Vimalakirti: the thunderous silence of the unsurpassed layman
Vimalakirti, the legendary hero of a sutra that became popular in China and Japan, was a wealthy disciple and patron of Shakyamuni Buddha. His wisdom and eloquence surpass that of all the other disciples and bodhisattvas. He is featured in the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra, The Sutra of Displays [or Teachings] of Vimalakirti, one of the older Mahayana sutras, dating back at least to the first or second century. Vimalakirti's name means "undefiled fame or glory."
Aside from the sutra in which he is featured, there is only brief mention of him in several other minor Mahayana scriptures and commentaries. Unlike Manjushri, Samantabhadra, Avalokiteshvara, or Jizo, Vimalakirti is not a cosmic, mythic bodhisattva, but is a historical lay follower of Shakyamuni. Vimalakirti and his sutra are not central to any school of Buddhism. He does not appear in tantric mandalas, and his image is not commonly venerated on temple altars.
But Vimalakirti's sutra is highly entertaining spiritual literature and was very influential, especially in East Asia. He is shown seated, with flowing white layman's robes and a soft cloth hat, often with a long beard. sometimes leaning on an armrest, suggesting the illness that initiates the drama of the sutra.
Vimalakirti playfully and magically demonstrates that truth is always available to people and is not dependent on priestly intercession or hierarchical status, either worldly or spiritual.