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Book: Narrative Visions and Visual Narratives in Indian Buddhism

Chapter: 9. Seeing the Dharma: Narrative Darśan in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.39998


This chapter follows on from the previous one by arguing that some Mahāyāna sūtras offer ritual and verbal means for transformative visual encounters with buddhas and their perfect fields. It takes as a particularly instructive instance the penultimate chapter of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, “The Visual Encounter (darśana) with the Tathāgata Akṣobhya and the Fetching of the Abhirati World,” (abhiratilokadhātv-ānayanākṣobhyatathāgatadarśana). The chapter begins with a question posed by the Buddha to Vimalakīrti: when he is “desirous of darśana,” of seeing and being seen by the Tathāgata, how does he see him? Vimalakīrti replies with a lengthy apophatic description of the Tathāgata, making it clear that he is, as Vimalakīrti concludes, “inexpressible” (avacanīya). Yet almost immediately thereafter, Vimalakīrti provides an actual opportunity for seeing a Tathāgata: the Tathāgata Akṣobhya, whose entire vast world sphere Abhirati, its glittering features amassed in fairly vivid detail in the sūtra, the bodhisattva gathers up into his hand and brings into this Saha world in order to give darśana to Śākyamuni's assembly. Through this encounter, all present are transformed. While the reality of the Tathāgata is ostensibly “inexpressible,” then, he and his world can nonetheless be seen and brought into our own, even when both seem far, far away—and precisely through the verbal and ritual technologies of the sūtra, which make him imaginatively present to audiences and allow darśana of him. These technologies have significant implications for our interpretation of Buddhist “literature,” which often defies any comfortable distinction between textual and visual experience.

Chapter Contributors

  • Natalie Gummer ( - ngummer) 'Beloit College, Wisconsin'