Skip to main content

Diamond Sutra – Talk 4 – 2008 Series

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/12/2008
Location: Deer Run Zendo
In Topics: Buddhist Sutras, Emptiness Teachings


The 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 fourth talk in this series.

Diamond Sutra 4

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | November 12, 2008

Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Deborah Russell



Last time we were discussing the Diamond Sutra and the earlier Buddhist path of the arhat, the path of renunciation. We feel our own pain, and we know that there is something to be done; there is something to let go of, so we let go. We renounce. But, then, maybe we get attached to that brilliant sacrifice that we have made, to our renunciation and our sense of identity with the renunciation, to our holiness, and to our difference from others, who have not yet done this great thing that we have done.

In contrast, in the bodhisattva path – the path of emptiness and compassion – we don’t have the imperative to take a moral action, which is to renounce self, the world, and so on. Rather than the compunction to take a moral action, we have an ontological commitment to seeing that things are empty of anything that could be held on to. We understand that there is nothing to renounce, and there is nobody to renounce anything. Even if we do renounce something, we know that it is not an actual renunciation. So we are liberated from renunciation, and we are liberated from our sense of our difference from others. We are fully identified with others as non-others, and so, without any others, naturally, just living is an act of compassion.

In other words, there is nothing but love and compassion, because we have realized that there is really non-difference. So we love the world and others as we love ourselves. Life by its very nature is loving-kindness, no matter what goes on. You know the wonderful phrase in the Zen koan, speaking of compassion, “It is as natural as reaching behind in the night for your pillow.” Nothing special, just that natural action to bring comfort to a weary head, whether it is your own or someone else’s. It hardly matters.

So in the Diamond Sutra a shift is being proposed from a religious act to what I am calling an ontological commitment; to an understanding of the way that the world really is.

So let’s read Chapter 13:

This having been said, the venerable Subhuti asked, “Bhagavan, what is the name of this dharma teaching, and how should we remember it?”

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 it is called the ‘perfection of wisdom.'”

“Subhuti, what do you think? Is there any such dharma spoken by the Tathagata?” Subhuti said, “No, indeed, Bhagavan. There is no such dharma spoken by the Tathagata.” The Buddha said, “Subhuti, what do you think? Are all the specks of dust in the billion-world-system of a universe many?” Subhuti said, “Many, Bhagavan. The specks of dust are many. And how so? Because, Bhagavan, what the Tathagata says is a speck of dust is no speck. Thus it is called ‘a speck of dust.’ And what the Tathagata says is a world system, the Tathagata says is no system. Thus it is called ‘a world system.'”

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Tathagata, the Arhat, the Fully Enlightened One be seen by means of the thirty-two attributes of a perfect person?” Subhuti said, “No, indeed, Bhagavan. The Tathagata, the Arhat, the Fully Enlightened One cannot be seen by means of the thirty-two attributes of a perfect person. And why not? Because, Bhagavan, what the Tathagata says are the thirty-two attributes of a perfect person, Bhagavan, the Tathagata says are no attributes. Thus are they called the ‘thirty-two attributes of a perfect person.'”

This is the famous and strange logic of the Diamond Sutra. A dharma is a no-dharma, and that is why we call it a dharma. This is repeated throughout this passage. This is the main and most important logic of the Diamond Sutra. A is not A, and that is why it is called A. Since this is repeated throughout this passage and the whole sutra, obviously it is a very important point, and we need to go into it a little bit.

When you hear it, it is almost funny. It seems ridiculous. It sounds like some kind of absurd, fractured joke or word play. I think that there are probably other ways of saying this, and so probably the authors of the Diamond Sutra were aware of the shock value and the quasi-humor of this form of expression. But it is a very clever and short-form way of saying something that is very profound and very, very important about the nature of being, the nature of things that are. It is also saying something about our human need to understand, name, and speak about what is.

So this is what the Diamond Sutra is getting at. It is saying something about the nature of being itself, and it is saying something about the nature of our need to understand being in order to be human. It is not as if we are in the world, and then later on, we speak about it or think about it. Our being in the world requires from the beginning our thinking about it and speaking about it. There is no being for us in the world without our thinking and speaking about it. We don’t see anything unless we think about it or make it into something.

For us there is an intimate connection between our human understanding of things and things that are. So the Diamond Sutra is saying something about both of these things. When you just look at this in a simple-minded way, it is not a very strange thing. This is a fact. It is true for me, and it is true for all of you. I can only be myself because I am not myself. Now what do I mean by that? This is the way that the Diamond Sutra puts it. I myself, because I am a living creature, am alive in time. When I say that I am myself, you recognize me as a person, and you recognize yourself as a person. That’s what this means. You are alive and we are alive in time, which means that I must, of necessity, always be changing, always be different, always be in development. Things that happen to me and interactions that I have with others are constantly making a new me. So I am in a constant process of revision. If I weren’t alive in that way, in a constant process of revision, I could not be myself. Right? What would I be? I would be like a stone or something, or I wouldn’t exist at all.

My being myself requires that I also not be myself. I am also in a constant state of not being myself. That’s what makes me myself. Even though the way that the Diamond Sutra puts this is very strange, it is also common sense. I am myself exactly because I am not myself. If I were not myself, I could not be myself.

So that is the first part: A is not A. Everything is not that thing. That’s how it gets to be that thing. But the next part of the sutra is very pointed. A is not A, so that is why it is called A. I am not myself; that is why I am called myself.

This is distinctly about language and conceptualization. I see myself, and I think of myself as myself. I have to do that, because otherwise I would not have a coherent experience of myself. I can do this only because I am not myself. “Myself” is changing, self-cancelling, and constantly influenced by everything; but, in fact, I don’t live this way. We all live as if we were a fixed entity called “myself.” Now I am caught by this calling myself “myself.”

I am resisting the fact that I am evolving, because I don’t want to change that much. It is difficult to change, and there are certain ways in which I am not going to change. I don’t care what anybody says! I am not changing in that way. So if bad things are happening to me, I am denying them. I am not going to stand for that. If they happen anyway, I am going to be in crisis, because I have a very fixed idea of who I am and what should be happening. So the fact that I have called myself “myself” in a particular way, and I am fixated on that, is causing me a great deal of pain. If only I realized that I am not myself – that’s why I am called myself – then I could call myself “myself” in a different way.

What the sutra is saying to us, in effect, is, “Understand the names, the things, the language of self and other – dharma, world, and so on. We have to have these things in order to live coherently in the world; but understand these things differently now, please. Understand that names don’t refer to fixed things, but rather, they are floating markers within the flux of fluid, ongoing experience that no one is in control of. And so, hold everything as lightly as possible. As openly as possible. Don’t look at the names and the words and what you think they stand for. Remember these spaces between the words. The spaces between the letters. Open up the way that you hold your world.”

So this is a very important teaching, and it is not so strange, although the Diamond Sutra takes a certain delight in expressing it in this semi-strange manner. But it is a very arresting thing. It makes you sit up and take notice. The very fact that it strikes at the heart of our binary logic is probably a very skillful expression.

So this passage ends with:

The Buddha said, “Furthermore, Subhuti, if a man or woman renounced their self-existence every day as many times as there are grains in the Ganges, and renounced their self-existence in this manner for as many kalpas as there are grains of sand in the Ganges, and someone grasped but one four-line verse of this dharma teaching and made it known and explained it to others, the body of merit produced as a result would be immeasurably, infinitely greater.”

Before this, the sutra has been comparing “What’s a greater benefit? What is more meritorious? Giving lavish things all over the place, or reciting one verse of this sutra?” The conclusion is always that it is much more meritorious to recite one verse of the sutra. Here, instead of giving lavish gifts and benefits to others, it now takes up giving up one’s own self. What is more meritorious? Completely giving over one’s self – as if one had a self to give over – or four lines of the sutra? And there is no comparison, because these words of the sutra are non-words, and they are much more precious, and they provide much more merit – boundless, measureless merit.

This is also a trope that is repeated over and over again in the sutra. It is kind of like the ultimate in self-promotion. It is like a political ad on TV. “I am the greatest, and nothing else can compare with me.”

On the one hand, I think the sutra is doing this, and maybe is actually promoting itself. Maybe when they wrote this sutra, they realized that this is pretty radical stuff, so we better convince people. Maybe there is an outrageous polemic for the benefit of the sutra. But in another sense, there is some profound meaning here. What is the most precious thing in the world? The most precious thing is not giving anything, renouncing anything, doing all these great meritorious things. The most precious thing is sharing with others this teaching. Words are the means by which we share this teaching. It isn’t even the teaching, per se, because, literally speaking, there is nothing to the teaching. What is the most precious thing is the sharing itself. The sharing of one another in appreciation of this sense of reality.

So what are we sharing? Nothing, really. And nothing is the one thing that actually is boundless and limitless. You can never exhaust nothing. The sense, as the sutra is telling us, is that everything in this world is basically nothing. The basis of everything is this boundless nothingness, this emptiness – free of limitations; free of weight and substance; free of suffering and pain; free of difficulty.

To share that sense of reality is the most precious thing. Because if I give you a gift, and you are dissatisfied, and you are crabby about it, then it is not that good a gift. If I renounce myself, and I am proud of it, and I am in your face about it, then that is not such a great thing either. But if I share this boundless freedom, then even if you are without anything and in need of a great many things, and you are in a lot of pain, you can find a great relief when you recognize that behind everything that we ever thought we had, we never had it to begin with, because there is nothing behind it.

We ourselves are that way. So everything is freely given, freely flows, and there is no suffering, no limitation.


Download file

Click to stream and listen immediately, right-click and pick "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to save to your hard drive.

  • Sort