The Vimalakirti Sutra
Back in May 9, 2017, Khenpo Sodargye announced that if the circumstances were allowable, he would like to giving the teaching of the Vimalakirti Sutra in the following year, and then on March 27, 2018, Khenpo Sodargye formally started this teaching and has been explaining this sutra twice a week.
Khenpo believes that in this modern age, people do need to study this sutra for three reasons. 1) To lay practitioners, the Vimalakirti Sutra provides powerful instructions for transforming sufferings and afflictions onto the spiritual path. 2) The Vimalakirti Sutra is a rare sutra which well combines the profound teachings in both Sutrayana and Tantrayana. 3) The Vimalakirti Sutra is a great pith-instruction text which demonstrates super power as a direct antidote to negative emotions.
On this webpage, we would kindly offer you the key messages of Khenpo’s teaching in both written and video format. These lecture notes are summarized by Khenpo’s translation team and will be updated on a regular basis.
A Few Words before the Teaching
Khenpo Sodargye Rinpoche encourages students to take notes during the teaching. In fact, memorizing the teachings by heart would be best, especially if you can memorize the content as well as the teachings, but taking notes is encouraged. Some say that writing directly on the sutra is not respectful, but many Tibetan Buddhism masters took notes directly onto the books. In fact, annotating in a respectful manner, on the margins of the sutra, is fairly useful. It can help comparing contents and meanings in a clearer and more helpful way.
Time and Schedule
Khenpo urges us to be punctual and to attach great importance to attending his live teaching. When it comes to catching a train, an air plane, or attending a meeting, most people would be very prompt, but why is it that some people only turn up halfway through the Dharma class? So, in your mind you should attach great importance to the Dharma classes, and add them to your schedule. This way you can gain the greatest benefits.
Suggestions to the Western Students
Khenpo is aware that people from other parts of the world want to study this sutra, therefore English and Japanese simultaneous interpretations are offered to help them. Although the number is rather small compared to the Chinese audience, it is still meaningful to provide such opportunity for them to follow the teaching. As Khenpo said, “On the one hand, it is an auspicious start; on the other hand, even if there are just a few people who are able to follow the teaching, it is my great pleasure to help them understand and further realize this profound wisdom which is originated in the ancient East.”
Khenpo particularly reminds the western audience that the Vimalakirti Sutra carries the profound Buddhism philosophy from the ancient East, thus some of the messages could sound abruptly shocking to westerners, especially in the 21st century. For example, the teachings in Buddhism are different than the common belief of individualism that pervades in the West. Therefore, Khenpo suggests the audience to keep an open heart and an open mind while studying this sutra, so as to take the ancient teaching into the hearts and reflect deep down. That’s how the Buddhist philosophy can benefit the students, despite their ethnic, cultural background or language. Otherwise, no matter for scholars or practitioners, if one only holds a critical mind from the perspective of western thought and fails to accept the teaching in an inclusive manner, then the study of the sutra may not necessarily bring one great benefits.
Actually, this suggestion is not just for westerners. All different beings have different mindsets, preferences, propensities and capacities. So their interest and their focus on the Vimalakirti Sutra could be also different. But all in all, an open and inclusive mind is crucial during the learning procedure.
Which Version Are We Going to Use?
There are currently various translations of this sutra into English, French, Russian, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and Manchurian. Although lost for centuries, in 1999, a version in the original Sanskrit was recovered amongst the Chinese government’s Potala collection in Tibet.
The Tibetan translation has two known versions, one of which is found in the Kanjur Canon, translated from original Sanskrit in the early 8th (or 9th) century, and the other being the Tun-Huang version found in the early 20th century.
Historically speaking, Han Chinese had extraordinary faith in the Vimalakirti Sutra, and because it was highly emphasized in Han Buddhism, the Vimalakirti Sutra had been translated into seven versions throughout the history, the first being produced in 188 CE by the Kuṣāṇa monk Lokakṣema. Today, only three of them are extant:
- Fóshuō Wéimójié Jīng (佛說維摩詰經) – translated by Zhi Qian in 223-228 CE
- Wéimójié Suǒshuō Jīng (維摩詰所說經) – translated by Kumārajīva in 406 CE
- Shuō Wúgòuchēng Jīng (說無垢稱經) – translated by Xuanzang in 650 CE
Earlier translations had been done by Lokakṣema (188 CE), Dharmarakṣa (308 CE), Upaśūnya (545 CE), and Jñānagupta (591 CE). Of the three extant renditions, Kumarajiva’s has traditionally been the most popular.
In the English language, there are more than four versions being translated, some of which have been translated from the Chinese version by Kumarajiva, and others being translated from the Tibetan version in the Kanjur Canon. Most Japanese versions are based on Kumarajiva’s version.
This time Khenpo Sodargye will give the oral transmission of the Vimalakirti Sutra by reading its Tibetan version from the Kanjur Canon. And since he teaches in Chinese, the Kumarajiva’s translation is chosen as the main text for Chinese students. For English speakers, John McRae’s translation from Kumarajiva’s version is recommended.
When comparing the Chinese and Tibetan versions, Khenpo found that Xuanzang’s translation is much closer to the Tibetan version. Nevertheless, Khenpo still decided to use Kumarajiva’s translation to give the teaching. The reasons are twofold. First, the Kumarajiva’s version is full of incredible blessings. Of course it does not mean that Xuanzang’s version does not have blessings at all, but Khenpo himself feels a strong connection to Kumarajiva’s version. Second, Kumarajiva’s translations such as the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, as well as the Vimalakirti Sutra, all had gained extreme popularity within Han Chinese throughout history. Both ordained and lay practitioners have great faith in his translations.
What Benefits will the Teaching Bring to You?
More than 1,500 years after Kumarajiva translated the Vimalakirti Sutra into Chinese, the sutra made great impact in various aspects of Han Chinese culture and art such as sculpture, painting, drama, and so on. Knowing that it has integrated people’s lives, we should spend time to get to know the profound meanings behind this sutra.
Unlike the Diamond Sutra or Condensed Prajnaparamita, which contains lots of profound philosophies that might appear abstract to people without much Buddhist theoretical background, or the Sutra of one Hundred Karmas and the Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish, which mainly focus on interesting stories but lack theories and logic, the Vimalakirti Sutra is a combination of both vivid stories and profound theoretical teachings that can counteract mental afflictions in our mind. If one can understand this sutra in great detail, one will definitely gain much benefit for taming the mind.
Back in May 9, 2017, Khenpo Sodargye announced that if the circumstances were favorable, he would like to give the teaching of the Vimalakirti Sutra in the following year, because he believes that in this day and age, this sutra can greatly benefit modern people from four aspects:
- To lay practitioners, the Vimalakirti Sutra provides instructions for transforming pain and afflictions onto the spiritual path. In this modern age, more than 90% Buddhists or Buddhism lovers are lay people. This sutra exactly talks about being a lay practitioner, how to tame one’s mind and cope with one’s mental afflictions, and furthermore, how to achieve enlightenment.
- The Vimalakirti Sutra is a rare sutra which well combines the profound teachings in both Sutrayana and Tantrayana. It is indeed a sutra that contains pinnacle teachings according to Tantrayana, some of which are very similar to the pointing-out instructions in Dzogchen, such as “if your mind is pure, the land is pure” and “affliction is bodhi”. Moreover, unlike any Tantrayana teachings, the study of this sutra does not require the completion of five hundred thousand preliminary practices, nor a specific empowerment from a certain guru, which makes it accessible to an even larger audience.
- The Vimalakirti Sutra is a great pith-instruction book which demonstrates super power as a direct antidote to mental afflictions. This is especially needed in the modern society, where people have much mental afflictions deriving from desire, technology, chores, and so on. The wisdom and instructions inside this sutra can be of great benefits to modern people’s life, work, and spiritual practice.
- During the teaching, Khenpo Sodargye offers you the precious and pure oral transmission of this sutra. In Buddhism, both in Sutrayana and Tantrayana, oral transmission is always emphasized. Without the oral transmission of a certain text, one is not allowed to give its teaching to others. But once you receive the oral transmission of this sutra, you are able to pass it on to those who are interested, hence making sure that this sutra can be widely spread in the future. Khenpo believes that given its powerful blessings and unique pith instructions, no matter from which perspective, theoretical studies or personal practice, the teaching and the study of this sutra will greatly benefit numerous beings.
Before starting the teaching Khenpo made a prayer to all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, lineage masters as well as Dharma protectors and Devas who protects the Dharma, to grand blessings and to ensure that the teaching will be thoroughly transmitted and taught, and that everyone attending this course will successfully complete the teaching as well as receive the entire transmission.
Khenpo also prayed to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to grand blessings to every student, so that not only can everyone understand the theoretical teachings in this sutra, but also achieve certain level of realization of its profound meanings and be able to truly transform afflictions into wisdom.
Nowadays practitioners need bigger heart and deeper wisdom, and this sutra exactly provides efficient instructions on how to accomplish that aim. Most of afflictions arise due to a narrow and clinging mind; when the mind is in a clinging, anxious or depressing state, it becomes fragile. Some practitioners are too “tight”, causing their practice and even their interpersonal relations to deteriorate. The fundamental reason behind this is a lack of deepening of study and practice. Therefore, Khenpo sincerely hopes that this sutra can bring practical and genuine benefits to everyone.
Khenpo’s Expectations for Those Who Follow the Teaching
Usually every Monday and Tuesday, the class starts at 7:30pm, and lasts for two hours, including the chanting before and after class. Khenpo Sodargye strongly encourages the audience to complete the class within these two hours. As tens of thousands of practitioners will be chanting the prayers and making aspirations all together, those who understand the law of causality can imagine how immeasurable is the merit generated by such collective group practice.
In 1987 when His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche was still alive, there was no internet at Larung Gar and only around 1,000 people were present during the teaching. Yet, His Holiness cherished group chanting a lot, saying that if all the audience chant the King of Aspiration Prayers once, everyone is able to accumulate a thousand times of merit. Later, in 1996, when His Holiness composed the Song of Victory, there were about 5,000 to 6,000 monastic students. So His Holiness said, “Even if you don’t understand my teaching, just by chanting the King of Aspiration Prayers together with the whole sangha, you are able to accumulate immeasurable merit.”
Due to the influence of His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, as well as to his strong faith in Mahayana teaching, Khenpo Sodargye places great importance on chanting. Consequently, he encourages everyone to complete the chanting before and after class.
For those who don’t have time to participate in the chanting, receiving the full live teaching, which takes about one hour, is highly encouraged. The formal teaching starts at 8pm, is the most “juicy” part of the meal so to speak. As Khenpo pointed out, westerners and urban audiences who may not be interested in chanting or who do not have enough time should at least try their best to complete his live teaching.
Again for those who are extremely tied up with other chores, you should at least receive the oral transmission offered during the live streaming. The transmission only lasts for about ten to fifteen minutes. After the chanting, at 8pm, Khenpo will start with giving the oral transmission in Tibetan. If you want to get the transmission, you must attend the live streaming. Later on, you may find your own time to receive the oral teaching by following the video recording, which will be available on Khenpo’s Facebook page.
No matter if you watch the teaching live or via delayed recording, Khenpo wishes that those who decide to join the class and follow the study of this sutra, should persevere from the beginning to the end, to start well and end well. These are the expectations that Khenpo has toward all the students.
What You Need to Do Before & After the Teaching?
A Proper Attitude for Receiving the Teaching
Khenpo Sodargye as well as his team put lots of efforts into the preparation of the course on the Vimalakirti Sutra. Since the announcement was made last year, many people got intrigued and registered for this course. Given that tens of thousands of people from all over the world show interest in studying this sutra, Khenpo pointed out that the Dharma is not drama. In fact, while you may feel an immediate impact when watching a play, Dharma teaching doesn’t promise you the same immediate thrill. In order to enjoy the delicacy of the Dharma, persistence is the key.
If we read their biographies and stories, we may notice that masters of the past put listening and practicing the Dharma as priority in their whole life. They are perfect examples for us to learn from. It is important to prioritize the Dharma in our life, because this is the only way that we can be benefit from it.
Therefore, Khenpo wishes everyone to keep a stable mindset and to make a strong determination to complete the study of this sutra, which may take a couple of years. One may make a quick decision to register this course, maybe just out of curiosity. However, once getting started, it is quite necessary for everyone to seriously follow the teaching and consider it as a precious opportunity to improve oneself. If you feel that the teaching is some kind of entertainment that you may enjoy only during your leisure time, your study can hardly bring any change.
Khenpo hopes that after a couple of lectures, the audience will remain stable. After the opening part of this sutra, many essential instructions for transforming afflictions will be taught in great detail. So it is important to keep on listening to this course with a proper attitude and persistence. Only in this way can one receive great benefits from the Dharma teaching.
Of course these suggestions do not mean that Khenpo himself has strong attachment to every listener, nor does he want to convert everybody into his disciples. In this modern age which is occupied by all kinds of information, everybody needs an open space to make their own choice. It is impossible to limit anyone’s freedom and force them to do something. So Khenpo fully understand modern people’s mindset; however, for those who take the study and practice of the Dharma seriously, these suggestions are truly meaningful in helping them stay on the Dharma path and make spiritual progress.
What Prayers Are We Chanting?
In this lecture, Khenpo Sodargye kindly gave a brief introduction of the prayers being chanted before and after class, so that people can have a general idea of their incredible merit and develop a deeper faith in practicing them.
The 1st one is the Multiplying Mantra, as taught by Venerable Atisha, this mantra, when chanted even only once, can multiply whatever prayers you make by 10,000,000 times.
The 2nd one is the Verses of the Eight Noble Auspicious Ones. It invokes the power of goodness exemplified by buddhas and bodhisattvas. It can overcome any harm or obstacles. As it says in the colophon of the prayer:
If you recite this upon waking, all the tasks of the day will be accomplished. If you recite it when going to sleep, it will bring you good dreams. If you recite it when entering battle, it will bring total victory. If you recite it at the outset of a project, all aims and wishes will be fulfilled. If you recite it continually, you will enjoy a long life, glory, renown, prosperity, auspiciousness, abundant happiness and positivity, and the fulfilment of all wishes; all your misdeeds and obscurations will be purified, and you will achieve the higher realms and liberation. This was declared by the sublime victorious one himself.
The 3rd one is the liturgy of making offerings including the Clouds of Offering Mantra. The mantra is not only recited for receiving blessings, but it also has the power of multiplying the offerings. By reciting this mantra each buddha receives skies of offerings.
The 4th one is the Seven Limb Prayer in the King of Aspiration Prayers and the Bodhisattva vows, which are required as a daily practice for every Mahayana practitioner.
The 5th is Wang Du, which is chanted three times. Khenpo feels its blessing to be incredible. Therefore, last year he called people to chant it ten thousand times and prepared a red bead for everyone who finished the recitation on time. The red bead is blessed by all the Sangha members and by Khenpo himself. Such a small red bead may look ordinary. However, it has gathered the merits of billions of recitations, thus the energy that it contains is incredible.
Then it is followed by the Seven-line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche and the Prayer Which is the Source of All True Realization. The latter one arose from the lake of the mind of Ju Mipham Rinpoche at the age of 52. Once Khenpo Sodargye said that although there are many prayers of Guru Rinpoche that can dispel obscurations, this prayer is extraordinarily powerful.
The 7th one is the Treasury of Blessings—A Practice of Buddha Shakyamuni. This liturgy was chosen after Khenpo finished the translation of The Extensive Biography of Buddha Shakyamuni, in 2002. Back then, Khenpo had increasingly developed strong faith in and devotion to the Buddha, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if every Buddhist could supplicate to the Buddha before class?” Therefore, he added this liturgy to the current chanting as well.
Then it comes to the prayers to the Dharma protectors and His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche’s Guru Yoga. Finally, the last prayer is the Praise to Manjushri – Glorious Wisdom’s Excellent Qualities.
The chanting of all these prayers before the teaching takes about 30 minutes. Then after the actual teaching, we will dedicate all the merit by chanting the latter part of the King of Aspiration Prayers, which takes about 10 minutes.
For rather slacking practitioners, simply participating in the chanting could help them finish the daily chanting practice. On all accounts, as long as time permits, one should schedule 2 hours for the teaching to fully complete both the teaching and the chanting.
For people who don’t make a point of chanting prayers, the chants may feel quite lengthy, but for the ones who have faith in the vajra speech, 40 minutes of chanting is not at all lengthy, because the merit being gathered is truly incredible.
Use of Prayer Wheel During the Chanting
Khenpo uses a large prayer wheel when chanting before and after class. However, not many people outside the shrine hall know about this, as this scene doesn’t get broadcasted usually. The particular prayer wheel used by Khenpo was wielded by a great master during the culture revolution and contains The Great Liberation Sutra and Mani mantra in it.
Some western practitioners also use prayer wheels at the request of their teachers, but some don’t understand the meaning behind using prayer wheels. In fact, the benefits of using prayer wheels is immeasurable, and is taught in many sutras, shastras and tantras, some of which are translated into English.
Briefly speaking, turning a prayer wheel creates extensive merit and purifies negative karmas and obscurations. A prayer wheel provides great blessings so that one can remain physically and mentally healthy and never be apart from the Three Jewels. It has tremendous power to eliminate the self-cherishing mind that keeps us from cultivating compassion and from realizing perfect bodhichitta. When put besides a person’s deathbed pillow, a prayer wheel can protect even people with deep karmic hindrances from being reborn in the three lower realms.
In principle, turning a prayer wheel that contains 100 million mani mantras would accumulate as much merit as having verbally recited 100 million mani mantra. In those few seconds, you perform so much powerful purification and accumulate so much merit. Before his passing into parinirvana, His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche specifically gave some instructions and hopes to his students. Using prayer wheels was one of his hopes. It is in his book Always Remember that His Holiness once said:
The money you spend to buy a prayer wheel will reap infinite virtue that is inexhaustible. That is why their purchase is not an insignificant endeavor. It is an affordable and perfectly practical way to accumulate great merit, so procure one and spin it diligently!
Avoid spinning a prayer wheel that is not held straight up. Avoid leaving it on a bed or stepping over it. Always keep it in a clean place. These prayer wheels are actually the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara himself, so please bear this in mind.
So as Buddhist practitioners, we should use prayer wheels as part of our daily practice.
Who is Vimalakirti?
The Way of Naming a Sutra
Giving a scriptural text a name is of profound significance. As is mentioned in the Lankavatara Sutra:
the world is utterly wrapped in the cloud of confusion.
Therefore, thanks to the skillful means of the Buddha,
different names were given to each phenomenon.
There are specific ways to name a scriptural text, such as by the name of the people, by the place, by the time, by a metaphor, by content or by the amount of verses.
An example of naming by the place of the teaching is the Lankavatara Sutra, because the Buddha taught this sutra at a specific place called Lankavatara. An example of naming by the name of the people is the Sutra Requested by the Bodhisattva Maitreya. Examples of naming by a metaphor are the Lotus Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra, which are named by a metaphor that conveys the meaning of the text. An example of naming by content is the Sutra of the Ten Bhumis. Example of naming by the amount of verses are Prajnaparamita Sutra in 100,000 Stanzas, or Prajnaparamita Sutra in 8,000 Stanzas. An example of naming by the time of teaching is Meeting the Father and the Son Sutra. The Vimalakirti Sutra is named by the name of the main person in this sutra.
The full name of the Vimalakirti Sutra is called Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra. Vimalakirti is the name of a lay practitioner, who was quite an incredible figure in the Buddha’s time, and was the main person to give the teaching in most part of this sutra. Within his name, Vilmala means stainless or undefiled, and kirti means named or famed as. The word Nirdesha means instruction, advice or teaching.
Who is Vimalakirti?
Vimalakirti appears as a lay practitioner, and in the 12th chapter of this sutra, the Buddha Shakyamuni says that Vimalakirti came from the Immovable Buddha’s land called Wondrous Joy. According to other sutras, Vimalakirti is the manifestation of an ancient buddha named Jinsu Buddha.
The unfathomable manifestations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are beyond our limited way of thinking, therefore we should try to go beyond our cocoon mentality, go beyond our habitual tendencies of trying to fathom the unfathomable with our limited mind, otherwise it is just like a blind touching the elephant. If we use our dualistic conceptual mind to fathom the profound Dharma teachings, the true meaning cannot be revealed due to our hindrances of conceptual obscuration and afflictive obscuration.
According to the Mahāvaipulya Mahāsamghāta Sūtra, in the east direction passing by numerous buddha lands, there is a buddha land called Immeasurable and the Buddha called Five Qualities. A bodhisattva named Sun of Secret Bodhisattva also resides there, who sees many Bodhisattvas continuously heading to the west. Thus he curiously asks the Buddha: “Why are all the Bodhisattvas heading to the west?”
The Buddha answers: “There is a world called Saha to the west where Shakyamuni Buddha is turning the wheel of dharma, thus many Bodhisattvas all went to the west to listen to the Dharma. I shall give you a Dharani mantra so that you can go there and use it to make auspicious connections to the sentient beings in the Saha world.”
Sun of Secret Bodhisattva refuses the offer and replies: “I’ve heard that the Saha world is impure and chaotic, that is a place of degeneration, and I’d rather not go.”
The Buddha then says: “I’ve heard of a lay practitioner named Vimalakirti who resides in the Saha world, whose body is no other than your own. If so, why you are afraid of going?”
That’s when Sun of Secret Bodhisattva admitted in silence and goes to the Saha world with the Dharani mantra given by the Buddha.
Something Beyond Ordinary Thinking
It is hard for ordinary beings like us to imagine the behaviors of buddhas and bodhisattvas who can transform from one to many and from many to one. Just like in Je Tsongkapa’s biography, some described that his manifested body is residing in Mount Wutai, and some say he is turning the wheel of dharma in Tushita Heaven, among many other statements.
These type of descriptions are difficult for people with conceptual mind to understand, thus in some cases doubts even criticisms arise. Actually everything is possible, so please do not hastily reject new ideas. Especially when our knowledge is limited and our mind is constricted, we don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of our vast universe, the macro world, not even so much about the micro world.
We may get carried away by our smarts sometimes, but other times, we may feel utterly ignorant. For example, we ourselves don’t even know what is happening in the body, which we carry with us from birth all the way till the time we die. It is extremely difficult to describe all the structures within this body, and when we get sick, we ourselves have no idea what mechanism went wrong inside this body. If our wisdom is so limited when it comes to our own body, so limited that we can’t use our wisdom to verify science, how can we use this limited wisdom to verify the limitless realizations of the buddhas and bodhisattvas?
Some scholars may feel no one can out-smart them, and that they know everything already. On one hand it is good to have confidence, on the other hand, coming to quick conclusions and denying what is unknown to the current conceptual mind simply do not work. Thus, in connection to Vimalakirti Sutra, when you hear something that is hard to imagine, don’t reject it right away. If you were to reject it, at least you should come up with valid reasoning, otherwise coming to quick conclusions based on your doubts and ignorance could result to regrets.
The Merit of Listening to the Mahayana Sutra
Khenpo Sodargye intends to teach this sutra in a rather detailed style. When Master Chiyi of Tiantai School taught The Sutra on the White Lotus of Sublime Dharma, he spent 3 months alone on explaining the word “sublime” in the title. Khenpo will not be as explicit, but he explained that, this is a rare opportunity to teach this sutra to so many people, he is pleased and grateful to all the volunteers who made this course possible and to audience who attend this course, thus he is going to take his time to expand on the teachings, even if he ends up only teaching 4 verses in one class.
We should all be aware of the merit of listening to the Mahayana teaching. The Jewel Heaped Sutra states: “If one had offered seven treasures to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas in the ten directions, the merit is not as great as listening to over one four-line stanza of Mahayana teaching.”
Now we have been listening to the Mahayana teachings that is more than one stanza, Khenpo feels happy about the merit that we all accumulate. Especially we all make aspiration for Bodhicitta, chant prayers before class and dedicate the merit after class, all of which make this human existence valuable and meaningful. Even if our listening is not of one-pointed focus, the merit accumulated is still inexhaustible.
Who is Kumarajiva?
Kumarajiva is a great sage and an extraordinary translator in the Later Qin Dynasty. He is considered as one of the four greatest translators in Han Buddhism, and the other three are Paramartha, Xuanzang and Amoghavajra. Of course there are many other translators who had made indelible contributions in history as well.
Originally of Indian noble descent, Kumarajiva came from a family of distinction which had produced prime ministers for many generations. His grandfather was also supposed to have had a great reputation in the country. However, unlike his forefathers, Kumarajiva’s father, named Kumarayana, was unmoved by fame or position. He left home and became a monk, crossed the Pamirs, and arrived in Kucha, where he married the king’s sagacious sister, Jivaka, and produced Kumarajiva.
During her pregnancy, Jivaka’s wisdom and compassion increased to an unusual extent. Just like when Ananda’s mother was pregnant with Ananda, Jivaka suddenly understood many other languages and great compassion arose in her heart. In general, many auspicious signs were exhibited during her pregnancy.
After Kumarajiva was born, this young boy demonstrated many unusual signs such as the ability of memorizing upon seeing, naturally having kindness and compassion. When Kumarajiva was 7 years old, Jivaka wanted to get ordained. At beginning Kumarayana did not agree at all, then it is said that with a firm renunciation in her mind, she went on a hunger strike for 7 days and 7 nights. When her life was hanging on a thread during her hunger strike, Kumarayana finally agreed to her request, thus she was ordained and left home with the young Kumarajiva.
Kumarajiva’s mother and him traveled around Kashmir and many other places in ancient India and studied the Dharma with many Theravada and Mahayana teachers. When they were in India, Jivaka attained enlightenment and decided to stay in India. At first Kumarajiva wanted to stay with his mother, but through her wisdom, Jivaka foresaw that though there would be grave difficulties and many hard-to-endure obstacles to Kumarajiva himself, the Dharma could flourish if he was to go to China. After telling him so, Kumarajiva assertively chose to go to China, and said that he would plunge into an ocean of fire if that’s what it takes to propagate the Dharma and benefit sentient beings.
At that time, Emperor Fujian of the Former Qin Dynasty knew of Kumarajiva’s preeminent scholarship, so he sent a delegation to invite him to court in Changan. Nevertheless, on the way back Lüguang, the general sent to conquer Kucha and fetch Kumarajiva, heard that Emperor Fujian was killed and his kingship was taken by Yaochang. Taking advantage of the situation, he rebelled and declared himself the new king of Liangzhou in 386 A.D., and, subsequently, became known as the founder of the Later Liang Dynasty. Since then Lüguang had Kumarajiva captured in Liangzhou for nearly 18 years.
Eventually in 401 A.D., following the defeat of Lüguang’s armies, Kumarajīva was brought back to Changan at the edict of the Later Qin Emperor, Yaoxing, the son of Yaochang. At that time, Kumarajīva was already 58 years old. Upon arrival in the capital of the new state, he immediately engaged himself in translation projects. During the 11 years between then and his death, he translated more than 300 volumes of sutras and shastras. The current Caotang Temple in Xi’an was one of the places where he did translation, and today there is a stupa over there that keeps the relics of Kumarajiva.
Kumarajiva’s Translation Style
Kumarajiva’s translation style is renowned for its beauty of diction, and conciseness of content. Because he didn’t follow the literal translation style, many people questioned the correctness of his translation. Facing these controversies, Kumarajiva vowed in front of the large public that: “If what I’ve translated is correct to the genuine meaning of the Dharma, may my tongue be unburnt after cremation of my body.” Miraculously, after his cremation, his tongue was preserved, despite this being the softest part of human body. This is the power of his vajra speech.
So it is not surprising that many Kumarajiva’s translations of seminal Mahayana texts have often remained the most popular till today, which include Diamond Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika and Dvadashanikaya Shastra, Aryadeva’s Shatashastra and so on. His translations have become the most fundamental and essential texts for all the eight major schools of Han Buddhism, such as Pureland School, Chan School, Tiantai School and Huayan School.
Some scholars also consider that Kumarajiva’s translation of The Lotus Sutra and Diamond Sutra laid a firm foundation to Chan School in China, before Bodhidharma came from India and formally transmitted Chan Buddhism to China. During the time of Bodhidharma’s arrival, the Han Chinese were already not strangers to the concepts of emptiness and prajnaparamita, which made them more accepting to Bodhidharma’s teaching. From this perspective, the flourishing of Chan Buddhism in China cannot be separated from the aspiration and effort of Kumarajiva and his translations.
When Khenpo Sodargye was looking into the different versions, he felt that although the Xuangzang’s translation align really well with the Tibetan translation, nevertheless he chose the Kumarajiva’s translation because of its excellent readability and the special transmission of the blessings that it carries within.
Kumarajiva stands out the crowd of translators due to his unusual aspiration and numinous blessings. From a literary perspective, some translators may have similar translations, but from a numinous perspective, due to the differences of aspirations and the strength of blessings, some translations slowly disappeared in time after passing of the translator, while some others flourished around this world.
Having heard so much about the merit of the Vimalakirti Sutra and its translation, now that we have this precious opportunity to study this amazing sutra, shouldn’t we be joyous and study with great faith?
Some Academic Issues
Some scholars nowadays consider Kamalasila as the same person of Kumarajiva but Khenpo Rinpoche disagrees with this opinion. The reasons are, firstly, the timeline of their birth and death doesn’t fit; secondly, in history Kamalasila had great debates with Heshang Moheya, whose opinion actually quite close to Bodhidharma’s Chan idea. So this opinion is not supported by either historical facts or academic perspectives.
The western scholars usually put much emphasis on historical facts, and this is a good point that we as dharma teachers should learn from them. As Khenpo said, “I visited university professors of Buddhism and their classes many times, and I always notice that they spend much efforts on the biographies and the related histories when they try to understand a certain great Buddhist master.”
Being Buddhists, before the actual studying of a sutra or a shastra, we should get to know the background of the author and the translator, not only from an academic point of view but also from the Buddhist point of view. For example, before going to the real text of the Vimalakirti Sutra, we started off by getting to know its translator, Kumarajiva. From the Buddhist point of view, the emphasis should be placed on his study and practice of the Dharma, his personal realization, and his qualities and aspirations during time of living, as well as the influence after his death, such as if there were relics left, so that the followers would develop strong faith in his works. From an academic point of view, the emphasis should be placed on his birth and death, the society, culture and history during that period of time, as well as the contributions he made to the whole society during his living. All of these information from these two perspectives are quite indispensable for dharma practitioners to know well about this great translator.
When & Where the Teaching Takes Place?
Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was in the garden of Amrapali near Vaisali, in the company of a great congregation of eight thousand bhiksus.
There were thirty-two thousand bodhisattvas, …
Thus Have I Heard
The first chapter of the Vimalakirti Sutra is titled Buddha Land, with the main theme of “pure mind, pure land”. All the Buddhist sutras start with Thus have I heard, which means the following words are exactly what the hearer, I, have heard in front of the Buddha, and here “I” refers to Ananda.
- The Meaning of Thus Have I Heard
In the Nirvana Sutra, Ananda asked the Buddha, “Buddha, you have spoken many sutras. When we compile them, with what words should they begin?” The Buddha answered that all sutras spoken by the Buddha should begin with the words, “Thus have I heard”, and then followed by when and where the teaching took place. It means that the Dharma which is Thus can be believed, and the hearer personally heard it. The Buddha also gave Ananda permission that at the end of a sutra, he may include the praises given by human, non-human beings, devas and others.
The Phrase “Thus have I heard” may appear simple, yet the implication is rather profound. When Ananda, Mahakashyapa and Upali compiled the tripitakas of the Buddha, it was with their Dharani of unforgetting that they were able to transcribe all the teaching of the Buddha precisely. So “Thus have I heard” shows the high accuracy of the wordings, rather than a vague and approximate record.
In the Commentary on Vimalakirti Sutra composed by Master Sengzhao, one of the main disciples of Kumarajiva, it includes Kumarajiva’s comments saying that, if there were not “Thus have I heard”, people might think that this text were not actually taught by the Buddha himself, and its compiler could have added his own thoughts into the text, and as a result it could cause doubt about the reliability of the sutra, and introduce disagreement or even conflicts among the followers.
- A Well-Established Tradition to Maintain the Pure Transmission of the Teaching
In fact, it is not unique in Buddhist sutras. For example, this is also the method used in Confucianism, the texts such as Analects of Confucius and Classics of Filial Piety also start with “Confucius says”, which means that the teachings of Confucius were well documented by his disciples after his passing. Back to 2,500 years ago, the situations were probably quite same, that is, after a certain great sage died, his followers started to compile his teaching into scriptures.
In Buddhism, this tradition is very well preserved and the pure transmission of the Dharma teaching remains till today. For example, once Khenpo Sodargye told his students: “His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche gave the Vajrayana teachings in this way, thus I am following the same way to give the teaching. This is what I have heard in front of my guru, therefore I am transmitting the same teaching to everyone, to make sure that there are no personal and individual conceptual thoughts being added to the teaching.”
The lessons here are, whenever we are transcribing commentary or class notes onto paper, we need to make sure we are transcribing “what I have heard”. That being said, some addition and omissions are also needed, because oral teachings and written teachings are still different. Oral teaching commentates to various conditions, such as the audience, the environment and general atmosphere, it is also more relaxed and can have more repetition. When it comes to written format, however, it needs to be more concise, because the written words will pass on to generations to come.
Though we have the recording technology, it is still necessary to transcribe the oral teaching into the words. In terms of transcribing, Khenpo said, “On one hand, I am very grateful to the transcribers who organized my teachings into words; on the other hand, I will not be pleased if serious additions were made and twisted the original meaning of the teaching, in that case it has lost the essence of making written copies based on the teacher’s intent.” Therefore, it is quite crucial to stick to the teacher’s intent and understand the real meaning of each word. Nevertheless, we shall be grateful to the work the volunteers put into transcripts, as it is quite time consuming.
For some great masters, their teachings are transcribed only after their passing away; while for some others, their teachings are organized into very good written format when they are still alive. If the teachings of great masters, Khenpos or Khenmos can bring benefits to many people, it’s better to make them available in written format and in different languages. Otherwise when a great master passes away, it is hard for the disciples to collect and document the related materials.
When His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche was alive, he was very strict on transcribing his oral teachings, because he taught in a relaxed fashion. Now His Holiness is no longer with us, his disciples had to search everywhere for his precious teachings. A little while ago, Khenpo Sodargye got some teaching videos of His Holiness, which he cherishes as treasures, but to transcribe the recorded teachings could be very difficult, as there is no one to go to for the clarification on the content anymore.
When & Where the Teaching Takes Place?
The following are the five perfection of the teaching, i.e., when and where the teaching takes place, who is giving the teaching, who are receiving the teaching, and what is teaching.
At one time indicates that there is no specific date recorded in sutras, which may appear rather vague, almost as if Ananda didn’t remember the exact date and time. In fact, it has quite significant meanings, as the Buddha taught different sentient beings according to their unique capacities and perceptions, such as devas, nagas or humans, so the sense of time is different to them all.
From a scientific point of view, different planets and stars also have different times, due to their rotation and revolution. Even on the same planet, for example, this Earth, difference places also have different time zones. Albert Einstein used to say, “Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.” It is not easy to understand by our ordinary thought, but indeed it is much closer to the true reality. Therefore, the term “at one time” is quite a good word to convey such subtlety.
…the Buddha was in the garden of Amrapali near Vaisali, in the company of a great congregation of eight thousand bhiksus.
There were thirty-two thousand bodhisattvas, …
Vaisali was a city in present-day Bihar, India, and now an archaeological site. It used to be one of the six largest cities in ancient India. It is near Vaisali that Ananda passed into nirvana, and today the Ananda Stupa is still well preserved. Khenpo went to the site years ago in an afternoon, and he felt the city being rather small. But according to historical literature it used to be a beautiful and prosperous city. Buddha Shakyamuni gave many teachings in Visalia, including The Medicine Buddha Sutra and some other Vajrayana teachings.
Amrapali is the name of a royal concubine of the King Bimbisara, who was born from a Amrapali tree in a garden, so later that garden was called the garden of Amrapali, or Ambapali vana, and was offered to Buddha Shakyamuni as his vihara (place to teach and practice).
Amrapali tree is mango tree. Indians really like mangos, they cook lots of food with mango, just like potatoes to Chinese. In Letter to a Friend by Nagajuna, a metaphor of mango is used to describe four types of practitioners, and as practitioners we should remember it often:
People are like mango fruits:
Unripe, but seemingly ripe;
Ripe, but seemingly unripe;
Unripe appearing unripe; and ripe appearing as ripe.
There are eight thousand bhikṣus and thirty-two thousand bodhisattvas gathering together to receive the Buddha’s teaching. This part briefly tells us the large assembly around the Buddha.
The Three Styles of Teaching
There are many teaching methods in Tibetan Buddhism, most of which have come from one of the two lineage schools, either from Nalanda University or Vikramashila University in ancient India. The most often used methods are listed as follows:
Structural teaching, like tiger leaping through ravines
Just like tiger leaping through ravines without any difficulty, the structural teaching uses the concisest words to encapsulate the entire content of a text by following its textual outline.
Among the mountains or inside forests, tigers can leap without any effort, from one tree top to another, from one hill to another, in a short period of time. The structural teaching of a text is quite similar to this. Take the Vimalakirti Sutra as an example; some masters, from both the Tibetan tradition and the Han tradition, teach the entire sutra within only a few classes. With the tiger leaping way of teaching, a few classes on the Vimalakirti Sutra is a legitimate way of teaching the Dharma.
Or it may be interpreted from another aspect. As tiger’s each step is unpredictable, it can leap from one place to another without a predestined direction, the same applies to our train of thoughts. It is the best to follow a step-by-step method, where a good link of logic could be followed, but being unpredictable could also be a modern style that people tend to enjoy as well, just like some public speeches given by western speakers or scenes in a movie, where it suddenly cuts from one scene to another. Indeed, it’s not without a good reason at all that the speaker jumps from one topic to another. There are still some hidden meanings or intent that the speaker wants to express, although it might be too fast for general listeners to follow his or her thinking.
Detailed explanation, like turtle’s movement.
Such a method explains a given text word by word, and sentence by sentence, without any skipping. So it is a slow and step-by-step way of teaching, just like how the turtle moves very slowly. By following this way, people can understand the subtle and hidden meanings of each word and each sentence.
There are people who don’t understand the importance of this teaching method, and may feel the words are easy to understand, thus no point of repeating them in other words. However, considering that all sentient beings have very different capacities, to some people, detailed explanations are rather necessary. This is why many Indian masters composed shastras in such a detailed way.
Take Chandrakirti’s Clear Words as an example, to explain “all conceptual constructs utterly subside” in the last verse in the 25th chapter of The Root Stanzas on the Middle Way, Chandrakirti elaborates this topic from 3 or 4 aspects, such as what’s the meaning of subside, does it subside of all conceptual constructs, what’s the meaning of conceptual constructs? Another example is Garab Dorje’s commentary on the Tantra of Liberation by Wearing, in which it explains the text word by word, such as fabrication means conceptual thoughts, extinguishing means elimination, and it is from its root that all graspings are eliminated. Sometimes people may feel the terms being explained are quite similar to those terms being used to explain. But somehow, the turtle moving way of teaching is necessary for many followers.
Summarization, like snow lion.
The snow lion is majestic, especially when it is standing on the top of a snow mountain, taking a bird’s eye view over all the other animals. It is just like how the teaching of summarization points out the essential meaning of every part of a given text, and each of them cannot be refuted or replaced by any other similar statement.
Masters from the past taught the Dharma in the three styles that are listed above. If you knew these styles, you would be able to identify the particular style of teaching right away, and you won’t be feeling lost or irritated by a distinctive style.
Qualities of Bodhisattvas
…recognized by the congregation.
All the bodhisattvas were well known by the assembly. Like the sun and the moon in the sky, the bodhisattvas brightened the world; or like the wisdom eye of all beings, they guided people onto the path of liberation; and they were renowned in the world for their wisdom, compassion and great virtues.
In this sutra, there are only a few names of bodhisattvas mentioned, such as Manjushri, Avalokitesvara and so on. However, we should be aware that innumerable bodhisattvas manifested in this world back at the time of the Buddha, after Buddha’s parinirvana in the past, and they are still manifesting in the present, and will continue to manifest in the future. All these bodhisattvas from the past, present and future are adorned by the qualities listed in the following descriptions.
Compared with the renown of bodhisattvas, the worldly people nowadays are renowned for their abilities of accumulating wealth, their good looks, their artistic skills and so on. In this era, general public values are so different that people with the great qualities mentioned here are probably not well known.
As Mahayana practitioners, since we all make the aspiration of bodhichitta, we should get to know the qualities of bodhisattvas, and further reflect upon ourselves to see what kind of qualities we’ve already obtained, and what kind of qualities we still lack. Surely, we can work now to obtain the qualities which are lacking.
The [bodhisattvas present] had all accomplished the original practices of great wisdom;
All the bodhisattvas had attained great wisdom, and their actions practiced were all virtues. Great wisdom here refers to the wisdom of the realization of emptiness. Original practices are the practices of six paramitas which are characterized by the altruistic actions of benefitting others. In other words, they had all accomplished wisdom and compassion, the wisdom of knowing the truth of all phenomena, and the compassion of practicing six paramitas to benefit others. These two are the main characteristics of a great bodhisattva. If one possesses these two characteristics, one can be called as an authentic bodhisattva.
Another perspective to explain this is from the view, practice, action and fruition point of view: the view of Mahayana is wisdom of no-self; the action is to benefit others; the practice upon these two leads to the fruition of the perfect union of wisdom and compassion, or the accomplishment of the original practices of great wisdom.
were established by the numinous charisma of the buddhas;
The Bodhisattvas had already obtained the numinous charisma of the buddhas. Instead of “numinous charisma”, the word “blessings” was used in both Tibetan translation and the Chinese translation by Xuanzang. Maybe the word “blessings” was not used in the Chinese language back at the time of Kumarajiva, but more commonly used in the time of Xuanzang. For example, in Kumarajiva’s The Lotus Sutra, the similar word such as “numinous charisma” is used to express the meaning of blessing. Here, it means that the bodhisattvas were constantly empowered by the blessings of the buddhas in their body, speech and mind.
If bodhisattvas can’t even part from buddhas’ blessings in order to benefit sentient beings, each of us followers should neither part from the blessings of buddhas, bodhisattvas, lineage masters and root gurus. Why is that? Through the manifestation of bodhisattvas, we can deduce that we Buddhists must rely on the blessings from lineage masters and root gurus, otherwise, if the numinous strength is missing, with a lack of the power of blessings, even if one’s wisdom and eloquence are impressive, the ability to benefit others can be still weak.
In a short period of time, if some Buddhists accomplish in starting a Dharma center without the supplications to the lineage masters, the guru or the Three Jewels, Khenpo is concerned about the long-term development of such Buddhists as well as their Dharma activities. When we pray to Amitabha Buddha in order to take rebirth in Sukhavati, both the Buddha’s blessings and our own devotion must be present so that the result of being reborn in Sukhavati can come true. Similarly, if we have great devotion and constantly supplicate and visualize the lineage masters, buddhas, bodhisattvas and dharma protectors, the blessings will inevitably dissolve into our mind stream. When the blessings are completely bestowed, despite the lack of great personal capability, one can still easily accomplish many activities that benefit sentient beings. Khenpo believes these two: both strong devotions to the guru and the Three Jewels and the empowerment of blessings from them, together with the karmic connections from previous lives, are the key elements to give rise to the auspicious result of benefiting sentient beings.
Therefore, Khenpo Sodargye encourages us to make supplications frequently to buddhas and bodhisattvas. Do not remember them only when you are free or encounter some difficulties. Nor like some Buddhist scholars who only focus on academic study but neglect praying and supplicating. Instead, if those scholars could carry on their research together with genuine faith, their academic study would also progress further. That is because Buddhism contains not just purely intellectual studies, but also profound experiential realizations, which transcends words but can be experienced by one’s own mind. Without genuine faith, the understandings of Buddhism can be just partial and superficial. You may be able to understand the outer or even inner meanings of the Dharma, but definitely not the secret meanings of the Dharma, which can only be obtained through a genuine faith.
maintained the correct Dharma for the defense of the Dharma city;
From a literal point of view, the defense of the Dharma city means the bodhisattvas protect the dharma city of buddhas and bodhisattvas by upholding the correct dharma through listening, contemplating and meditating. Some commentaries explain the Dharma city as the true nature of all phenomena, which is from the perspective of the profundity of prajnaparamita, so the defense of the Dharma city means to abide in the true reality of phenomena.
Maintaining the correct Dharma includes the study and practice of the Dharma through listening, contemplating and meditating. We Buddhists must first study and practice the correct Dharma in this way, so that we are able to share the Dharma teaching with other living beings. Otherwise, if we ourselves do not even understand the profound meanings of the Dharma, how can we benefit others with the supreme Dharma?
So in terms of upholding the Dharma, one should engage in one’s own study and practice of the Dharma; furthermore, if one has a good ability, it’s better to set up dharma groups, establish dharma centers or clubs for college students or company employees. The merit of protecting and upholding the Dharma in this way is even more incredible. In the Sutra of Ten Cakras of Earth Store it is said that, “If in numerous eons, the wise are practicing diligently concentration, the merit and wisdom being generated are still not as great as protecting my teachings.” Here “my teaching” refers to the Dharma taught by the Buddha Shakyamuni.
We should be aware that, upholding the Dharma is the responsibility of every Buddhist, not just a job of great masters or dharma teachers. In fact, as soon as you become a Buddhist, you have the responsibility to protect the Dharma. It is just like a newlywed, at the moment of wedding, you carry the responsibility for the new family. So you should not be narrow-minded and consider yourself as the reaper of dharma, and others as the protector and propagators of the Dharma.
Since we have personally tasted the wonderful flavor of the Dharma, it is quite natural to share what we have learned with others. The intention is not to have a bigger group or to attract many fans, it should be a genuine wish to help all beings achieve liberation from samsara. We must maintain such a pure intention no matter what kind of activities we are engaged in.
As Buddha Shakyamuni said in the Nirvana Sutra, on certain occasions if necessary, the Buddhist followers can hold knife, swords and other weapons to protect the Dharma. The weapons are used only to overawe others, but not to kill others. The Buddha emphasized that protecting the Dharma is the essential discipline for Mahayana practitioners. However, when compared to other religions where killing others are allowed in order to protect their own religion, Buddhism advocates the protection at urgent times, but refrains from killing others.
made their names heard throughout the ten directions through their ability at the lion’s roar;
As the king of animals, the sound of the lion’s roar terrifies all the other animals. Similarly, as the essential philosophy of Buddhism, the teaching and the realization of emptiness by bodhisattvas can overthrow all the heterodox theories, because no other philosophers can defeat the teaching of the Middle Way in Buddhism. The sound of teaching on emptiness is all victorious, just like the lion’s roar.
Khenpo Sodargye encourages us to study the philosophy of the Middle Way more extensively and deeply. The great treatises such as The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, Four Hundred Verses on Middle Way, and Ornaments of the Middle Way all contain precious teachings and profound instructions on the Middle Way. People with rather solid foundations in the studies of the Middle Way have no trouble to understand the other Dharma teachings, such as the karmic law, and thus develop a strong confidence and devotion to the Three Jewels. Since they fully understand the true reality of all phenomena, and through the understanding they attain a reliable guidance for their lives, no matter what kind of challenges or difficulties they encounter, they can always face them with full confidence and bravery. However, people without much understanding of this true reality of emptiness, could be quite timid when being questioned or challenged by others.
Through their ability at the lion’s roar, the bodhisattvas’ names were heard throughout the ten directions. Some bodhisattvas are indeed quite famous, well known in all six realms, including the hell and heaven realm, such as Avalokitesvara, Manjushri and so on. Unlike celebrities or famous people who are only known in certain area or certain country, the bodhisattvas are well known in the ten directions thanks to their unusual aspirations and numinous power. This is still true in today’s society. People with great merits of the three studies, i.e., discipline, concentration and wisdom, are well known by others and these powerful and excellent inner qualities can never be defeated by any kind of jealousy or bad intentions.
befriended and pacified people without being requested;
Without being requested, the bodhisattvas brought the fruition of comfort and happiness to all sentient beings. Worldly people only help others when begged to do so. On the contrary, these bodhisattvas voluntarily benefited others without being supplicated or reminded; they engaged in helping others willingly and readily at all times.
Of courses under some circumstances there could be exceptions. For example, when the Buddha reached the profound and blissful state of awakening under the Bodhi tree, he remained for seven weeks in solitude without teaching because he felt no one would understand the depth of his realization. Thus, the celestial gods Brahma and Indra came on three occasions to supplicate him to turn the wheel of the Dharma. Indeed, this is a manifestation of the Buddha’s skillful means to remind people that the Dharma is precious and rare in this world. Living beings should deeply cherish it rather than being distracted and occupied by worldly concerns.
Back to us, if there is any opportunity to benefit others, we shouldn’t wait to be asked, otherwise the opportunity could be missed quickly. With the sincere aspiration of bodhichitta in our mind, whenever there are proper conditions to help others, we should naturally extend our helping hands without any hesitation. This is the nature of bodhisattvas and because of this, they are called the friend, the spiritual teacher and the savior of all living beings.
Exalted the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) and were thus able to keep them from being cut off;
In the Chinese version of this sutra, exalt has the connotation of inheriting and spreading to flourish. So exalted the Three Jewels means to carry on the Three Jewels and to ensure their continuance and prosperity, making certain that they never vanish. A Buddhist should always carry on the activities of the Three Jewels, of which the most important is to benefit all sentient beings. This mission should never cease in the generations to come.
The Three Jewels are: the awakened one as the teacher (Buddha), the teachings of the awakened one as the philosophy and doctrine (Dharma), and the community who follows the teaching (Sangha). These three together can bring happiness and peace to all living beings.
As Mahayana practitioners, we are obliged to carry on the activities of the Three Jewels and make the teachings of the Dharma flourish in the world. During this process, there will inevitably be difficulties and obstacles. Khenpo encourages us to be brave, not to be defeated by fear and sadness. As in our journey of life, we stumble through obstacles as well. However, the difficulties do not lie in the obstacles, but in our hearts. So if we have a strong and brave heart, nothing can harm us, but if we are weak-hearted, unfavorable conditions will continuously arise.
subjugated the vengeful Maras and controlled those of the heterodox paths;
Subjugated the vengeful Maras means Bodhisattvas had subjugated the four maras: the Mara of the destructive emotions, the Mara of the aggregates, the Mara of the Lord of Death, and the Mara of the sons of gods.
Having realized emptiness, bodhisattvas eliminated all mental afflictions such as greed, anger and ignorance, thus the Mara of the destructive emotions disappeared, which leaded to Bodhisattvas not being attached to the five aggregates. Then the Mara of the aggregates was eradicated, which in turn leaded to Bodhisattvas not being fearful of death, thus the Mara of the Lord of Death was destroyed. The Mara of the sons of gods refers to one of the desire realm gods named “Controlling Others’ Emanations”. Without fear of death, this Mara naturally lost his power in front of these bodhisattvas.
Therefore, subjugating the Maras doesn’t mean destroying the armies of the outside Maras by holding all kinds of weapons. It rather refers to subduing our mental afflictions and the Mara of our own mind stemming from self-clinging, which bring harm to both oneself and others.
Controlled those of the heterodox paths means to subdue all tirthikas who follow the heterodox paths. In ancient India, there were 96 kinds of tirthikas such as Vaisheshika and Samkhya. Today, the heterodox paths mainly refer to eternalism and nihilism, or the extreme views of existence and non-existence.
Nihilism refers to the belief that everything is short-lived and naturally comes into being. From that logic, the present world is originated by itself without causes and conditions. This is absolutely a wrong view. According to the principle of dependent arising, sentient beings have past and future lives, all phenomena depend on causes and conditions.
Eternalism refers to the conviction that that everything, including the creator, is permanent. However, whether being analyzed from a Buddhist perspective or from the scientific point of view, this view can’t be justified and will bring countless faults.
In a nutshell, other than eternalism and nihilism, any school whose view neither aligns with logic nor with the natural law, can be referred to as heterodox. In the course of seeking truth, we do not need to serve and respect any school which is not in accordance with the truth. This is the spirit of the Buddhist philosophy. Some people narrow-mindedly deem any non-Buddhist school automatically as tirthika, which is irrational.
were entirely purified and had forever transcended the impediments (i.e., afflictions);
Here impediments refer to five hindrances and ten fetters. “Hindrance” means being concealed and obscured by mental afflictions, which impairs one’s ability to take action and make progress. The five hindrances, namely sensory desire or greed, ill-will or aversion, sloth-and-torpor, restlessness-and-worry and doubt, are seen as the five major mind-related forces that hinder our ability to become concentrated.
According to Abhidharma, “fetters” means that sentient beings are tightly bound, thus they cannot attain freedom and liberation from samsara. Here ten fetters refer to ten destructive emotions, which are shamelessness, recklessness, jealousy, miserliness, worry, torpor, restlessness, sloth, anger, and the concealing of one’s own faults.
These Bodhisattvas were free of the five hindrances and ten fetters. As followers, we have not achieved their level yet, but we need to endeavor to keep our defilements in check. As ordinary beings, naturally we have faults and we need to strive to reduce them. We should not take for granted that once we take refuge in the Three Jewels, our mental afflictions will be uprooted straightaway. Some people are constantly worrying, “Oh, I still have negative emotions, what should I do?” This thought results in sadness, misery, despair, etc. An attitude like this is not necessary. We need to make steady efforts and then swiftly reach the destination.
maintained their minds always in peace and unhindered emancipation;
The bodhisattvas abided continuously in the true reality of all phenomena. Once realizing the true nature of all phenomena, the bodhisattvas were free from all kinds of hindrances and thus attain the ultimate liberation. In that case, they were able to maintain their mind in a constant state of peace.
Here emancipation refers to a sublime state of liberation that transcends conceptual thoughts. It means that when being free from any attachment, the mind dwells in a spacious, luminous and easeful state, which can eradicate any obscuration without any hindrance. These bodhisattvas were endowed with this quality. At present, it’s difficult for us to reach this state, but we need to make continuous efforts, which is the key to achieving this goal.
As Shantideva says in The Way of the Bodhisattva, “Like a tree you should remain.” Also, “So come what may, I’ll not upset my cheerful happiness of mind.” We should not be swayed by any situation that we encounter. We should just maintain a calm and peaceful mind instead of being caught up in any circumstance. As ordinary beings, we can put this teaching into our daily practice.
were unfailing in their mindfulness, concentration, dharani (i.e., memorization of the Dharma), and eloquence;
Bodhisattvas were endowed with sublime qualities, such as having constant mindfulness of their body, speech and mind; dwelling unceasingly in the concentration of the perfect union of emptiness and luminosity; memorizing words, meanings, and mantras incessantly, and having ceaseless eloquence.
The Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom and the commentary on The Flower Garland Sutra illustrate eloquence in seven different ways.
The first is direct eloquence, which means that one can answer any question in the most direct and simple manner.
The second is quick eloquence, which means that one can answer any question without any hesitation. Ordinary beings tend to stop for a while to think about the answer, while bodhisattvas always come up with the answer swiftly.
The third is eloquence according to different capacities and propensities. When answering a question, bodhisattvas are able to address the questioner’s mentality and cultural background, and to give the answer based on when and where this question is asked. This is highly important. For example, if we answer a secular question from the point of view of emptiness, or use many Buddhist terms in front of a non-Buddhist, then the inquisitor will have no understanding of our response.
The fourth is unmistaken eloquence, which means that the answer is in accordance with the truth and the right logic, thus it is unmistaken.
The fifth is uninterrupted eloquence, which means that the answer is in a smooth and flowing manner, sparking with witty remarks.
The sixth is eloquence from all different perspectives, which means that the answer has rich meanings, is profound, and is packed with extensive metaphors, scriptural and reasoning evidence.
The seventh is the most wonderful and melodious eloquence, which means that the way of answering entails five qualities: its meaning is clear and easy to understand; its sound can be heard from afar; its tone is like wonderful music; all beings love to hear it; and it is an unsurpassable answer.
were replete in charity, morality, forbearance, exertion, meditation, wisdom, and the power of skillful means;
These bodhisattvas were endowed with the ten paramitas: generosity (charity), discipline (morality), patience (forbearance), diligence (exertion), meditative concentration (meditation), wisdom, skillful means, strength, aspiration prayers and primordial wisdom.
had attained the forbearance of the nonarising of dharmas and the nonattainment [of all things];
These bodhisattvas had attained the wisdom of emptiness and reached the state free of conceptual thoughts, thus they realized that there is nothing to attain.
were able to accord with [the truth] in turning the irreversible wheel [of the Dharma];
Based on Khenpo’s teachings, this sentence should be understood as to “accord with the preference of beings” rather than to “accord with the truth”. These bodhisattvas were able to give proper teachings to different individuals according to their own capacity and propensity. In other words, they knew how to comply with others and to turn the Dharma wheel without any mistake and any rest.
Ordinary beings may share the Dharma teaching with others for certain periods of time, but their enthusiasm tends to ebb. On the contrary, bodhisattvas persevere to benefit living beings through turning the wheel of the Dharma and they will never give up this job.
Here Khenpo stresses the importance of turning the wheel of the Dharma, and encourages everybody to engage in such activities. Khenpo mentioned that he used to hold high expectations of someone for their ability of teaching the Dharma, as they had outstanding eloquence, wisdom and altruistic mind. However, maybe due to their lack of merit, when their Dharma teaching activities came across difficulties, or when they felt tired, they just failed to keep moving forward. This is such a pity! Or in some even worse cases, some Dharma teachers promote wrong views and make people blindly follow them because they are seemingly intelligent and smart, and because they have some background in Buddhist philosophy. This is quite dangerous both for themselves and for their followers.
understood well the characteristics of the dharmas and understood the capacities (lit., “roots”) of sentient beings;
These bodhisattvas had grasped the myriad characteristics of all phenomena, as illustrated in the Abhidharmakosa. Typically, the bodhisattvas fully understood the characteristics of all phenomena according to the three different yanas which are metaphorically represented as the sheep-chariot, the horse-chariot and the yak-chariot in the Lotus Sutra.
The bodhisattvas apprehended sentient being’s capacities and propensities. This ability is quite essential. Without a clear knowledge of sentient beings’ various capacities and propensities, it would be difficult to engage in even a simple task such as mediating the dispute between two persons. Besides giving the teachings of Sutrayana or Tantrayana, even when dealing with worldly matters, it is necessary to understand other’s propensities.
had attained fearlessness in sheltering the great congregations;
These bodhisattvas would not be influenced by the conceptual judgements of sentient beings, rather they were able to tame beings’ wild mind through their wisdom of selflessness, and thus they were fearless.
Some commentaries elaborate on the fearlessness of bodhisattvas from four aspects: possessing the Dharani of memorizing thus no fear; knowing living beings’ capacities thus no fear; being able to answer various questions thus no fear; being able to dispel various doubts thus no fear. Therefore, such fearlessness does not mean fighting with others by holding a weapon. Fearlessness rather comes from the realization of emptiness, the wisdom that leads us to the ultimate freedom. Khenpo emphasized that we can achieve similar fearlessness if we make continuous efforts to study and practice.