This handscroll depicts an episode from the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Buddhist scripture in which Vimalakirti, a layman, and Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, engage in a theological debate. According to the sutra, Vimalakirti proved the more subtle by remaining silent when asked to explain the ultimate meaning of the Buddhist Law. The subject appealed to China's Confucian elite, for it demonstrated how a cultured layman could surpass even a deity in his understanding of doctrine.
The scroll is a rare example of a preparatory draft, submitted for the approval of the future Emperor Renzong (r. 1311–20) before a final version in color was executed.
Inscription: Artist’s inscription and signature
1. 3 columns in standard script, dated 1308:
On the first day of the second lunar month in the first year of the Zhida reign era [February 23, 1308], the day after Baizhu [1298–1323] was appointed to the rank of Palace Guard, in the West Lotus Leaf Hall on the hill in the garden of the Palace of Surpassing Happiness, [I], the official Wang Zhenpeng, was commanded by an imperial decree of Emperor Renzong [r. 1311–1320], [who at the time lived] in the residence of the heir apparent, to copy the draft of Vimalakirti and the Doctrine of Nonduality by Ma Yunqing of the Jin dynasty (1115–1234).
In the second lunar month of the wushen year of the Zhida reign era [February 23–March 22, 1308] Emperor Renzong, while at the Spring Palace [of the heir apparent], took out a painting on silk of Vimalakirti and the Doctrine of Nonduality by the former Jin [subject] Ma Yunqing so that I, the official Zhenpeng, could copy it on Dong silk and also explain the meaning of the phrase “nonduality.” Carefully following the Buddhist canon I accordingly stated:
In the city of Vaisali there was a layman whose Indian name was Vimalakirti, which is translated [in Chinese] as Jingming [“Pure Name”]. He was the reincarnation of the Golden Grain Tathagatha. He had a profound understanding of the Law. At home he manifested illness, and when visitors came to inquire about his condition, he preached the Law. Then Shakyamuni [tried to] send bodhisattvas to inquire about Vimalakirti’s illness, but many said that they had done so in the past and were incapable of responding [to his questions]. Therefore, they were unqualified to go. At last Manjushri said: “This gentleman is one to whom it is difficult to respond. He profoundly understands reality and excels in expounding the essence of the Law.” Thereupon Manjushri himself went. [When] the other bodhisattvas heard that Manjushri was going, they said [Vimalakirti and Manjushri] will certainly discuss the wondrous Law. So they all followed along. When they arrived at Vimalakirti’s room, [they found that] due to his illness he sat alone in bed. Manjushri said, “The sage layman is ill, so Shakyamuni has sent me to inquire [about his condition].” After their conversation, Shariputra thought there were not any other seats in the room. Vimalakirti used his magical power, and instantly the Light King Tathagatha of Merudhvaja sent 32,000 lofty, vast, solemn, and pure lion-thrones to the room, where all were accommodated. The two great beings [Vimalakirti and Manjushri] sat down. Shariputra and Nara-ya Bodhisattva, because their thrones were so lofty and vast, could not ascend them. Vimalakirti ordered them to bow to the Light King Tathagatha of Merudhvaja, and afterward they were able to sit down.
Vimalakirti asked all of the bodhisattvas how one enters the Dharma gate of Nonduality. Each and every one of the bodhisattvas expressed his opinion. Manjushri addressed Vimalakirti, saying, “We have now spoken. Benevolent One, you should expound how one enters the Dharma gate of Nonduality.” Vimalakirti remained silent. Manjushri exclaimed, “Wonderful, wonderful! To remain silent is to have truly obtained the Law of Nonduality.” Then, Shariputra thought it was time to eat. Vimalakirti transformed himself into a bodhisattva and went to the Buddha of the Land of Fragrance to pick up a bowl of rice, and returned instantaneously. The fragrance of the rice permeated Vaisali City, and all the great beings attending the gathering became full upon inhaling the fragrance. There was a goddess in the room who was listening to the heavenly beings discussing the Law. She then appeared and scattered heavenly flowers. When they landed on the bodies of the bodhisattvas, the flowers fell off. When they landed on the body of one of Buddha’s great disciples (Shariputra), they did not. The disciple tried to get rid of the flowers with his magic power, but failed. The goddess asked why he did so. He replied: “These flowers do not compare to the Law; that is why I want to get rid of them.” The goddess said: “Do not say that the flowers do not match the Law. The flowers do not make any difference. It must be because you have not renounced your mundane desire that the flowers cling to your body. If you had renounced your mundane desire, the flowers would not cling to your body.” That is why the Tang monk Jiaoran (active ca. 766–804) has a poem: “The Chan maiden came to challenge. / Holding flowers, she intends to tarnish my robe. / Attentively, I gave back the flowers.” Su Dongpo [Su Shi, 1037–1101] has a poem “Guest Wearing Flowers”: “Mundane desires have dissipated gradually; / you cannot keep them. / On the contrary, return them to the flower-scattering goddess.” And “The place the lay devotee of Vaisali expounded ‘emptiness’ / Mundane desire has been extinguished and flowers need not be scattered. / Try to convince the goddess to use rouge and powder. / Even one thousand lively Buddhist hymns will not provoke a word.” And “Would that the reclining sick one respect Manjushri.” Another poem by Su Dongpo, “Requesting Leave Due to Sore Arms”:
“By a low window in a small pavilion, reclining on a mild and peaceful day / I remain in total silence. / Vimalakirti was not ill, but I truly am. / Who understands Dongpo’s gate of nonduality?” Dongpo also has a poem, “The Sculpture of Vimalakirti”: “When he was here, someone asked him about the Law. / He bowed his head and did not speak, knowing in his own mind.” Du Fu (712–770) inscribed a portrait of Vimalakirti by Gu Kaizhi (ca. 348–ca. 409): “The portrait of Golden Grain Tathagatha is marvelous and difficult to forget.” Dongpo inscribed a painting of Vimalakirti by Shike (fl. mid-10th c.): “I observe Shike, a recluse, wearing hemp shoes, / threadbare hat, and two elbows worn through. / He can depict Vimalakirti with the tip of his brush; / His magic power surpassed Vimalakirti.” I saw Ma Yunqing’s Vimalakirti and the Doctrine of Nonduality. His brushwork is of surpassing excellence. He seems to have perceived and entered the gate of nonduality. Hasn’t his magic power surpassed that of Vimalakirit? At that time, I was instructed to make a copy [of Ma Yunqing’s Vimalakirti and the Doctrine of Nonduality] and decorate it with color. After I had completed it, I summarized the story and presented it [to the throne]. Hence I obtained the draft and treasure it. In my spare time I unroll it to entertain myself. Respectfully inscribed by Wang Zhenpeng of Dongjia [modern Wenzhou, Zhejiang].
On the twenty-ninth day of the third lunar month in the dingyou year of the Daoguang reign era [May 3, 1837], Wu Rongguang of Nanhai [Guangdong] was leaving for Shi Min [Fujian] to assume the post of Provincial Administration Commissioner. Ye Zhishen (1779–1863), Dongqing, of Hanyang [in Hubei], Xu Song (1781–1848), Xingbo, of Wanping [near Beijing], Gong Gongzuo, Ding’an [Gong Zizhen, 1792–1841] from Renhe [in Zhejiang], and Wu Shifen (1796–1856), Songsun, from Haifeng [in Shandong] gathered outside the Guang’an Gate [in Beijing] to bid me farewell. Li Zhangyu [jinshi 1820], Ruoting, from Zhucheng [in Shandong] showed me this scroll by Wang Pengmei [Wang Zhenpeng] and asked for an inscription. At the time, myriad flowers were in full bloom. None of the six men who waved one another goodbye had flower petals attached to their bodies. Inscribed by Rongguang. [Seals]: Wu Rongguang yin, Baijing Laoren
2. Yang Liang楊亮 (active first half 19th c.), 2 columns in standard script, dated 1838:
On the twenty-eighth day of the twelfth lunar month in the seventeenth year of the Daoguang reign era [January 17, 1838], Mao Yuesheng (1791–1841) from Baoshan [part of modern Shanghai] and Yang Liang from Ganquan [in Shaanxi] view [this scroll] together.
 The location of Wang’s interview with Renzong can be found on a diagram of the heir-apparent’s palace; see Yuan Dadu gongdian tu kao. Shanghai: Shangwu shudian, 1936, p. 46. For a slightly different translation of this text see Marsha Weidner, ed. Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism (850-1850), Lawrence: Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, 1994, p. 349.  Translation from Department records. [3 Translations from Department records.