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Diamond Sutra – Talk 5 – 2008 Series

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/26/2008
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.  Norman covers Chapters 16 thru 32 (the end)of the Diamond Sutra, Red Pine Edition. Due to recording issues the first five minutes of the talk are missing.

Diamond Sutra 5

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | November 26, 2008

Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

Chapter 17:

Again the venerable Subhuti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavan if someone sets forth on the bodhisattva path, how should they stand? How should they walk? And how should they control their thoughts?”

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, someone who sets forth on the bodhisattva path should give birth to the thought: ‘In the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate all beings. And while I thus liberate beings, not a single being is liberated.’ And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva.’ Neither can someone who creates the perception of a life, or even the perception of a soul, be called a ‘bodhisattva.’ And why not? Subhuti, there is no such dharma as setting forth on the bodhisattva path.”

Here we see the combination of compassion and emptiness. The bodhisattvas are all about saving beings, all about this universal desire to benefit others, but with the recognition that the bodhisattva himself – herself – and the beings are empty of any separation. So in a way, it is not a big problem to save all beings, because the thought of saving in your own mind is also saving all beings, because there is no separation. There is no real difference. There is no such dharma as setting forth on the bodhisattva path. It is empty of any separation, any distinction.

“What do you think, Subhuti? When the Tathagata was with Dipankara Tathagatha, did he realize any such dharma as unexcelled, perfect enlightenment?”

To this the venerable Subhuti answered, “Bhagavan, as I understand the meaning of what the Tathagatha has taught, when the Tathagatha was with Dipankara Tathagata, the Arhan, the Fully-Enlightened One, he did not realize any such dharma as unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.” [You can imagine an innocent, faithful Buddhist hearing that and saying, “What are you saying?”]

And to this the Buddha replied, “So it is, Subhuti. When the Tathagatha was with Dipankara Tathagata, the Arhan, the Fully-Enlightened One, he did not realize any such dharma as unexcelled, perfect enlightenment. If the Tathagatha had realized any dharma, then Dipankara would not have prophesied of him, ‘Young man, in the future you shall become the tathagata, the arhan, the fully-enlightened one, named Shakyamuni.'”

Why? Because if you think there is an unexcelled, perfect “something,” you have a conceptual belief in something that isn’t empty. That’s exactly the opposite of awakening. Awakening is the recognition that there is no such thing as awakening. That is awakening – recognizing that there is no such thing as a being; no such thing as a person; no such thing as a self. That is awakening.

“Subhuti, imagine a perfect person with an immense, perfect body.” The venerable Subhuti said, “This perfect person whom the Tathagata says has an ‘immense, perfect body,’ has no body.” The Buddha said, “So it is, Subhuti, and if a bodhisattva says ‘I shall liberate other beings,’ that person is not called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, is there any such dharma as a bodhisattva? ‘Beings,’ Subhuti, are said by the Tathagata to be no beings. Thus are they called ‘beings.’ Thus does the Tathagata say that all dharmas have no self. All dharmas have no life, no individuality, and no soul.”

When you read this, you can see how people would think this is nihilistic. It sounds kind of bleak – no dharmas, no life, no soul, no nothing, no individuality. But maybe to get the sense of it better, we could say it like this: “Thus the Tathagata says that all dharmas have no limiting, suffering self. All dharmas have no limited, suffering life. All dharmas have no limited, suffering individuality. No limited, suffering soul.” The “no” part that is put before each of these words stands for liberation – freedom from the restrictions and the constrictions of person, being, dharma, life, soul.

“Subhuti, if a bodhisattva should thus claim ‘I will bring about the transformation of a world,’ such a claim would be untrue. And how so? The transformation of a world, Subhuti, is said by the Tathagata to be no transformation. Thus is it called a ‘transformation of a world.’ Subhuti, when a bodhisattva resolves on selfless dharmas, as ‘selfless dharmas,’ the Tathagata, the Arhat, the Fully Enlightened One pronounces that person a fearless bodhisattva.” [Selfless dharmas meaning empty dharmas, non-dharmas, no dharmas.]

I am going to Chapter 21. The Buddha is constantly in dialogue with Subhuti to clarify the teachings.

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, what do you think? Does it occur to the Tathagata: ‘I teach a dharma’?” Subhuti replied, “No, indeed. It does not occur to the Tathagata, ‘I teach a dharma.'” The Buddha said, “Subhuti, if someone should claim ‘The Tathagata teaches a dharma, such a claim would be untrue. Such a view of me would be a misconception. And how so? In the teaching of a dharma, there is no such dharma to be found as the teaching of a dharma.” Upon hearing this, the venerable Subhuti asked the Buddha, “Will there be any beings in the final epoch, in the final period, in the final five hundred years of the dharma-ending age, who hear such a dharma as this and believe it?” The Buddha said, “Neither beings, Subhuti, nor no beings. And how so? Beings, Subhuti, ‘beings’ are all spoken by the Tathagatha as no beings. Thus are they called ‘beings.'”

So there is no hard and fast doctrine; there is no truth that the Buddha is upholding as such. Instead, the Buddha is articulating a sense of how life is – fleeting, free, and empty of any limitation that causes suffering. It is not a particular teaching that he is giving. It is a flavor, a feeling for life, that he is trying to get across by defeating all teachings, rather than by positing a teaching. In other words, reality is inherently love. Everything is inherently sharing and mingling and mixing and freely aiding everything else. But not as a doctrine or a concept, but as a feeling for living. Are there “beings” who can hear and understand this? There are, but they are “non-beings” in the sense that they are not separate, not limited, not apart. We are this. It is not as if we are going to understand this. We are this already.

Chapter 23:

“Furthermore, Subhuti, undifferentiated is this dharma. [There are no distinctions, no limitations, no separations.] Thus it is called ‘unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.’ Without a self, without a being, without a life, without a soul, undifferentiated is this unexcelled, perfect enlightenment, by means of which all auspicious dharmas are realized. And how so? Auspicious dharmas are ‘no dharmas.’ Thus they are called ‘auspicious dharmas.'”

To make the world sensible to us, we need distinctions and differentiations. But they are all provisional, relative, and illusory. We need them, because that is our life; and yet, when you think about it, that is exactly the source of all suffering. All suffering comes from distinctions, separations, divisions. Suffering comes because something happens that we really don’t like. It really bothers us. And all liking and disliking depend on distinctions. I like this one. I don’t like that one.

So we have to admit that we will always be moved by distinctions. Being a person is exactly that, right? Being a person is not being another person. So we will never live a human life beyond distinctions. And yet, the sutra is trying to point out to us by its relentless, incantatory logic that in addition to those distinctions, there is another side to our human life. On the one hand, I am myself and myself alone, and you are you alone. On the other hand, we are joined together, and we are joined with everything in being.

The problem we are having in this life is that we are not recognizing that part of it. We are only recognizing the relative part of it – only the distinctions. There is a lot of strife and trouble. We forget about the inherent boundlessness of our lives, and if we remember that, and if we can feel for that part of our lives, then even while we are suffering, there can be some relief. So it is not that we are going to stop making distinctions, or stop being human beings. It is just that we are only seeing the half of it. We are not seeing the most important half, and the half that liberates us. So that is the job the sutra is taking on: hammering away at us until finally, maybe, we will give up and say, “Okay, okay. I think I get it. Let me try to live it now.”

Chapter 27, the Buddha said:

“Furthermore, Subhuti, someone may claim, ‘Those who set forth on the bodhisattva path announce the destruction or the end of some dharma.’ Subhuti, you should hold no such view. And why not? Those who set forth on the bodhisattva path do not announce the destruction or the end of any dharma.”

I think this is a direct answer to those who would have thought (and it is easy to see how they would have) that what is being preached here is a nihilistic doctrine that implies: “Since there are no beings to be saved, there are no beings at all; there is no bodhisattva; there is no dharma; practice is unnecessary; do whatever you like until you die – because what is the point?” You could easily get that idea. Clearly, the proponents of the emptiness teachings were being accused of that.

In fact, the proponents of the emptiness teachings are really saying, “No, the emptiness of dharma does not mean there are no dharmas. It doesn’t mean that things don’t exist. This is not about the destruction or the end of anything. This is about the liberation and openness of things.” Another way to translate sunyata might be openness – boundlessness. Boundless is completely open, right? Open has no boundaries, and everything freely flows in and out. That is what is being argued for here. It’s not that something doesn’t exist or the end of something.

You might wonder, “Well, okay, I get that. So why all this negative language? Why ‘no this, no that, no dharma?'” Whatever word you use for sunyata, there is no denying that in the Sanskrit there are the words “no this, no that.” The Heart Sutra says, “No eyes, no ears.” Why do they express it that way if it puts them in jeopardy of being accused of nihilism? I think that it is expressed that way to forcefully – in the starkest way possible – militate against our tremendous, human habit of asserting the existence of something and then attaching to it. As soon as we are convinced that something is there, we are immediately either attached to it or averse to it. There is no middle ground.

So it is a kind of frontal assault on our strong tendency to be attached to something. Even subtly, whenever we assert the real existence of something – hard and fast existence of something – there is always a reaction to it. Always. So that’s why this very strong language – this very courageous language – recognizes that it is very apt to be misunderstood. I think if we use “boundlessness” or use prettier words, we like that! We don’t like it so much when we are told, “no this, no that.” It is a little depressing. That in itself should tell us something, right? Something we like. Something we don’t like. We think, “‘No eyes?’ I’m not so sure about that, but ‘boundless eyes,’ that sounds better. Now I have something!” So there is a point to the language.

Chapter 30:

“Furthermore, Subhuti, if a noble son or daughter took as many worlds as there are specks of dust in the billion-world universe, and by expenditure of limitless energy ground them into a multitude of atoms, Subhuti, what would you think? Would there be a great multitude of atoms? That would be a great multitude of atoms. And why? If a great multitude of atoms existed, the Tathagata would not have spoken of a ‘multitude of atoms.’ And why? This multitude of atoms of which the Tathagata speaks is said by the Tathagatha to be no multitude of atoms. This is called ‘a multitude of atoms.’ Also, this ‘billion-world universe’ of which the Tathagata speaks is said by the Tathagata to be no universe, thus it is called ‘a billion-world universe.’ And how so? [Here’s the punch line.] Because, if a universe existed, attachment to an entity would exist.”

As long as we are here, and we think that something else is there, there is attachment to an entity, and with that attachment comes suffering. Not only a little personal suffering, but violence, greed, war, oppression, holocausts, and conflagrations come from attachment.

“But whenever the Tathagata speaks of an attachment to an entity, the Tathagata speaks of it as no attachment. [Even the attachment is empty, because we are in danger here of setting up attachment as the one thing in the world that is not empty, right? Even attachment and the attendant suffering is empty.] Thus it is called ‘attachment to an entity.’ Attachment to an entity is called unexplainable and inexpressible. For it is neither a dharma nor no dharma. Still, foolish people are attached.”

So if a universe existed – and what this means is a hard and fast, unchanging something, that we would call absolutely real – there would be attachment to it. But there actually isn’t anything like that to attach to. So what we think of as attachment, what we experience as attachment, is actually not really attachment, because if it were attachment, there would have to be something to be attached to. That’s why the Buddha says that it is no attachment. It’s unexplainable. It’s inconceivable.

The logic of the Diamond Sutra seems so illogical and so untenable,because we are coming from a totally different system of logic, a whole different conceptual framework, which actually doesn’t make sense. In other words, conventional reality, and the way that we look at life, doesn’t really make sense. And so when we are presented with an unimpeachable logic of things that actually does make sense, we think it sounds illogical. We think it sounds crazy. We think that it sounds like nihilism. But that is exactly what is being proposed here. There can’t be a world as we understand it. It doesn’t make sense. There can’t be attachment as we understand it. It doesn’t make sense. There can’t be you and me as separate individuals, paranoid of each other. This is impossible! It actually makes no sense, even though the whole mess that we are in has to do with the fact that we all make these assumptions.

Attachment is unexplainable and inexpressible. The pain of our attachment is just not what it seems to be. The very pain of our attachment is itself the emptiness teaching, the expression of the emptiness teaching.

The sutra ends with this wonderful verse. He is no longer hammering a logic; he is using a metaphor:

And how should they explain it? By not explaining. Thus it is called ‘explaining.’

“As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space,

An illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble,

A dream, a cloud, a flash of lightening,

View all created things like this.”

What a wonderful sutra. We all did a good job on this sutra!

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