In the Vimalakirti sutra, the great layman Vimalakirti transformed his house into an empty room and lay upon a solitary invalid’s couch. The Buddha asked Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, to visit him. Although a myriad of goddesses and gods, bodhisattvas and disciples all accompanied Manjusri, they were all able to fit in this empty room as Manjusri met Vimalakirti.
Manjushri asked: “This illness of yours – can you endure it? Is the treatment perhaps not making it worse rather than better? Good layperson, what is the cause of this illness? How long will it continue? And how can it be alleviated?”
Vimalakirti replied: “Manjushri, this illness of mine comes from ignorance and clinging and the thirst for existence. Because all living beings are sick, therefore I am sick. It will last as long as do the sicknesses of all living beings. If all living beings were free from sickness, I also would not be sick.”
Because all living beings are sick, therefore I am sick. Never in my lifetime, in our lifetime, has this been so obvious. Our earth has been also sick for some time, overrun by the stress of our growth, consumption and self -centeredness. We are not separate from our earth and all beings, all the myriad things, and so their distress is ours. The virus which is ravaging so many is also part of our natural connection. We will all meet it eventually, and it will become part of us for better or worse. The declining health of our economy also is a challenge we all will share for many years to come. We are together in this.
But that is one face of our life today. Master Yunmen said: “Medicine and sickness mutually correspond to each other. The whole universe is medicine.” Vimilakirti lay on his couch sick and yet at the same time was completely healthy, whole and complete, manifesting in that moment as a fever chill, a dry cough, a pain in the chest and a great fatigue.
All the unseen forces working to help us continue to live together, our neighbors going to the store for us, our doctors working long hours, even our politicians struggling to get supplies and equipment and financial support, are helping us to heal. And all of our individual efforts, even if it’s staying home so that we delay our own need, also are helping us to heal. And the earth too is breathing again, the waters clearing, the fish returning. When we sit together and touch that original place of quiet, when we hold our Mu, even through clouds of uncertainty and confusion, we take care of the one who is not sick, has never been sick.
Master Yunmen said: “Medicine and sickness mutually correspond to each other. The whole universe is medicine.” But then he asked us: “Where do you find the self?” Can you find your self in the openness of not knowing, settling into that groundlessness which is each day? In being open to “what is this?” In the crocuses, yellow and purple, one block away? In the light reflecting off water in your glass? In one breath at a time? In every aspect of our experience as medicine, even doubt, uncertainty, fear, discouragement?
Our practice is independent of causes and conditions, and yet lives as we meet them. The best medicine.
– Karin Ryuku Kempe Roshi