How to Stand, Walk and Sit
The Diamond Sutra on the Way of the Bodhisattva
“One day before noon, the Bhagavan put on his patched robe and picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti for offerings. After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.” (p. 39)
It is a common misperception that Ch’an (Zen) eschews the sutras, but one finds in the earliest historical documents that it has always been aligned with one or another sutra. The legends have it that the Fifth Chinese Patriarch, Daman Hongren, replaced the much more esoteric and metaphysical Lankavatara Sutra with the Diamond Sutra as the primary sutra used in his monastery. Legend also has it that an uneducated laborer on hearing a section of The Diamond Sutra had a sudden insight and coming to study with Hongren later became the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. To this day The Diamond Sutra is one of a handful of sutras regularly chanted, studied and taught in Ch’an training.
“In the first chapter, we see what a buddha does, which is not so different from our own daily round of existence, if we could only do what we do unhindered by attachments and see what we do unobstructed by delusions.” (Red Pine, p. 39)
The Diamond Sutra begins with the historical Buddha doing what he did every day: begging for food, taking care of his needs, eating a meal, sitting zazen and interacting with his students. The very first lines of the sutra in essence demonstrate the theme of the sutra as stated in the next section and explained over the subsequent thirty sections. The sutra is structured as a dialog between Subhuti and the Buddha and it is Subhuti who asks the question that is this theme of the sutra:
“Even so, Bhagavan, if a noble son or daughter should set forth on the bodhisattva path, how should they stand, how should they walk, and how should they control their thoughts?” (p. 57).
The Diamond Sutra being a Mahayana text is concerned with the way of the bodhisattva,.“The Maha Prajnaparamita Sutra says a bodhisattva is “anyone who ceaselessly seeks unexcelled, perfect enlightenment as well as the happiness and welfare of all beings.” (p. 63). The sutra walks us through what being a bodhisattva entails via Subhuti who was considered the Buddha’s foremost disciple on the doctrine of emptiness (and in fact his name means “born of emptiness”). Subhuti is not yet a bodhisattva and for the purposes of this teaching represents a follower of the Hinayana (lesser path). Taking it from this perspective allows the sutra to also serve in explaining how the Mahayana differs from the Hinayana.
Hsu-fa says, “Essentially Subhuti is saying, ‘We have set out to attain the bodhisattva mind, but we do not know how to travel the bodhisattva path.’” (p. 65).
From the perspective of the Hinayana the instruction that one would expect would be one of how to be morally upright and of how to use meditation to control our thoughts. But instead of teachings on controlling our thoughts the Buddha informs Subhuti that in the bodhisattva must arise a thought.
The Buddha said to him, “Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception or neither perception nor no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’ (p. 71).
Here we set the roots of the Great Vow, the vow that defines the bodhisattva and distinguishes the Mahayana from the Hinayana. For it is in arousing this thought, this aspiration to liberate all beings, that sets these two paths apart. The bodhisattva in their impossible quest to liberate all beings, animate and inanimate, works toward their own liberation and as it will develop this aspiration is in fact a necessary condition for liberation.
“The bodhisattva path is the path of active, rather than passive, practice. Rather than advising us to suppress our thoughts, the Buddha preempts them. He advises bodhisattvas not to wait for thoughts to arise but to give birth to a thought that puts all other thoughts to flight, a thought like the morning sun that chases the myriad stars from the sky. The language used here suggests that this thought has been gestating within us for many lifetimes and it is now time to bring it forth, to give it life. Thus, this is the most important event in a bodhisattva’s career and what makes a bodhisattva a bodhisattva.” (Red Pine, p.72).
If it is arousing the Great Vow that makes a bodhisattva a bodhisattva, it is the last line of the above quote from The Diamond Sutra that points toward how a bodhisattva is to undertake this: And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated. Attachments are the primary hindrance in the path and the The Diamond Sutra dismantles this fundamental attachment from which all other attachments arise, namely the notion of a separated self.
Te-ch’ing says, “The primary method taught by the Buddha to liberate beings is to realize that there is no self. Once there is a self, the other concepts follow. In liberating beings, a bodhisattva should realize that there is no self. Once there is no self, there are no beings. And if there are no beings, then all beings are naturally liberated. And once all beings are liberated, the fruit of buddhahood is not far off.” (p. 81).
The Bodhisattva arouses the thought to free all beings without attachment to a self, a being, a life, and a soul (the Four Perceptions) with the understanding that there are no separated beings and thus no attachment to beings. But it is also necessary that the bodhisattva not be attached to the act of liberation itself. The act of charity, which striving to liberate beings certainly is, is one of the Six Perfections and is considered to be the only one to generate merit on its own. The Diamond Sutra in the fourth section turns to this notion of the generation of merit in a construction that is repeated throughout the sutra. Usually in dialog with Subhuti the Buddha asks him to imagine an increasingly great quantity and then to consider the accumulated merit one would gain by a corresponding amount of charitable giving. But each time he then notes that a bodhisattva who is unattached to giving, gains far more (infinite in fact) merit. It is in this way that ultimately the notion of the accumulation of merit, which one can certainly become attached to, is let go.
“In practicing charity, or any of the perfections, the Buddha warns against attachment to three things: the practitioner (in this case, the person who gives); the beneficiary (the recipient); and the practice (the giving of the gift). In his “Outline of Practice,” Bodhidharma says, “Since what is real includes nothing worth begrudging, we give our bodies, our lives, and our property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment. To get rid of obstructions, we teach others, but without becoming attached to appearances.“ (Red Pine, p. 87)
Another central metaphor used throughout the Diamond Sutra is that of the Three Bodies: the incarnation body, the reward body and the dharma body. The incarnation body, is our physical body, the reward body is the body of merit that we have accumulated and the dharma body is the only actual real body: ultimate reality itself. The metaphor of the body has to do with the fruits of practice in form, merit and in realization. In the fifth section of the sutra the Buddha inquires as whether he can be seen via attributes of his physical bodies. This question is as asked four other times throughout the sutra, each time furthering our understanding of the nature of a buddha’s attainment.
Seng-chao says, “Bodhisattvas have three goals in mind: to liberate all beings, to cultivate all practices, and to realize enlightenment. Liberating others has already been explained as the way to practice. This section explains how to approach enlightenment. The bodily attributes of the Tathagata make up the body that comes with enlightenment. To recognize this dharma body is to realize enlightenment. But to think that its nature is real is to miss the mark. Thus, he points to the dharma body to explain the emptiness of enlightenment.” (p. 102).
The primary notions being presented in The Diamond Sutra are all present in the first five sections of the sutra. The remainder of the sutra, elucidates these points, taking them further and further to their ultimate ramifications. Again and again the question of merit arises, weighing greater and greater charitable gifts against the teaching of this sutra. But since the teachings of The Diamond Sutra can lead to liberation, no act of charity can compare.
The Buddha said, “Subhuti, if instead of filling the billion worlds of this universe with the seven jewels and giving them as a gift to the tathagatas, the arhans, the fully-enlightened ones, this noble son or daughter grasped but one four-line gatha of this dharma teaching and made it known and explained it in detail to others, the body of merit produced as a result would be immeasurably, infinitely greater.”
If, as The Diamond Sutra states over and over again, spreading the teaching contained herein is of such great value then this is can become another avenue for attachment. Furthermore since we are fundamentally inseparable from ultimate reality there isn’t really anything to realize. “Hui-neng puts it thus, “The realization of no realization is called true realization. The teaching of no teaching is called true teaching.” (p. 130). Since this is the essence of the teaching what is there to teach? Hui-neng comments “If we realize nothing and teach nothing, might we not vanish into emptiness? All buddhas, however, appear from this sutra“.
The purpose of bringing up this meeting [with Dipankara Buddha] is to contrast the bodhisattva’s attainment with that of the arhan’s. For it was during this encounter that the Buddha realized the forbearance of birthlessness, which is the final attainment of the bodhisattva, the ability to know and to bear the knowledge that nothing arose in the past, nothing now arises, and nothing will arise in the future. There is no greater traumatic experience or knowledge for someone on the spiritual path. Hence, such forbearance or acceptance requires kalpas of preparation. (p. 176).
Over the course of the sutra more and more is taken away. This has already been alluded to in the first five sections, which contain all of the sutras teachings. The most difficult barrier for the bodhisattva to cross, is the notion of birthlessness. This is emptiness taken to the limit that there is nothing, that ultimate reality as we have been talking about is fundamentally empty. And of course this emptiness is empty. This was considered such a shock that a bodhisattva would require multiple lifetimes to cultivate the forbearance necessary to realize this. In the earliest form of the Bodhisattva Precepts (the Brahma Net Precepts) to reveal birthlessness to someone not prepared for it was a grave violation of the precepts.
“The Buddha outlined the attainments of the bodhisattva, all of which turned out to be no attainments: no truth realized, no world transformed, no colossal spiritual self offered up to others. But the Buddha is concerned that his disciples might now conclude that since nothing is attained, there is no need to cultivate the merit upon which such non-attainment is based.” (Red Pine, p. 188).
At no point in the sutra is the Buddha so lacking in compassion that he would allow a student to fall into nihilism. As each section takes away more and more attachments he occasionally pauses and notes that you still have to do the work. As long as there are beings caught in delusion all of the traditional notions of merit and the many teachings surrounding them are of value. These skillful means are rafts we use to get to the other shore, which should then be abandoned. There is no tool that the bodhisattva can’t put to use in the appropriate situation. Much of the latter half of the sutra is concerned with these skillful means
The Buddha told the venerable Subhuti, “The name of this dharma teaching, Subhuti, is the Perfection of Wisdom. Thus should you remember it. And how so? Subhuti, what the Tathagata says is the perfection of wisdom, the Tathagata says is no perfection. Thus is it called the ‘perfection of wisdom.’ (p. 203).
Prajna is commonly translated as wisdom, which it certainly does mean, but it also has the connotation of emptiness in a similar way as shunyata. The body of teaching that The Diamond Sutra belongs to is known as the Prajna Paramitas which means ‘the perfection of wisdom’. But in the view of prajna as emptiness it has to do with the logic of emptiness, which is a tool for cutting through delusion. Red Pine explains it thusly: “For emptiness means absence or negation, while the perfection of wisdom means the absence or negation of what is false, not the absence or negation of what is real.” (p. 207). You can see the formation ‘logic of emptiness’ in the selection from section thirteen quoted above. It is dialectical in that you take a notion and negate it, but instead of unifying the two (ala Hegel) he instead affirms the original notion. This is because if we can understand something as not separate from fundamental reality, which is what is being negated, then indeed they exist. “Thus, the arhan’s denial of reality becomes the bodhisattva’s affirmation. “(Red Pine p. 108).
The Buddha asks us simply to see things as they are and to share this vision with others. Buddhas do not arise from emptiness but from this teaching, which liberates us from both delusions and emptiness as well as from the renunciation of delusions and emptiness. (Red Pine, p. 205).
In Ch’an, the logic of emptiness is often removed completely from the realm of the verbal. When in a dynamic situation the Zen Master expresses the seamlessness with fundamental reality. “Meanwhile, Zen masters often shortened this logical technique even further by holding up one finger, by refusing to speak, by striking their disciples, or by offering them a cup of tea”. (Red Pine, p. 108). The central teachings of The Diamond Sutra is the central teachings of Mahanyana Buddhism and Ch’an in the end is yet another skillful means for presenting it. In the final section of the sutra the Buddha, utilizing the logic of emptiness, elucidates the essence of the Ch’an style:
And how should they explain it? By not explaining. Thus is it called ‘explaining.’ (p. 429).
The Diamond Sutra
Translation and commentary by Red Pine
Counterpoint Press, 2002
About the text
The Red Pine translation of The Diamond Sutra is of immeasurable value particular to the Zen practioner. Red Pine’s deep understanding of the sutra is made clear in his own commentary, which goes nearly line by line through the text. This sutra being the most compressed of the Prajna Paramita literature clearly assumes an audience that is completely versed in early, as well as Mahayana, Buddhist teachings and metaphysics. It never adds an explanation where a term that is freighted with decades of interpretation will serve. Without this kind of commentary it is unlikely that even a well-versed Buddhist will truly grasp what is being conveyed. Beyond that Red Pine always translates a healthy selection of historical commentary, ranging from other entries in the Prajna Paramita literature, to early Indian commentaries, to selections from a book of commentary by fifty odd Zen masters, to contemporary figures like Thich Nhat Hanh. The value of these additional comments, particularly in adding the Zen perspective, is immense. His choice of utilizing an early Sanskrit source as his basis of the translations avoids the errors that have come down from early Chinese translations which previous English translation have arrived. His scholarship is such that he compares (and explains in translation notes) a number of the major sources in Chinese, Tibetan and Sanskrit. There simply isn’t a more comprehensive, yet completely readable, translation and study of this fundamental text.