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A Short Talk on the Diamond Sutra

This is the core of a short talk that I gave on the Diamond Sutra at the Five Mountain Order’s Spring Retreat in Cincinnati, Ohio. This talk was offered in lieu of a short final paper in our seminary’s class on the Diamond Sutra. Because of this, it is not in the more common “story telling” manner of most Zen Dharma talks. I was conveying some thoughts and background on the Diamond Sutra to a very mixed audience (there were at least two people there who had never read the Diamond Sutra there). I mixed it up a little more and added from some discussion earlier in the day when I did the talk but this is the gist of it. I’ve only spent time studying the Diamond Sutra in any depth recently and I don’t consider myself even vaguely an expert in its content. I’m just a Zen priest, not a master. :-)

Spring Retreat Dharma Talk on the Diamond Sutra – March 26, 2010

by Rev. Jigen Billings

My talk today is on the Diamond Sutra, which is properly called the Vajracchedika-prajnaparamita-sutra. This is sometimes translated as the Diamond Cutter Perfection of Wisdom Sutra or, less literally, as the Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. The Diamond Sutra is one of the most popular Buddhist sutras revered in the northern school of Buddhism, which includes all Mahayana schools. For those of us interested in Zen, it is a core text and I figure if you’re here for this retreat, you’re interested in Zen. It sits alongside the Heart Sutra, the Sixth Ancestor’s Platform Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, and the Avatamsaka Sutra within Zen. It is probably the second most studied and chanted sutra, right after the Heart Sutra.

Hui Neng, who was the Sixth Ancestor of Chan and one of its most important teachers, is reputed to have attained enlightenment upon hearing a line chanted from the Diamond Sutra when he was a child. Hung-jen, his teacher and predecessor as the Fifth Ancestor, later schooled him in it extensively. Hung-jen told his disciples that by cherishing the Diamond Sutra, they would see their true natures and become Buddhas. All Zen lineages are derived from these two figures.  A later famous Zen master, Deshan or Tokusan, began his career by studying the Diamond Sutra for 20 years but during a famous encounter with an old woman and her snacks, he realized that he didn’t really understand it and wound up burning all of his commentaries on it before finding a Zen teacher. I expect that many of us are familiar with Deshan’s story or will become so soon enough since it has become part of the koan tradition within Zen. You can find numerous commentaries in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Zen schools on the Diamond Sutra but most of them have not been translated into English. This leaves us often on our own in trying to study and understand this text.

So what is the Diamond Sutra exactly? Like all sutras, it is a text that purports to be the words spoken by the Buddha. It records a teaching given by the Buddha to his followers near the city of Sravasti. The Diamond and Heart Sutras are two of the most well known texts categorized as Prajnaparamita. Prajna is translated as wisdom or sometimes as transcendent wisdom. It is one of the six paramitas or perfections cultivated as practices by those who receive the Bodhisattva Vow.  So Prajnaparamita literally means the perfection of wisdom. Prajna is considered to be the culmination of the six perfections and the Prajnaparamita sutras all deal with this perfection of wisdom.  What is perfection of wisdom? It is the development of direct insight into shunyata. Now shunyata is a term that you’ll hear a lot about within Zen Buddhism as well as other Mahayana schools. We often hear people translate shunyata as emptiness or void but these both sound rather nihilistic and negative to people and don’t really give the right sense of things. Popsanim here likes the term, “Boundless” for it. I generally prefer to translate it as insubstantiality. In his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Mu Soeng relates shunyata to its Sanskrit root, svi, which means, “to swell.” He draws the image of a bubble or a balloon, which can seem large and solid but, when it pops, is seen to be empty of any real substance. Think of a soap bubble if you want to envision this. This is the illusory appearance of all phenomena, empty of any real substance. The premise here is that all phenomena, all concepts, all things in the world or in our minds, are lacking in permanence or an eternal nature. They are transitory and insubstantial when viewed in the ultimate sense, arising, persisting a while, and then passing away. This applies to everything. Ultimately, there is nothing that is permanent or eternal in our experience or in the universe. This often sounds scary or repellent to people but it’s actually quite liberating. All the suffering of life, the difficulties, and so forth are transitory. Conversely, the same applies to the most positive aspects of life but it is taught that our suffering comes from clinging to things as if they were permanent or in grasping after them once they are gone or shying away from those things that we find repellent. The direct realization of shunyata shows us that all things are in flux and the world is unendingly mutable. This is at the essence of the Diamond Sutra and other Prajnaparamita teachings.

The Prajnaparamita texts are amongst the earliest Mahayana texts to appear, if not the first. They first show up in written form around 100 years before the beginning of the Common Era or five hundred years after the death of the Buddha. Some scholars believe that those Buddhists who disagreed with the dominant form of Nikaya Buddhism of the time composed these texts in the hundreds of years before their written appearance so they could be quite a bit older. Mahayana Buddhists have traditionally said that these texts were taught directly by the Buddha and then passed along orally until they were written down. We don’t really know for sure where they come from or when they were composed. The Prajnaparamita texts certainly claim to be the words of the Buddha and have been revered as such by those that follow their teachings. Regardless of their origin, they have been an important source of realization.

During the several centuries after the first Prajnaparamita text appeared, a large number of them developed or were gathered. The Diamond Sutra is one of the last of these. It was written down in Sanskrit around the year 350 of the Common Era, probably in northern India. Our experience of it, as a Zen lineage, comes from its introduction into China. This occurred in the year 402, when it was first translated into Chinese. While many of the Prajnaparamita texts are quite long, often tens of thousands of lines, the Diamond Sutra is only 300 lines long and the Heart Sutra is even shorter than that. The popularity of these two sutras over others is often thought to be because they both express the essence of Prajnaparamita but also because they short enough to be easily memorized and chanted by practitioners. In Fact, like many Zen lineages, we chant the Heart Sutra in our own morning service.

So far, this has all been general information. I’ve been talking about what the Diamond Sutra is and when and where it comes from but not really about what is contained in it or what it has to teach other than discussing shunyata a little. I’m going to talk a little about the Diamond Sutra and what is contained in it but this is, at best, just a gloss. We could spend an entire retreat discussing it and I am only touching the surface of it.

The Diamond Sutra tells us that the Buddha has been staying at Jeta Grove just outside the city of Sravasti with his retinue of monks, nuns, lay people and bodhisattvas. All of the kinds of the Buddha’s followers were gathered with him there. The sutra describes how one day, the Buddha made his begging rounds for food, returned to the monastery, cleaned up, arranged his cushion and sat down, resting his attention on what was before him. At this point, his followers gathered to hear him speak and one of them, Subhuti, came to him with a question to be answered for the assembled crowd.

What Subhuti asked him was, “World-Honored One, in the case of a son or daughter of a good family who arouses the thought for supreme awakening, how should they abide in it and how should they keep their thoughts under control?”

Subhuti is asking how one should follow the Bodhisattva path, keeping the mind directed to the task of supreme awakening, and how to keep the thoughts under control and bent to this ultimate purpose. Obviously, the Buddha agrees that this is an excellent question and proceeds to have a dialogue with Subhuti where he asks various questions of him and then either corrects, explains, or agrees with Subhuti’s answers. This dialogue is what we read in the Diamond Sutra.

In reply to Subhuti’s question, the Buddha states that those who follow the Bodhisattva path should produce one thought and that is to lead all beings, regardless of form or origin, into Nirvana and final awakening. This thought is the impetus and ongoing motivation for all of us who practice the Bodhisattva Path. It should be the beginning and end point for all of our practice. We don’t practice strictly for ourselves but to be able to help others in their difficulties.

It is in the rest of his answer that the Buddha engages in a pattern of logic that is found throughout the Diamond Sutra and that has confused and enlightened so many generations of students of the text. The Buddha goes on to say that although innumerable beings are led to Nirvana and liberation, no beings have been led to liberation. This seems nonsensical when you first hear this. How can innumerable beings be led to liberation but no beings have been led to it at the same time? In answer to this question, the Buddha says that if a Bodhisattva has a notion of a being, he or she isn’t a true Bodhisattva because Bodhisattvas have no notion of a self, a being, a living soul or a person.  The Buddha is answering Subhuti’s question of how a son or daughter of a good family, how all of us, should abide in our desire for supreme awakening and how we should keep our thoughts under control. The answer revolves around perceiving the lack of substantiality in all things, concepts or notions and not being attached to these things.

This is a very important point and one to which the Diamond Sutra returns again and again. Later in the text, the Buddha tells Subhuti that all Bodhisattvas should develop a pure, lucid mind that doesn’t depend upon sight, sound, touch, flavor, smell, or any thought that arises in it. The mind of a Bodhisattva should function without dependence on anything.

Ultimately, there is no self and there are no beings as we normally think of them. There is nothing that to support the mind in our question for enlightenment. As realized beings that have achieved the perfection of wisdom or Prajna, true Bodhisattvas has insight into shunyata and can directly experience the insubstantiality of all phenomena. This insubstantiality applies to all things and concepts, including the beings around us as well as our own self-conception as beings. Norman Fischer, former abbot at the San Francisco Zen Center, describes shunyata as a “double-negative” or as an “undoing.” Shunyata isn’t a something that we see but it is an untying of the knot of our conceptual framework. It allows us to take things apart and to see the world as it is. It is the insubstantiality of our framework and concepts that we need to realize. Realized Bodhisattvas know that there is no true self or being for themselves or for anyone else. The idea of a self is just a story that we tell ourselves and that we experience as being real out of ignorance. It is this story that leads to the unsatisfactory nature of existence since we experience ourselves and everything around us as real and crave or chase after things and experiences. When we believe that we have a self, we want to protect it. With insight into shunyata, we can see that there is no one to be saved and nothing from which to be saved. If we aren’t trying to save anyone, what are we doing? This is a conundrum that has perplexed those who have studied these teachings for much of the last two millennia. Think of the first of the Four Great Vows that we chant in our services. It states, “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” On one level, this is an impossible task because if there are truly infinite numbers of beings, there is no way we can ever reach the end of them. With the insight that the Buddha is discussing here, we can realize that there is both no one to save but also no one to do any saving. If we view ourselves and other beings as being separate and distinct, we will be unable to save them or ourselves. Once we can break down our created distinctions and see that all of us have the same essential nature, the liberation of the self is the liberation of all and, in fact, we are already liberated. Enlightenment is not something to be acquired but the inherent state of all beings.

With the relative view that you and I have on most days (assuming that I am not addressing a group of realized Bodhisattvas), this is not apparent at all and is completely counterintuitive. I can seem very real to myself and you all look quite real and separate from me. The world is filled with colorful and distracting things that pull at our attention. The Diamond Sutra, and all of the Prajnaparamita texts, is attempting to deconstruct this day-to-day view of the world and show us the actual nature of existence and all of our conceptions about it through the realization of shunyata. The basic nature of shunyata as something that deconstructs all concepts and experiences is something that the Buddha brings up again and again. Shunyata is a negation of our conceptualization of all things, even our ideas about shunyata.

During the rest of the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha and Subhuti trade questions and answers where the Buddha continues, again and again, to bring up the negation of concepts, pointing out shunyata. The question of merit or a teaching will come up and it will be negated. This negation will then be said to exemplify that which is negated, bringing it full circle. Merit is said to be no-merit and this is given as why it is merit. The realization of arhatship is said to be the no-realization of arhatship and this is why it is arhatship. In a purely logical fashion, it doesn’t make sense. How can something be a thing only by realization that it is not that thing? It does make sense if you realize that this is pulling at our attachment to ideas and concepts, even our attachment to the very idea of becoming Buddhas, of saving people, the Dharma, or of realization. All of these are insubstantial and clinging to these concepts, being attached to them, gets in the way of actual realization. As long as we have any trace of this clinging, we will fall back into the samsaric world of appearances and story making. As the Buddha says in the text, any notion of a self, a being, a soul, or a person leads away from realization. Those that have no notion of a self, a being, a soul, or a person are able to achieve realization.

For example, when Subhuti asked the Buddha whether there will be beings in the future ages that understand the truth, the Buddha says that there will be Bodhisattvas who will. He then says that they will understand because they hold no notion of a self, a being, a soul, or a person. But the Buddha also negates this simple negation. For these same Bodhisattvas, he says that if they hold to the notion of the Dharma, they will then seize on to the notion of a self, being, soul, or person but he also says that if they hold to the notion of no-Dharma, the same thing will happen. Simple rejection of an idea, the negating of it, is also a form of attachment. Holding on to or rejecting any notions or conceptions does not, in the end, lead to enlightenment. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha uses the metaphor from the Pali Canon that says the Dharma is a raft to be forsaken when it isn’t needed anymore but he also says that this applies to the conception of no-Dharma as well. If you are attached to either Dharma or no-Dharma, you are attached to a concept and making a preference for something. You are creating something in the world rather than seeing the world as it is. This attachment will trap you in samsara. It isn’t enough to follow the Buddha’s teachings as an ideology. The teachings are upaya, skillful means to an end, which is realization. The teachings are not the point, the realization is. Our focus should not be on Buddhism but on perceiving the nature of the universe, to the truth as we can experience it.

The Buddha says in Chapter 14, “a Bodhisattva, detaching him- or herself from all ideas, should rouse the desire to utmost, supreme, and perfect awakening. He or she should product thoughts that are unsupported by forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, or mind objects, unsupported by Dharma, unsupported by no-Dharma, unsupported by everything.”

In another part of the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha asks Subhuti if the Buddha has achieved supreme awakening and whether he has any Dharma or doctrine to teach. Subhuti replies that there is no Dharma or doctrine to be taught. He says, “The truth is ungraspable and inexpressible. It neither is or is not. How is it so? Because all noble teachers are exalted by the unconditioned.” This unconditioned is the very ground of being, shunyata, but it cannot be described or conceptualized. Even calling it shunyata runs the risk of turning it into a thing that we become attached to.

The Diamond Sutra ends with the following verse:

So you should see all of the fleeting world; A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream; A flash of lightning in a summer cloud; A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

The goal of realization requires that we eventually set aside conceptualization, set aside preferences, and realize the transitory nature of phenomena, their suchness, as they can be perceived directly, without putting our own wishes, preferences or fantasies in the way. In our own tradition, we see this in our koan practice where we need to be here in the immediate moment, not thinking of past, not thinking of future, not simply following teachings or forms because we have been told to do so. Only when we are present and mindful can we experience what is occurring in our lives and respond correctly and immediately to what comes up without creating a story around it. This is the message that the Diamond Sutra tries to convey to us against the backdrop of previous Buddhist teachings.

I hope that this wets your appetite for the Diamond Sutra a bit and causes you to delve a bit into the text. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the text and I can claim not great depth of understanding. Its study is a fruitful area to return to again and again.