Upali: Attachment to ‘Sila’ is not Enlightenment

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Venerable Upali (优波离尊者)

Having clearly defined and understood that a lay-person is a lay-person, and a renunciate is a renunciate, it is important to realise that the empty mind ground underlies and permeates these two expedient states with no difference whatsoever.  Furthermore, as Master Xu Yun pointed-out, a ‘Bhikshu’ is just a ‘beggar’ who has cut all ties with the world of greed, hatred, and delusion, where is the ‘specialness’ in this poverty?  As the Bhikshu cultivates humility, there is no ‘specialness’ whatsoever.  The renunciate path is the fast-track to enlightenment, that is true, but there are many pitfalls that reduce its efficacy, or returns it to ‘zero’.  The Chinese Ch’an tradition has always acknowledged the ‘equal’ nature of the essence of all phenomena, and has produced many enlightened ‘lay’ and ‘monastic’ practitioners who have penetrated this underlying reality.  Chinese Ch’an monks, whilst on the fast-track to enlightenment, always treat the laity with respect, as all being, no matter where they are from, their station in life, or physical circumstances, are all Buddhas in waiting.  Many Ch’an monastics view themselves as sub-ordinate to the laity as a means of uprooting the ego.  This does not mean that the laity are able to dominate a Ch’an monastic, but rather that the Buddha-Nature is acknowledged as being omnipresent.  Occasionally, the Ch’an Records indicate that monastics on occasion learned from enlightened members of the lay community.  Never take on airs and graces, because a vagrant living under a bridge might well be another Vimalakirti.  One thing is for certain, attachment to anything (including the Vinaya Discipline) is a barrier to full enlightenment.  When a lay person achieves full enlightenment, it is a matter of great celebration, because the odds have been stacked firmly against them in the world of greed, hatred and delusion.  Lay practice must be respected.

‘The Buddha then said to Upali: “You call on Vimalakirti to inquire after his health on my behalf.”

Upali said: “World Honoured One, I am not qualified to call on Vimalakirti to inquire after his health. For once, two bhiksus broke the prohibitions, and being shameful of their sins, they dared not call on the Buddha. They came to ask me: ‘Upali, we have broken the commandments and are ashamed of our sins, so we dare not ask the Buddha about this and come to you. Please teach us the rules of repentance so as to wipe out our sins.’ I then taught them the rules of repentance.

At that time, Vimalakirti came and said: ‘Hey, Upali, do not aggravate their sins which you should wipe out at once without further disturbing their minds. Why? Because the nature of sin is neither within nor without, nor in between. As the Buddha has said, living beings are impure because their mind are impure; if their minds are pure, they are all pure. And, mind also is neither within nor without nor in between. Their minds being such, so, are their sins. Likewise, all things do not go beyond (their) suchness. Upali, when your mind is liberated, is there any remaining impurity?’ I replied: ‘There will be no more.’ He said: ‘Likewise, the minds of all living beings are free from impurities. Upali, false thoughts are impure and the absence of false thoughts is purity. Inverted (ideas) are impure and the absence of inverted (ideas) is purity. Clinging to ego is impure and non-clinging to ego is purity. Upali, all phenomena rise and fall without staying (for an instant) like an illusion and lightning. All phenomena do not wait for one another and do not stay for the time of a thought. They all derive from false views and are like a dream and a flame, the moon in water, and an image in a mirror for they are born from wrong thinking. He who understands this is called a keeper of the rules of discipline and he who knows it is called a skilful interpreter (of the precepts).’

At that time, the two bhiksus declared: ‘What a supreme wisdom which is beyond the reach of Upali who cannot expound the highest principle of discipline and morality?’

I said: ‘Since I left the Buddha I have not met a sravaka or a Bodhisattva who can surpass his rhetoric, for his great wisdom and perfect enlightenment have reached such a high degree.’     

Thereupon, the two bhiksus got rid of their doubts and repentance, set their mind on the quest of supreme enlightenment and took the vow to make all living beings acquire the same power of speech. Hence, I am not qualified to call on Vimalakirti and inquire after his health.’

(The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra: Translated by Charles Luk, Chapter 3, Shambhala, [1990], Page30-32)

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