Aug 20, 2022
Martin Goodson

Sermon on the Destructible and the Indestructible

The Vimalakīrti Sūtra

In this episode, the Buddha explains how Bodhisattvas can live fully in the worlds of suffering and death, without suffering themselves.



The Buddha and Vimalakirti had their own method of keeping in touch with each other, which comes as no surprise: both had attained the Single Dharma Eye. They possessed all sorts of magical powers, and were capable of amazing feats without resorting to chicanery or deceit.

All this time, the Buddha had sojourned in Amrapali’s grove, minding his own business quietly while Vimalakirti  was attracting very large crowds. In fact, he enjoyed the opportunity to take a break and let someone else absorb the strain of bringing all beings to liberation (or at least motivating them to give it a go).

The Buddha’s cousin and faithful assistant, Ananda, had accompanied him as always.. While washing one of the Buddha’s robes, Ananda looked up and noticed that the grove was expanding at an alarming rate, as though it were resting on the surface of a giant balloon which was being rapidly inflated . At the same time, the sky took on an eerie, golden hue.

“My Lord!” exclaimed Ananda, rushing over to the Buddha. “What is happening here?” 

“Relax, Ananda,” replied the Buddha. “It appears that Vimalakirti is going to pay us a visit, and he’s bringing along his new chums.”

Back at his home, Vimalikirti turned to Manjushri and said: “Well, it’s been very pleasant having you all come to visit me and pay your respects, but I think it is time for everyone to go back to Amrapali’s grove and pay respects to the Buddha Shakyamuni. A bit of homage would do us all good. Otherwise, we can get rather carried away with miracles and grand spectacles.”

Vimalakirti stretched out his hand and swept up the whole assembly. Bodhisattvas on their lion thrones, arhats in their seats, men, women and children, dogs, cats and several budgies all found themselves comfortably accommodated in the palm of Vimalakirti’s hand.

Throwing back the covers, he stepped off his divan. There was an odd buzzing and popping sound. Vimalakirti took one step, and suddenly they were all in the grove, being placed gently down on the ground again. 

Vimalakirti led the way, pressing his palms together and bowing deeply before the Buddha. He circumambulated him seven times; the rest followed, also bowing and walking around the Buddha, chanting and singing hymns of praise with their hands pressed together. 

Then, the visiting bodhisattvas from the buddha-field of Sugandhakuta descended from their thrones. They, too, bowed and circumambulated Shakyamuni Buddha, until he clapped his hands and exhorted them all to take their seats once more. 

Turning to Sariputra, foremost among the disciples, the Buddha enquired: “So, what do you make of all that?” 

“To be frank, my Lord, I am speechless,” replied Sariputra, wide-eyed. “What’s more, I cannot even conceive of what I have seen. It is as if I have been lifted out of myself.” 

Ananda joined the conversation. “My Lord, what is this incredible perfume that pervades the grove?” 

“Ah, that is perfume from the food that was acquired from another buddha in a buddha-field far away from this one. These visiting bodhisattvas brought it with them to feed the throng. Whilst it is being digested, it will continue to emanate from their pores.” 

“For how long?” asked Ananda. 

“You’d better ask Vimalakirti, as it is his doing,” replied the Buddha. 

Ananda turned to Vimalakirti and asked again.

“Hmm. That varies from type of being to type of being,” replied Vimalakirti. “When the bodhisattvas realise Perfect and Complete Enlightenment, the digestion of this perfume will be complete. Ordinary beings will digest most of it once they conceive of the vow of inconceivable liberation. For those who have already done this, the perfume will abate once they have attained tolerance and equanimity. Really, this food is a great medicine that cures the sickness of the heart and mind, which causes such misery.”

Ananda turned once more to the Buddha and remarked: “How wonderful, that this food can accomplish the work of a Buddha!”

“This is how a buddha-field works, Ananda,” replied the Buddha. “Some work by words, some by deeds, some by light and some by perfume. Why? Because beings are different, and because their consciousness is different, what they see is different, too. Thus, a bodhisattva enters one realm full of grace and splendour, and is not carried away by it; the same bodhisattva enters another realm without grace and splendour, and is not disappointed by it. Why? Because the bodhisattva knows that each buddha-field works according to the needs of the beings therein. The bodhisattva gives rise to [1] a deep reverence for the Tathagata there, because of the skill-in-means applied with equanimity for the sake of all different beings.” 

At this, the visiting bodhisattvas came forward, looking somewhat sheepish. One of them spoke: “My Lord, we must admit that when we first arrived, we conceived a negative thought about this Saha world. But now we realise how hasty we were in our judgment. It is obvious, now that you have pointed it out, that each buddha-field suits the beings therein, and that the wisdom of each buddha and their skill-in-means is inconceivable. Please, I beg you, give us a teaching to take back with us to our perfumed world.”

“Oh yes,” all the bodhisattvas cried, urging the Buddha on by pressing their palms together and bowing to him. Some tried to circumambulate him again, but he waved them back to their places. When they settled down, the Buddha said: 

“There is a teaching, a liberation to be learned by the bodhisattvas called the ‘Liberation from the Destructible and the Indestructible’. This teaching refers to compounded things – that is, to all the phenomena of the physical and mental realms as they come to be and cease to be, unendingly. Hence thy are called ‘destructible’. The bodhisattva does not give rise[2]  to aversion to this world. In addition, there is the ‘indestructible’, which is unborn, uncreated and unproduced. The bodhisattva does not seek to abide in this realm, either.” 

“How do we acquire this liberation?” enquired one bodhisattva, whose body changed hue several times, mirroring her wonderment and zeal.

“By not losing love and compassion for the compounded things; by recalling often the great vow to Buddhahood; by never tiring of helping all beings; by attaining samadhi; by never being satisfied with one’s attainments, but pushing further in development; by avoiding laziness; by seeing and worshipping the Buddhas of the ten directions; by all the ten thousand practices of the Mahayana. This is how we do not shun the compounded things, thus attaining one part of liberation from the destructible.” 

“What is the other part?” asked the bodhisattva.

“Why, it is to not rest in the indestructible, but to attain the middle way between living in the presence of emptiness without entering it fully. It is to carry within the spirit of solitude, but not to abandon the marketplace and live on the mountain peak; it is to live without the desire to attain, but not to give up on all sentient beings; it is to cultivate the heart that doesn’t settle anywhere, but to be constant in walking the path of the bodhisattva. Thus, the bodhisattva attains this marvellous liberation.”

The bodhisattvas were beside themselves with joy. Praising the Buddha, they rose as one into the air, spreading out in all directions, and wept tears of incense that fell upon the Earth, perfuming every square inch. Their bodies emanated flowers of the most delicate kind, which floated to the ground, so that soon everyone was wading up to their knees through a potpourri.

The beings circumambulated the Buddha overhead, and sang hymns of praise. As they finished, and as the dying strains of their voices echoed, so did their bodies, too, fade away. In the next instant they were back in their own buddha-field, billions of light-years away.

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