Translated by Andrew Yang
“Where will Vimalakirti go?
Forever, it has been tempting but unreachable.
About the one and only Dharma approach, ask not how so?
At nightfall, the bright moon ascends a lone hill.”
This poem is written by Xuedou Chongxian (980-1052), a Chan master of the Song dynasty, after inquiring and inspired by “the silent thunder”, a gong-an or koan involving Vimalakirti. Accessing “the one and only Dharma approach” means that the practitioner has transcended all dualistic thoughts on the extremes and realized the truth, so it is known literally as “the non-duality gateway”.
According to the chapter on Accessing the One and Only Dharma Approach, Vimalakirti Sutra has it that once, Vimalakirti and many bodhisattvas assembled to discuss the non-duality gateway as spoken by the Buddha. The Bodhisattvas enumerated many dualistic concepts, such as birth and death, purity and pollution, good and evil, blessing and sin, awakening and ignorance, and holy and mundane. They maintained that eliminating these opposing thoughts is equal to the elimination of a delusional, discriminatory mind, enabling one to access the one and only Dharma approach and become an awakened one by transcending life and death. Otherwise, all beings create karma due to delusion and discrimination and hence sink into the six realms of reincarnation.
At the end, Manjushri Bodhisattva summarized the discussion thus, “By my way of thinking, applying no discrimination nor delusion to any dharma, adding no commentary, and even staying away from any thoughts, concepts or words, that is accessing the one and only Dharma approach, and being awakened to Tathagata prajna and enlightenment”. Upon saying that, he turned to Vimalakirti, “Is this a proper way of explaining the one and only Dharma approach?” Vimalakirti remained silent. Seeing that, Manjushri immediately sighed, praising him, “Goodness! Goodness! Giving up speech and words, and not even bothering to say that it is unspeakable. Indeed, that is truly accessing the one and only Dharma approach”. Chan Buddhists hail this gong-an as “silently, Vimalakirti delivers a resounding thunder”.
Worldly afflictions are often caused by entanglements with “yes” and “no”, “self” and “others”, and “love” and “hate”, creating negative karma through deeds, words and thoughts. That leads to karmic retribution, which in turn gives rise to endless suffering. Jianzhi Sengcan (529-613), the third Chan patriarch, says in Inscriptions for A Faithful Mind, “The Perfect Way knows no difficulties, except that it refuses to make a preference. Only when freed from hate and love, does it reveal itself fully and without disguise”. The ultimate truth of perfection is thus not profound or difficult to understand. It only requires a non-differentiating mind to pursue. And as long as there is no worldly love nor hate, the truth will be readily revealed in lucidity. Therefore, Buddhism, with all its tens of thousands of scriptures, leads to nothing but access of the one and only Dharma approach.
In the Sutra, the Bodhisattvas adopted a method of eliminating opposites to access the one and only Dharma approach, indicating that they were not attached to either extremes of a topic. But is this methodology not at the same time fall into another trap of absolute view? If you think that beauty and ugliness are two extremes, and you have to establish an absolute view of non-beauty and non-ugliness, is it not a self-contradiction through attempts at ending illusion with illusion to find an alternate concept ? What is more, that debating right from wrong with concepts and words already causes disturbance to one’s pure mind and intrinsic nature. How could it then help one experience the truth? Manjushri Bodhisattva then pushed the line of thinking to a second peak, maintaining that thinking beyond words is accessing the one and only Dharma approach. This is ending words with words. However, how can one completely eliminate the attachment to words by means of words?
Here, Vimalakirti the layman, wiser than the bodhisattvas, pushed this discussion to a third peak, by simply expressing his insight on all thinking through polarizing concepts without a word. Because all forms (word is a kind of forms) is false and illusional, “just as the interpretation by words started, it becomes word play”.
Manjushri, with his wisdom ranking top among the bodhisattvas, of course thoroughly understood this truth. Yet he humbly created a stepping ladder, allowing Vimalakirti’s “silent speech” to reach its highest peak.
One say of the Chan school goes that “No discussion is ever in the play on the summit of prajna. At a second peak, however, the patriarchs will allow a certain measure of conversation”. When the practitioner reaches the height of the loftiest peak, he has outdone the confines of speech and language, and so he is “wordless and speechless”. But meanwhile then, why has there been such a multitude of gong-ans and Chan quotations? This is for the sake of sheer convenience, the Patriarchs gave room for the less-savvy to convey through words their inner world of Chan.
“About the one and only Dharma approach, ask not how so? / At nightfall, the bright moon ascends a lone hill.” With this approach, contrast by duality is no more, nor are verbal concepts legitimate, and so what at all is there left to say? When “At nightfall, the bright moon ascends a lone hill”, it signifies metaphorically that the Chan Buddhist’s mind being pure and clean, like a bright moon that illuminates everything, it is indeed an experience through personal awakening. If so, does it need any more discriminatory speculation or verbal debate?