Jun 10, 2022
Martin Goodson

The Reluctance of Visitors | Part 1

The Vimalakīrti Sūtra

Having heard news of Vimalakirti’s illness, the Buddha sends his top men to find out what’s wrong with the Boddhisatva, but all the Arhats seem suspiciously reluctant to go.



After the king and his entourage had left the bedchamber of the poor, sick patient, Vimalakirti gave rise to the following thought:

“That was very kind of the king and the officials from the Chamber of Commerce to enquire after me and to see if there is anything they can do to help my situation. What surprises me is that the Great Lord Buddha, The Enlightened One, The Tathagata, who has given his life in service of those who suffer, has not sent anyone to enquire about my health?

It’s not as if it would be a great inconvenience! He’s only over the way in the Amrapali Park which is not far from my house.  Perhaps something has detained him? I cannot think what that might be?  However, he has many arhats and bodhsattvas in his company; cannot they come and at least show their faces to see how I am so that the Lord will be informed of my suffering?”

Now, Vimalakirti gave rise to this thought because he knew full well that The Fully Enlightened One has the ability to see all thoughts past and future, see their origin, their cessation and the way to their cessation.

Over in Amrapali Park the Buddha, sitting on his Lion’s, Throne smiled to himself and then, turning to his senior disciples said:

“Sariputra, Venerable one. Vimalakirti is unwell. Someone had better go and pay him a visit. Would you be so kind as to take some time out to pay him a call and enquire after him?”

Sariputra’s eyes widen for a moment, he blinks, once, twice. He does not look very comfortable. Poor old Sariputra, it looks like he’s been put on the spot again. But this is the Buddha who has asked him to run an errand; either he must do it or give a good excuse as to why not.

“My Lord" stammered the arhat “I must confess to being somewhat reluctant to pay the patient a visit.” All eyes turned to look at the arhat. It sounded like a confession coming on.

“One day, I was sitting meditation under a tree when Vimalakirti came by and told me off saying that I was doing this all wrong. That I should not be secreting myself away like this but have the meditation strength to maintain samadhi even in the middle of the market-place amidst the hurly-burly. He went on to say that rather than holding myself apart from the ways of the world, the wine-shops and theatres, I should be able to maintain virtue in all circumstances without wavering. That seeking out quiet and lovely places was all very well and good but that it was a bit of a cop-out. He finished by saying that you had taught that such a one who could maintain this equanimity in all circumstances was truly worthy of the title ‘contemplative’.

Therefore, Lord, although I will go if you say so, I really would be happier if you would ask someone else.”

Quite a few eyebrows were raised at these remarks. No-one had ever heard Sariputra, a stickler for discipline, trying to wheedle his way out of anything before! This chap must be formidable! The surprise was quickly replaced by trepidation as the Buddha was looking around to see who else to ask:

“Venerable Mahamaudgalyayana, how about it? Will you please go and enquire after Vimalakirti and see how he is?”

Now it was  this great arhat’s turn to look shiftily side to side, wishing he had the fortune to be somewhere else right now.

“My Lord, thank you for asking me and normally I would be only too happy to oblige. Er… however I too am reluctant to go and see this sick man.

“One day I was teaching some lay people the principles of the Dharma when Vimalakirti came by. At once, he scolded me, asking what was I doing? I replied 'Teaching the Dharma’. He replied saying that as the Dharma has no shape and no substance of its own how did I possibly hope to do that?’ He went on to say that as the Dharma is empty of all signs and marks and is empty of self-nature then even to label it as something is in error. That it was a presumption of mine to think that I could give this Dharma to anyone and that those who were listening were listening to a presumption! He said that I should, instead, teach in accord with an empty heart, without intention, without the notion of teaching anything or giving anything or leading anyone to liberation  and so on..

The crowd there applauded him and immediately vowed to follow that teaching. I, for my part, was speechless and left that place perturbed.

Therefore, Lord, if you really want me to go, then of course I will go, but if you have in mind anyone else who could run this errand, I would be most grateful!’’

The crowd gasped! Never before had they heard the great arhat Mahamaudgalyayana prevaricate like this . He was known as being a skilled magician and eloquent to boot. It only confirmed them in their growing admiration for this character, Vimlakirti.

Well, the Buddha turned to Mahakasyapa - he to whom in future times, the Lord Buddha would hand the transmission of the Dharma  and who would become the first patriarch of all Buddhist lineages in existence.

Alas, Mahakasyapa also did not want to go.

This story is in severe danger of becoming repetitive…

So, suffice to say, he too had had a run in with the sick patient. This time it was to do with how he begged for his food by avoiding the rich and only visiting the poor. There was a lesson on equality for Mahakasyapa here. Instead of seeking the lowly he should give up all views as to high and low and realise that all food, the poor and the rich are all empty and he should thus stop trying to give merit to the less fortunate as it only beguiled them further.

After Mahakasyapa came Subhuti, then Purnamaitreya… oh the list went on and on! Even his son Rahula and the Lord’s right hand man, Ananda declined to do it.

“Maybe I’ll have more luck with the bodhisattvas!” sighed The Enlightened One.

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