In my ongoing effort to find ways to adapt Buddhism to modern American life, I have long been influenced by the example of Vimala-Kirti, the "householder sage" of ancient India (pictured). According to the Vimala-Kirti Sutra ("sutra" means scripture), Vimala-Kirti was a wealthy layperson or householder who was one of the Buddha's leading lay disciples. Even though he was a householder, however, his wisdom was said to exceed that of all of the Buddha's leading monk disciples. Much of the Sutra is spent recounting arguments between Vimala-Kirti and the monk disciples about Buddhist doctrine -- disputes which Vimala-Kirti invariably won. The notion of a layperson's wisdom excelling that of a monk is only one of many radical notions put forward by the Sutra.
There are several English translations of the Vimala-Kirti Sutra; the one I like best is by Dr. Robert A. Thurman, entitled The Holy Teaching of Vimala-Kirti. Dr. Thurman 's translation is from the Tibetan, as the Sanskrit original has been lost. Like the better-known Heart and Diamond Sutras, the Vimala-Kirti Sutra was an important text for the Zen traditions of China and Japan. In many Japanese Zen monasteries even today there is an alcove with a statue of Vimala-Kirti, wearing the hair and clothing of a layperson, expounding the teaching. In Zen, Vimala-Kirti is best known for his "thunderous silence," referring to the time when Vimala-Kirti ended a long debate about the essence of wisdom by saying nothing at all. Vimala-Kirti was a popular figure among the ruling classes of ancient China, who could identify with Vimala-Kirti's role in society. The highest spiritual stage in Zen is called "return to the marketplace," in which the spiritual adept, after long years of spiritual training, returns to society to live as an ordinary person and teach others. Vimala-Kirti is traditionally seen as the embodiment of this highest stage.
Here is how the Sutra describes how Vimala-Kirti lived:
He wore the white clothes of the layman, yet lived impeccably like a religious devotee ... He had a son, a wife, and female attendants ... [and] made his appearance at the fields of sports and in the casinos, but his aim was always to mature people [there] ... He engaged in all sorts of businesses, yet had no interest in profit or possessions ... To develop children, he visited all the schools ... He was honored as the official among officials because he regulated the functions of government according to the Dharma.
Quite a fellow, this Vimala-Kirti! This passage shows a composite picture of an engaged person of power and influence, appearing in every walk of life for the sole purpose of turning people away from greed and vanity and toward the virtues of the spiritual life. While Buddhism has always had a strong monastic component -- after all, its monasteries have preserved the texts and the teachings for 2,500 years -- it seems to me that today's world is ripe for the message of Vimala-Kirti. Certainly, this vivid description of his daily life seems strikingly modern.
Though the Vimala-Kirti may be the best known Buddhist text extolling the integration of wisdom and the worldly life, it is by no means the only one. I am indebted to Buddhist translator Joshua Eaton (M.Div., Harvard), for pointing out other Buddhist texts with a similar message. Here is a passage from the Mahamangala Sutta :
Broad knowledge, skill,
This is the highest protection.
Support for one's parents,
assistance to one's wife and children,
consistency in one's work:
This is the highest protection.
Giving, living in rectitude,
assistance to one's relatives,
deeds that are blameless:
This is the highest protection.
It is unclear how the Vimala-Kirti Sutra came to be. Gil Fronsdal, Ph.D., Buddhist scholar and founder of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, Calif., suspects that it was written, at least in part, as a kind of satire. I myself wonder if it was compiled by lay teachers in ancient India. However it was forged, I feel that it speaks to today's world and today's spiritual needs. We do not live in Medieval Europe or T'ang dynasty China, where spiritual renunciates lived behind cloistered monastery walls, but in a web-wired planet where the world's best spiritual teachings are as close at hand as a Google search or a Twitter feed. Were Vimala-Kirti or his ilk alive today I have no doubt that he/she would have a Facebook page, a blog and a keen interest in using every available means to bring the benefits of the spiritual path to as many people as possible.
I'm not sure this modern-day Vimala-Kirti would identify him/herself only as a Buddhist. The Vimala-Kirti archetype is endlessly creative and flexible. Besides, the spiritual needs of human beings are universal and timeless. Everyone wants to belong, to have a secure livelihood and be treated with basic dignity. Everyone wants to be able to express themselves without hindrance or the threat of harm, and forge their own path to material and spiritual fulfillment. Above all, we all want to love and be loved. Vimala-Kirti is best known for his essence wisdom teachings, but he also speaks eloquently about love. When the monk Manjusri asks him why he exerts such efforts on behalf of ordinary people, Vimala-Kirti replies:
Manjusri ... [I] generate the great love that is truly a refuge for all living beings; the love that is peaceful because free from grasping ... the love that is firm, its high resolve unbreakable.
Vimala-Kirti believed in the power of this Great Love; it was an important part of his effectiveness as a teacher and spiritual leader. I was so taken with the Sutra's description of "great love" that I wrote an article on it some years back for Shambhala Sun magazine. In that article, entitled "The Great Love," I said:
In ordinary people, attachment and aversion are opposites; that push-pull is constantly confusing us. But when these are cleared up there is ... no sense of separation between ourselves and other people. In that realized state, we can truly love one another without confusion.
I still believe this. I still think that spiritual heroes such as Vimala-Kirti, fashioned from an ancient spiritual imagination, can still inspire us to seek the best from each other, and to strive for a better world. Vimala-Kirti went beyond the monastic life to forge a vocation of full worldly engagement. Why did some number of anonymous Buddhist sages pen this scripture if not to encourage us to follow Vimala-Kirti's example?
Today, as always, each one of us can aspire in our own way to be like Vimala-Kirti, inwardly pure yet outwardly engaged in helping people, whatever their needs or wherever they might be.