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Vimalakīrti is a nonhistorical human bodhisattva known primarily as the main protagonist of an early MahĀyĀna sūtra called the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (The Teaching of Vimalakīrti). Although a layman, Vimalakīrti is depicted as possessing the highest wisdom and attainment. Out of sympathy with the suffering of all beings and as a strategy for teaching (upĀya), he feigns a serious illness and, knowing this, the Buddha instructs each of his śrāvaka and bodhisattva disciples to ask after his health. All are reluctant to go, having been humiliated by Vimalakīrti's greater wisdom before, and only Mañjuśrī agrees. All the others follow to watch the encounter, the climax of which is a discussion in which Vimalakīrti asks each bodhisattva in turn how one enters nondualism. Mañjuśrī offers the ultimate insight that all dharmas are beyond discourse, but is trumped by Vimalakīrti, who remains silent when asked for his own answer. Vimalakīrti also displays a dry sense of humor, directed primarily against ŚĀriputra, as the main representative of the śrāvaka community.

As a spiritually accomplished layman Vimalakīrti offered an influential model for Buddhists in East Asia, where Indian Buddhist monasticism conflicted with Chinese social values. His popularity led to his depiction in painting and a number of lesser known texts in which he was the protagonist. The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa is also popular amongst Western Buddhists and has been translated into English several times.

See also:Laity


Lamotte, Étienne. The Teaching of Vimalākirti, tr. Sara Boin. London: Pāli Text Society, 1976.

Watson, Burton. The Vimalakīrti Sūtra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Andrew Skilton

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