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Paradox in the Diamond Sutra

No one claims the Diamond Sutra is an easy text to understand.

It’s said to be so full of meaning that it can point us directly to Enlightenment, so of course it’s not an easy text. It would be crazy for someone to pick this text as their first class to teach at their local Buddhist temple. *ahem*

Anyway, it’s tough. That’s what I’m trying to say. A lot of the passages are have to be read multiple times to be understood and it’s so repetitive that that can be overwhelming too.

But I want to talk about what I think is the hardest part to grasp for most people. That’s the use of paradoxical statements. I’m going to present one example, but bear in mind that the Buddha uses this kind of statement several times in the sutra.

“What do you think, Subhuti? Does a bodhisattva create a serene and beautiful Buddha field?”
“No, World-Honored One. Why? To create a serene and beautiful Buddha field is not in fact creating a serene and beautiful Buddha field. That is why it is called creating a serene and beautiful Buddha field.”

What the hell? Right?

So, what’s going on here? How can creating a Buddha field be not creating a Buddha field? And that’s why it’s called a Buddha field?

Subhuti clearly just contradicted himself. And the Buddha does, by the way, tell him that he’s right. In other parts of the sutra the Buddha makes the same kind of statement. What does it mean?

This Sutra is trying to take us beyond our dualistic thinking. Words like “serene” and “beautiful” and even “Buddha field” are labels that we put on the world. We create labels for everything in the world around us and then we pretend those labels are real.

But what if they’re not? What if we change the things we observe by naming them, and if we just let things be as they are we would see the world more clearly?

What if all the lines we draw, all the boundaries we set in the world are self-created too?

I’m not talking about the boundaries separating you and I, but the lines between us and everything around us. What if we’re more connected to each other, and to everything, than we realize.

Every line we draw in our minds to separate or categorize things is self-created.

The truth is there is no separation.

I’m not sure my explanation is any less complicated or hard to understand than the statements in the Diamond Sutra.

But I tried.

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Posted in diamond sutra, Uncategorized

Teachers Who Inspire

My study of the Diamond Sutra has made me think about the importance of having a spiritual teacher. We think sometimes about reasons to have a teacher and I think a teacher’s role in inspiring us is sometimes downplayed.

I’ll quote from the beginning of the sutra here:

“That day, when it was time to make the round for alms, the Buddha put on his sanghati robe and, holding his bowl, went into the city of Sravasti to seek alms food, going from house to house. When the alms round was completed, he returned to the monastery to eat the midday meal. Then he put away his sanghati robe and his bowl, washed his feet, arranged his cushion, and sat down.

At that time, the Venerable Subhuti stood up, bared his right shoulder, put his knee on the ground, and, folding his palms respectfully, said to the Buddha, ‘World-Honored One, it is rare to find someone like
you. You always support and show special confidence in the bodhisattvas. World-Honored One, if sons and daughters of good families want to give rise to the highest, most fulfilled,awakened mind, what should they rely on and what should they do to master their thinking?'”

That was probably an unnecessary long quotation. But, here’s what I have to say about it. At first it might seem like the Buddha didn’t do anything. But, that’s not the case.

What he did was engage his daily routine with complete mindfulness. As he puts on his robe, goes from house to house, eats, etc. he is being completely present in the moment. This kind of awareness is described in the Zen tradition. It’s said that chopping wood and carrying water can be spiritual practices if they’re engaged with total mindful awareness.

Anyway, the Buddha’s student Subhuti can see how serene and aware the Buddha seems to be, even in the midst of routine activities.

I imagine myself in Subhuti’s role, so I imagine him thinking, “The Buddha is Enlightened as hell. I should ask him for a teaching.”

And the whole sutra is about Subhuti asking for teachings.

Now, what does all this mean to me?

I’ve studied with a variety of Buddhist teachers. I have seen that it makes a big difference when I’ve met one that is fully present. It’s so easy to be out of this moment, with our minds wandering.

But when we see someone who is fully present in this moment, I think we can tell. We can be inspired by teachers like that, just as Subhuti was. And we can ask them for teachings, just like Subhuti did.

Teachers can motivate us if it seems like they are more present than we are.

Posted in diamond sutra, zen

Thus Should One Regard One’s Self

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bodhisattvaroad/2016/03/thus-should-one-regard-ones-self/

Ikkyu said,

“Like a vanishing dew, a passing apparition or sudden flash of lightning – already gone- thus should one regard one’s self.”

He was echoing the Diamond Sutra, which is a foundational Zen text. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says,

“All composed things are like a dream, a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning. That is how to meditate on them, this is how to observe them.”

Ikkyu was taking that concept from the Diamond Sutra, that all things are like a flash of lightning, and reminding us that this applies to the self as well as all other things. It’s important to remember that we are impermanent and conditioned, just as much as everything else is.

I think we have an easy time learning, on the path, that all things are compounded and impermanent. But sometimes we make the mistake of not extending that all the way.

It’s easy to see that my car is a collection of parts. It has an engine and a battery and tires and a gas tank and many many other parts that combine to make a car. And over time parts will be replaced.

It’s easy to see that my car is a compounded thing, that it’s a collection of parts rather than being one thing. A lot of things had to come together to create my car. It’s also easy to see that my car is impermanent. Everyone knows that over time more and more parts wear out and sooner or later the car just isn’t worth fixing anymore. Eventually repairing the car becomes more expensive and difficult than buying a new car. This is because the car is impermanent.

Everything is compounded and impermanent.

And if we just pay attention, we can see this.

But what about us. What about you and I? That’s where we struggle.

We are compounded and impermanent too. Many different things came together to create YOU. Not only your parents, but also the environment you grew up in shaped both your personality and, in ways we may not fully understand, your physical body as well.

Even if we just focus on your mind, a lot goes in to who you are. You have your natural intelligence, your knowledge, your experiences that color the way you see things, your attention to detail, your emotional well-being, and many many other factors. All of these things come together to make you.

And everything about you changes over time.

There are probably plenty of things we hope will change about ourselves. And some things that we hope won’t. But the point is that all things are changing.

If we are just a collection of things, like parts of a car, then our self is less significant than we think it is.

So, what are the implications of this?

Well, feelings of greed and jealousy become insignificant if we aren’t so focused on ourselves. We have this tendency to think in terms of “I, Me, Mine” most of the time and that often doesn’t serve us well. I think everyone agrees that the world would be a better place with less selfishness. Recognizing ourselves as part of a context rather than thinking we are some separate independent being can go a long way toward fixing many of the problems in the world.

Because of selfishness we are greedy. Because of selfishness we are jealous of others and we tend to get upset if we don’t have everything that we think we deserve. Because of selfishness we take others for granted, which can greatly damage our relationships. Selfishness is at the root of many of our human problems.

A lot of our anger is motivated by selfishness as well. When we get mad or upset that things aren’t the way we want them to be, or that others aren’t behaving in the way we think they should.

 If we recognize others as ourselves then we are certainly less likely to harm them.

It can make us want to help them instead—and ultimately, helping others is really important in Buddhism.

When we recognize that we are everything, it can be easy to forgive everything—or at least accept everything.

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Diamond Sutra, chapter 29

Buddha continued:

“Studying this sutra and explaining it to others generates enormous merit.”

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

“This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this world:”

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a cloud,
Or a flickering flame, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

“This is how you should see all of existence.”

In the end, the Buddha tells us not to be attached to existence. I am reminded of a very similar quote by Zen Master Ikkyu: ‘Like vanishing dew,a passing apparition or the sudden flash of lightning — already gone –thus should one regard one’s self.’

Our self, our identity as independent beings, is hard to let go of. It’s something we have our whole lives. It is the source of all egotism and greed. We think of ourselves as separate from the world around us. But that’s not how anything in the world works. We didn’t come into the world. We came out of it. We are one with everything.

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Diamond Sutra, chapter 28

“If any person were to say that I have constantly referred to myself, or to a universal self, do you think they would have understood my meaning?”

Subhuti replied, “No. They would not have understood the meaning of your teachings. Because when you refer to those things, you are not referring to them literally, you only symbolically. Only in that sense can words be used to explain spiritual truths.”

The Buddha said,

“Subhuti, those who follow the path should put down arbitrary conceptions.”

The Buddha is telling us that we can’t cling to words and concepts on our journey to Awakening. Clinging gets in the way. Words are used as expedient means in the teaching, but really seeing Enlightenment, following the path, is the only way to Awakening. It can’t really be captured in words.

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Diamond Sutra, chapter 27

“Subhuti, if a being could take the Universe and grind into powder and blow it away, would this powder have any individual existence?”

“Subhuti replied, “Yes, this powder might be said to have a relative existence, but the truth is that it has no existence. The words are used only as a figure of speech. Matter is not an independent and self existent thing.”

“Also, when you refer to the Universe, you are also simply using a figure of speech. The only reality of the Universe is a cosmic unity.”

The Buddha was happy with this reply and said:

“Subhuti, although ordinary people have always held onto arbitrary ideas about the Universe, the concept has no real basis; it is an illusion of the our minds. Even when it is referred to as ‘cosmic unity’ it is unthinkable and unknowable.”

There is a cosmic unity. Everything exists in connection to and relation to everything else. Even the Universe itself is fundamentally the sum of all of the things in it, no more and no less. The only reality is this cosmic unity. And even the cosmic unity isn’t really something we can describe.

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Diamond Sutra, chapter 26

“Subhuti, if any person were to say that the Buddha is now coming or going, they would not have understood the principle I have been teaching. Why? Because the true Buddha is never coming from anywhere or going anywhere. The name ‘Buddha’ is merely an expression. The true Buddha, the true Awakened one, is within you and never comes or goes.”

In this section the Buddha is using the word Buddha but he isn’t referring to himself at this point. He’s referring to our Buddha nature, the seed of Enlightenment that is present in every being. He’s telling us to not be distracted by thinking about him and his Awakening. He is telling us to instead think about our own.

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Diamond Sutra, chapter 25

The lord Buddha continued:

“Subhuti, one should realize the egolessness of all things and understand selflessness. Why? because great disciples do not see merit as a personal possession, as something to be gained.”

Subhuti asked, “What do you mean?”

The Buddha replied:

“Because great disciples do not seek merit, they do not see them as personal possessions, but they see them as the common possession of all beings.”

It’s important to remember that we are practicing the six perfections: generosity, patience, virtue, diligence, concentration and wisdom, not for ourselves and our own generation of merit, but for the good of all beings. When one being becomes Awakened, it truly helps all beings and makes the world a better place.

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Diamond Sutra, chapter 24

The Buddha then said:

“If anyone, looking at an image of me, claims to know me and worship me, that person is mistaken. They don’t really know me.”

The Buddha is telling us not to worship him, not to put him on a pedestal or make him our god. A famous Zen Master named Lin Chi once said, “If you find the Buddha on the side of the road, kill him.”

This sounds terrible to us at first, of course. Why would we kill the Buddha? But Lin Chi is trying to make an important point. Lin Chi is giving us a metaphorical argument for the rejection of dogmatism. It can be easy for us to accidentally put our teachers on a pedestal.

Placing leaders and teachers on pedestals is dangerous. Throughout history we have repeatedly seen what can happen when religious leaders have too much authority. This is true in Buddhism as well as in every other religion. Teachers are just people. And teachers don’t take us to enlightenment—even the Buddha doesn’t.

Teachers only point the way—we have to walk the path ourselves.

It seems that the Buddha didn’t want that kind of religious devotion anyway. When asked if he was a god, the Buddha said no. When asked who he was, the Buddha only replied, “I am awake.”

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Diamond Sutra, chapter 23

“I don’t have the idea that I will lead all beings to Awakening. Do not think that way, Subhuti. Why? In truth there is no one for me to lead to Awakening. If I thought that there was, I would be caught in the ideas of self and other. Subhuti, what I call a self essentially has no self in the way that ordinary people think there is a self.”

For the Buddha, the boundaries that separate self from other are dissolved. The Buddha doesn’t lead others to Awakening because the truth is there are no others. The Buddha teaches us that the essential truth is that we are one.