One Way How Not to Teach

A reflection from recently looking anew into “The Vimalakirti Sutra” with some students during the Quarantine Retreat at Zen Center Regensburg:

When I first became a monk, in 1992, I used to be so insufferable about “monkhood” and its superiority to practicing as a layperson. I mean, it might still be the case, to people who spend a lot of time around me. But in those days, it was just this unrelenting, arrogant behavior. So unbelievably puffed up with ego and self-accomplishment, I wore the robes with such self-importance and smugness, it’s no wonder no one took my head off. It was especially strange because I was raised in a lay-centric tradition like the Kwan Um School of Zen, where 90% of the authorized teachers are layfolk, the administrative heads are nearly all layfolk, and the real day-to-day work of running the Zen Centers fell on the shoulders of dedicated lay practitioners who had to constantly balance the needs and demands of family-life in a modern context with their bone-deep wish to attend retreats and serve and teaching a far-flung international sangha. I was a real ass.

It’s not clear if the years have mellowed me, but it is clearly a much different view for me now, and has been especially clear since I left the Sunim-centric life in Korean traditional temples and brought the work of Dharma onto the road, into the cities of Europe. The corruption of so much of monastic-centered Buddhism in Korea especially hurt my faith in the Sangha

Nowadays, during the Quarantine Retreat, some Zen students and I are enjoying together the talks of Professor Robert A. F. Thurman on a text he translated for the first time into English, The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti. This text was first presented to me by my guiding professor at Harvard, the late Masatoshi Nagatomi (1926-2000), during the first year in graduate school in Cambridge, in the Fall of 1989. Professor Nagatomi was so very proud to include this text on his syllabus for our course in Buddhism, and told us all, at the beginning of the semester (and at several points thereafter) his immense satisfaction that this text was first brought to Western readership through the translation of his student, Robert Thurman. Prof. Nagatomi was a legendary figure who had schooled many of the great Buddhist scholars of twentieth-century Asian Studies who attended Harvard, including the Cleary brothers, Jeffrey Hopkins, Jan Nattier, and others. He is widely credited with establishing “Buddhist studies” as a serious discipline in its own right in American academia. He was also a Shinto priest and a great bodhisattva.

The text made a major impact on me. It was the first real sutra I ever read, to be specific. This was the first time I encountered the Buddha himself teaching a transcendental vision of reality not chopped up into super-dense micro-bits by the Zen masters whose lineage I would enter in greater depth — and continuing until now — later that first autumn at Harvard.

During last week’s lecture (the third), in an online multi-week “course” offered by Thurman’s Menla Institute, Prof. Thurman was addressing this point of some of the great disciples of the Buddha and their reluctance to pay respects to the sick layman, Vimalakirti. In dialogue after dialogue, Vimalakirti remonstrates these “advanced” practitioners for their dualistic views and attitudes when transmitting Dharma.

We were watching the video simultaneously with one of my students in Athens, and stopping Prof. Thurman’s lectures from time to time to clarify points through video hookup. One of the students here in Regensburg, wishing to preserve a record of my commentary for her own further study and reflection, caught this snippet of one of our exchanges.

For anyone who might be interested, here is the section of text that Prof. Thurman was just then riffing on, and what I was attempting to clarify for some of the students (none native English speakers, so…).


The Sūtra of
The Teaching of Vimalakīrti

English translation of the Sūtra
by Robert A.F. Thurman

Edited by
84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha

Chapter 3: “The Disciples’ and the Bodhisattvas’ Reluctance to Visit Vimalakīrti”

Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Mahāmaudgalyāyana, “Maudgalyāyana, go to the Licchavi Vimalakīrti to inquire about his illness.”

Maudgalyāyana replied, “Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to the Licchavi Vimalakīrti to inquire about his illness. Why? I remember one day when I was teaching the Dharma to the householders in a square in the great city of Vaiśālī, and the Licchavi Vimalakīrti came along and said to me, ‘Reverend Maudgalyāyana, that is not the way to teach the Dharma to the householders in their white clothes. The Dharma must be taught according to reality.

“‘Reverend Maudgalyāyana, the Dharma is without a living being, because it is free of the dust of living beings. It is selfless, because it is free of the dust of desire. It is lifeless, because it is free of birth and death. It is without a person, because it dispenses with past origins and future destinies.

“‘The Dharma is peace and pacification, because it is free from desire. It does not become an object, because it is free of words and letters; it is inexpressible, and it transcends all movement of mind.

“‘The Dharma is omnipresent, because it is like infinite space. It is without color, mark, or shape, because it is free of all process. It is without the concept of “mine,” because it is free of the habitual notion of possession. It is without ideation, because it is free of mind, thought, or consciousness. It is incomparable, because it has no antithesis. It is without presumption of conditionality, because it does not conform to causes.

“‘It permeates evenly all things, because all are included in the ultimate realm. It conforms to reality by means of the process of nonconformity. It abides at the reality-limit, for it is utterly without fluctuation. It is immovable, because it is independent of the six objects of sense. It is without coming and going, for it never stands still. It is comprised by voidness; is remarkable through signlessness; and because of wishlessness is free of presumption and repudiation. It is without establishment and rejection, without birth or destruction. It is without any fundamental consciousness, transcending the range of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and thought. It is without highness and lowness. It abides without movement or activity.

“‘Reverend Mahāmaudgalyāyana, how could there be a teaching in regard to such a Dharma? Reverend Mahāmaudgalyāyana, even the expression “to teach the Dharma” is presumptuous, and those who listen to it listen to presumption. Reverend Maudgalyāyana, where there are no presumptuous words, there is no teacher of the Dharma, no one to listen, and no one to understand. It is as if an illusory person were to teach the Dharma to illusory people.

“‘Therefore, you should teach the Dharma by keeping your mind on this. You should be adept in regard to the spiritual faculties of living beings. By means of the correct vision of the wisdom-eye, manifesting the great compassion, acknowledging the benevolent activity of the Buddha, purifying your intentions, understanding the definitive expressions of the Dharma, you should teach the Dharma in order that the continuity of the Three Jewels may never be interrupted.’

“Lord, when Vimalakīrti had discoursed thus, eight hundred householders in the crowd conceived the spirit of unexcelled, perfect enlightenment, and I myself was speechless. Therefore, Lord, I am indeed reluctant to go to this good man to inquire about his illness.”