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Diamond Sutra – Talk 3 – 2008 Series

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/28/2008
Location: Deer Run Zendo
In Topics: Buddhist Sutras, Emptiness Teachings

he Diamond Sutra is a Mahayana sutra from the genre of Prajnaparamita (‘perfection of wisdom’) sutras. In this series Norman will referernce the Diamond Sutra – Red Pine Edition.  This is the third of four talks on the Diamond Sutra.Third in a series on the Diamond Sutra, Red Pine Edition

Diamond Sutra

Third in a series on the Diamond Sutra – Red Pine Edition

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 28, 2008

Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager


So tonight chapter six:

This having been said, the venerable Subhuti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavan, will there be any beings in the future, in the final epoch, in the final period, in the final five hundred years of the dharma-ending age, who give birth to a perception of the truth of the words of a sutra, such as that spoken here?”

The Buddha said, “Subhuti do not ask, ‘Will be any beings in the future, in the final epoch, in the final period, in the final five hundred years of the dharma-ending age, who give birth to a perception of the truth of the words of a sutra, such as that spoken here?’ Surely, Subhuti, in the final epoch, in the final period, in the final five hundred years of the dharma-ending age, there will be fearless bodhisattvas who are virtuous, capable, and wise, who give birth to a perception of the truth of the words of a sutra, such as that spoken here.

“Indeed, Subhuti, such fearless bodhisattvas will have honored not just one buddha, and they will have planted auspicious roots before not just before one buddha. Surely, Subhuti, such fearless bodhisattvas will have honored countless hundreds and thousands of buddhas, and they will have planted auspicious roots before countless hundreds and thousands of buddhas. In the words of a sutra such as that spoken here, they are sure to gain perfect clarity of mind. The Tathagata knows them, Subhuti, by means of his buddha knowledge. And the Tathagata sees them, Subhuti , by means of his buddha vision. The Tathagata is aware of them, Subhuti. For they all produce and receive a measureless, infinite body of merit.

“And how so? Because, Subhuti, these fearless bodhisattvas do not create a perception of a self, nor do they create a perception of a being, a life, or a soul. Nor, Subhuti, do these fearless bodhisattvas create the perception of a dharma, much less the perception of no dharma. Subhuti, they do not create a perception nor no perception.

“And why not? Because, Subhuti, if these fearless bodhisattvas created the perception of a dharma, they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul. Likewise, if they created a perception of no dharma, they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul.

“And why not? Because surely, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas do not cling to a dharma, much less to no dharma. This is the meaning behind the Tathagata’s saying, ‘A dharma teaching is like a raft. If you should let go of dharmas, how much more so no dharmas.'”

What are attributes of the Buddha? That was the question we discussed last week. How is a Buddha, a Buddha? How are we, as awakened human beings, awakened human beings? What are the attributes? The Buddha has said that we can see and appreciate an awakened person by means of attributes that are no attributes. So there are attributes, but they are no attributes.

So, on the one hand, there are no specific qualities that would identify an awakened person – no graspable, identifiable attributes or qualities. On the other hand, we know an awakened person. There are attributes; that is, there is a difference between us when we are awakened and us when we are not. But the difference is not a difference that is distinct or graspable. When we come to practice, we are always looking for a distinction, a difference that we can identify and grasp, and we don’t find that kind of difference. Yet, at the same time, there is a distinct and important difference. It’s just that it is hard to put your finger on it. It’s hard to point to it. This is called attributes that are no attributes.

In a way, it also suggests a radical non-self-consciousness. That is, the awakened person does not perceive in himself or herself any attributes that make him or her awakened. She is striving for awakening; she is making efforts in that direction; but she doesn’t see anyone who is awakened; and she doesn’t see any awakened qualities in herself.

So there is a tremendous simplicity in this and a tremendous humility that comes from not seeing within oneself anything that can be called awakening – some kind of benefit that you got, some kind of awakening that you have, or some kind of awakening that you are trying to get. It is beyond that.

Maybe when we from the outside are looking at a person who evidences these qualities, which are no qualities, we can appreciate that some such person may be awakened, although we can’t put our finger on it exactly. We can’t really be sure exactly.

I think all the things about awakening that we can be sure of, that we can put our finger on – all the special qualities that we can identify in great spiritual masters – are probably entirely our projections, not the actual qualities of awakening. These projections can be useful, but in the end, they will all prove to be false. We may be crestfallen and disappointed, if we think that those projections are supposed to be true.

The point is that this really does make sense. It is not just the Buddha trying to say paradoxical things. It is very directly how it really is, but it is hard to appreciate and understand, because we are so used to thinking in a very different way. In this passage that we just read, Subhuti also finds it hard to understand and appreciate, and so that is why he asks this question. In Buddhism there is a tradition that as time goes on, human beings become less disciplined and less able to practice. There is the teaching that everything is impermanent, so why isn’t the dharma impermanent? The dharma is impermanent, because things go on in such a way that people have less capacity to understand, and so the dharma eventually passes away. So Subhuti is saying to the Buddha, “If this is so hard to understand now, and you, Buddha, are right here in front of us teaching, and I am barely getting it, how are they going to get it at that time when everybody is so dimwitted, and the conditions for understanding are so much less than they are now? Surely they won’t be able to understand it then.”

The Buddha reassures Subhuti, “Yes, Subhuti. Don’t worry. Even in the darkest of times, even in the least advantageous times, there will be beings who will be capable of understanding this. These fearless bodhisattvas will be able to understand, because although they themselves might lack the skill and the talent and the discipline to understand, they will be able to understand, because in the unknown past, many lifetimes ago, they have served and made offerings to countless buddhas. In doing so, they have planted powerful and auspicious roots. They have accrued so much good karma that despite their shortcomings, they will blossom in their understanding, because of this past heritage of devotion.”

So despite our many problems and present difficulties, our lack of seriousness and discipline, our fading memories, and our flagging energies, we have a human birthright from the past. The Buddha is telling us that we are capable of practice. Because of this, as he says in the very beginning of the sutra, the Buddha sees us, and the Buddha knows us. He says, “We all, by virtue of this birthright and this being seen and this being known by the Buddha, will equally produce and receive measureless bodies of merit.”

Why is this measureless merit possible for us? Because we don’t create the perception of a self or a person. Or the reverse: we don’t create the perception of no-self or non-person. Why is that? Because if we perceived a self or a no-self – in either case – we would automatically be stuck. We would be clinging and grasping one way or the other. It is the clinging and the grasping that is the problem. It is not that we are trying to come up with correct, philosophical, Buddhist concepts to be able to talk about and believe in. The issue is not that. The issue is that clinging and grasping causes us to make a mess out of things and to be unhappy.

This is the bottom line message of the sutra, which is not so hard to grasp or understand. It is not so different from all of Buddhist teaching. The root of human problems is the hanging on, the grasping, and the clutching for something that we can’t ever clutch and can’t ever grasp. We can’t hold onto it. It’s always leaving us, and we are desperately trying to hold onto it, and so we are suffering. That is the problem. We are going to lose the things that we want to hold onto, and yet we keep holding on.

In early Buddhism, the idea was that if that’s the truth, then we know what we have to do. We have to stop holding on. Through discipline and cultivation, we have to practice renunciation. We have to let go. That was basically, in a nutshell, the early teachings of Buddhism, and then all the practices are for the purpose of doing that – which is not so easy to do. But we can do it.

Here, in the emptiness teachings of the Diamond Sutra, the notion is one stage more subtle. Okay, you did all that discipline, you did all that training, all that cultivation, and learned not to hold on. But if you still think that there is anything at all – a self, a soul, a person, others, the world to grasp – even if you think that there is something to let go of and someone who is going to do the letting go, you will be right back where you were before.

So recognize how it really is. Nothing is there in the way we think it’s there. Everything is empty of any hard and fast reality. There is nothing to hold onto. So why hold on? Why hold on when you understand this? There is no-one to hold on to anything. How can you try to hold on when this is clear to you? You can’t even hold on to the teachings. You can’t even hold on to the practice.

With this more subtle understanding and recognition, the basic ground of practice shifts from a moral act, renouncing the world, to a metaphysical or spiritual commitment. It is not a matter of renouncing the world, letting go of the world. It is matter of recognizing the nature of the world and the nature of the self. When you recognize the nature of the world and the nature of the self, by this very recognition, grasping is dissolved. You recognize that the world is exactly ungraspable. The self is exactly ungraspable, which is why all our grasping is so painful. Grasping the ungraspable is a frustrating thing, and life is very frustrating. It’s as if exactly what we think we want and need, is exactly what we can’t get, by virtue of our projection of that something that we think we need.

At the end of the passage the Buddha says, “A dharma teaching is like a raft.” It is an expedient device; it is a vehicle to get to the other side, the other shore, but once you are there on the other side on solid ground, which is no ground, then why would you need this clunky, heavy-duty raft? Why would you want to be carrying it around all the time? So you can safely discard it.

The Buddha says here, “If you should let go of dharmas, how much more so no dharmas.” In other words, you let go of everything, and also you let go of the insistence that you let go of everything. You let go of the raft, but also you let go of the need to assert, “Look at me! I let go of the raft!”

Letting go of dharmas and letting go of no dharmas means being free of reactivity, of compulsion, of being driven. It means being free to go up or down; right or left; to hold on or let go according to circumstances, in a natural, commonsensical, free way. It is being motivated by kindness and a simple spirit.

Zooming along, we are now going to chapter seven:

The Buddha asked the venerable Subhuti, “What do you think, Subhuti? Did the Tathagata realize any such dharma as ‘unexcelled, perfect enlightenment?’ And does the Tathagata teach any such dharma?” [In other words, “Okay, I’ve just said don’t be attached to dharma or no dharma; cast the teaching aside like a raft. So am I teaching anything? Can you identify any teaching here, Subhuti?”]

The venerable Subhuti thereupon answered, “Bhagavan, as I understand the meaning of what the Buddha says, the Tathagata did not realize any such dharma as ‘unexcelled perfect enlightenment.’ Nor does the Tathagata teach such a dharma. And why? Because this dharma realized and taught by the Tathagata is incomprehensible and inexpressible and is neither a dharma nor no dharma. And why? Because sages arise from what is uncreated.

So that requires some explanation also. Don’t you think? Following along carefully with the sutra, as we have been doing, it certainly raises the question, “Is there anything to all this? Shouldn’t we just pack up and go home? Why are we wasting all of our time here?” Maybe this question is raised to test Subhuti, and Subhuti answers, “No, there is no such thing as unexcelled perfect enlightenment. It doesn’t exist. The Buddha never taught any such thing. And why is that? Because such a thing as ‘unexcelled perfect enlightenment,’ if it were taught by the Buddha, would be understandable; it would be graspable; it would be a concept that somehow we could manifest or master. But this dharma that has been realized and taught is incomprehensible and inexpressible. It is beyond anything that could be identified.”

It can’t be an object of perception or conceptual thought. It can’t be reduced in any way to something, or pinned down in any way. It’s not a something or a nothing. It is the ever-present, empty nature of things that has always been. It’s us! We already are and have always been the ever present empty nature of things. It is nothing outside of us, or beyond us, or extra. So, in a way, how could you say that it is anything? It’s neither a dharma nor a no dharma. It’s not a something or a nothing.

I will read you a comment of Thich Nhat Hanh:

This section of the sutra shows that all dharmas are without form and transcend conceptual knowledge. When we realize this, we are freed from our conceptual prisons. In daily life, we usually use our conceptual knowledge to grasp reality. But this is impossible. Meditation aims at breaking through all conceptual limitations and barriers so that we can move freely in the boundless ocean of reality.

I am glad that Thich Nhat Hanh brings us back to the practice, to why we sit. We are taking a step backwards out of our concepts and our needs and our clinging and our desires into the uncreated, the unconditioned. Even though things might still arise in the mind while we are sitting, when we step back into this background of the unconditioned, it changes the picture. The same things might be there, but they are no longer sticky. They are no longer substantial. They are no longer real. Even though, to be sure, we don’t get that perfectly, this is the effort that we are making when we are sitting. This is why sitting is so deeply comforting – at least to me. Sitting is so comforting.

What a great thing that we can return to the unconditioned. Of course, one realizes that doing that is not just a matter of sitting. It is not a characteristic of somebody ringing a bell to return to the unconditioned! It is a characteristic of our consciousness. So once we get the idea through the sitting practice over time, the unconditioned is always one step away, literally, from wherever we are. One step back, and there it is. This inconceivable, incomprehensible dharma is not verified. It is not distant. It is always right here, if we take a step back into it. It is as close as the breath.

I think that this saying – “the absolute exalts the holy person” – means that the absolute exalts practitioners; the absolute gives strength to practitioners; it gives dignity to practitioners. Coming at the end of all this expression about the inexpressibility and the incomprehensibility of the dharma, this is a positive, powerful statement of what it feels like to be embraced by and to be embracing the truth, the absolute, the uncreated.

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