Jun 4, 2022
Martin Goodson

Vimalakirti Diagnoses his Illness

The Vimalakīrti Sūtra

The Bodhisattva’s sudden illness even has the King worried, what is Vimalakirti up to?



It wasn’t long before the  whole city was gossiping about Vimalakirti being unwell.

What was wrong with him? Of course, nobody knew and as usual, in the absence of any actual information, people began making up their own news and passing it on as the ‘absolute truth’ of the matter.

Some had just seen him the day before and said that he seemed quite all right at the time. Others, with a knowing look, said that they had noticed he was looking a bit peaky and off-colour. One or two said frankly he looked at death’s door.

But what could be wrong with him? That is what they wanted to know. How serious was his illness? Was he going to die? One or two of the courtly ladies made some discreet requests to the dressmakers to reserve some of their finest silks, just in case of an emergency need for a funeral dress.

When the king heard the news, he dismissed it as probably nothing more than a seasonal cold and nothing to be worried about. But when delegates from the Chamber of Commerce arrived it became quite obvious, quite quickly that people wanted answers. And that if they could not have them  the whole affair would spiral out of control and people would be so worked up and worried that the business of the city could grind to a halt. 

Therefore the king decided he had better go and pay Vimalakirti a visit and assess the situation. So it was that the king with his entourage made their way to the house of Vimalakirti.

Word got round, as word does, that the king was on his way. This only confirmed in people’s minds the gravity of the illness and so before long the moderately sized entourage from the palace swelled to a rather large crowd pressing and squeezing its way down the narrow streets.

At the house the servants looked with some alarm as the sea of people approached, but there was the king and so the gates were opened and he and just his entourage, plus a couple of officials from the Chamber of Commerce, were welcomed in. 

They filed up the stairs and trooped into Vimalakirti’s bedroom and there he was, lying in bed, hair matted, pale, some light perspiration on his forehead and eyes looking a little bloodshot.

The king realised this was more serious than previously thought. However, being the king, he was careful not to let his concern show and instead covered this with a smile of reassurance for the patient.

Despite his illness, Vimalakirti greeted the king in the proper way and they exchanged pleasantries in that rather formal way that royal etiquette demands. Finally, the king asked:

“What ails you, Vimalakirti? What did the doctor say?”

“My Lord" replied the patient. “I have not seen the doctor, I will not see the doctor because I know only too well what ails me and he can tell me nothing that I do not already know.”

The king was again taken aback. “Well please do tell us what it is that afflicts you because we are all your kinsmen and are deeply fond of you and only hope that, whatever it is,  you will recover soon .”

“I am sorry to tell you my Lord, but you see from this illness there is no recovery.”

There was a sharp intake of breath around the room. The king was beginning to wonder if he might have to cancel his trip to the Summer Palace, since if, anything happened to Vimalakirti, there was going to be quite some upset as he was so loved by all his subjects.

“The illness that afflicts this body is impermanence and from that there is no cure and no recovery.”

“Oh dear!” said the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce “That does sound serious!”

“I’m afraid it is.” replied the patient. “Ever since it was born this body has been ticking like a time-bomb. We can drown it out with our chatter and our daily concerns, but in the end it outlasts all our distractions. It is like a soap bubble, no matter how beautiful it may look, it is tainted by the shortness of its duration. It is like foam, - if you put any pressure on it, it falls apart. We are taken in by it and adorn it and put make-up on it and fashion our hair but we ignore the fact that in truth it is just a skin-bag containing blood, bones and meat.”

At this point one or two of the courtly ladies began feeling slightly nauseous.

“We should not really concern ourselves with this body.” He continued. “No, the body we should be concerned with is the Body of the Tathagata (which is another name of the Buddha). That body is the body of the Dharma and is born of Wisdom and Compassion; the product of lifetimes of meritorious deeds and accumulation of virtues. It is the body of salvation, the body of liberation and can lead all beings to peace of heart.”

Having begun to feel rather depressed at what Vimalakirti was saying about the physical body suddenly everyone in the room began to feel quite heartened once again. As a result of this teaching, because that of course is what this was, all who heard these words decided they had better make a sincere vow to develop this wonderful body in themselves.


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