September 8, 2019

The Incomprehensible Understanding of Bodhisattvas

Thereupon, Manjusri, the crown prince, addressed the Licchavi Vimalakirti: "Good sir, how should a bodhisattva regard all living beings?"

Vimalakirti replied, "Manjusri, a bodhisattva should regard all livings beings as a wise man regards the reflection of the moon in water or as magicians regard men created by magic. He should regard them as being like a face in a mirror; like the water of a mirage; like the sound of an echo; like a mass of clouds in the sky; like the previous moment of a ball of foam; like the appearance and disappearance of a bubble of water; like the core of a plantain tree [plantain fruit]; like a flash of lightning; like the fifth great element; like the seventh sense-medium; like the appearance of matter in an immaterial realm; like a sprout from a rotten seed; like a tortoise-hair coat; like the fun of games for one who wishes to die; like the egoistic views of a stream-winner; like a third rebirth of a once-returner; like the descent of a non-returner into a womb; like the existence of desire, hatred, and folly in a saint; like thoughts of avarice, immorality, wickedness, and hostility in a bodhisattva who has attained tolerance; like the instincts of passions in a Tathágata; like the perception of color in one blind from birth; like the inhalation and exhalation of an ascetic absorbed in the meditation of cessation; like the track of a bird in the sky; like the erection of a eunuch; like the pregnancy of a barren woman; like the un-produced passions of an emanated incarnation of the Tathágata; like dream-visions seen after waking; like the passions of one who is free of conceptualizations; like fire burning without fuel; like the reincarnation of one who has attained ultimate liberation.

"Precisely thus, Manjusri, does a bodhisattva who realizes the ultimate selflessness consider all beings."

Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra Chapter 7, tr. Robert A. F. Thurman


In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra Chapter 7, Vimalakirti discusses the manner in which a bodhisattva should regard living beings. Many of the analogies Vimalakirti gives reflect the irony of the situation: when a bodhisattva encounters a sentient being, he sees someone whose nature is a buddha but is lost in suffering.

A stream enterer is someone who doesn't hold onto egoistic views. A bodhisattva thinks of a person as being like a stream enterer with an ego. By definition a stream enterer has put his ego aside—hence the irony of it.

When things are ironic, the whole point is they are in conflict. Take the example of moving a mountain with a mustard seed. A mustard seed is tiny; a mountain is gigantic. If someone threw a mustard seed at a mountain, it wouldn’t seem that it could move it.

When bodhisattvas look at people they see what seems to be incongruous: beings who are buddhas in their nature but crazy. What could be more preposterous than being a buddha and not experiencing it? Bodhisattvas become concerned when they see unenlightened beings, all of whom have the buddha nature but don't recognize their nature.

People would be bewildered and upset if they saw hair on a turtle, a horn on a rabbit, or a core of a clove of garlic. They would think it incredibly strange if they saw a barren woman have a baby or a mountain move from the power of a mustard seed. Those are all things that don't really jive. In the same way, a bodhisattva is baffled when he sees an ordinary person. That would be similar to seeing a rich man living as if he were destitute, who once a week would go to the bank and withdraw a nickel even though his checking account has a billion dollars in it. A bodhisattva would think, "People are completely insane. They have the buddha nature, yet they act like confused, irrational children. They are ravenous for the Dharma but won't accept the Dharma." That would be comparable to offering a a delicious meal to a starving person who refuses it.

Looking at a person from a bodhisattva level is like noting something fantastical. Bodhisattvas regard beings as if they are a manifestation of the impossible. Whenever they observe people, bodhisattvas are shocked and wonder how could they be so far askew. Bodhisattvas see beings as a farcical, ridiculous implausibility, almost like a Lewis Carroll Through the Looking-Glass type of absurdity. Everything is backward: what's up is down, what's down is up. That would be like blue that is red, red that is green, and green that is black. That would be like birds that fly in outer space, people who live in the center of the earth, or the sun shining in the middle of the night—things that don’t exist, impossible yet appearing, one after the other.

What bodhisattvas discern when they come upon people is beyond the understanding of ordinary beings. Looking at people, bodhisattvas see magical potential. They know people are in a state of delusion and that conceptual limitations all need to be cut through.

Bodhisattvas love and help beings. They don't go into a pure situation and stay there; rather, they remain with people. Beings are so ludicrous that it's as if they are being handed millions of dollars but dropping their wallet on the way home. They lack the tiniest bit of discipline to be able to hold the gold they are being given. Curiously, although beings are buddhas, they behave foolishly and rarely truly let go of worldly concerns.

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