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Favourite books: ‘The Vimalakirti Nirdesa’ by Maurice Shokatsu George

In my youth, a long long time ago, I must have been searching for the ‘meaning of life’ or at least an arrow pointing in the right direction. I knew one thing: that the belief in a creator god was primitive and superstitious. This I had learned from my readings of Voltaire and other luminaries of the French ‘Enlightenment’ (not in the Buddhist sense) which eliminated theism from my world-view.

I never missed a chance of attacking god-worship and mocked anyone daft enough to express a belief in such a mythical entity. (It’s a bit late for me to apologise to the numerous friends and colleagues whom I offended.)

I then came across a book called ‘The Compassionate Buddha‘* in paperback, published in 1955. Out of curiosity, I read the first page and the words ‘This being, that becomes’. I clearly remember my immediate reaction: this is pure metaphysical nonsense. Little did I realise that this was one of the Tathagata’s most profound teachings on the existential process of causation in the mundane world. I simply wasn’t spiritually advanced enough for this revelation.

Finally I must consider which book helped me to find the Path. This reminds me of my astonished discovery of the vast number of Buddhist texts, both ancient and modern, which were then becoming available in English. Each time I finished one, I was sure that this was the ultimate expression of the Dharma. Each time, I felt that I had reached the top of the mountain, only to find that the next book I read was above and beyond the previous one. Mountain after mountain. This continued ad infinitum as my bookshelves filled with dozens and dozens of precious sutras from the history of Buddhism.

But the book which reached the deepest realms of my heart is called ‘The Vimalakirti Nirdesa‘ and was probably composed around 100 BC.E. I can guarantee that you will be amazed to hear that this text is extremely funny. Yes, funny.

It tells of the Buddha teaching the Dharma to a vast assembly of ordained sangha, bodhisattvas, laity, and various devas. Vimalakirti is a lay person who pretends to be suffering from a Dharmic illness. The Buddha sends ten of his senior monks in turn to see him but each of them experiences a humiliating encounter with Vimalakirti who demolishes their most earnest attempts. Each of them thinks that he has explained the Dharma perfectly but then learns that he has failed this basic test. Shock, horror! And high comedy!

Finally Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Compassion visits the layman and they discuss the Dharma. To ‘explain’ it, Vimalakirti remains completely silent. This is the profound silence of Buddha Nature. Then his room expands to accommodate the multitude of the gathering in his room which has miraculously expanded to find room for them. End of story.

I could mention a few more sacred texts which have had a similar influence on me but this is my all-time favourite. I still have this book but it’s crumbling year by year.

Maurice Shokatsu George