Vimalakirti's Gate of Nonduality

Dharma Discourse by Abbot John Daido Loori, M.R.O.

Blue Cliff Record, Case 84


Though you say "it is," there's nothing which "is" can confirm. Though you say "it is not," there's nothing that "is not" can negate. When "is" and "is not" are left behind and gain and loss are forgotten, then you are clean and naked, free and at ease. But tell me, what is in front of you and behind you? If there is a patch robed monk who comes forward and says, "In front is the Buddha shrine and the main gate; behind is the abbot's room and private quarters," tell me, does this person have eyes or not? If you can judge such a person I'll allow that you have personally seen the ancients.

The Main Case

Vimalakirti asked Manjusri, "What is a Bodhisattva's entry into the Dharma gate of nonduality?"
Manjusri said, "According to what I think, in all things, no words, no speech, no demonstration and no recognition. To leave behind all questions and answers; this is entering the Dharma gate of nonduality."
Then Manjusri asked Vimalakirti, "We have already spoken. Now you should tell us, good man, what is a bodhisattva's entry into the Dharma gate of nonduality?"
Setcho said, "What did Vimalakirti say?" He also said, "Completely exposed."

Master Setcho's Verse

Bah! to old Vimalakirti -
Out of compassion for living beings he suffers empty affliction,
Lying ill in Vaisali,
His whole body withered and emaciated.
Manjusri, the teacher of the seven Buddhas, comes
To the single room that has been swept repeatedly;
He asks about the gate of nonduality.
Then Vimalakirti leans and falls.
He doesn't lean and fall -
The golden-haired lion has no place to look. 

Dualities, such as life and death, love and hate, good and bad, sacred and secular, are the cause of much of our anguish and anxiety. If you're still struggling with them it will be hard for you to see what the koan Mu is about. Even a very beginning koan becomes difficult because when we get caught up in these dualities, when we separate ourselves, we recreate the self. It is this separation which is the cause of our suffering. To be Mu means to forget the self. You can't forget the self if you're constantly recreating it. The question is, how do you put to rest the myriad streams of thought that course continuously through your head? That's the fundamental matter in working with the breath. To be the breath with the whole body and mind is no different than being Mu with the whole body and mind, but the problem is that, as soon you move on to Mu the question "what is it?" comes up and the whole intellectual process starts. You're back again in this and that, love and hate, good and bad.

Dealing with the dualities is a great part of the struggle of practice. What are all those dualities about? Where do they come from? What makes us act like the moth flying into the flame, constantly recreating our selves, even though we know that it's the source of all our pain and suffering?

Vimalakirti, who appears in this koan, was a lay practitioner who was said to be as enlightened and clear as the Buddha. He was called "the white robed one." The Vimalakirti Sutra is one of the core texts of the Mahayana tradition, and it is that tradition which puts an end to the separation between men and women, sacred and secular, samsara and nirvana. Though in fact, for all practical purposes, a lot of those dualities remained in place in much of institutional Buddhism. Nevertheless, the teachings are there to guide us when we are ready to realize and practice them.

In this sutra, Vimalakirti was living in a very small house. The Buddha tried to talk a group of Hinayana monks into visiting Vimalakirti who said he was sick because all sentient beings were sick. Using his skill in the techniques of liberation Vimalakirti manifested himself as sick. There are all kinds of sicknesses, not just physical sickness. There's the sickness of anger, and fear, and mistrust, of love and hate, and of war and peace. All of them are the sicknesses of duality. In fact, many of those sicknesses, such as anger and fear, ultimately result in sicknesses of the body. It's hard to be angry or fearful all your life and not have it show. It shows in the way you age, the way your body is shaped, and the way it works. I watch people who are into the health food-craze run around doing all kinds of exercises, drinking water from Switzerland and eating acorns, worrying about extending their lives, and all the while they're constantly angry at themselves, at their jobs, at everything around them. They're fearful and anxious, and all the good food and good water in the world isn't going to help them if they turn it into poison by the way they use their minds. It's really important to set the mind at rest. When you set the mind at rest, you set the body at rest. Mind and body are one.

In the sutra, the Buddha finally convinced all of the great bodhisattvas to see Vimalakirti. None of them really wanted to go because every time they visited he gave them a hard time. Quite a number of them went, however, and Vimalakirti asked them to speak about the Dharma gate of nonduality. Thirty-two bodhisattvas, according to Engo, "all took dualistic views of doing and nondoing, of the two truths - real and conventional truth - and merged them into a monistic view which they considered to be the Dharma gate of nonduality. That monistic view is the view that all of reality is basically one. That's what you figured, right? Wrong! But then again, nor is it two.

Finally Vimalakirti asked the same question of Manjusri, an extraordinary person of great spiritual stature. Manjusri said, "According to what I think, in all things, no words, no speech, no demonstration and no recognition." To leave behind all questions and answers; this is entering the Dharma gate of nonduality. Engo, commenting on this says: "Since the other thirty-two had used words to dispense with words, Manjusri used no-words to dispense with words. At once he swept everything away, not wanting anything, and considered this to be the Dharma gate of nonduality. He certainly didn't realize that this was the sacred tortoise dragging its tail - that in wiping away the tracks it was making traces." Sea tortoises come out of the water onto the beach to hide their eggs. They conceal them in the sand and then they backtrack into the water using their tail to wipe away the tracks so that predators won't get to the eggs and eat them. But of course, when they swish their tail to cover the tracks they leave the tracks of their tail, which are just as visible to predators. What Engo is saying is that Manjusri's reply still left traces. Then Manjusri asked Vimalakirti, "We have already spoken. Now you should tell us, good man, what is a bodhisattva's entry into the Dharma gate of nonduality?"

Vimalakirti was silent. Engo says: "If you're alive, you'll never sink into the dead water. If you make up such [dead] views, you're like a mad dog chasing a clot of earth." That image of a crazy dog chasing a clump of earth is a reference to a sutra in which a person throws a clump of earth at a dog and hits the dog. The dog, in incredible anger, starts fighting with the clump of earth and ignores the guy who threw it. This example is used in the sutra to symbolize the Hinayana practitioners, those who are afraid of the delights of the senses and seek deliverance in solitude and quiet. They never really become free because they depend upon that solitude and quiet, becoming miserable and confused when they come in contact with the hustle and bustle of life. One of the favorite teachings of Mahayana masters is to upset that apple cart in which people take a dead view of things and want to retreat from the world and hide on a mountain to contemplate their navels.

But Setcho didn't say Vimalakirti kept silent, nor did he say that he sat silently on his seat. He just asked: "What did Vimalakirti say?" Anybody who is doing this koan knows that Vimalakirti was silent. Sometimes silence is very loud, reaching everywhere. Yet, at other times - and it happens here - silence doesn't reach it. What is the difference between the silence of Vimalakirti and the silence of Shariputra in this very same sutra? In Shariputra's case the Goddess wouldn't accept his silence. She called it an evasion of truth. In a sense we can say that silence is just one side of the duality of speech and silence. So, how could silence be the entry of the nondual gate? What does non-dual mean, anyway? Is nondual the opposite of dual? That is just another duality. How do we transcend all dualities?

Vimalakirti was working right along with the Buddha, transforming himself, teaching others. He was considered to be incredibly intelligent, to have inconceivable supernatural powers and to make wondrous use of them. In this meeting he had eighty thousand beings in his tiny house. It wasn't too big and it wasn't too small, yet he accommodated all the bodhisattvas and their eighty- two thousand jewelled lion thrones. Engo says: "But tell me, what principle is this? Can it be called the wondrous function of supernatural powers?" How is that possible? Engo says further: "Don't misunderstand; if it is the Dharma gate of nonduality, only by attaining together and witnessing together can there be a common mutual realization and knowledge."

Another comment that Setcho made in this koan is, "Completely exposed." Where was the exposure? You have to understand that none of this has to do with gain or loss, right or wrong, being or nonbeing. Engo likens it to being "up on a ten thousand-foot cliff," and he says, "if you can give up your life and leap off, you may see Vimalakirti in person. If you cannot give it up, you're like a ram caught in a fence."

We come to practice with these sicknesses of anger and fear, mistrust, love and hate, and soon they begin to manifest in the practice itself. We see them functioning in groups, in families, in nations, in cultures. Is it possible to function in this life in a nondual way? Vimalakirti said yes. Buddha said yes. Manjusri said yes. Countless Buddhas and Ancestors from time immemorial have said yes.

In the garden, in order to grow a cabbage, we send people to pull out the weeds, give the cabbage room so that it can grow and be nourished. But this also causes the weeds to wither and die. Isn't a weed just as much life as a cabbage? Isn't a cabbage just as much life as we who kill and eat it? Isn't the deer that we keep away from the cabbage by putting an electric fence around it just as much life as we are? Can a cabbage be grown and consumed nondualistically? Can nations exist in a nondual way? How? Can relationships exist in a nondual way? How? Keep in mind that ultimately this Dharma is transmitted nondualistically. Nothing is received, nothing is passed on. Does silence - relinquishing all activity - satisfy nonduality? It's just one side. It doesn't do it - can't do it. Then why did Vimalakirti respond with silence?

Somehow we forget what it means to accomplish the Way. Our tendency is to think of accomplishing the Way as a goal, something that at some point in time we complete, attain, finish. But that's not what accomplishing the Way is. We have a tendency to see all things and evaluate them in terms of a beginning and an end. To accomplish the Way is to practice the Way. It's the Way itself. Practice and realization are not two things. Practice and enlightenment are one. Practice doesn't end with enlightenment. True accomplishment of the Way is very difficult to define. Words can't reach it. Even though words can't reach it, intuitively we recognize it when we see it. It manifests in many ways, not necessarily in spiritual realms, in holiness, or indeed even in perfection, but rather in everyday, mundane affairs. It's in washing dishes and changing a diaper, drinking a cup of coffee, maintaining a relationship or a conversation. Accomplishing the Way always resides in the doing. There is no final resting place. If you stop practicing it's lost. If you stop using your arm long enough, it atrophies. You need to continually use it for it to be functional. You will never reach a final destination. Each step you accomplish, you acknowledge and throw it away and keep going. Enlightenment: you acknowledge it, throw it away and keep going. Each one of us, right where we stand, has that light of nonduality, and it's continuously shining. And yet, although it's a light, look at it, and you can't see it. How do we step out of one side or the other side? Either of those sides will continuously give rise to joy or sadness, to love or hate, to life or death. You can't avoid flopping back and forth as long as you use your mind dualistically.

In his verse Setcho said, Bah! to old Vimalakirti - Why is he reviling him? Why wasn't his silence a good answer? Everybody else that comments on this sutra speaks of Vimalakirti's silence as being profound and far-reaching. Why is Setcho saying, Bah!?

Then he goes on to say, Out of compassion for living beings, he suffers an empty affliction. Engo says: "Why have compassion for them? They themselves have the Diamond King's jewel sword. For this idle affair Vimalakirti only increased their ignorance. He took the trouble but accomplished nothing."

The rest of the verse continues:

Lying ill in Vaisali,
His whole body withered and emaciated.
Manjusri, the teacher of the seven Buddhas, comes
To the single room that has been swept repeatedly;
He asks about the gate of nonduality.
Then Vimalakirti leans and falls.
He doesn't lean and fall -
The golden-haired lion has no place to look.

Right at the beginning Manjusri walks up to Vimalakirti and with the diamond sword cuts him in two. Engo joins in, saying, "Vimalakirti must be given three thousand blows in the morning and eight hundred blows in the evening." Why? Reading the footnotes to this koan it seems that Vimalakirti is doing a good job. So, why are they putting him down? When Manjusri said to Vimalakirti: "We have each already spoken. Now you should tell us, good man, what is the bodhisattva's entry into the Dharma gate of nonduality?" the footnote says, Not even the Buddhas of past, present and future, let alone the Golden Grained Tathagata, - which is another name for Vimalakirti - can open their mouths about this one support. Manjusri has turned the spear around and stabbed one person to death. The arrow hits Vimalakirti just as he was shooting at the others. How did the arrow hit him? Engo's teacher, Setcho, says, What did Vimalakirti say? The footnote to that is, Bah! Setcho gathers ten thousand arrows to his breast and speaks the truth in Vimalakirti's place. What is the truth? What did he say? Setcho also said, "Completely exposed." The footnote to that says, Not only that time, but now too, it is so. Then he adds, But tell me, can Setcho see where this comes down? Since he hasn't seen it even in a dream, how can he say, "Completely exposed"? Danger! Even the golden-haired lion is unable to search it out.

So, what is this koan saying to you? In spite of everything we're taught, we go about this Dharma the way we go about everything else in life. We try to acquire information. We try to put it in our heads. We've got more written instructions in English about Zen than you can shake a stick at. We'll have our own volumes of texts before another ten years have passed, and still, people don't get it. We need to be aware. We need to learn with the whole body and mind, not just through the words and ideas that describe things. It's very easy to dwell in the words these days. There are lots of books about Zen, and more coming out each day. It's easy to imitate the leaders, to get all kinds of ideas in our heads about what the teaching is about. But it's not about all those words. Those are descriptions of a reality that needs to be experienced. Like that light I mentioned earlier: although it's light, when you look at it, you can't see it. That's the light that's transmitted.

Does silence reach it? Of course not. Our practice is about the world; it's about life. Was Vimalakirti wrong? If so, what is the gate of nonduality? If Vimalakirti missed it, did Manjusri's answer reach it? Was Vimalakirti caught up in speech and silence? How can we function, unless it's in a dualistic way? What makes Vimalakirti's silence nondual, if indeed it is? Every dharma we encounter, that is, every situation we encounter, is an opportunity to practice the nondual Dharma. That means to not separate yourself. It means to function for the benefit of someone else, even an adversary. This is a very personal matter. It concerns you; it concerns me. Every action we take, from growing cabbages to raising children, is involved in it. The dualistic view of the universe has created the hell and havoc that we experience in the world and in our personal lives. How do you transcend that?

Each time you acknowledge a thought, take responsibility for it, let it go, and come back to the breath, you move a step in the direction of the nondual Dharma. Ultimately, when body and mind fall away and there's no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind to even acknowledge, this still doesn't reach it. It's only one side. When, from out of that emptiness the ten thousand things are manifested and you see your face in every form, you still have not yet reached it. When these two things merge and interpenetrate, although its another step, it's still dualistic. You haven't reached it yet.

All of us are powerhouses of unused potential, just as every Buddha is. It's not an easy practice. It's not something we can separate from everything we do. To accomplish the Way is to accomplish our lives. To practice the Way is to practice our lives, moment by precious moment. But you have to take responsibility for your practice. It's not enough to follow instructions and seat yourself on the cushion. It's not going to come to you. You have to practice it. You have to engage it - every aspect of it. Whatever you figure you know, forget it, and keep going. Whatever you accomplish, throw it away and keep going. It's the ultimate human adventure to realize oneself. What else would you want to do with your life?

So, every moment is a single moment, or a thousand kalpas. When you step out of the reference system of time, it's the whole universe and the rest of your life. But it's up to you. You bring yourself here, that's easy. You place yourself in this position, that's easy. But what you have to do once you sit on that cushion takes a lot of effort and dedication This is a no-nonsense practice. You can kid yourself, but it's not going to get you anywhere, and sooner or later you realize that, and while you kid yourself you should also realize that it's a hundred thousand times easier to do the work.

You have everything you'll ever need to accomplish the Way. You have even more than the Buddha ever had. He had to start with no one to guide him. He had to oppose everything that was going on at the time. Here we are, 2,500 years later, with this incredible Dharma, constantly verified from generation to generation by ordinary beings like you and me. It should be a snap for us, compared to what it was for the ancestors. You simply have to put aside being comfortable. You have to put aside the easy way and really challenge yourself. You know where the edge of your practice is. It's the place you've been avoiding. Practice it! Put yourself there; challenge yourself, and don't waste a single moment.

[Return to Index of Dharma Discourses]

mountains & rivers order | training in the mro | zen mountain monastery | fire lotus zendo | dharma communications | zen environmental studies institute | society of mountains & rivers | the monastery store | | contents | contact us |

2003 Zen Mountain Monastery
All words and images on these pages are protected by copyright