(Note: Roshi makes reference here to two translations of the Vimalakirti Sutra: one by Robert Thurman and one by Burton Watson. Page references are included in endnotes.)
Without attachment to outcome, we free ourselves, and we're able to continue to be of use, to serve.
The seventh chapter of the Vimalakirti Sutra contains a profound teaching about the nature of compassion, and the skillfulness that we gain from the experience of selflessness, which is one of the primary "tastes" of Buddhism, or early teachings of Buddhism: the idea that there is no solid self.
There is also a delightfully funny skit involving once again Shariputra, with his ideas of purity and of the self. Shariputra represents the kind of religious fundamentalism that the Mahayana is breaking away from, so he is the "fall guy" in all these stories.
The chapter begins with Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, asking Vimalakirti: "What is the skillful way for Bodhisattvas to regard living beings?" What is the skillful way for us to look at living beings—"us," because I assume we're all Bodhisattvas in disguise. A Bodhisattva is an enlightening being, a being who is there to enlighten self and other. So, what is the skillful way for us to look at living beings?
How do you look at others? As fixed selves? As: That's a good person, that's a bad person, that's a stupid person or a smart person? How do we look at what we consider the "other"? So often, particularly in long-term relationships—at work, in our family, with our partner or old friends—we fail to see that they're constantly changing. We get a fixed idea and we don't see the changeability of all beings.
Vimalakirti's answer is a lyrical evocation of what we often call, in shorthand, emptiness, or selflessness and impermanence:
As a conjureri looks on the being he conjures up, thus does the Bodhisattva regard living beings. As the wise view the moon in the water, or a face or form seen in a mirror, as shimmers of heat in a torrid season, as the echo that follows a cry, as foam on the water, bubbles on the sea, as a thing no firmer than the trunk of a plantain, no longer lasting than a flash of lightning…thus we should regard the other.ii
These are familiar images for the Buddhist notion of emptiness, of the constantly shifting nature of self and other, of reality itself. We recognize some of these images from the Diamond Sutra, from early Asian poetry, from Hongzhi, Dogen, and Hakuin; contemporary writers, too, use images like the moon in the water.
Consider how you look at your mother. Look at the mirage you've created around "mother." It's like looking at the reflection of the moon in the water and taking it for the moon itself! It's not your real mother. It's your idea of "mother." There are so many stories about people who see the moon in the water and want to grab it, and of course, they fall in—to the water, to the dream. So, when we are able to see that "the other" is like an echo, like a flash of lightning, like a shimmering of heat, then it is difficult for us to construct a fixed sense of the way things are. So this is the value of these images: They help us to be less entrenched in our idea of self and other.
I like Thurman's "like the core of a plantain tree."iii Many years ago, I worked for a summer on a kibbutz in Israel. My job was to go through the banana fields and cut down the diseased banana trees. They were huge, maybe sixteen feet tall, and their trunks perhaps eighteen inches in diameter—yet I could easily cut one down in a single stroke of the machete. That's because they have no core, just layer after layer of fiber, of leaf, that's wound around and around. So there's nothing there!
That is a very common image of the self in Buddhism: no nub, no essence, no core that exists; like a plantain tree, we are fold upon fold of experience, conditioning, constantly growing and changing fibers.
Other images in this section suggest we think of living beings as "tracks of a bird in the sky," as a "child born to a barren woman," as "sights seen in a dream."iv Of what use might regarding living beings in such a way be? If we can let go of these concrete, fixed ideas of the other, we give them room to change in our minds. We allow them to flow into our relational space, where they too are subject to the tides of the seasons, of the emotions, of everything that's going on in a room. So we allow change; we open our heart/minds to them.
And this is where Manjusri goes in the next section. He asks Vimalakirti, "If the Bodhisattva looks on beings in this way, how can he treat them with compassion?"v If we think that everyone is selfless, then how can we be compassionate? How does the Mahayana teach that? In the Great Way, the Bodhisattvas are always enlightening others—how can they do that if there's no one there? If there's no self?
Vimalakirti answers, again at length. The essence is that since living beings are selfless, the compassion is also selfless. We do it by recognizing our own selflessness. Thus we have no thought of gaining: We're not trying to get something out of being of use to others. We have no thought of partiality: Not preferring to help one rather than another, we help what's in front of us. We have no falseness: We're not a sham, we are genuine. We realize we're just a constantly dancing self, so we can be true to this moment without "Oh, I'm just so holy, and I'm helping you, and I'm the big holy one…" And finally, we have no attachment to outcome: We don't get fixated on how we think it's going to be.
What stood out for me here was how this quality of nonattached, free compassion/love does not burn out, how it prevents us from burnout, from despair. Thurman uses the word love rather than compassion in this segment. He calls it "the love that is never exhausted because it acknowledges voidness and selflessness."vi Watson puts it this way: "He treats them with a compassion that never despairs, seeing that all is empty and without ego."vii
For the past fifty years, we've heard endless tips on how to avoid burnout in the helping professions—when the one you're caring for doesn't get better, when the cause you believe in has no movement, no change, when the prospects of the people you're working so hard to help are not ameliorated. And this sutra says, "Do not despair." Look on all beings as impermanent, not fixed—and be awed by that. You can be awed by the reality that everything is constantly changing, that there is no fixed self! It's marvelous! We begin to have delight in the brilliant flowing nature of all of reality. We say in Zen, "nen-nen-nen"—moment to moment mind that does not seek, but arises and falls in true nature. Be awed by that. Don't think you know what the right outcome is for anything—and yet, when something is in front of you, you roll up your sleeves and you do it.
Manjusri continues to question Vimalakirti, eliciting further description of the joy and compassion and love flowing from a Bodhisattva who serves others without attachment to anything, without attachment to outcome.
Artists know that. Musicians know that. Writers know that. You sit down and you think you're going to write this—and you write that. You think you're going to paint this, and something happens—a marvelous brilliant accident happens, and you do something completely different. Without attachment to outcome, we free ourselves and we're able to continue to be of use, to serve.
As this dialogue ends, a wondrous presence appears. The Goddess, who has been in the room, listening in an invisible state, is so overcome by the depth of the discussion that she makes herself visible. And in her delight and appreciation for the wisdom that has been flowing out, she showers the whole room with marvelous celestial blossoms.
The flowers, when they fell, just dropped off the Bodhisattvas, but when they fell on the disciples, they stuck, and would not drop away. With great consternation, the disciples tried to get the flowers off, and brushed and shook their robes, but the flowers would not come off
The Goddess asks, "Reverend Shariputra, why are you trying to shake off the flowers?"
And Shariputra replies, "Goddess, these flowers are not proper for religious persons, and so we are trying to shake them off."viii Shariputra is referring to the Vinaya, the old set of rules for the monks that says that monks cannot wear flowers and ornaments. That was the monastic law.
And the Goddess says,
Don't say these flowers are not in accordance with the Law. Why? Because the flowers make no such distinctions. You in your thinking have made up such distinctions, that's all. If one who has left the household life to follow the Buddha's Law makes such distinctions, that is not in accordance with the Law. Look at the Bodhisattvas—the flowers do not stick to them because they have already cut off all thought of distinctions.ix
She goes on in this way, making the point that when we are afraid of birth, death, of the senses, of impurity, they can take advantage of us. Every time we make a judgment and a distinction like that, we separate from the reality of the moment. The Bodhisattvas are free of right and wrong, free from conceptions of good and bad, because they are not hung up on "this is the right way, this is the wrong way."
It is like our attachments. How many times in the dokusan room does someone say to me, "You know, every time I make a rule and promise myself I'll sit, I sit less." This is something to look at: We set up "I have to do this," and immediately we don't. Instead of making these rigidities we could just say, "Yes, today, right now, I feel like sitting. I'll sit."
The Goddess concludes by saying,
So long as one has not done away with such entanglements, the flowers will stick to him. But they will not stick to someone who has eliminated them.x
Picture the expression of the discombobulated Shariputra, wise and pure, struggling to rid himself of the unlawful flowers sticking to him, and now he's being told that his fixating on good or bad is creating this stuckness!
Exasperated, he asks her how long she's been the room and she replies, "Venerable sir, my stay in this room is about as long as your attainment of emancipation."xi
He falls into the trap, saying, "Oh, so you've been here a long time?"
She replies, "How long has your attainment of emancipation been?"
Shariputra is silent. She asks him why and they continue the dialogue for some time. The Goddess points out that Shariputra's fixed attachment to the notion of greed, anger, and ignorance, or purity and impurity, is what keeps him from true freedom. It is a brilliant dialogue, culminating in his admission that even true freedom is not a thing, and therefore cannot be attained!
But on admitting this, Shariputra changes course and goes on the attack. He asks the Goddess, "Why don't you change out of your female form?" In effect: If you're so smart, why don't you take the form of a man, who could then achieve ultimate enlightenment? (In those days, it was thought that a woman could not attain ultimate enlightenment until she was reborn as a man.)
She replies that if a magician conjures up a ghost woman, would he ask her to change her body? He says no, because ghosts have no fixed form. She says, well, all things are just the same, without a fixed form, so why ask me such a question?
Suddenly, the Goddess changes Shariputra into a goddess like herself, and she changes into Shariputra's form. And she asks him, "Why don't you change out of your female body, Shariputra?"
Shariputra shouts, "I don't know why I have suddenly changed and taken on a female body!"
The Goddess says,
If you can change out of your female body, then all women can change likewise. Shariputra, who is not a woman, appears in a woman's body. And the same is true of all women—though they appear in women's bodies, they are not women.
(You almost wish there were some quotation marks around "women": Though they appear in women's bodies, they are not "women.")
Therefore the Buddha teaches that all phenomena are neither male nor female.xii
This is a phrase you hear many times: In the Buddhadharma, there is neither male nor female. What that means is that we are relationally interconnected, that nothing is fixed. And by challenging gender, which everyone thinks is the most essential thing we have, this sutra is saying that even gender is an idea. This is a very modern notion.
The Goddess then changes him back to his original form and asks him where his female body is. He says, "The form and shape of my female body does not exist, yet does not not exist." This is how Watson translates it. Thurman puts it this way:
Goddess: What have you done with your female form?
Shariputra: I neither made it nor changed it.xiii
And then the Goddess makes the final point: "All things are thus: They are neither made nor changed." Or, in the Watson phrase, "They neither exist nor not exist."
And from this comes the realization that the idea of "exists or not-exists," of "this is good and this is bad," of making or changing who we are or who someone else is—all are constructions of the mind, just ideas. The problem with ideas is that we begin to believe them, to fixate on them, marry them—and we can't be free at all.
We are like the plantain. We are like Shariputra. When we truly realize that we are not contained or limited by our idea of our body, our mind, by our condition, by our ideas of life and death, then we are free to live a life of joy and delight, a life that is neither too spacey nor too constricted, a life that flies in the air like a bird, that bubbles in the ocean, that offers compassion where it is needed, without attachment to the outcome, without partiality or fixity, without phoniness, but simple, overflowing compassion and joy.
This is what Bodhidharma meant when he met Emperor Wu, and Emperor Wu said, "What is the most holy truth?" and Bodhidharma said, "There is no holiness, just vast emptiness." And when Wu asked him, "Who is standing before me?" Bodhidharma just said, "Don't know."
Here is my verse:
Here you come. Like every evening at this time,
Not quite drunk, not quite sober,
Dirty hand reaching out, "Spare change?"
Here I come, like every evening at this time
Not quite present, not quite not,
Here's a dollar, take care of yourself.
Two ghosts, two phantoms, I could be you, you could be me.
Like Bodhidharma, when asked, just say,