Aug 7, 2022
Martin Goodson

The Perfume Feast

The Vimalakīrti Sūtra

Why does the ‘taxing’ nature of our world make it possible to achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime? Find out in this week’s episode of the Vimalikirti Sutra.



A poet once wrote: “The burnt fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the fire.” And so it is that once again, Sariputra had a thought that slipped his guard:

“If the bodhisattvas do not stop their Dharmic duelling, we shall be past noon, and then we arhats shall not be able to eat until tomorrow! That is the rule.”

Vimalakirti’s voice broke through the poor arhat’s worries: “Sariputra, have you come for food, or for the Dharma?”

Sariputra started; had he not had many years’ development of good deportment, he would have planted his face in his palm in front of the whole assembly.

“I am sorry, good sir.” he sighed. “But you know, all these wonders do leave me with an appetite the size of the Great World Mountain. To be honest, my stomach is growling like an asura-king on a battlefield. If it does not cause too much disruption to the proceedings, would it be possible to have even a small snack?”

Vimalakirti laughed and approved of Sariputra’s candid answer. “Well, I am only too happy to oblige, and it would be remiss of your host should you all be left wanting… Now, let’s see, what can be offered to you all?” Vimalakirti looked around at the vast assembly before him: a great many types of being and a great many different tastes.

A thought arose in him. He nodded to himself and closed his eyes, entering into a deep meditation. After a few moments, there was a loud pop!, and from between his eyebrows sprang an exact copy of himself. The duplicate stood before him; to be more accurate, it bobbed up and down, as it was floating a few inches off the ground. Placing its palms together, it bowed before the one who had just emanated it.

“Thank you so much, noble son, for answering my call,” said Vimalakirti. “I need you to carry out an errand on behalf of all our guests. They are in need of refreshment, and here the cupboard is bare. However, if you travel upwards, towards the zenith, and pass as many Buddha-fields as there are grains of sand on the banks of the forty-two Ganges, you will come to a realm called Sarvagandha. In this place, there is a Buddha called Sugandhakuta. 

Vimalakirti looked out at the sunlight streaming in through a window, and then to where its beam marked the floor. “Around now, he and his retinue will be sitting down to their midday meal. When you get there, ask after him and make your obeisance; then ask if he would be so kind as to let us have something to eat. It will need to be enough to feed everyone.”

The duplicate bodhisattva pressed his palms together, lifted up his face and shot upwards like a bullet, so that in a moment he was beyond the view of anyone looking up. Within moments, he entered the perfumed world called Sarvagandha. The bodhisattva quickly located the Buddha Sugandhakuta sitting in the centre of the Buddha-field, and alighted before him.

First, there were the customary 100,000 prostrations to be made; but, having supernormal powers, the replica completed them in the proverbial blink of an eye. Next, as good manners dictate, the bodhisattva asked after the Buddha: was he well? Did he have many disciples? Has he already brought many beings to the inconceivable liberation of the Tathagatas? And so on. Finally, he was able to get to the matter at hand.

“I come from the Saha universe, where Buddha Shakyamuni teaches the Dharma to beings who aspire to inferior ways. In that place, there is a bodhisattva called Vimalakirti, who currently has a great crowd in his house all listening to the Dharma. They are hungry, and he is without means to feed them. He asks your forbearance, and enquires if he might have the leftovers from your meal with which to feed this throng?”

The Buddha Sugandhakuta smiled. “Ah! so that is where Vimalakirti is for this incarnation. Up to his usual tricks, no doubt.” The Buddha laughed, a beautiful sound that rolled around the sky.

At this point, the bodhisattvas standing to one side of the Buddha leaned forward. Pressing their hands together, they asked: “What is this Saha world you speak of? Who is this Buddha that teaches the Dharma to beings who aspire to inferior ways? And who is this bodhisattva Vimalakirti?”

“I’ll tell you what,” said the Buddha. “Let’s gather together our leftovers in my bowl and send it to Vimalakirti, as he has asked. You can accompany our messenger-friend back to the Saha world, which is many Buddha-fields below us – as many as the grains of sand on the banks of the forty-two Ganges. You can then see this world for yourselves, with its Buddha Shakyamuni, Vimalakirti and all its bodhisattvas.

“However, please note: this world is very gross and material. If you appear with your perfumed bodies as you are, you will overwhelm and frighten the beings there. So, you must create for yourselves gross bodies, with the nine different types of bodily fluids and smells, so that you can blend in a bit better. Whilst you are there, please do not give rise to contempt for what you see. Remember that the Buddhas do not reveal their purity and splendour all at once. Rather, they lead beings gradually to the reality of emptiness of all the Buddha-fields.”

Having been given this incentive, the ninety million bodhisattvas lost no time in pouring all their meal remains into the Buddha’s bowl. Once full, it was given to Vimalakirti’s emanation. When he turned his face downwards, they all found themselves in Vimalakirti’s house. Again, the house did not expand to accommodate the newcomers – yet neither was it at all cramped.

Having welcomed his new guests and made a few initial introductions, Vimalakirti invited them all to take a seat on ninety million lion-thrones that he had just created for their convenience. Once seated, the emanation gave the Buddha’s bowl to Vimalakirti, who removed the lid. At that moment, the room filled with the most wonderful perfume. Suddenly everyone realised just how hungry they were. But some of the disciples wondered to themselves: as there didn’t look to be much in the bowl, would there be enough to go around?

Vimalakirti caught their thoughts and, turning to them, said: “Have faith, you with small minds. Even if the oceans dried up, this food would never run out. Why? Because it is the food of the Dharma, which is like the great ocean. The further in you go, the deeper it becomes.”

The food was handed out. Just as Vimalakirti said, it did not deplete at all. The perfume spread across the city and the surrounding countryside, which drew even more people in – who, naturally, also had to be accommodated and fed. 

By the end of the exercise, everyone there – from the bejewelled bodhisattvas to the lowliest labourer – patted their full stomachs. No one could eat another mouthful. What was more, the food was not ordinary food, but carried with it a bliss that pervaded their minds and bodies.

Vimalakirti turned to the visiting bodhisattvas and asked them: “How does Buddha Sugandakuta teach in your realm?” 

One of the bodhisattvas stepped forward and replied: “He does not teach by words or sounds or gestures. He teaches by perfumes. In our world, the perfume trees are themselves bodhisattvas, and give off a wonderful aroma. As soon as the bodhisattvas smell this perfume, they attain the source of all bodhisattva virtues. That is how the Buddha disciplines us in our world. How does Shakyamuni Buddha discipline you all here?”

Vimalakirti nodded in understanding. “Here, the Buddha has to use different methods. The beings here are somewhat wild and uncivilised, at least to begin with. He tells them that if they carry on with unwholesome actions, then they will suffer the results of these actions in the six realms – either in this existence or in the next. He points out the fruit of false wisdom, of clinging attachment and other ways that may bring short-term rewards but, in the longer term, only enslave us to desire even more. This is how the Buddha Shakyamuni disciplines beings in this realm.”

“It must make life quite difficult for the bodhisattvas in this realm, who really have their work cut out for them!” replied the visiting bodhisattva.

“Yes, that is true,” replied Vimalakirti. “However, because it is more taxing and requires such effort, the bodhisattvas here can attain inconceivable liberation in a single lifetime in the Saha world.”

The visiting bodhisattvas were astonished by this. However, most of them found the smell of the Saha world too unpleasant to really aspire to join their bodhisattva friends there, and thought that maybe they were better suited to their own world.

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