Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Vimalakirti’s Sick Bed

Vimalakirti in his bed – Vimalakirti Sutra

‘I am sick because the whole world is sick. If everyone’s illness were healed, mine would be, too’ – Vimalakirti, translated by Joan Sutherland, from her Vimalakirti & the Awakened Heart.

In a story first told two thousand years ago, the great Vimalakirti, the epitome of someone following the Buddha way while maintaining a household and family, lies sick in bed in a bare room. He’s taken to bed because he finds the entire world ill. While he’s in his 10 x 10 room, Shakyamuni is down the street in what appears to be in a garden of delight. He hears of Vimalakirti’s state and sends a crew of divine and enlightened emissaries to visit him, and thus begins the elaborate, fantastical story of the sick Bodhisattva who asks about nonduality. From his hospice bed he asks: “What is the Dharma gate of nonduality that the bodhisattvas enter?” This elicits a variety of responses from the gathered celestial beings. In the story, Vimalakirti’s own response is silence, which Joan Sutherland describes as ‘roaring’. Yes, sounds about right for that silence.

The koan regarding this story (Case 84 – Blue Cliff Record), never mentions Vimalakirti’s famous silence. The koan ends with Manjusri speaking and Xuedo commenting. Xuedo reminds us of the true era in which this story is occurring. 

Manjusri asked Vimalakirti, “Each of us have spoken; now, kind sir, you must tell us what the bodhisattva’s Dharma gate of nonduality is.” (Xuedo comments: What will Vimalakirti say? All has been revealed.)

Joan Sutherland points out that the sick/well split found in the sutra is echoed in the sick/well split found in the Qian story. In the sutra it is clear that Vimalakirti is not ill because of some deficiency. In fact, his illness is not a deficient condition relative to wellness. It is the necessary dark twin to Shakyamuni dwelling in a luxurious garden. The  spiritual beings who visit Vimalakirti are frightened of him, disturbed by him and his ill health. Since his question regarding nonduality is asked from his death bed, any valid response must include the reality of the wasting human who’s asking it.

Vimalakirti seems to have chosen illness almost as a teaching device, but I’ll take him at his word – his sickness is embodying the sickness of the world. His porousness, his open heartedness to the world, undoes the usual notions of choice. In some ways there’s not that much left of him to engage in choosing. He’s responding. Roshi Sutherland would say that Bodhichitta has risen in Vimalakirti, he moves with an awakened heart.

Qian Calls to Qian

Consider the Qian who does not head downriver, does not take a husband and start a family, but stays back. This Qian is upstairs in her sick room, some translations say she is in a coma. 

I realized I had seen the returning Qian as the rescuer. It was her vital embrace which restored the sick Qian. I had imagined that the sick Qian would vanish, becoming well in their merging. If this were true, then the question of which Qian is the true would have an answer – the Qian who’s well. This answer would break the wholeness, and back we’d be in the land of small questions and small answers.

It was the call of the Qian who stayed that troubled the heart of the Qian who left. It was the bed-ridden Qian, with her unknown life up in her room, who tugged on her distant soulmate to return. Just like the sound of geese in the fall dusk calls me to return to the great migration  home.

Covid quarters, China

It’s not so hard to see how other ‘sicknesses’  — say, daily double shots of anger — are not something that needs to be quashed. Rather, it’s a healing call from my sick bed, asking me to attend, to return to the source of my splitting.

Stone Woman Gives Birth in the Night

Sometime koans entrain other koans, forming constellations. They constellate what I think of as myself, they map the shape of my body in fresh ways. The koan: ‘The stone woman gives birth in the night’, showed up when Qian bumped into my dying mother. My mom had come to envision her death as giving birth. She said the baby was coming, but she did not know when. It was coming soon but could not be rushed.

A ninety-five year old woman on the verge of death seems as dark as a stone on a moonless night. She would not be rising from the hospice bed, not her body at any rate, which is where my mom had been located my entire life. The Qian in good health listens as the Qian who is sick tells him about the baby that is coming. The merging of the Qians may take place beyond the boundaries of a single body. 

Someone is always in the bed and someone is always sitting near. One is well, one is ill. Somehow, this entirety is the shape of my body. When the Stone Woman gives birth, when her water breaks, my mom and me, and the hospital bed and the fluorescent light and her roommate’s snoring, form a single, birthed body.


The Last Judgement, detail of the damned in the River Styx and Charon’s boat full of passengers, before 1562 by Tintoretto, Domenico Robusti (1560-1635)

Well make me down a pallet on your floor
Make me down a pallet on your floor
Make me a pallet down, soft and low
Make me a pallet on your floor

– Mississippi John Hurt

The current sick room stretches across the globe. In a real way, any person sick with the COVID-19 is so because the world is sick. As the world heals, each person heals. Retreating into our homes, we also enter a retreat space – to help and be helped. We are like countless Vimalakirtis taking our place in cells of nearly monastic isolation. As the cells in our bodies do what they can to live, to participate in that single great body, our physical separation is what we can do to live together, participants in a single great body.   

When Mississippi John Hurt sings about that soft and low pallet, he’s clearly thinking not only of sleeping. But his desire is still for nothing other than a place on your floor. The Buddhist notion of Sangha could be imagined as us all sleeping on a single floor, fulfilling a deep desire to rest together. The corona virus has us slightly separated, but at any time, millions dream together on this one great floor. Death has separated my mom and I slightly (?), but the stone woman continues giving birth. The Qians are slightly separated, yet a single river carries one to the other.

‘What did Vimalakirti say? It has all been revealed.’


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One Comment

  1. Much gratitude for your sharing. I find this helpful while I currently feel my way through some torpor that plays out as a resistance to daily zazen.
    “The stone woman gives birth in the night.”
    May all beings be well. Gassho.


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