Jul 24, 2022
Martin Goodson

The Family of the Tathagatas

The Vimalakīrti Sūtra

The Buddha committed murder in one of his previous lives. How could committing such a heinous act help deliver beings into full Buddhahood?


by Dominic Kearne (all images sourced from Shutterstock non-commercial license)

It seemed that half the city of Vaishali had stopped what it was doing, and was now heading off to the house of Vimalakirti. The steady stream of people attracted the attention of the curious, which only swelled the ranks further.

What’s more, it did not seem to matter how many people entered; there was always room, and no one had to push or struggle to find a place to sit. It looked as though the entire billion-world galaxy would have no problem finding floor space, if it came to that.

All this was the result of Vimalakirti’s teaching on ‘emptiness’.

Apart from the voices and footsteps of those arriving, there was complete silence from the assembly. The discourse and miracles so far had been awe-inspiring, and required a few moments for everyone to gather their thoughts… including Sariputra, who was feeling relieved to be back in his own body once more.

However, you just can’t keep a good Bodhisattva-Mahasattva silent for long, and Crown Prince Manjushri and the layman Vimalakirti had much more Dharma to expound. In fact, it was time to ratchet up the ‘shock and awe’:

“Noble sir,” purred Vimalakirti, “how do bodhisattvas attain the qualities of a Buddha? After all, their whole being has awoken to the aspiration to full Buddhahood – they are destined to attain it, but how is it done?”

The Crown Prince looked thoughtfully into the distance for a moment. A quiet smile appeared on his lips, and he replied: “The fastest way to attain to the qualities of the Buddha is to commit the Five Heinous Crimes!”

That got everyone’s attention.

“What!” exclaimed Vimalakirti “Even murder?!”

“Why, yes, Vimalakirti, even the taking of life can lead a bodhisattva to attain the qualities of the Buddha.”

Vimalakirti cast his eyes over the alarmed faces before him, each looking with bewilderment at his neighbour. “You had better explain your words, Manjushri, and quickly!” he said.

“Surely you recall, Vimalakirti, that even our own Buddha, Lord Shakyamuni, once committed murder in one of his previous incarnations as a great Bodhisattva-Mahasattva? Once upon a time, many aeons ago, he had been incarnated as a wealthy merchant – rather like yourself, Vimalakirti! At that time, he was part of a large caravan of merchants making their way through a sparsely populated wilderness, back from a profitable city market to their own hometown. The merchants were laden with their wealth, having sold nearly all their produce.

“They had to make camp at an oasis, as it was a journey of several days. It was here that the Great Bodhisattva-Mahasattva caught a fellow member of the caravan who was an imposter: a murderous bandit who had posed as a merchant in order to steal all their gold. The bandit’s intention that very night was to wait for everyone to go to bed, and – one by one – go into each tent and slit the throats of the occupants, making off with their money.

“The Great Being realised that if he tried to expose the imposter, the man would just deny it; it would be one man’s word against the other. Even if he stopped him that night, the imposter would only join another caravan and carry out his fiendish plot another time, in another place. So, he stayed quiet; when the others retired to their beds, and before the imposter could enact his plan, the Great Being crept into the bandit’s tent and silently slit his throat.”

There was an audible gasp from the audience. The very thought that a Great Bodhisattva-Mahasattva could or would commit murder was an appalling idea. However, the Crown Prince remained unperturbed by the accusing voices rising around him, and continued with his story:

“Many aeons after that life, the Great Being was reborn as a merchant once again. And again, he found himself part of a caravan returning from a successful trip to sell their wares in a distant city. Once more, they broke their journey to make camp at an oasis.

“That evening, as they sat around the campfire, the Great Being told this story from his previous life. Everyone was spellbound. When he came to the end he said: ‘Although I committed that killing for the benefit of beings, it was still murder – and that incurs a karmic debt that is about to ripen right now…’

“Saying these words, he stretched out his leg and placed his foot firmly on the ground before him. At that instant, a vicious iron thorn rose up beneath his sole and pierced the foot of the Noble One. It became thicker, tearing a wide, painful hole right through his foot. Blood spurted upward into his face and rained down on those who sat nearest to him. The other merchants moved back in alarm, except one, who moved forward and threw himself upon the ground before the bloody foot.

“‘I, too, have had the same thoughts as the bandit in your story! I, too, am an imposter who came amongst you to carry out this exact evil deed. Please! Forgive me!’

“At that, the iron thorn withdrew from the foot and descended back into the ground. It was a miracle; the wound and the blood were gone.

“‘You were that imposter in my previous life, too, just as I was that merchant. Because of your change of heart, the cycle of this story is now broken – and we are both set free.’

“And so it was that The Great Being developed the qualities of a Buddha, which, after many more lifetimes, would bear fruit as our own Lord Buddha, Shakyamuni.”

There was barely a dry eye in the place. Everyone was either blubbering like a baby or wiping their cheeks surreptitiously on their cloaks and tunics.

Now it was Manjushri’s turn. 

“Good sir, perhaps you would be so kind to tell us of something else of which I have heard, but do not quite understand. What is the ‘family of the Tathagatas’?”

Vimalakirti sat up in his bed. It appeared as though he was feeling better from his disease already.

 “A most interesting question,” he said. “Well asked, Crown Prince.” Then he continued

“All things are related and co-dependent; in other words, one thing relies on another for coming into being. A simple example will suffice: If there were no crimes, there would be no need for laws; if there were no laws, what need would there be for magistrates? If there were no magistrates, there would be no verdicts, and no need for appeals to a king’s judgements. So it is that one thing depends on another. If there are crimes, then there must be a sense of right and wrong; if there is a sense of right and wrong, then there must be actions that are judged so. If there are such actions that are considered unlawful and wrong, then there must be a cause of such actions – of body, speech and mind. Such actions are driven by a heart overrun by greed, hatred and delusion, and such fires of the heart are created by similar actions of body, speech and mind stretching back to beginning-less time.

“If there were no beings suffering from these three fires of greed, hatred and selfishness, what need would there be for Buddhas to deliver them? The only purpose of the Buddha is to deliver such beings through the sweet rain of the Dharma. So, my good sir, the family of the Tathagatas is made up of fiery passions of the heart such as false views, avarice, fear and hate, and all generators of unskilful acts. In the same way that the lotus grows from swamps and muddy morass so do Buddhas arise because of deluded beings.”

At this point the great arhat [AC1] Mahakasyapa arose from his seat and did a little dance on the spot (although such conduct is forbidden to monks!). “I see the wisdom of what you say, my lord!” he said. “We arhats [AC2] remove ourselves from the hurly-burly, seeking purity in remote places. We shun the very things that give rise to the vow of Perfect Enlightenment. For it is not the quiet heart that yearns for peace, but the heart that is turbulent, which looks for safe harbour. Seeking false peace and false security in these places only puts off the fact that, sooner or later, all things being subject to change, we must leave our safe harbour and be assailed by the world once more. Instead of burying our heads, we must embrace this world, and allow it to drive us to true peace in the fulfilment of Buddhahood.”

The assembled bodhisattvas applauded the words of Mahakasyapa, who sat down feeling quite overcome by his sudden realisation.

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