The essence of the Diamond Sutra

fo_guang_big_buddha_at_fgs_buddha_museum

The Diamond Sutra is considered to be one of the most important and venerated of Buddhist scriptures. The text itself says that it can be considered to be the ‘diamond that cuts through illusion’ and that understanding it will lead to ‘the Highest Perfect Wisdom’.

In this post I have grouped excerpts from the Diamond Sutra into themes and so hopefully the essence of the teachings are readily conveyed. Please note that The Diamond Sutra itself is not actually very long, so if you are interested, I would readily encourage you to read the original in full.

It was composed perhaps as early as the 1st century BCE in Sanskrit, and forms part of the Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) sutras in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It is also given particular importance in various Zen/Ch’an schools, which are often themselves considered to be part of the Mahayana tradition.

Interestingly, a Chinese version of the scripture is one of the oldest examples of a printed book, dated from 11th May 868, about 500 years before the Gutenburg. The original can be currently seen in the British Museum and is officially ‘the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book’.

This sutra takes the form of a conversation between Buddha and one of his disciples, Subhuti. I have used the translation from Alex Johnson, primarily because it is easy to read and is without technical terms.


This teaching leads to the ‘highest perfect wisdom’

The Buddha then replied:

“…If sons and daughters of good families want to develop the highest, most fulfilled and awakened mind, if they wish to attain the Highest Perfect Wisdom and quiet their drifting minds while subduing their craving thoughts, then they should follow what I am about to say to you. Those who follow what I am about to say here will be able to subdue their discriminative thoughts and craving desires. It is possible to attain perfect tranquillity and clarity of mind by absorbing and dwelling on the teachings I am about to give.” Then the Buddha addressed the assembly.

(from Chapter 2)

The basic teaching

“…all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana, the final ending of the cycle of birth and death. And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated.

“Why Subhuti? Because if a disciple still clings to the arbitrary illusions of form or phenomena such as an ego, a personality, a self, a separate person, or a universal self existing eternally, then that person is not an authentic disciple.”

(from Chapter 3)

Is the Buddha his body?

“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be recognized by means of his bodily form?”

“No, Most Honored One, the Buddha cannot be recognized by means of his bodily form. Why? Because when the Buddha speaks of bodily form, it is not a real form, but only an illusion.”

(from Chapter 5)

Illusion and reality

The Buddha then spoke to Subhuti: “All that has a form is illusive and unreal. When you see that all forms are illusive and unreal, then you will begin to perceive your true Buddha nature.”

(from Chapter 5)

Will people benefit from reading or hearing this sutra?

“Without a doubt, Subhuti. Even 500 years after the Enlightenment of this Buddha there will be some who are virtuous and wise; and while practicing compassion and charity, they will believe in the words and phrases of this Sutra and will awaken their minds purely. After they come to hear these teachings, they will be inspired with belief. This is because, when some people hear these words, they will have understood intuitively that these words are the truth.

(from Chapter 6)

Who will benefit from hearing this message?

“But you must also remember, Subhuti, that such persons have long ago planted the seeds of goodness and merit that lead to this realization. They have planted the seeds of good deeds and charity not simply before one Buddhist temple, or two temples, or five, but before hundreds of thousands of Buddhas and temples. So when a person who hears the words and phrases of this Sutra is ready for it to happen, a pure faith and clarity can awaken within their minds.”

“…this person must have discarded all arbitrary notions of the existence of a personal self, of other people, or of a universal self. Otherwise their minds would still grasp after such relative conceptions. Furthermore, these people must have already discarded all arbitrary notions of the non-existence of a personal self, other people, or a universal self. Otherwise, their minds would still be grasping at such notions.”

(from Chapter 6)

If I am seeking enlightenment, what view should I take of the teaching?

“Therefore anyone who seeks total Enlightenment should discard not only all conceptions of their own selfhood, of other selves, or of a universal self, but they should also discard all notions of the non-existence of such concepts.”

(from Chapter 6)

Are these teachings true?

“When the Buddha explains these things using such concepts and ideas, people should remember the unreality of all such concepts and ideas. They should recall that in teaching spiritual truths the Buddha always uses these concepts and ideas in the way that a raft is used to cross a river. Once the river has been crossed over, the raft is of no more use, and should be discarded. These arbitrary concepts and ideas about spiritual things need to be explained to us as we seek to attain Enlightenment. However, ultimately these arbitrary conceptions can be discarded.

(from Chapter 6)

The highest, most fulfilled, most awakened and enlightened mind

Then Buddha asked Subhuti, “What do you think, Subhuti, has the Buddha arrived at the highest, most fulfilled, most awakened and enlightened mind? Does the Buddha teach any teaching?”

Subhuti replied, “As far as I have understood the Buddha’s teachings, there is no independently existing object of mind called the highest, most fulfilled, awakened or enlightened mind.

Nor is there any independently existing teaching that the Buddha teaches.

Why? Because the teachings that the Buddha has realized and spoken of cannot be conceived of as separate, independent things and therefore cannot be described. The truth in them is uncontainable and inexpressible.

(from Chapter 7)

“…And yet, even as I speak, Subhuti, I must take back my words as soon as they are uttered, for there are no Buddhas and there are no teachings.”

(from Chapter 8)

“No, Most Honored One. According to what I understand from the teachings of the Buddha, there is no attaining of anything called the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind.”

The Buddha said: “You are correct, Subhuti. In fact, there does not exist any so-called highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind that the Buddha attains…Someone would be mistaken to say that the Buddha has attained the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind because there is no such thing as a highest, most fulfilled, or awakened mind to be attained.”

(from Chapter 17)

Does a Buddha consider themselves to be enlightened?

“Tell me, Subhuti. Does a Buddha say to himself, ‘I have obtained Perfect Enlightenment.’?”

“No, Blessed One. There is no such thing as Perfect Enlightenment to obtain. If a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha were to say to himself, ‘I am enlightened’ he would be admitting there is an individual person, a separate self and personality, and would therefore not be a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha.”

(from Chapter 9)

How to practice

“A disciple should develop a mind which is in no way dependent upon sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensory sensations or any mental conceptions. A disciple should develop a mind which does not rely on anything. Therefore, Subhuti, the minds of all disciples should be purified of all thoughts that relate to seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and discriminating. They should use their minds spontaneously and naturally, without being constrained by preconceived notions arising from the senses.”

(from Chapter 10)

“Therefore, Subhuti, disciples should leave behind all distinctions of phenomena and awaken the thought of the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment. A disciple should do this by not allowing their mind to depend upon ideas evoked by the world of the senses – by not allowing their mind to depend upon ideas stirred by sounds, odours, flavors, sensory touch, or any other qualities. The disciple’s mind should be kept independent of any thoughts that might arise within it. If the disciple’s mind depends upon anything in the sensory realm it will have no solid foundation in any reality.”

(from Chapter 14)

Is there a clear teaching to be taught?

“What do you think, Subhuti? Has the Buddha taught any definite teaching in this Sutra?” “No, the Buddha has not taught any definite teaching in this Sutra.”

(from Chapter 13)

Does a Buddha have characteristics?

“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be perceived by means of his thirty-two physical characteristics?”

“No, Most Honored One. The Buddha cannot be perceived by his thirty-two physical characteristics. Why? Because the Buddha teaches that they are not real but are merely called the thirty-two physical characteristics.”

Subhuti’s response to the teachings

At that time, after listening to this Sutra, Subhuti had understood its profound meaning and was moved to tears.

He said, “What a rare and precious thing it is that you should deliver such a deeply profound teaching.”

(from Chapter 14)

The benefits of understanding this teaching 

If there is a person who hears this Sutra, who receives and retains it with faith and understanding, then that person will be a rare one, a person of most remarkable achievement. Such a person will be able to awaken pure faith because they have ceased to cherish any arbitrary notions of their own selfhood, other selves, living beings, or a universal self.

Why? Because if they continue to hold onto arbitrary conceptions as to their own selfhood, they will be holding onto something that is non-existent. It is the same with all arbitrary conceptions of other selves, living beings, or a universal self. These are all expressions of non-existent things.

(from Chapter 14)

What is a Buddha?

“Buddhas are Buddhas because they have been able to discard all arbitrary conceptions of form and phenomena, they have transcended all perceptions, and have penetrated the illusion of all forms.”

(from Chapter 14)

Persons and form

“…Just as the Buddha declares that form is not form, so he also declares that all living beings are, in fact, not living beings.”

(from Chapter 14)

Understanding the teachings

“Subhuti, if a person is satisfied with lesser teachings than those I present here, if he or she is still caught up in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a universal self, then that person would not be able to listen to, receive, recite, or explain this Sutra to others.”

(from Chapter 15)

“Subhuti, you should know that the meaning of this Sutra is beyond conception and discussion. Likewise, the fruit resulting from receiving and practicing this Sutra is beyond conception and discussion.”

(from Chapter 16)

Helping others attain enlightenment

“Subhuti, a good son or daughter who wants to give rise to the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind must create this resolved attitude of mind: ‘I must help to lead all beings to the shore of awakening, but, after these beings have become liberated, in truth I know that not even a single being has been liberated.’ Why is this so? If a disciple cherishes the idea of a self, a person, a living being or a universal self, then that person is not an authentic disciple. Why? Because in fact there is no independently existing object of mind called the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind.”

(from Chapter 17)

“Subhuti, do not say that the Buddha has the idea, ‘I will lead all sentient beings to Nirvana.’ Do not think that way, Subhuti. Why? In truth there is not one single being for the Buddha to lead to Enlightenment. If the Buddha were to think there was, he would be caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a universal self. Subhuti, what the Buddha calls a self essentially has no self in the way that ordinary persons think there is a self. Subhuti, the Buddha does not regard anyone as an ordinary person. That is why he can speak of them as ordinary persons.”

(from Chapter 25)

Who becomes enlightened?

“Subhuti, my teachings reveal that even such a thing as is called a ‘disciple’ is non-existent. Furthermore, there is really nothing for a disciple to liberate.”

(from Chapter 17)

Who is a true disciple?

“A true disciple knows that there is no such thing as a self, a person, a living being, or a universal self. A true disciple knows that all things are devoid of selfhood, devoid of any separate individuality.”

(from Chapter 17)

What does it feel like to be enlightened?

Subhuti again asked, “Blessed One, when you attained complete Enlightenment, did you feel in your mind that nothing had been acquired?”

The Buddha replied: “That is it exactly, Subhuti. When I attained total Enlightenment, I did not feel, as the mind feels, any arbitrary conception of spiritual truth, not even the slightest. Even the words ‘total Enlightenment’ are merely words, they are used merely as a figure of speech.”

(from Chapter 22)

Total enlightenment

“Furthermore Subhuti, what I have attained in total Enlightenment is the same as what all others have attained. It is undifferentiated, regarded neither as a high state, nor a low state. It is wholly independent of any definite or arbitrary conceptions of an individual self, other selves, living beings, or a universal self.”

(from Chapter 22)

The importance of ethical behaviour

“Subhuti, when someone is selflessly charitable, they should also practice being ethical by remembering that there is no distinction between one’s self and the selfhood of others. Thus one practices charity by giving not only gifts, but through kindness and sympathy. Practice kindness and charity without attachment and you can become fully enlightened.”

“Subhuti, what I just said about kindness does not mean that when someone is being charitable they should hold onto arbitrary conceptions about kindness, for kindness is, after all, only a word and charity needs to be spontaneous and selfless, done without regard for appearances.”

(from Chapter 22)

Knowing and worshipping the Buddha

“Should anyone, looking at an image or likeness of the Buddha, claim to know the Buddha and worship him, that person would be mistaken, not knowing the true Buddha.”

(from Chapter 26)

Is everything illusory and unreal?

“Do not think that when one gives rise to the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind, one needs to see all objects of mind as nonexistent, cut off from life. Please do not think in that way. One who gives rise to the highest, most fulfilled, and awakened mind does not contend that all objects of mind are nonexistent and cut off from life. That is not what I say.”

(from Chapter 27)

The verbal teachings

“If any person were to say that the Buddha, in his teachings, has constantly referred to himself, to other selves, to living beings, or to a universal self, what do you think, would that person have understood my meaning?”

Subhuti replied, “No, blessed One. That person would not have understood the meaning of your teachings. For when you refer to those things, you are not referring to their actual existence; you only use the words as figures of speech, as symbols. Only in that sense can words be used, for (1) conceptions, (2) ideas, (3) limited truths, and (4) spiritual truths have no more reality than have matter or phenomena.”

Then the Buddha made his meaning even more emphatic by saying:

“Subhuti, when people begin their practice of seeking to attaining total Enlightenment, they ought to see, to perceive, to know, to understand, and to realize that all things and all spiritual truths are no-things; and, therefore, they ought not to conceive within their minds any arbitrary conceptions whatsoever.”

(from Chapter 31)

How to understand these teachings and explain them to others

“Subhuti, how can one explain this Sutra to others without holding in mind any arbitrary conception of forms or phenomena or spiritual truths? It can only be done, Subhuti, by keeping the mind in perfect tranquillity and free from any attachment to appearances.”

(from Chapter 32)

Closing words

“So I say to you—This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:

Like a tiny drop of dew,
or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp,
an illusion,
a phantom,
or a dream.
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

THUS SPOKE BUDDHA

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