Second talk on the Diamond Sutra, Red Pine Edition
Diamond Sutra 2
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 21, 2008
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Deborah Russell
The sutra begins with Subhuti asking the Buddha about the bodhisattva path that we are following. How should a bodhisattva stand, walk, and control her thoughts? That is the question that elicits the whole material of this sutra. This is to be taken literally – how to stand, how to walk, and how to work with our thoughts – but also figuratively. How to “stand” might mean what qualities should we develop; what guidelines to ethical conduct should we have; how can we control our thoughts; what attitudes should we be developing?
The Buddha’s surprising and wonderful response was not to take up the details of that question, but instead to say that all a bodhisattva has to do is to give rise to a thought, to give birth to a thought. And the thought is, “I will save all beings.” All kinds of beings, no matter what kind, will be saved, and having saved all beings, no being at all will be saved. Why? Because bodhisattvas have no perception of a self, no perception of a being, and no perception of a person.
So in the beginning of the sutra, we see the point of the sutra and also the point of the bodhisattva path: the twin or double-edged sword of compassion and emptiness. Compassion and emptiness are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, a tremendous altruism and love for all beings; and not only love, but a desire to be active in benefitting them. On the other hand, emptiness – the recognition that beings are not what we think they are, and that “saving” is not what we think it is. In emptiness, beings are without separateness, without substance, without fixed reality. That recognition is itself their salvation.
Beings are suffering – we are suffering – because of not knowing who we are. And as soon as we know who we are, beings are saved, and we are saved. Seeing the empty nature of ourselves and beings is the salvation.
This emptiness of beings could, on the one hand, certainly be seen as a philosophical assertion and a religious doctrine; but in this sutra we learn that emptiness does not have to do with a philosophical assertion or a religious doctrine. It actually has to do with our very acts of perception. Emptiness is a psycho-physical reality. It is there in the acts of perception.
In English, as well as in Sanskrit, perception means literally “to grasp.” To perceive something is to grasp something. On a practical level – apart from religious or philosophical interpretations – emptiness means physically to recognize that there is nothing to grasp, and, therefore, nothing to perceive. So perception can be soft, knowing that the perception that we usually practice is based on separate objects and is a kind of illusion, a kind of magic show. We are seeing something and interpreting it as being something that isn’t actually there – a person, a being, a separate autonomous entity.
So the compassion of the bodhisattva is a compassion that recognizes that perception – grasping objects – is false. This compassion is not an exhausting compassion, an obligatory compassion, a burdensome compassion, but a soft, energizing, non-exhausting compassion. So it is not hard, not troublesome, and not difficult.
Then it makes sense that dana paramita is the next topic that is taken up in the sutra. How does a bodhisattva conduct herself? Having this altruism and emptiness at the same time, how do you practice giving? How do you practice benefitting others? The essence of giving as a bodhisattva practice – being a bodhisattva who practices emptiness as well as compassion – is giving without attachment. Giving based on non-perception, non-grasping of sights, smells, and so on.
When you read this in the sutra, at first it seems esoteric or unusual; but actually we are quite used to this kind of talk. It goes to the question of intention and motivation. In almost all moral systems, including the moral systems that most of us grew up with, it is always taught that one ought to do good without ulterior motives, right? Not doing good so that you can get credit, or so that you can get powerful, or you can get praise. If I am doing good for personal gain, this is not as good as my doing good for altruistic reasons or for reasons of kindness.
So we know the difference, and we can really appreciate that to do good – to give a gift out of pure motivation – feels good to the one who receives the gift. It is not just some moral equation. Practically speaking, it makes a big difference in the way you feel. That is the best kind of giving: without expecting anything in return; without accruing some merit; just giving out of love and kindness. The Buddha seems to be saying that the essence of the bodhisattva path is to practice giving in this spirit, with a pure heart, with a selfless motivation.
If you follow this very simple moral equation deeply enough – just to do good – you eventually come to the recognition that in doing good – without any arrogance at all, without any grasping – there is actually no such thing as “doing good.” There is no such thing as “giving.” There is no such thing as “receiving a gift,” and no such thing as the “gift” itself. You begin to realize that as soon as you have a gift, a receiver, and a giver, there is some arrogance. What do we actually have? Who has anything that you produced or earned on your own, that you actually have? What is it that the other person you are giving to actually lacks? Do they really lack something that you are giving them, that they didn’t have already? How real is the separation between us, the fortunate and the unfortunate one? Is there a real difference between us?
So in this way, we arrive very organically at emptiness, at non-perception. Non-perception, in the Buddhist terminology, sounds drastic to us. It doesn’t mean that the world suddenly disappears, and we are seeing a blank, but that we see in a heartfelt way – almost viscerally – the vanity of all of our perceptions and all of our conceptions.
The sutra goes on (page three of the Red Pine translation):
Thus, Subhuti, the fearless bodhisattva who sets forth on the bodhisattva path should give a gift without being attached to the perception of an object. And why? Subhuti, the body of merit of those bodhisattvas who give a gift without being attached is not easy to measure. [In other words, it is immeasurable.]
I would like to comment on the phrase “fearless bodhisattva.” The reference to fear is, for me, one of the most important and little remarked-upon aspects of the Diamond Sutra. You can find the same thing in the Heart Sutra: “without any hindrance, no fears exist.” The referencing of fear and the fearlessness of the bodhisattva is a very, very important point.
If we really look within, we have to admit that there is a lot of fear inside of us. This is such a deeply held human emotion. It is impressive how much fear is in us. Most of the time we do not notice, but it arises with great irrationality from time to time. There is anger too. And mostly the anger we feel has behind it the fear.
In fact, fear may be one of the most constant and powerful human emotions. Why would we be so afraid all the time, underneath the surface of our comfort? Because we understand that we are, by our nature, radically vulnerable. Ultimately and inevitably vulnerable. We try to protect ourselves, but it never works. There is always fear, because although we know that it’s not going to work, we keep trying to overcome the fear. The only way to overcome this fear is by completely letting go. This means to see that there has never been anything to hold onto; that everything that we think we are and possess – the body, the mind, the thoughts, the great wisdom, the knowledge – is all ungraspable, all empty, and all insubstantial. This is the emptiness of it all. Bodhisattvas perceive that things are empty, and so, naturally, fearlessness would be the mark of a bodhisattva.
Red Pine emphasizes the idea of the body. This “body of merit,” as we just learned, has no limit. It is measureless. Like space, it has no limitation at all. This body of merit is the body of the Buddha, the body of the bodhisattva. In this commentary, he says this is the dharmakaya body, the true body of the Buddha, which is without limitation and without form. This dharmakaya body of Buddha, the ultimate Buddha body, is contrasted to the nirmanakaya body, which is the human body, which Buddha also possessed. A human body is made up of the four elements, and when the four elements dissipate, the body disintegrates and goes back to the four elements. The sambhogakaya body is called the “reward body” or the “enjoyment body.” This is a pure body of virtue associated with the spiritual life, spiritual practice, and refined states of mind in meditation. We produce a body of refinement, enjoyment of merit, but this body is still a limited body.
Eventually, as long as there are benefits and blessings in this body, we might always have the possibility of running out of blessings after a while. Running out of goodness; running out of benefit. Then we get old and fall apart, and we might even get bored with our practice and soon there is nothing, and we fall into despair. Why? Because we have a perception of a self, a being, soul or a person. That eventually limits us, and we wear down. But this dharmakaya body is like space. It is formless; it’s unlimited; it doesn’t have any marks, so it can never wear out. We could never get tired of it, because it has nothing about it that we could get tired of.
So the practice of giving, this particular way of practicing giving – of objects without givers and gifts without recipients – is just this limitless, measureless, unstoppable space. So it isn’t that I am giving you something. It is really a kind of joyful open-handedness that is the ultimate expression of the real. So it is way beyond apparent acts of giving. Every moment is by its nature this merit body, this ultimate, open-handed, generous expression of the real.
So this is section five:
What do you think, Subhuti, can the Tathagata be seen by means of the possession of attributes? [Which follows from the previous, right? If it is limitless and like space, then what are we talking about? Is there actually a Buddha we could identify with attributes? Are we all floating in space here?] Subhuti replies, “No indeed, Bhagavan, the Tathagata cannot be seen by means of the possession of attributes. And why not? Bhagavan, what the Tathagata says is the possession of attributes is no possession of attributes.
This having been said, the Buddha told the venerable Subhuti, “Since the possession of attributes is an illusion, Subhuti, and no possession of attributes is no illusion, by means of attributes that are no attributes, the Tathagatha can, indeed, be seen.”
So the question was, in effect, “Can you see the Tathagata? Is there anyone there? Can we discourse with the Buddha? Can we study with the Buddha? You just told me that the Buddha is essentially space, so what about that?”
This is where the Diamond Sutra tends to lose us all. These questions, which are inquiries about the Buddha, are equally inquires about us. Can any of us be said to have attributes? Can we see anybody? And, if so, in what way?
I am going to read Red Pine’s commentary about this section, which will make it a little less abstruse. I think it is pretty clear what he says:
The Buddha’s point is that while we can view the attributes of the body as an illusion, if we can see them as no attributes, as not severed from the seamless fabric of reality [seeing them as no attributes is seeing that they are not separate from the fabric of reality], we see the Buddha’s true body, which necessarily includes the very attributes whose reality was just denied.
Thus, the arhan’s denial of reality becomes the bodhisattva’s affirmation. This technique is used repeatedly throughout this sutra to demonstrate through logic [this technique of logic that says “attribute, no attribute, therefore attribute”] what the word “emptiness” often fails to convey by itself.
Emptiness does conjure up nothing; but it doesn’t mean nothing. It basically means seeing something that is actually there in a totally different aspect. Instead of seeing it as an unpleasant difficulty, you see it as manifested Buddha reality. It’s the same thing; it is there, but now it feels different, and you react to it in a different way. And then he says:
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.
So all these gestures of these Zen masters are expressing this same point.
This is the basic logic of the Diamond Sutra, which is repeated over and over again throughout the sutra. By means of attributes that are no attributes, the Tathagata, in the end, can be seen. There is perception. Perception is known as no perception, non-perception.
In other words, this is a radical and sublime affirmation of attributes. That’s why in Zen the emphasis is not on purifying and improving our character. The emphasis is on affirming the attributes that we have. Once they are really affirmed, by that very fact of seeing them in another light, they are transformed, not by improving them, but by affirming them.
So this is the Diamond Sutra teaching. This is the basic Diamond Sutra logic, which is repeated many times throughout the sutra. It is worth paying attention to it in its first iterations. I would posit a question for you: If this teaching were so and we appreciated it, what attitude toward our lives would we have? Because this could be a wonderful abstraction: “I believe that now, and back to business as usual.” No, this would change our attitude, I think. Not to anybody but you. How would it change it? How would you describe, if you could, that change in attitude?