Bodhisattvas have long been enigmatic and nebulous figures in the pantheon of Mahayana Buddhism, but recent scholarship however has managed to elucidate and outline their silhouette. The bodhisattva of early Mahayana is often portrayed as a contemplative, a learned practitioner and an elitist renunciant. The Vimalakirtinirdesasutra introduces, or rather highlights features of the bodhisattva that would at first glance lead one to amend its characterization. Indeed, Vimalakirti's role as a house-holder and more prominently, as a thaumaturge, sets the stage for a misevaluation of these roles' importance in Mahayana ontology. In the quest to reveal the truth of emptiness and non-duality to sentient beings, bodhisattvas in Mahayana literature such as Vimalikirti are often said to employ various skillful means. Some of these didactic technologies include appearing as lay people and house-holders, or displaying thaumaturgic powers for the sake of juxtaposing dichotomies in the hope of ultimately collapsing them. As it is often recalled in the Mahayana tradition, "all things are empty appearances."


Towards a Generic Sentient Being

    Supernatural power and marvelous activity--Drawing water and carrying firewood.

                         --Pang Yun ("Layman Pang")

In its very first lines, the Vimalakirtinirdesasutra introduces the main protagonist as a well-off, layman householder. This portrayal has buttressed the claims of most Mahayana historians who define the tradition as primarily lay. However, Vimalakirti's "this-wordly" nature is almost immediately hyphened as the text reads on:

    His immeasurable riches he used to relieve the poor […] though he dressed in the robes of a layman, he observed all the rules of pure conduct laid down for monks, and though he lived at home, he felt no attachment to the threefold world. One could see he had a wife and children, yet he was at all times chaste in action; obviously he had kin and household attendants, yet he always delighted in withdrawing from them. Although he wore jewels and finery, his real adornment was the auspicious marks; although he ate and drank like others, what he truly savored was the joy of meditation (from Watson trans. 32: 1997).

Rather than opposing lay and monastic, the text juxtaposes and to a certain extent overlaps them so as to efface the conceptual gap that traditionally lies between them. As shall be seen, the juxtapostion between mundane and numinous is a recurrent theme in the sutra. Monastic and lay are in fact revealed to be ultimately irrelevant distinctions--both ontologically and historically--throughout the development of Mahayana Buddhism.

Much like the gap between Mahayana and Nikaya Buddhism has been grossly exaggerated, so has the schism between monastic and lay. In fact, Harrison, relying mainly on Durt's work, has remarked that the categories of "lay" and "monastic" stem from inappropriate and simplistic Western conceptualizations (1995: 59). The inadequacy derives from the terms upasaka and upasika. They are usually translated as "layman" and "laywoman" but should refer to "persons hovering just below ordained status, those who are, as it were, semi-ordained" (Harrison 59). The discrepancy between these terms and those of bhiksu and bikhsuna is much less pronounced then some would suggest. The Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra actually tends to efface distinctions between monks and the "bodhisattvas wearing white." The spiritual demands and requirements are equally stringent for both groups and on one occasion, the sutra even interchanges categories when referring to the chief protagonist, Bhadrapala. Whether this inconsistency is deliberate or inadvertent, it reflects Mahayana's inclination towards spiritually categorizing its adherents rather than socially segregating them. Rather than reversing the conventional hierarchy and placing the laity above the clergy, Mahayana Buddhism and its glorification of the often lay bodhisattva advertises the absolute worth of bodhicitta and bodhisattvahood.

Once again, this theme is echoed in the pages of the Vimalakirtinirdesasutra under the form of the resolution of dichotomies, which incidentally, is one of its alternate titles (Yamakavyatyastahara). Narratively, the sutra employs binary oppositions and their juxtaposition/confusion to demonstrate the inherent emptiness and the ultimate illusory nature of dichotomies (and ultimately, all things). More concretely, Vimalakirti's house-holding is a skill in means that he uses to gain access to loci of defilement that are usually restricted to the clergy in order to preach the dharma. He enters gambling parlors, wine shops and brothels "solely to bring enlightenment to those there" (Watson 33). He also feigns illness in order to lure various disciples and bodhisattvas to his abode so that he can preach to them. This is in keeping with the traditional means by which advocates of the Middle Path eliminate the fixedness of polar opposites to open a middle ground of uniform emptiness. Indicative of the point that he wishes to make, Vimalakirti instructs Mahakashyapa:

    When you enter a village, think of it as an empty village. The forms you see there should appear as they would to a blind man, the sounds you hear should be mere echoes. The aromas you inhale should be so much thin air, the flavors you taste should be undifferentiated. Accept all sensations in accordance with the enlight- enment of wisdom, and understand that all phenomena are no more than phantom forms. They have no intrisic nature, nor do they take on any other nature. (Watson, 40).

Vimalkirti's reconciliation of dichotomies is so thoroughgoing that, hoping to inculcate the emptiness of all distinctions onto his hearers, he shocks various disciples and even advocates the five deadly sins, the heterodox teachings, and the sixty-two false views as legitimate components of the bodhisattva's path (Thurman, 7).


Mantic Monks, Brujo Bodhisattvas

Hence, the distinction between monastic and lay is in fact an illusory one which is used in the context of skillful means. This adequately introduces the topic of magic, or illusion and the bodhisattva's appropriation of it. Much like the house-holding, thaumaturgy is often considered a defining feature of bodhisattvahood. But once again, much like with house-holding, supranormal powers have been attributed too much weight as salient characteristics. They should more appropriately be read in the context of the doctrine of upaya in an effort to demonstrate the emptiness of all distinctions and things.

Harrison has argued for including magic as one of the developmental themes of early Mahayana. More precisely, he stresses that magic has been an under-emphasized, yet pivotal force in the (self)definition of bodhisattvas and early Mahayana (Harrison 63). According to Harrison, Buddhism has always been a "shamanic" religion rhetorically camouflaged by an all-pervasive monastic discourse and headed by masters of ecstasy rather than priestly intermediaries (64). As such, thaumaturgy seems to embody the very essence of Mahayana Buddhism and by extension that of its chief disseminator and exemplar, the bodhisattva. However, Harrison eventually undercuts the magnitude of his own argument by rendering magic a simple means to an end as opposed to a central tenet of the tradition. In order to legitimate itself as the self-proclaimed heir of Gautama's mantle, Mahayana Buddhism had to "sell itself" to other Buddhists and the population at large. One way of doing this was through the possession of relics, and another was through the (perceived) possession of ascetic techniques and associated magical powers. Hence, in Harrison's words, "magical apparitions and miraculous displays […] are not just some kind of narrative padding or scaffolding for the elaboration of doctrine; they are the very essence of the Mahayana's struggle to make a place for itself and to survive in a competitive environment" (66).

Instead of internalizing thaumaturgy as a core characteristic of Mahayana and the bodhisattva, this in effect marginalizes it as an external instrument. This utilitarian usage of magic is further reflected during Mahayana's inception and development in China, where an almost visceral thirst for the exotic attracted many of Buddhism's Chinese converts. Watanabe Shoei has argued that the ability of Buddhist masters (in this case Chan masters) to magically manipulate natural phenomena was the primary basis of their appeal to the masses (Shoei 161, from Faure 98). Indeed, the first line of Huijiao's treatise on divine marvels (shenyi) informs the reader that "the purpose of these divine acts is 'proselytism,' " just as Daoxuan tells us in the treatise to his chapter on wonder-workers that "without this [thaumaturgy], it would be difficult to spread [Buddhism]" (Kieschnick 68). Magic, and more generally accounts of supernatural skill, were thus "hooks" that catered to the Chinese fascination with thaumaturgy and the exotic. In the early part of last century, Holmes Welch interviewed Chinese monks asking them why they had joined the clergy and one monk simply replied that he did so in order to obtain supernormal powers (Welch 260).

Conversely, the monastic establishment often dismissed such powers as a mere by-product of samadhi or intense ascetic practice. As Kieschnick relates, supernormal powers and the ability to perform wonder-works were incidental manifestations of spiritual progress; they came naturally to the adept as a result of his practice and he was expected to discount them as of relatively minor import (70). The most common magical powers encountered in Chinese Buddhist texts were divided into six basic types, namely magical will (ruyi), supernormal hearing (tianer), mind-reading (taxintong), knowledge of one's previous lives (suzhutong), the ability to discern the previous lives of others (tianyan) and the state of having no outflows (defilements or desires) (wuloutong). Of these six powers or abhijna, only the last one is specifically Buddhist and belongs to the "formless realm." The five others are typically attainable by Buddhists and heretic non-Buddhists alike, hence they still belong to the realm of form and are therefore considered defiled dharma. In fact, there is an explicit proscription (duskrta offence) against publicly displaying such powers. According to some sources, the Buddha has likened this offence to the act of a woman displaying her genitals for money (Faure 103).

Later developments in Mahayana Buddhism such as Chan, may be largely seen as reactions against the Chinese tendency of reducing Buddhism to spell casting and mind reading (as exemplified by the famous layman Pang couplet). However, they were still considered to be a notable side-effect of assiduous spiritual practice, and preserved in the arsenal of proselytizing techniques notably employed by Bodhisattvas under the rubric of skillful means. The following paragraph from the Jingde chuandeng lu, fittingly illustrates the ambiguous attitude that medieval Chinese Buddhism held towards thaumaturgy:

    Once when the master [Huangbo] was travelling to Mount Tiantai, he met a monk on the way. They walked and talked together like old acquaintances…As they thus travelled along together, when they came to a swollen valley stream, Huangbo planted his staff, took off his hat, and stopped there. The other monk tried to take the master across with him, but the master said, "Please cross over yourself." The other one then gathered his robes and walked upon the waves as though treading on level ground. He looked back and said, "Come across! Come across!" The master upbraided him, saying, "You self-perfected fellow! If I had known you would concoct wonders, I would have broken your legs!" The other monk sighed in admiration and said, "You are a true vessel of the teaching of the Great Vehicle." As his words ended, he disappeared (Cleary 73, from Faure 107).

At the time that the Vimalakirtisutra was composed and later translated however, a major doctrinal backlash (which could define Chan's approach to thaumaturgy) against magic had not yet occurred and magic was an accepted means to the end of propagating Mahayana Buddhism. As Faure explains, supranormal powers (shentong) are "the descending movement of upaya, the "skillful means" through which the bodhisattva reaches out to sentient beings in his attempt to elevate them" (108). Vimalkirti displays his mantic prowess on repeated occasions throughout the sutra in order to almost caricaturally juxtapose the mundane and the numinous. Wordly and fantastic elements are paradoxically overlapped and contrasted to point to the transcendent emptiness of all forms. Vimalakirti directs the reader's attention to the realm of nondualism where conventional distinctions are shattered. However, all distinctions are not to be abandoned unconditionally; "what he [Vimalakirti] is calling for is an outlook that will somehow balance or hold in suspension the two seemingly contradictory views of reality and prevent either from becoming unduly dominant" (Watson 12). Eventually, the distinctions that are so vehemently negated appear to be, for didactic purposes, reasserted to some degree:

    He appears to possess wealth, but habitually regards it as transient and in fact covets none of it. He seems to have wives, concubines, and waiting women, yet he never sullies himself in the bog of five desires. He seems thick-tongued and clumsy in speech, yet commands great eloquence and retains all that he has learned, forgetting nothing. Though appearing to employ unorthodox methods of salvation, he follows the correct teaching in saving leaving beings (Watson 94).

Perhaps such a reassertion of negated polarities is better explained as an illustration of Hua Yen's principle of mutual nonobstruction of phenomena (shi shi wu ai), a demonstration, as Thurman puts it, of the effective complementarity of the "positive approach" of Avatamsaka and the "negative approach" of Prajanaparamita (9). By means of the resolution of dichotomies, the utter equivalence of voidness and the dazzling relativity of interpenetrating universes is revealed.

However, it is said that only Bodhisattvas "who stand in the absolute are able to enjoy the freedom of empty space" and experience the interpenetration of universes (Gomez 226). Hence, for most sentient beings, allusions, analogies and metaphorical references must be utilized à la "finger pointing to the moon." That, in essence, is what Vimalakirti reverts to with his use of magic. To elaborate, illusion and magic are summoned to paradoxically offer a foundation for the theory of salvation from illusion. Non-attachment is reified as an illusory form of action, and thus rendered empty. As the Samadhiraja elaborates:

    It is as when a well trained magician displays his magic, showing forms of many kinds, yet no form can be apprehended. Nor should one think of apprehending the unapprehendable; in apprehension [itself] there is no apprehension. This knowledge is like a magical apparition, yet it does not rest on appearances (Gomez 226).

The basis of the metaphor lies in the Buddhist conviction that all dharmas are inherently empty and illusory--they are just like magic. Therefore, bodhisattvas such as Vimalakirti often adopt thaumaturgy as a skillful means to juxtapose and compare illusion and "reality" (or rather, what the unenlightened perceive as reality). Eventually, the distinction becomes nil and both are collapsed in the ultimate reality of emptiness. In other words, at more levels than one, a bodhisattva's thaumaturgic production of illusory worlds and bodies corresponds to the true nature of the world. Gomez expatiates upon this question, claiming that wonder-working on a cognitive level, displays the emptiness of all things while on a soteriological level, it brings about the release of sentient beings (235). Williams also clarifies this point: "If all lacks inherent existence […] magical interventions, as real as anything else, […] reveal the true nature of things as much as anything else" (122). He goes on to state that since "the Buddha uses his magical interventions solely for the benefit of sentient beings, their use will reveal the true nature of things more openly […]; 'fictions' become 'reality' and 'reality' becomes 'fiction' " (122).

Nevertheless, it remains crucial to point out that "reality" is not a bodhisattva's magical concoction; it is like a bodhisattva's magical concoction. A bodhisattva's magic is a mere simile or reproduction of "reality," a skillful means for use in an analogy. The operative rationale being convenience, magic's legitimacy as a defining characteristic of the bodhisattva comes second only to the importance of the motivational factor. In his analysis of the bodhisattva as a liminal figure, Bernard Faure makes a strong case showing that magical skills are used for utilitarian purposes in mediating between the realms of the numinous and the mundane (108-131). In fact, according to Huan Xuan, any emphasis placed on thaumaturgy outside of the realm of skillful means, "far from being a proof of excellence, testified to the primitive nature [Daoism and folk superstition] in which the doctrine had originated" (Zurcher 265, from Faure 108). Gomez suggests that a bodhisattva's wonder-working (his vimoksa) represents the totality of his career, as the realization of absolute emptiness, the actualization of his dedication to the welfare of sentient beings, and the manifestation of his/her complete detachment (235). It seems more appropriate to substitute the emphasis placed on thaumaturgy with emphasis on skillful means. Indeed, skillful means, rather than house-holding or wonder-working, would more gracefully fit a model that would strive to define the bodhisattva. The doctrine of upaya, of which thaumaturgy is but one of many facets (granted, a critical one), is more representative of a bodhisattva's career and identity.

In conclusion, house-holding and wonder-working are often associated with the bodhisattva in early Mahayana scriptures. Most often than not however, these instances occur under the guise and motivational drive of upaya (fang bian), or skillful means. It is thus more fitting to incorporate the bodhisattva's affinity for the doctrine of skillful means into a definition of the figure rather than counting wonder-working and house-holding as inherent characteristics. As many sutras have taught us, there is enfin neither monastic nor lay, neither real nor illusion. The bodhisattva is above all, an embodiment of emptiness. Commenting on the formula "O Shariputra, all things are empty appearances" and providing insight on the question at hand, Hakuin concludes: "Like rubbing your eyes to make yourself see flowers in the air. If all things don't exist to begin with, then what do we want with 'empty appearances'? He is defecating and spraying pee all over a clean yard."


Cited Works

Faure, Bernard. The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Gomez, Luis Oscar. " The Bodhisattva as Wonder-Worker," in Prajnaparamita and Related Systems: Studies in Honor of Edward Conze, edited by Lewis Lancaster, 221-261. Berkeley CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1977.

Harrison, Paul Maxwell. "Searching of the Origins of the Mahayana: What Are We Looking For?" in The Eastern Buddhist, n.s. 28, no. 1 (1995): 48-69.

Kieschnick, John. The Eminent Monks: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Honolulu HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Thurman, Robert A. F., trans. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1976.

Watson, Burton, trans. The Vimalakirti Sutra. New York NY: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Welch, Holmes. The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900-1950. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.