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.
“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.
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.
“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.
Subhuti asked the Buddha, “In the future, if a person hears this teaching, even if it is a only a phrase or sentence, is it possible for that person to have Enlightenment awaken in their mind?”
“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 kindness and generosity, will believe in the words of this Sutra and will awaken their minds. After they come to hear these teachings, they will be inspired. This is because when some people hear these words, they will have understood intuitively that these words are the truth.”
“But you must also remember, Subhuti, that such persons have long ago planted the seeds of Awakening that lead to this realization. They have planted the seeds of virtue and generosity. So when a person who hears the words of this Sutra is ready for it to happen, clarity can awaken within their minds.”
“Subhuti, any person who awakens upon hearing the words or phrases of this Sutra will accumulate a lot of merit.”
“How do I know this? Because this person must have discarded all dualistic illusions of a personal self or of a universal self. Otherwise their minds would still grasp after such things. Furthermore, these people must have already discarded all dualistic illusions of a personal self or a universal self. Otherwise, their minds would still be grasping at such notions. Therefore anyone who seeks total Enlightenment should discard not only all conceptions of their own selfhood or of a universal self, but they should also discard all notions of the non-existence of such concepts.”
“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. Think Subhuti, isn’t it even more obvious that we should also give up our conceptions?”
There is a deep meaning to this section. The Buddha starts by telling Subhuti that this teaching he is giving is so great that just hearing it can bring us to Enlightenment. This was a favorite Sutra of the 6th Ch’an Patriarch, Huineng. According to his autobiography that is exactly what awakened the seed of Enlightenment within him. So, it’s right there in the Sutra, telling us to pay close attention to it and study it closely.
And the Buddha tells us again to lay down our dualistic thinking. The concepts and ideas that we cling to, the labels that we put on reality, are the things that are keeping us from Realization.
He goes on to tell us that even the spiritual journey can become an attachment. Remember that the Dharma is just a tool we are using to come to Awakening. It is not an end in itself.