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A Goddess Scattering Flowers: A Dramatic Performance to Illustrate the Mahāyāna Concept of Indiscrimination in the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra

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by Fung Kei CHENG

University of Hong Kong

Acknowledgements: I sincerely thank Venerable Chi Yiu (智耀法師), Dr Xin Shui Wang (王新水博士), and Professor Samson Tse (謝樹基教授) for their invaluable comments and advice. Contact:


The Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra , an influential Mahāyāna scripture, is famous for its used stories for the purpose of preaching, in particular, “A Goddess Scattering Flowers”, an internationally renowned scene which expounds on major Mahāyāna teachings. By analysing its dramatic representations, the current study elaborates on the doctrine of indiscrimination, grounded in the law of dependent origination, voidness, impermanence, non-self, non-duality, and dharma. It also presents the effectiveness of using humour, metaphors, similes, conflicts, contrasts, contradictions, and paradoxes to powerfully delineate rich connotations through character performance, stage property, Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 2

stage setting, dialogue, and action. With the aid of these theatrical components and techniques, this demonstrates how such a brief scene within a fable is capable of explaining a cluster of Buddhist philosophies pertaining to self-transcendence, self-management of mind, and freedom from dichotomy, formalism, and self-boundary; in conclusion, enlightenment. This theatrical presentation highlight may allow scholars to further explore alternatives for philosophical discussion.

Keywords: bodhisattva, dharma, drama, impermanence, indiscrimination, Law of Dependent Origination, Mahāyāna, non-self, non-dualism, voidness


鄭鳳姬 香港大學社會工作及社會行政學系

論文提要 《維摩詰所說經》是一部具影響力的大乘經典,以故事說大乘佛法見稱,尤其是 「天女散花」一段,更是蜚聲國際。本文透過分析其戲劇的表演手法,根據緣起 性空、無常、無我、不二、法,解說無分別心。同時,利用人物、道具、舞臺設 計、對白、動作等表演手法,探索以幽默、暗喻、類比、衝突、對比、矛盾、弔 詭等效果,有力地表達豐富的隱喻。這段戲劇借助舞臺元素和技巧,示範如何以 一段精短的神仙故事解釋深奧的佛教哲學,包括自我超越、心靈管理,和打破二 元、形式主義、自我局限;簡言之,就是開悟覺醒。這可能鼓勵更多學者嘗試以 戲劇表演討論哲學思想。


Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 3

Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra and A Goddess Scattering Flowers Drama is one of the more prevalent modalities of expressive art (Kim, Kirchhoff, & Whitsett, 2011, p. 356; Lai, 2011, p. 305), one that serves as an effective communication tool (Ozcan, Bilgin, & Eracar, 2011, p. 312; Zausner, 2007, p. 82) which not only enables audiences to efficiently understand the underlying information in the scripts and supports meaning making about life (Bryant, 2007, p. 603), but also interweaves the life experience of the creator (the playwright) with that of the co-creators (the audience or readers) (Denzin, 2001, p. 16; Zausner, 2007, p. 82). It has been borrowed for use as a “performance ethnography” (Denzin, 2001, p. 13) by various agencies, including public health, education, helping professions (Levy, Hipel, & Howard, 2009, p. 310; Mienczakowski, 1995, p. 361; Winston, 1999, p. 461-467). Likewise, it has been used in conjunction with literature to present philosophical discourse. Through “a dramatised reading with theatrical elements” (Meyer, 2009, p. 97), philosophical notions are exhibited in a vivid way so that the readers are able to understand the concepts easier, and that the scholars will be able to gain insightful interpretations; the result being that this dramatic presence is evident in both Western and Eastern literature. This kind of representation is not rare in Buddhist texts, being frequently used to elaborate on abstruse theories. The objectives of this study are to first examine the understanding of the dharma from the perspective of Mahāyāna, and second, to discuss how to productively transmit complicated theories through dramatic performance. This paper begins with a brief introduction of the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra (hereafter simply called the Sūtra ) and Scattering Heavenly Flowers by a Goddess , and then discusses teaching Mahāyāna principles by means of theatrical techniques and the conception of indiscrimination prior to Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 4 giving the concluding remarks.

The Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra , one of the premier canons in early Mahāyāna, a current mainstream of Buddhism, is notable for its rich theatrical presentations (Cui, 2008, p. 78; Kamata, 1994, p.6; Williams, 1990, p.91). The Sūtra was rewritten into a decent script and was played on stage in Taiwan two decades ago (Guo, 1999); and it is also famous in Western academia, where there are at least five English renditions, including Lamotte (1962/1976), Luk (1972), McRae (2004), Thurman (1976/1986), and Watson (1997).

The Sūtra portrays what Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa (usually referred to as Vimalakīrti), a Buddhist layman, understands, and how he interprets Mahāyāna teachings and carries out bodhisattva practices to enlighten people and help others. Among the numerous episodes in the Sūtra , the scene in “Chapter Seven, Viewing Sentient Beings”1 (McRae, 2004, p. 123) about a goddess who scatters heavenly flowers is one of its more well-known acts. This scene has been adapted in plays and Chinese operas, and Mr Lan-fang Mei (梅蘭芳), a late super artist internationally renowned for playing a man-woman character in the golden era of Peking opera, skilfully performed the beauty of the goddess’s dance (Zhi, 2008, p. 4-5). Furthermore, this scene, especially in Chinese literature (Shi, 2009, p. 222; Zhi, 2008, p. 4), has been symbolised, through commonly used Chinese idioms and colloquial expressions (Lai, 1999, p. 314; Liu, 2009, p. 54) reflecting the significance of this scene within the Chinese gentry and folk culture.

1 《觀眾生品第七》 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 5

By using a “confrontation strategy” (Bryant, 2007, p. 609), the symbolic expression of this scene integrates art into philosophical elaboration (Puchner, 2010, p. 138). The dramatic elements, including “conflict, contradiction, confrontation, defiance” (Sanger, 2001, p. 6), are clearly denoted through a “dyadic bond” (McCall, 1999, p. 605) between the goddess and Śāriputra, one of the Ten Great Disciples of the Buddha2. The explication of what “in accord with the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127) and “contrary to the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127) really mean in Mahāyāna teachings is the motif of this scene (Shi, 2009, p. 222), as shown in the following passage3 (McRae, 2004, p. 127)4.

At the time, there was a goddess in Vimalakīrti’s room who, upon seeing the great men listening to the Dharma being explained, made herself visible and scattered heavenly flowers over the bodhisattvas and great disciples.

When the flowers reached the bodhisattvas they all immediately fell off, but when they reached the great disciples they adhered and did not fall off. Even using all their numinous powers, the disciples were unable to remove the flowers.

At that time, the goddess asked Śāriputra, “Why would you remove the flowers?”

2 3 「時維摩詰室有一天女,見諸大人聞所說法,便現其身,即以天華,散諸菩薩、大弟子上。華 至諸菩薩,即皆墮落,至大弟子,便著不墮。一切弟子神力去華,不能令去。爾時天女問舍利弗: 「何故去華?」答曰:「此華不如法,是以去之。」天曰:「勿謂此華為不如法。所以者何?是 華無所分別,仁者自生分別想耳!若於佛法出家,有所分別,為不如法;若無所分別,是則如法。 觀諸菩薩華不著者,已斷一切分別想故。譬如人畏時,非人得其便;如是弟子畏生死故,色.聲. 香.味.觸得其便也。已離畏者,一切五欲無能為也;結習未盡,華著身耳!結習盡者,華不著 也。」《觀眾生品第七》T14, no. 0475, p. 0547c23-31 4 The quotations of the S ū tra in this article come from the English version translated by McRae (2004). Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 6

[[[Śāriputra]]] answered, “These flowers are contrary to the Dharma, so I would remove them.”

The goddess said, “Do not say that these flowers are contrary to the Dharma! Why? These flowers are without discrimination. Sir, it is you who are generating discriminative thoughts. If one who has left home in the Buddha-Dharma has discrimination, this is contrary to the Dharma; if such a one is without discrimination, this is in accord with the Dharma.

“Look at the bodhisattvas, to whom the flowers do not adhere—this is because they have eradicated all discriminative thoughts.

“For example, when a person is afraid, non-human [[[beings]]] are able to control him. Thus, since the disciples fear s a ṃ s ā ra , then forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibles control you. None of the five desires can affect those who have transcended fear.

“It is only because the latent influences [of your afflictions] are not yet exhausted that the flowers stick to your bodies.

“For those in whom the latent influences are exhausted, the flowers do not stick.”

Inspired by Conflicts and Contrasts

A critical characteristic of this scene, heavenly flowers scattered by a goddess, is its display of confrontational theatre performance (Grbich, 2007, p. 221), through which it emphasises a different comprehension of the dharma between the followers of Early Buddhism and those of Mahāyāna, otherwise known as “neo-Buddhism” (Soothill, 1913, p. 108) and which developed from a “reformist movement” (Mizuno, 2003, p. 26). Such a confrontational theatre Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 7

performance produces a series of conflicting effects using the primary elements of characters, stage setting, stage property, dialogue, speech acts, and action in a “theatrical horizon” (Puchner, 2010, p. 123). Both “endophoric referencing” (Birch, 1991, p. 21) and “exophoric referencing” (Birch, 1991, p. 21) are well referenced for in-the-text and outside-the-text contexts in this particular scene.


In drama performance, the characters present the essential characters of mimetic stories (Messinger, Sampson, & Towne, 1962, p. 104; Richardson, 1997, p. 90) taken from real life experience (Rosile, 2003, p. 312). Not only do their interactions lead the audience to explore the themes of the acts (Bryant, 2007, p. 611), but furthermore “every character is a drama” (Bryant, 2007, p. 611) resulting in “a struggle of multiple voices; a struggle for dominance; a struggle to bring about changes” (Birch, 1991, p. 21). The two main characters, also called “quarrelling allies” (Coolidge, 1988, p. 5), in this particular episode involve a goddess and Śāriputra; and the supporting characters include the bodhisattvas (herein representing Mahayanists) and the disciples (herein standing for disciples of Early Buddhism). The presence of these characters plays the role of non-verbal polynarrativity (Chi, 2008, p. 24), and connotes exophoric referencing in three facets of conflicts, that contains rich “dramatic turn or theatrical turn of philosophy” (Puchner, 2010, p. 122). First, Śāriputra has been awarded with the title the Dharma General5 because of his expertise in analysing early Buddhist teachings. Being an arhat, one who has relieved himself from suffering and been set free from desires at “the last and highest

5 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 8

stage of monastic discipline” (Pruett, 1987, p. 133), he is respectable and his wisdom is recognised in Early Buddhist scriptures. Conversely, the goddess is a nameless figure among multitudinous goddesses. She is not given a name throughout the play. The contrast in status between Śāriputra and the goddess prepares an exposition for the coming confrontational effects. Śāriputra is portrayed as a comic figure in the S ū tra (Lin, 1997), which is completely variant from his image of being a chief disciple following the Buddha as described in the texts of Early Buddhism. Ironically, this amusing communication between Śāriputra and the witty goddess, makes the former sound silly.

This conspicuous contrast involves a dormant agenda representing different views on understanding and interpreting the dharma between Early Buddhism and Mahāyāna. The two camps of supporting characters discern the disparity of views regarding the dharma. Apparently, the team composed of the bodhisattvas and the goddess represent Mahāyāna theories, whilst the group made up of the disciples and Śāriputra stand for early Buddhist teachings.

Second, the identity of the two main characters itself represents a radical Buddhist view about men and women (Hu, 1991, p. 270). Women held a weak position in ancient India (Shi, 2002, p. 9), being ignored and powerless; and yet, in the S ū tra , the goddess always shows her intelligence and makes Śāriputra look inferior. Then Śāriputra is shown to be powerless in turn. This contrast in the two figures enables the goddess as a woman to prevail over Śāriputra, a man. By this implicit applause for the goddess, the S ū tra exhibits Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 9

a gender consciousness towards feminine significance (Li, 2007, p. 332) from the perspective of Mahāyāna. Although Buddhism admits the differences of gender in nature and in social roles (Li, 2007, p. 333), affirmation of gender equality has been displayed in Buddhist scriptures since Early Buddhism (Shi, 2002, p. 9; Zhang, 2007, p. 323). Mahāyāna texts overtly disseminate and restate these beliefs.

Moreover, this emphasis on gender equality (Keown, 2000, p. 120) is further aimed at advancing the theory of equality of beings (Tang, 2004, p. 15-34; Zhang, 2007, p. 320), one of the prominent Buddhist values (Tang, 2004, p. 7) across the various schools of Buddhism. S ama (equality 平等),

from the Buddhist viewpoint, does not rely on the domain of human rights but focuses on the nature of all beings (Tang, 2004, p. 75-94). P ratītya - samutp ā da (the law of dependent origination 緣起法) explains the nature of existence of beings that everything is engendered by a combination of proper conditions (Hsing-Yun, 2006, p. 15). These conditions include hetu

(cause ) and pratyaya (contributing causes ). Things appear spontaneously when all the necessary conditions come together appropriately and simultaneously; and things disappear when any one or more of the conditions are gone. Therefore, all beings are dependent, and no one or thing can be totally independent; instead, the group of necessary and contributing causes are interdependent (Hsing-Yun, 2006, p. 15-16).

Plants, for instance, can live and thrive when relying upon adequate air, sunlight, water, weather, soil, and other components; however, they will decay when any one of those elements is deficient. In accordance with Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 10

pratītya - samutpāda (the law of dependent origination 緣起法), existence, is thus merely a phenomenon; and is volatile, momentary, temporal, and unpredictable (Bernhard, 2010, p. 28; Loy, 2000, p. 161; Suzuki, 1938/1981, p. 34).

Transience is anitya (impermanence 無常), and vicissitudes happen every moment, which explains the nature of anitya that is embedded in all substances, subjects and phenomena (Hsing-Yun, 2006, p. 54; Thubten, 2008, p. 92). All beings inescapably come across the cycle of existence and extinction; and therefore “life is a circle, a continuum” (Piquemal & Allen, 2009, p. 138), known as s a ṃ sāra (the cycle of birth and death 輪迴) in Buddhism. In this regard, all beings are equal because there are no differences in essence (Tang, 2004, p. 3), as they are living in the “cyclic existence” (Thubten, 2008, p. 68), and that their common characteristics are non-independent, non-sole, non-permanent, and non-controllable (Zhao, 1990, p. 22-26).

Likewise, sentient beings equally face the fact that instability is part of life (Ferrucci, 2005/2009, p. 79). Phenomena change and are unstable because “impermanence is dynamic” (Pruett, 1987, p. 159). Various cause interactions and combinations result in different phenomenal presentations. Diverse phenomena open limitless feasibilities (Inada, 2003, p. 337) covering positive and negative possibilities (Cheng, 2011, p. 178). This infinite openness embraces the hope that negative can be turned into positive (Hsing-Yun, 2006, p. 23-24; Kornfield, 2001, p. 85; Zheng, 2004, p. 60-65). In this respect, impermanence itself is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. The perception of the parties involved is the actual determinant, and such Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 11

perception is confined by personal experiences, values, beliefs, favourites, and preferences. In summary, the mind of the involved parties directly and strongly influences their subjective interpretation of phenomena and perception. How to manage citta (the mind ), the most primordial subject matter in Buddhism, has been explicated over centuries.

Third, Śāriputra and the goddess stand for two categories of Buddhist disciplesmonastic followers and the laity. The former was more praiseworthy during the phase of Early Buddhism, wherein they devoted themselves to extinguishing afflictions and attaining the highest spirituality, namely nirvā ṇ a (perfect stillness 涅槃). However, there was a shift in this tradition since the development of the Mahāyāna school. The contributions of laypersons are recognised, and the S ū tra reflects this recognition. The goddess, representing a layperson teaches Śāriputra, a monk, about detachment and the dharma. This apocalyptic presentation contrives a confrontational effect, showing that these two genres of disciples are equally vital. Instances of intelligent laypersons found in Buddhist literature are not rare, and the ridiculous performance of ecclesiastical devotees exhibited in the S ū tra is not a surprise either.

These conflicts between the two domains of characters create a comic effect (Williams, 1990, p. 90). The behaviour of the comics, including Śāriputra and the disciples, utilises irony to point out the defects of Early Buddhist teachings.

Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 12

Stage Setting

The stage setting, as a performance space (Meyer, 2009, p. 93), is a scene in which Vimalakīrti’s tiny living room contains only one bed without any other furniture. Yet, the small and plainly furnished room presents the aesthetics of Mahāyāna doctrine (Chen, 2002). The concept of śūnyat ā (voidness 空性) illustrates the Mahāyāna aesthetics, and the simple setting of this theatrical stage delivers the theory of śūnyat ā , as in the description in “Chapter Five, Manjuśrī’s Condolence Visit”6. When Vimalakīrti knows that Manjuśrī, the bodhisattva representing wisdom, is leading thousands of bodhisattvas and disciples to visit him, “then with his numinous power he emptied out his room, removing what was there as well as his servants. He left only a single couch, upon which he reclined in his illness”7 (McRae, 2004, p. 108) to adorn a reception for the guests. This arrangement is an implication and preparation for elucidating the concept of śūnyat ā .

Furthermore, to pratītya - samutpāda (the law of dependent origination 緣起法), as previously expounded, existence is a phenomenal manifestation, without being non-existence (Hsu, 2012, p. 2). It explains how phenomena manifest themselves as an aggregate of conditions (Causton, 1995, p. 80). This principle brings up the essence of śūnyat ā (voidness 空性) in all beings. Beings are void since they are dependent, changing, fluid, unstable and impermanent (Ferrucci, 2005/2009, p. 164). Hence, they are illusory, insubstantial (Matsuda, 1983, p. 237), temporary, and ungrounded as “the

6《文殊師利問疾品第五》 7「即以神力空其室內,除去所有及諸侍者;唯置一床,以疾而臥。文殊師利既入其舍,見其室 空,無諸所有,獨寢一床。」《文殊師利問疾品第五》T14, no. 0475, p. 0544b09-11 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 13

dharmas are like phantasms. That which is without self-nature and without other-nature”8 (McRae, 2004, p. 88). In the S ū tra , this delineates the body, illustrating the notion of śūnyat ā , as in “Chapter Two, Skilful Means”9.

The body is impermanent, without strength, without power, without solidity. This body is like a bit of foam that cannot be grasped. This body is like bubbles that do not last very long. This body is like a mirage, generated from thirst. This body is like a banana tree, with nothing solid within. This body is like a phantasm arising from confused [[[views]]]. This body is like a dream, an illusory view. This body is like a shadow, manifested through karmic conditions. This body is like an echo, dependent on causes and conditions. This body is like a cloud, which changes and disappears in an instant. This body is like lightning, unstable from one moment to another. This body is without master, like the earth. This body is without self, like fire. This body is without lifespan, like the wind. This body is without person, like water. This body is insubstantial, being housed in the four elements. This body is empty, transcending self and the qualities of self. This body is ignorant, like plants and rocks. This body is inactive, being turned by the power of the wind. (McRae, 2004, p. 83)

Following his elucidation of body , Vimalakīrti further illuminates the truth of beings in “Chapter Seven, Viewing Sentient Beings”. He perceives all beings “like a wise person seeing the moon in water, like seeing the image of a face in a mirror, like a mirage when it is hot, like the echo of a shout, like clouds in the

8「知諸法如幻相;無自性,無他性。」《弟子品第三》T14, no. 0475, p. 0540a28 9「是身無常、無強、無力、無堅、速朽之法,不可信也!為苦、為惱,眾病所集。諸仁者!如 此身,明智者所不怙;是身如聚沫,不可撮摩;是身如泡,不得久立;是身如炎,從渴愛生; 是身如芭蕉,中無有堅;是身如幻,從顛倒起;是身如夢,為虛妄見;是身如影,從業緣現; 是身如響,屬諸因緣;是身如浮雲,須臾變滅;是身如電,念念不住;是身無主,為如地;是 身無我,為如火;是身無壽,為如風;是身無人,為如水;是身不實,四大為家;是身為空, 離我我所;是身無知,如草木瓦礫;是身無作,風力所轉。」《方便品第二》T14, no. 0475, p. 0539 b11-16 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 14

sky, like water collecting into foam, like bubbles upon water, like the firmness of the banana tree, like the prolonged abiding of lightning”10 (McRae, 2004, p. 123).

Also, a body, as an example, demonstrates the phases of birth, aged, getting sick and death (Flowers & Stahl, 2011, p. 2); it reflects the “sequence of arising, staying, changing and vanishing” (Hsu, 2012, p. 2). These phases are uncontrollable but are phenomenological truth (Gethin, 1998, p. 239), illusive in essence. An illusive body is referred to as an ā tman (non-self 無我) in Buddhism. Although the physical body is tangible and visible, it keeps changing without fixation of form, content or inclusion. A baby grows every minute and an adult is becoming more mature everyday. A healthy man may feel unwell tomorrow and a person with a serious illness may recover. Anyone may encounter a fatal accident, even in a safe place. This tells us that sentient beings are unable to control changes in their bodies. This is the basic concept of an ā tman in Buddhist philosophy: it does not mean that a person is without ego or self. Rather, the self is a mixture of mutable and ever-changing physical and mental phenomena and activities (Bernhard, 2010, p. 39). A n ā tman is part of anitya (impermanence 無常) and śūnyat ā (voidness 空性), elaborating the uncertainty of sentient beings in terms of physical bodies and minds.

The characteristics of anitya (impermanence 無常), śūnyat ā (voidness 空性) and an ā tman (non-self 無我) are the fundamental tenets for discussing

10 「如智者見水中月,如鏡中見其面像,如熱時焰,如呼聲響,如空中雲,如水聚沫,如水上 泡,如芭蕉堅,如電久住。」《觀眾生品第七》T14, no. 0475, p. 0547b1-2 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 15

indiscrimination, “in accord with the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127) or “contrary to the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127). Because of these features, to understand the dharma is to review the very nature of all beings. To strictly follow the written rules of the dharma may easily direct an individual to misunderstand the Buddha or the rule makers’ original intent.

Stage Property

The stage property is as simple as a basket of flowers, whereas flowers represent beauty in Buddhism and symbolise blessings (Wray, Rosenfield, Bailey, & Wray, 1979, p. 47). Hence, Buddhists use flowers to worship (Shi, 2009, p. 223) in contemporary rituals. The rite of scattering flowers is considered a way to praise the Buddha (Shi, 2009, p. 223). However, dressing up is not accordant to monastic rules of Early Buddhism because dressing up is a form of sexual attraction (Kamata, 1994, p. 112). Flowers covering the body is deemed to be a manner of dressing up; thus, having flowers on the body implies vitiation (Chen, 2005, p. 141).

In this scene, the goddess scatters flowers over all the bodhisattvas and the disciples, including Śāriputra, aiming to test their responses to the fallen flowers on their robes (Chen, 2005, p. 141; Shi, 2009, p. 223). Interestingly, the flowers themselves, acting as non-verbal actors, are part of the performance. They react differently when they fall on the bodies of the bodhisattvas versus those of the disciples. “When the flowers reached the bodhisattvas they all immediately fell off, but when they reached the great disciples they adhered and did not fall off.” (McRae, 2004, p. 127) This disparity conveys the message that “it is only because the latent influences [of Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 16

your afflictions] are not yet exhausted that the flowers stick to your bodies. For those in whom the latent influences are exhausted, the flowers do not stick” (McRae, 2004, p. 127). Thus, flowers play an important role in helping perceive the differences in understanding śīla (precept 戒律) more deeply, between Early Buddhism and Mahāyāna.


Dialogue is of crucial importance in drama, with the exception of pantomimes. In this scene, there are only three dialogues between the goddess and Śāriputra. However, the inclusion of these “philosophical dialogues” (Puchner, 2010, p. 121) creates a meaningful “climate of confrontation” (Piette, 1995, p. 183). When the goddess asks Śāriputra why he wipes off the flowers from his robe, Śāriputra vindicates his honour through action. Then the goddess argues and challenges his misunderstanding of the Buddhist rules from the dimension of Mahāyāna, as further explored below. This is the foremost theme of this scene.


Action or “action-packed adventure” (Shepherd & Wallis, 2004, p. 167) in theatrical performance is symbolic (Clark & Mangham, 2004, p. 39). The actions in the scene include the goddess’ scattering flowers, and Śāriputra’s, the bodhisattvas’ and the disciples’ responses towards the flowers falling on their robes. The goddess is scattering flowers leisurely and freely; and the bodhisattvas have no reactions towards the flowers falling on their robes for the reason that they are not affected by the fallen flowers upon them. In contrast, Śāriputra and the disciples are instantly, intentionally and nervously wiping off Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 17

the flowers. Their over-reactions reflect their concerns because having flowers on monastic robes deviates from Buddhist rules. The role of the flowers is the medium which indicates how much the characters understand the Buddhist rules. Their responses reflect their understanding of the dharma on different levels.


This theatrical performance about heavenly flowers scattered by a goddess, by tactfully using irony to present negativity (Puchner, 2010, p. 127), is a vehicle through which is brought about the leitmotif of the scene. The major discussion of this scene is centred around what dharma is, whether it is “in accord with the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127) or not, and how one can realise the dharma. Dharma in Buddhism contains a variety of meanings such as “the truth, the way or the law” (Epstein, 2005, p. 39); and in this scene, it particularly spells out the notion of indiscrimination.

The goddess laughs at Śāriputra and unequivocally clarifies that the flowers themselves are neutral to everyone, as “these flowers are without discrimination” (McRae, 2004, p. 127). Flowers are unable to identify any persons or any groups of persons to fall on. The goddess scatters the flowers freely with no targets, and neither are the flowers able to target anyone. Everyone there has the chance that flowers will land on them. Therefore the flowers can fall on anyone unintentionally, including the bodhisattvas, the disciples, and Śāriputra.

However, the responses of these characters towards the flowers are distinct. Having read that “this is because they have eradicated all discriminative thoughts” (McRae, 2004, p. 127), the bodhisattvas pay no attention to the flowers, and the flowers fall off since they do not find the flowers impure by understanding that everything is pure when their minds are immaculate. The core message transmits the Mahāyāna doctrine that “if a bodhisattva wishes to attain a pure land he should purify his mind”11 (McRae, 2004, p. 78). Thus, the mind is the decisive element in perception. Moreover, this rationale applies to what a monastic really is. Vimalakīrti explains to the disciples the true meaning of being a monk, “you should immediately generate the intention to achieve anuttarā samyaksa ṃ bodhi (the highest wisdom of awakening 無上正等正覺) , and this is to ‘leave home’. This is sufficient”12 (McRae, 2004, p. 94). In Mahāyāna, official ordination does not sufficiently prove someone to be a real monastic because it is only a ritual, whereupon a true monastic demonstrates a devotion to serving others. If a monastic does not contribute to helping others, this individual is not a true monastic even though he or she has been ordained. In contrast, when a layperson vows dedication to helping all beings, he or she is a monastic, even while living as an ordinary person in the secular world, as in the case of Vimalakīrti. It is clear that the boundary between whether one is or is not a monastic is having totally consecrated one’s life to serving and helping all beings. This is the mind, a pure mind which is repeatedly emphasised in Mahāyāna teachings as well as in the Sūtra . “The characteristics of the minds

11 「若菩薩欲得淨土,當淨其心。」《佛國品第一》T14, no. 0475, p. 0538b28-29 12 「汝等便發阿耨多羅三藐三菩提心,是即出家,是即具足。」《弟子品第三》T14, no. 0475, p. 0541c14-15

of all sentient beings are likewise, in being without defilement”13 (McRae, 2004, p. 93). That is, “when their minds are defiled, sentient beings are defiled. When their minds are purified, sentient beings are purified”14 (McRae, 2004, p. 93).

On the contrary, Śāriputra and the disciples dislike to the flowers, as they perceive that having flowers on one’s body is not sacred demeanour. Believing that “these flowers are contrary to the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127), they immediately make efforts to get rid of the flowers. However, they fail, and the flowers indelibly adhere to their robes, implying their discriminative minds.

This contradiction metaphorically compares the understanding of the dharma between Mahāyāna and Early Buddhism, and explains that “it is you who are generating discriminative thoughts” (McRae, 2004, p. 127). Mahāyāna distinguishes between being “in accord with the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127) and “contrary to the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127), based on the teaching that “if one who has left home in the Buddha-Dharma has discrimination, this is contrary to the Dharma; if such a one is without discrimination, this is in accord with the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127). Hence, the key difference is whether or not one has the attachment of discrimination.

The reason for Śāriputra and the disciples attaching discrimination is

13 「一切眾生心相無垢。」《弟子品第三》T14, no. 0475, p. 0541b14-15 14 「心垢故眾生垢,心淨故眾生淨。」《弟子品第三》T14, no. 0475, p. 0541b13 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 20

that “since the disciples fear s a ṃ sāra , then forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangibles control you” (McRae, 2004, p. 127). They do Buddhist practices in order to be liberated from s a ṃ sāra (the cycle of birth and death 輪迴), a common belief of all sects of Buddhists. Their fear implies they have not yet completely freed themselves from desire; instead, desires control them and lead them into the endless cycle of birth and death. Paradoxically, their final goal is to attain to the stage at which “none of the five desires can affect those who have transcended fear” (McRae, 2004, p. 127), like the bodhisattvas. This gap between their goal and their accomplishments of liberation causes them to engender discrimination.

The bodhisattvas, from off whom the flowers fall, do not stick to discrimination because they have gained the deep insight into the ultimate truth. The ultimate truth in Buddhism, across all schools of Buddhist thoughts, is pratītya - samutpāda (the law of dependent origination 緣起法), that is, impermanence and non-substantiation. Flowers exist under pratītya - samutpāda , just as does everything does. This is because the bodhisattvas realise the ultimate truth and understand śūny at ā (voidness 空性). Everything is void because existence is so transient. Because of transience, the bodhisattvas treasure the here-and-now. The bodhisattvas have transcended the distinction between temporality and perpetuity, and between life and death. In brief, they have transcended duality, in which the empiricalreality is relative” (Flowers & Stahl, 2011, p. 29) and hence “relatively real” (Epstein, 2005, p. 171).

Non-duality is a significant theory in Mahāyāna; and is one of the pivotal themes in the Sūtra . The Buddha observes that the thinking pattern of human beings tends to be dualistic in the sense that pairs of opposites appear simultaneously; for example, beautiful/ugly, long/short, up/down, dark/bright. Such dualistic thinking model ( ant a - dvaya in Sanskrit) dissects “reality into pairs of opposites” (Cooper, 2009, p. 190). “Chapter Nine, The Dharma Gate of Nonduality”15 elucidates non-dualism by exhibiting 31 bodhisattvasinsights into non-duality (McRae, 2004, p. 143-148; Wang, 2009, p. 138), which include the following five aspects:

(1) phenomena: generation/extinction; single characteristic/non-characteristic; constructed/non-constructed; loka (secular world 世間)/ lokottara (supermundane world 出世間); s a ṃ sāra (the cycle of birth and death 輪迴)/ nirvā ṇ a (perfect stillness 涅槃), meaning “extinguishing the flame of desire” (Pruett, 1987, p. 395); exhaustible/inexhaustible; form/emptiness of form; differentiation of the four types of elements (that is, earth, water, fire and air)/differentiation of type of space; three emancipations of emptiness, singleness and wishlessness; Buddha, dharma and sa ṅ gha

(monks 僧團); the body/extinction of the body; generation of dualities from the self; darkness/illumination; real/unreal; (2) self: self/self’s attributes; self/non-self; (3) mind: experience/non-experience; aspiration of bodhisattva/aspiration of śrāvaka s (a disciple of the Buddha who hear

15《入不二法門品第九》 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 22

his voice 聲聞); flaws/flawlessness; wisdom/ignorance; eye/forms; characteristics of the attainable (that is, the perceptible); delight in nirvā ṇ a (perfect stillness 涅槃) / not to delight in the world; (4) behaviour: motion/mindfulness; charity/re-dedication of the merit of charity to omniscience; the good actions of body, speech and mind; and (5) morality: defilement/purity; good/not good; transgression/blessing; meritorous action, transgressive action and immobility; correct path/heterodox paths.

In a nutshell, all these divisions demonstrate the hidden polarisation and create opponents, disputes or resistances. Consequently, a “compartmentalised existence” (Cooper, 2009, p. 190) emerges in daily life. However, these dualistic views include “the internalistic view and externalistic view. These are without attainment (i.e., not apprehensible)”16 (McRae, 2004, p. 111). Dualistic views are “merely names, and therefore empty”17 (McRae, 2004, p. 111); and dualities themselves are void in essence. Thus, they are insubstantial and “in being without determinate characteristics”18 (McRae, 2004, p. 130).

Śāriputra and the disciples, like other sentient beings, adhere to duality due to avidyā (ignorance 無明) or moha (delusion), and have not yet really understood śūnyat ā (voidness 空性) and the non-dualistic middle-way

16「謂內見外見,是無所得。」《文殊師利問疾品第五》T14, no. 0475, p. 0545a17 17 「但以名字故空。」《文殊師利問疾品第五》T14, no. 0475, p. 0544c31 18 「幻無定相。」《觀眾生品第七》T14, no. 0475, p. 0548b24 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 23

madhyamā - pratipad (middle way 中道). Hence, they discriminate and cling to the binary trap which leads to the antithesis. Sentient beings grasp favourable substances and choose what they like, but relinquish what they dislike. Śāriputra and the disciples discriminate between everything and grapple “in accord with the Dharma” (McRae, 2004, p. 127), distinguishing between favour and disfavour due to their discrimination stemming from kleśa (defilement ). Albeit, Mahāyāna teachings define defilement as no defilement, according the principle that “to have false concepts is defilement; to be without false concepts is purity. Confusion is defilement, and the absence of confusion is purity. To grasp the self is defilement, and not to grasp the self is purity”19 (McRae, 2004, p. 93). Conclusively, defilement is non-substantial, and changes according to the mind.

The bodhisattvas do not discern between opposites because they have de-polarised such binary extremes: that is the madhyamā - pratipad (middle way 中道). The bodhisattvas do not insist on either one pole or the other, nor do they reject either of them. More wisely, they prevail against the bondage of dualism. Similarly, in the loka (secular world 世間), such polar opposite pairs are relative, but also mutually supplementary and interdependent. When one realm does not exist, the opposite does not exist. Without black, for instance, there is no white; and vice versa. The presence of white brings in or reinforces the presence of black, and the reverse is likewise true. In this sense, opposites are inseparable.

19 「妄想是垢,無妄想是淨;顛倒是垢,無顛倒是淨;取我是垢,不取我是淨。」《弟子品第 三》T14, no. 0475, p. 0541b15-16 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 24

The Sūtra ’s arguments concerning madhyamā - pratipad (middle way ) paradoxically affirm śūnyat ā (voidness 空 性 ) per se, by negating substantive nature (Wang, 2009, p. 122-126) in a revolutionary manner (Soothill, 1913, p. 95). For example, “the mundane and supramundane constitute a duality. The emptiness that is the nature of the mundane is the supramundane. Within these to neither enter nor exit, neither overflow nor disperse, is to enter the Dharma gate of nonduality”20 (McRae, 2004, p. 144). It is usually conceived that loka (secular world 世間) / lokottara

(supermundane world 出世間) is a pair of opposites; that is, choosing to enter either the loka or lokottara but not both is allowed. However, the Sūtra asserts that there are no actual places called loka or lokottara ; instead they are concepts only. Realising pratītya - samutpāda (the law of dependent origination 緣起法) and the nature of śūnyat ā (voidness 空性) is to enter the lokottara , even for someone who is in loka (Wang, 2009, p. 138-139).

Another illustration is “ s a ṃ s ā ra (the cycle of birth and death 輪迴) and nirv ā ṇ a constitute a duality. If one sees the nature of s a ṃ s ā ra , there is no s a ṃ s ā ra . To be without bondage and without emancipation, neither generating nor extinguished—to understand in this way is to enter the Dharma gate of nonduality”21 (McRae, 2004, p. 144). This pair of opposites pertains to the cycle of birth and death and the eradication of suffering. The former is deemed to be hell, while the latter is heaven. Yet, the Sūtra re-asserts that they are neither opposite nor relative because they exist under

20「世間、出世間為二。世間性空,即是出世間。於其中不入、不出、不溢、不散,是為入不二 法門。」《入不二法門品第九》T14, no. 0475, p. 0551a04-05 21 「生死、涅槃為二。若見生死性,則無生死,無縛無解,不生不滅,如是解者,是為入不二 法門。」《入不二法門品第九》T14, no. 0475, p. 0551a07-08 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 25

pratītya - samutpāda (the law of dependent origination 緣起法) and śūnyat ā

(voidness 空性). An individual who attains “transcendental wisdom” (Suzuki, 1938/1981, p. 27) ( prajñā 般若) and deeply understands “As-It-Is” (Hsu, 2012, p. 12), seeing the nature of birth and death is free from suffering; that is, a bodhisattva. It does not matter whether this person is or is not in s a ṃ sāra

(the cycle of birth and death 輪迴), in other words, in the loka (secular world 世間).

In these respects, the Sūtra negates the substantive secular world and transmigration for the purpose of affirming pratītya - samutpāda (the law of dependent origination 緣起法) and śūnyat ā (voidness 空性). By negating conceptions of immortality, constant permanence and immutability, it also affirms that uttama - artha (essence 真實) of existence is insubstantial and impermanent. The Sūtra disagrees with the notion of substantive existence and iterates temporal or phenomenal existence, and then extends to affirm the paramārtha (superlative truth 真諦) of indiscrimination between śūnyat ā and existence (Wang, 2009, p. 123) as they are in light of pratītya - samutpāda . As a result, the extremes unite as “ s a ṃ s ā ra is nirv ā ṇ a ” (Pruett, 1987, p. 440; Wang, 2009, p. 136) and “ nirvā ṇ a is s a ṃ sāra ” (Pruett, 1987, p. 489). In the end, there is an achievement of unity in contradiction and relativity (Li, 2003, p. 83-87).

Through deep insights into the middle-way, the bodhisattvas have “profoundly attained the true characteristic”22 (McRae, 2004, p. 107) of

22「深達實相。」《文殊師利問疾品第五》T14, no. 0475, p. 044a27 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 26

existence, and understand that “the Dharma is without discrimination because it transcends the consciousnesses”23 (McRae, 2004, p. 86). For them, everything is pure and flawless without judgement regarding angel/devil, friend/enemy or mine/yours. Non-judgement is open to any being, adventure or experience that enables someone to avoid this partition between self and others (Flowers & Stahl, 2011, p. 59). Hence, the bodhisattvas are free to “neither have the afflictions nor transcend the afflictions”24 (McRae, 2004, p. 88), for they have no bondages to afflictions, that is, liberation; and they are “neither to abide in the world nor to abide in nirvā ṇ a ”25 (McRae, 2004, p. 88). For them, loka (secular world 世間) and nirvā ṇ a (perfect stillness 涅槃), the “extinguishing of the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion” (Gethin, 1998, p. 77), are equivalent. Even though they are living in loka , their minds are in the state of nirvā ṇ a . In praxis, they practise “the teaching of the emancipation of the exhaustible and inexhaustible”26 (McRae, 2004, p. 161), where “exhaustible” is loka and “inexhaustible” is lokottara (the supermundane world 出世間). For the sake of all living beings, they dwell in the secular world with them, and “teach sentient beings without ever becoming tired”27 (McRae, 2004, p. 161) “in order to extinguish the illnesses of sentient beings”28 (McRae, 2004, p. 164), where “illness” means psychological or emotional distress. This is the mission of Mahāyāna Buddhists, whether monastics or laypersons. Simultaneously, the bodhisattvas do not feel suffering, which is an inner feeling (Bernhard, 2010, p. 23), as their minds are pure, having no

23「法無分別,離諸識故。」《弟子品第三》T14, no. 0475, p. 0539c32 24 「非有煩惱,非離煩惱。」《弟子品第三》T14, no. 0475, p. 0540a32-33 25 「非住世間,非住涅槃。」《弟子品第三》T14, no. 0475, p. 0540a33 26 「有盡無盡解脫法門。」《菩薩行品第十一》T14, no. 0475, p. 0544b03 27 「教化眾生,終不厭倦。」《菩薩行品第十一》T14, no. 0475, p. 0554b06 28 「滅眾生病故。」《菩薩行品第十一》T14, no. 0475, p. 0554c16 Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 27

judgement, bias or prejudices. All they see, hear, touch, and feel is true, virtuous and beautiful.

A bodhisattva does not necessarily designate a god or goddess. Instead, a bodhisattva, in Mahāyāna, is someone who is committed to unconditionally serving and helping others (Akizuki, 1990, p. 18; Godfrey, 2005, p. 40; Keown, 2000, p. 57; Suzuki, 1938/1981, p. 122), especially for alleviating others’ suffering, regardless of how unfavourable the circumstances are and how difficult it is to work with the service recipient. Therefore, a bodhisattva connects strongly with all living beings and treats them impartially (Thubten, 2008, p. 112). In Mahāyāna, this is upek ṣ ā (equanimity 捨), one of the c atv ā ri a pram ā ṇ ā ni (the four immeasurables 四無量心), which are the values and qualities of a bodhisattva. U pek ṣ ā , together with maitrī (loving-kindness 慈), karu ṇ ā (compassion ), and mudit ā (empathetic joy ), presents the significance of indiscrimination when a bodhisattva practises the other three constituents. Briefly, a bodhisattva, the role model and ideal personality for Mahāyāna Buddhists, has transcended dichotomy, been liberated from self-limitation, and is devoted to serving all beings. This is the underlying theme of this scene.

The Scene with an Abundance of Insight

The dramatic stories in the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra (Lo, 2002, p. 100) are philosophical (Cui, 2008, p. 78) and inspiring. The scene where heavenly flowers are scattered by a goddess is compact and concise, but also contains very rich implications through a variety of theatrical effects. The characters in the scene represent different views of various Buddhist sects. The Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 28

confrontational dialogues are humorous and produce comic effects. Most importantly, this scene resonates with the major themes depicted in the previous chapters of the Sūtra and offers a base for further development in the latter part of the Sūtra . It investigates the notion of indiscrimination to explain the dharma according to Mahāyāna teachings. The dharma, as illuminated in the Sūtra , is not a set of strict rules, but represents a mentality of non-judgement towards all beings. This clarification of indiscrimination addresses the concept of advaita (non-dualism 不二), which is one of the pivotal themes of the Sūtra . Following this theme, the scene also radically discusses a series of essential Buddhist theories, including pratītya - samutpāda (the law of dependent origination 緣起法), anitya (impermanence 無常), śūnyat ā (voidness 空性), and anātman (non-self 無我). Likewise, the conflicts and contrasts between the goddess and Śāriputra unveil the Buddhist stance on gender equality; and the responses between the bodhisattvas and the disciples, such as those involving Śāriputra’s reaction towards the flowers, recapitulate a different understanding of attachment and detachment between Early Buddhism and Mahāyāna.

This scene, heavenly flowers scattered by a goddess, comprises sophisticated dimensions of theatrical representation and dramatic performance. It shows how a drama can effectively help the audience dwell upon a complex of philosophies through metaphor, conflict, contradiction, dialogue, action, stage setting, stage properties, and characters. Conclusively, the theatrical exposition of this scene displays an abundance of insight into self-management of the mind, liberation from dichotomy, prejudice, formalism, dogmatism, and self-restriction, and the attainment of self-transcendence and Goddess Scattering Flowers p. 29

enlightenment, which have been invaluable for Mahāyāna philosophies and Buddhist wisdom over the past 25 centuries. Through this dramatic presentation of Buddhist teachings, it is illustrated that theatrical art may be a potential method of philosophical discussion.

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