Traditions evolve. This is a simple fact of human existance. People have new ideas, insights, and revelations about the way they act and what they believe in, and as a result we see changes in tradition. Though this evolution can be tracked through almost all facets of human society, one of the most mercurial areas is that of religious belief. Religion is in its most basic form a way of interpereting our surroundings. It gives us a lense through which to view the world. Inevitably though, we come across new pieces of information or new thoughts that lead us to believe that our lens is not properly focused. We must adjust to these realizations, and this adjustment is one of the most important processes a religion will ever go through. To refocus the lense without losing sight of your old views is a difficult task, and when doing so the author must go through a careful process. First, one needs to break the old tradition down, and then rebuild it with the new ideas brought into focus. This process is exemplified by the Vimalakirti sutra, a revolutionary Buddhist text that seems on the surface to preach the exact opposite of Buddhist tradition. However upon a closer reading, one comes to realize that the teachings of the Vimalakirti sutra are actually a logical extension of traditional Buddhist beliefs. This is the way that the sutra breaks down the old views, and then proceeds to build them back up, with the new ideas in focus.
To understand the Vimalakirti sutra fully, we must first look at the tradition that it breaks from. This tradition, known as Mahayana (greater vehicle) Buddhism, is in itself a departure from an earlier form, Theravada (lesser vehicle) Buddhism. The title “greater vehicle” is the first of many literary tricks used by the author to subvert the old style, claiming that its teachings are “lesser.” In the Lotus sutra, we learn that the Buddha has been using what he calls “expedient means.” He explains this through the story of a man who's house is on fire. The man is trying to get his kids to leave the house, but they won't listen when he says that it is burning, so he has to try another way.
“Then it occurred to him to devise some expedient means, and he said to his sons, 'I have many kinds of rare and marvelous toys [and] wonderful jeweled carriages... you must come outside and see them!... When the sons heard this description of the carts, at once they vied with one another in dashing out of the house” (67).
The man lied to his son's to save them, and in the same way the Buddha has been teaching things that are not actually true, but will help us follow the correct path, and will ultimately save us. This is a very clever trick on the part of the author, as it allows him to redefine religious truth without totally crushing the old tradition. It also becomes one of the most crucial concepts in Buddhism, and is the key to understanding the next step: the Vamalakirti sutra.
The Vimalakirti sutra begins with the...