Mahayana and the Lay Boddhisattva

Boddhisattvas described in Mahayana literature are often human beings just like ourselves. I’d like to give you a couple of examples of Mahayana descriptions of Boddhisattvas so that you can get a sense of the kind of persons who were described as Boddhisattvas in this classical literature.

Vimalakirti: The Lay Boddhisattva

One of my favorite in the early literature of the Mahayana is the Boddhisattva known as Vimalakirti. He was a wise lay person who pretended that he was ill in order to teach a lesson to the Buddha’s monastic disciples. Let me paraphrase just a short account of Vimalakirti from the beginning of the Mahayana Sutra:

“In the city lived an Elder named Vimalakirti who dwelled there as Skillful Means for the salvation of other beings. For he used his measureless wealth to convert the poor and his own pure virtue to convert those who broke the precept. He controlled himself with patience to convert the scornful and strove with diligence to convert the lazy. He used this calm meditation to convert the confused and his wisdom to convert the ignorant. He used the white robes of a lay man, but he observed the pure conduct of a recluse.

He lived the household life but he wasn’t attached to the world. He had a wife and children, but always practiced the religious life. He wore jewels and ornaments, but adorned his body with the signs of greatness. He ate and drank but delighted with the taste of meditation. He went to the gambling halls, but he worked for the salvation of men. He knew all the worldly texts, but he always delighted in the teaching of the Buddha."

You Can Have an Ordinary Life

It is hard to see from this text how radical a shift of values this is. In the earlier tradition we always were talking largely about monks and nuns. The ideal practitioners of the Buddhist path were monks and nuns who engaged in an act of renunciation and pursued a monastic life. Now, this tradition was opening up explicitly for lay people. This is a way of saying that lay Buddhist values and the lay Buddhist life is a place where you can pursue the fundamental teaching of the Buddha. You can become a Boddhisattva and bring to ordinary lay life all the values of Buddhist life.

You can go out and have a couple of beers, you may live with your family, you may even go to a gambling hall, but you always do it in a way that is going to bring Buddhist values into that place. The Boddhisattva is engaged in the world. This is a crucial shift of the basic understanding of Buddhist life and it had a radical effect on Buddhism throughout Asia.

The Chinese world is very suspicious of monastic life because it seems to turn its back on the values of the family, but here on the figure of Vimalakirti you’ve got somebody who lives the Buddhist values within a context of ordinary lay life. The Buddhist tradition here is shifting in a way that takes it out of that strictly monastic ideal that was present in the early tradition.

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