Most sutras, whether Buddhist or otherwise, are dense, nearly inscrutable texts.  They presuppose some prior knowledge or perhaps some other text to aid with understanding them.  A glossary of some kind is almost always required.  For example, the Prajnaparamita Sutras exist in various forms, have no discernable author, and have no definitive version. They are sprawling, chaotic, and self-referential.

Vimalakirti’s Discourse Sutra is different. There is an inviting narrative inertia to the Sutra. After a brief preamble in which the Buddha delivers a Dharma speech praising the Bodhisattva path to throngs of Bodhisattvas, the Sutra switches focus to a layman named Vimalakirti who is renowned for his understanding of the Dharma and his eloquence as a debater. News of Vimalakirti’s sudden illness reaches the Buddha and his disciples. One-by-one, the Buddhs asks 10 of his greatest disciples to go visit Vimalakirti, but each of them decline because each had been out-debated by Vimalakirti in the past. The Buddha even attempts to entreat a handful of transcendent Bodhisattvas to do the same. But even these beings are fearful of Vimalskirti’s command of speech. Eventually, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom himself, Manjushri, agrees to check on the wise layman.

Then, the prime focus of the Sutra takes shape. The witty Vimalakirti describes his illness to Manjushri. The illness is the illness of the world; because the world suffers, Vimalakirti suffers. The topics might be, prima facie, about Vimalakirti’s symptoms, the small room where he’s being kept without attendants, and whether the treatment is helping, but Vimalakirti quickly turns each topic from the mundane to the supramundane. Only by transcending dualistic thinking to understand emptiness can one demonstrate true Prajna. Throughout the remainder of the text, Vimalakirti expresses the importance of the sixth, and perhaps most important, of the Paramitas, to Manjushri and the Buddha’s followers. Vimalakirti’s wisdom is an understanding of emptiness and nondualism. His command of these concepts allows him to perform miracles, like summon thirty-two thousand seats to a small room and feeing his many companions with a bottomless bowl of fragrant rice. Further, a chorus of bodhisattvas echoes Vimalakirti by taking turns extolling the concept of non-dualism.

Vimalakirti’s sutra ties all of these topics together—non-dualism, pure lands, emptiness, suffering, the virtue of wisdom—to emphasize the point that our world (the ‘Saha’ world of painful phenomena) is inseparable from a pure land. Just as Vimalakirti can reach across realms to fetch a miraculous bowl of rice that can feed thousands, we too can access the purity of the Buddha’s dharma within this supposedly tainted world.

Sanskrit:  Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra