Skip to content

Vimalakirti’s Silence: Case 84, Blue Cliff Record; Case 48, Book of Serenity

July 1, 2012

by Stephen Damon

While preparing for tomorrow evening’s talk about Suzuki Roshi’s thoughts on non dualism I remembered a Koan that I had worked on, years ago.

The Main Case

Vimalakirti asked Manjusri, “What is a Bodhisattva’s entry into the Dharma gate of nonduality?”

Manjusri said, “According to what I think, in all things, no words, no speech, no demonstration, and no recognition. To leave behind all questions and answers; this is entering the Dharma gate of nonduality.”

Then Manjusri asked Vimalakirti, “We have already spoken. Now you should tell us, good man, what is a bodhisattva’s entry into the Dharma gate of nonduality?”

Vimalakirti was silent.


Dualities, such as life and death, love and hate, good and bad, sacred and secular, are the cause of much of our difficulties. Every time we create a duality we make a separation and recreate a self.  Our practice is to study the self so that we can forget the self. You can’t forget the self if you’re constantly recreating it. If you look closely you will see the dynamics of how we do this.  Most of our emotions are caused by thoughts.  So our practice is how to quiet down the myriad streams of thought that float through our bodies and minds.

In Sanskrit, Vimalakirti means “undefiled repute” or “pure name.” He was also known as The Golden Grain Tathagata,  who didn’t contend over self and others, and wasn’t concerned with becoming a Buddha or not becoming a Buddha. He was a lay practitioner who was said to be more enlightened than any of the monks and nuns who followed Buddha, and as such went beyond the prevailing duality between the lay and robed sangha. The Vimalakirti Sutra is one of the core texts of the Mahayana tradition which tried to put an end to the duality between men and women, sacred and secular, samsara and nirvana. Of course, there have been many obstacles to carrying this perspective forward.  We have to incorporate this perspective in our practice and in our day-to-day lives.  Our practice must be renewed moment by moment and breath after breath.

In the sutra, the Buddha persuades all of the great bodhisattvas to see Vimalakirti who was pretending to be ill. Thirty two thousand bodhisattvas overcame many obstacles to visit Vimalakirti who asked them to speak about the Dharma gate of nonduality. According to Engo, the bodhisattvas “ all took dualistic views of doing and nondoing, of the two truths—real and conventional truth—and merged them into a monistic view which they considered to be the Dharma gate of nonduality. That monistic view is the view that all of reality is basically one.” It’s more accurate, however, to say, “not one, not two.” “One” implies two or zero, but “not one and not two” implies nothing.

Manjusri said, “According to what I think, in all things, no words, no speech, no demonstration, and no recognition. To leave behind all questions and answers; this is entering the Dharma gate of nonduality. Engo, commenting on this says: Since the other thirty-two thousand had used words to dispense with words, Manjusri used no-words to dispense with words. At once he swept everything away, not wanting anything, and considered this to be the Dharma gate of nonduality.”

Accoridng to Engo, Manjusri’s remarks still left traces of duality, even in the act of trying to erase them.  Then Manjusri asked Vimalakirti, “We have already spoken. Now you should tell us, good man, what is a bodhisattva’s entry into the Dharma gate of nonduality?” Vimalakirti was silent. One can imagine the fullness and presences of his silence. He was expressing the silence that is behind all things, the silence that is as limitless and vast as outer space.  With no limits to separate it from anything else, it truly is an expression of non duality.

But most of what we think and what we do is an expression of duality, even when we are practicing, even when we are sitting.  Think about it, don’t we say that we are sitting Zazen?  When we say this, we are creating a separation, sometimes as small as the hairsbreadth deviation mentioned by Dogen. There is zazen and there is us. We have one kind of experience after the third bell at the beginning of a session has rung and another after the final bell has rung. We have a tendency to see all things in terms of a beginning and an end; a practice and an accomplishment. But to accomplish the Way is to practice the Way. It’s the Way itself. Practice and realization are not two things. Practice and enlightenment are one. Practice doesn’t end with enlightenment; even more interesting, enlightenment doesn’t end with enlightenment.  No words can describe the limitlessness of the way, so Vimalakirti keeps silent.

Setcho comments, “Completely exposed.” Where was the exposure? You have to understand that none of this has to do with gain or loss, right or wrong, being or nonbeing. Engo likens it to being “up on a ten thousand-foot cliff,” and he says, “If you can give up your life and leap off, you may see Vimalakirti in person. If you cannot give it up, you’re like a ram caught in a fence.” I found this remark very interesting as it describes a feeling I often get when I am in the midst of working with a koan.  I often feel as if I have jumped off a cliff and am floating in the air above a waterfall.

So do we get beyond our dualistic view of things?  In a sense we never reach non dualism—or maybe to be more precise, we can say that we should never say that we have reached it.  To say so, “I have reached the gate of non duality” is the conceptual mind distinguishing one experience from another; it is adding something extra.  In a sense, we are always approaching non duality.  Buddhas keep on becoming Buddhas.  Our goal is not to get stuck in Nirvana, but to live our lives as fully engaged as possible.  We have everything we need.

In a sense, we have more than Buddha did.  We have his life, and his teaching, which  has evolved and grown deeper and more expansive over the centuries. Buddha planted the seeds for a new kind of practice, and each generation these seeds bloom in new and unexpected ways. We have Buddha’s teachings as well as generations of enlightened teachers and ancestors.

But we need to put all that aside, we have to close our books and take a seat on our cushion and then get up and face the day.  We need to put aside everything that is comfortable and challenge ourselves to live without anything to rely on.  It’s really very simple.  To say more would be to create a separation and a self that wants to do something to improve itself.  As the Korean master Seung Sahn said, “Wanting enlightenment is a big mistake.”

And Vimalakirti was silent.



From → Zen Buddhism

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: