the correct Law. The princes honored him as foremost because he showed them how to be loyal and filial. Within the women’s quarters he was most honored because he converted and brought refinement to the women of the harem.
The common people honored him as first among them because he helped them gain wealth and power. The Brahma deities honored him as first among them because he revealed the superiority of wisdom. The Indras honored him as first among them because he demonstrated the truth of impermanence. The Four Heavenly Kings, guardians of the world, honored him as foremost because he guarded all living beings.
In this way the rich man Vimalakirti employed immeasurable numbers of expedient means in order to bring benefit to others.
Excerpted from The Vimalakirti Sutra, translated by Burton Watson from the Chinese version by Kumarajiva © 1997. Reprinted by permission from Columbia University Press.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.