Zoketsu introduces the emptiness teachings of the Vajracheddika Prajna Paramita Sutra, also known as the Diamond Sutra. Zazenkai, May 6, 2000, Karuna Meditation Society retreat, Vancouver, B.C.
I thought I would just introduce the sutra, and read the beginning, and make just a few comments on the Diamond Sutra, the Vajrachedika Prajna Paramita Sutra. Vajrachedika means "diamond-cutter." "Vajra" doesn't really mean "diamond," it's an untranslatable term. You could also translate it as "thunderbolt." The reason they used "diamond" is because the Vajra is the most powerful and durable of all things. I mean durable in the sense of nothing can destroy it. They use the word "cutter" because the Vajra cuts through all doubt and confusion. And it's Wisdom itself. In Buddhism, wisdom means something very particular and specific. It means: "the mind that directly cognizes emptiness," is said to possess wisdom. The mind that directly perceives the empty nature of self, and the empty nature of all phenomena, is indestructible mind. It cuts through all doubt and confusion. So, the Vajrachedika Prajna Paramita Sutra is about the teachings of emptiness.
"Thus have I heard at one time, the Buddha dwelt at Shravasti in the Jeta Grove, in the garden of Anathapindika, together with a large gathering of monks consisting of 1250 monks, and many bodhisattvas, great beings. Early in the morning the Buddha dressed, put on his robe, took his bowl and entered the great city of Shravasti to beg for alms. When he had eaten and returned from his round, the Lord put away his bowl and robe, washed his feet, and sat down on the seat arranged for him, crossing his legs, holding his body upright, and mindfully fixing his attention in front of him. Then many monks approached to where the Lord was, saluted his feet with their heads, thrice walked round him to the right, and sat down on one side."
This was the daily routine of the Buddha: he would get up, get dressed, beg for alms, come back, practice meditation, and then in this formal was the monks would request a teaching.
"At that time the venerable Subhuti came to that assembly and sat down. Then he rose from his seat, put his upper robe over one shoulder, placed his right knee on the ground, bent forth his folded hands toward the Buddha, and said:
'It is wonderful, O Buddha, it is exceedingly wonderful, O Well-Gone [which is just an epithet for the Buddha], how much the bodhisattvas, the great beings, have been helped with the greatest help by the Tathagata, the Arhat, the Fully Enlightened One. It is wonderful, O Lord, how much the bodhisattvas, the great beings, have been favoured with the highest favour by the Tathagata, the Arhat, the Fully Enlightened One. How then, O Lord, should a son or daughter of a good family, who have set out in the bodhisattva vehicle, stand, how progress, how control their thoughts?'
"After these words, the Buddha said to the venerable Subhuti:
'Well said, well said Subhuti. So it is, Subhuti, as you say. The Tathagata, Subhuti [you all know Tathagata is another word for Buddha], has helped the bodhisattvas, the great beings, with the greatest help, and he has favoured them with the highest favour. Therefore Subhuti, listen well, and attentively. I will teach you how those who have set out in the bodhisattva vehicle should stand, how progress, how control their thoughts.'
'So be it, O Lord,' replied the venerable Subhuti, and listened.
"The Buddha said, 'Here Subhuti, someone who has set out in the vehicle of a bodhisattva should produce a thought in this manner. [In other words, this is how you should think.] As many beings as there are in the universe of beings, comprehended under the term being, egg-born, born form a womb, moisture-born or miraculously born, with or without form, with perception, without perception, and with neither perception nor non-perception, as far as any conceivable form of beings is concerned [and these were, according to Buddhist cosmology and science of the times, these were all the categories of possible beings that there were], all these beings I must lead to nirvana, into that realm of nirvana which leaves nothing behind. And yet, although innumerable beings have thus been lead to nirvana, no being at all has been lead to nirvana. And why? If, in a bodhisattva, the notion of a being should take place, then that person could not be called a bodhisattva. And why? A person is not to be called a bodhisattva in whom the notion of a self or of a being should take place, or the notion of a living soul, or of a person.' "
So this bears some explanation. Bodhisattvas are characterized by their great, heroic vows, commitments, especially their commitments to serve and love all beings without exception, and ultimately to see to it that all beings receive everything they truly need. So, we bodhisattvas, this is our commitment and our practice, and while it may seem daunting, when you consider that we have no notion of a being or a person, that we don't see any beings or persons, it's quite easy. This is because we know that there is no inside and outside, there is no other, there is only reality flowing. This we come to learn on our cushions. So it's easy.
I'm going to try and say a few things about the Diamond Sutra. It's a little hard to do because we need a dozen three-hour classes, or something like that. I wish I could say that I carefully figured out how to condense it down to just a few talks, but I didn't really figure anything out. I think maybe I'll just, kind of, wander around. Let's just call this "wandering around in the Diamond Sutra," rather than systematically discussing all the teachings of the Diamond Sutra. We'll get, anyway, an impression, and hopefully we can bring out the main points, the most important points.
I was talking a little bit about the title, and it's traditional to go on for hours about the title. Usually, that's how you do it, you go on for many hours. I won't do that, but still, in the title is included, I mean, this is the sutra about Prajna Paramita. If you talk about what is Prajna Paramita, then you've gone a long way toward talking about the import of the sutra, so I might as well spend a moment on the title.
As I said, the title is the Vajrachedika Prajna Paramita Sutra, but it turns out that that isn't the title in the original Sanskrit. It was retranslated back to Sanskrit, but it seems that the great Chinese translator Kumarajiva added the "Vajra" part when he translated the sutra into Chinese, I guess because he wanted to put into the title of the sutra an immediate image for Prajna Paramita. Rather than just the abstract concept of Prajna Paramita he wanted to put in an image of Prajna Paramita, and that's what the Vajra is. Vajra is a kind of image of the Prajna Paramita. We don't exactly know what the Vajra is, but maybe the best way to think of it is as a kind of cosmic thunderbolt, like a lightning flash in the sky. You know, in the night sky there's a sudden flash across the sky, that after it's gone you say, "Did that happen? Or did I dream that?" That's kind of like what Vajra is. You've all seen, I'm sure, the Tibetan symbolic depictions of Vajras. I have a couple of them, these cute little things. They can be big also, but in Tibetan Buddhism usually it's made out of some kind of metal that represents this Vajra thunderbolt. It doesn't actually look like a thunderbolt, but it's meant to represent that.
There are three aspects to the Vajra that are relevant, when we consider this Vajra as an image to depict Prajna Paramita. First of all, it's something that's said to be ultimately durable, I mean literally indestructible. So right away you know that it's not something physical exactly, because the nature of that which is physical is that it is destructible. That is, "physical" means that, when you think about it. The most hard physical substance known can be destroyed, that's what makes it physical. Vajra is more durable than that, it's ultimately durable. Ultimately dependable, because durable. That's one aspect of it. A second aspect of it is that it's luminous, like that lightning bolt I mentioned a moment ago. It lights up the sky, and makes it possible to see something as it is, because of its brightness. So it's ultimately durable, and it is light. Thirdly, it has the capacity to cut through our confusion and our suffering.
So nothing can harm a Vajra, because it is absolutely indestructible, nothing can refute it, nothing can destroy it. This is what always impressed me the most about Prajna is that it's something that is beyond any kind of refutation or any kind of belief. Prajna-wisdom can't be said to be anything at all, and that's the ultimately indestructible thing, that which is not-anything-at-all. And so, no assertions about it can be made, and it doesn't depend on anything. It's not an assertion of anything at all. Prajna-wisdom is not saying, "This is Prajna-wisdom, and that isn't." So therefore, it cannot be refuted. The teachings of emptiness themselves are empty, so they can't be reified or defined as something as against something else. You can't even say that emptiness "is," or emptiness "isn't;" emptiness both is and isn't, and neither is nor isn't. This is the kind of durability that this Vajra has: that which neither is nor isn't can never be destroyed.
I have always appreciated this about Prajna-wisdom, because I have the kind of mind and karma that I find it hard to accept things and believe in them. I'm not a very good devotional-type person, obedient and all these things. I mean, I admire those qualities but I'm not that good at them, so the only thing in the end that I could have faith in is something like this, that is beyond and kind of…you just can't argue with nothing. It defeated my doubting mind, and I could see quite easily that these teachings on emptiness had to be true, just because they were also false, and not true and not false. How can you argue with that? So it helped me, and for many years, as I often say, I was an "emptiness freak." I've actually read the Prajna Paramita Sutra, certainly the Diamond Sutra many times and the Heart Sutra many times, but I also have read the 8,000 line Prajna Paramita Sutra, and the 25,000 line Prajna Paramita Sutra, and the 100,000 line Prajna Paramita Sutra. This is a feat, not that I'm the only one who's done it, many people have done it, but this is a lot of Prajna Paramita.
It's a teaching that is really beyond doubt, and lights up the sky. So it's durable, it's undeniable, but then second, it's luminous, like a flash of lightning against the sky. And this is a very important point, because we might imagine that emptiness is a kind of nothingness, or a kind of blankness, but it's not, it's bright light. The implication of this is that emptiness implies consciousness, the brightness of consciousness, that all things in the end are nothing but the brightness of consciousness. The essence of consciousness is that consciousness is that which cognizes, and that's where the light, the brightness comes in. Things appear in consciousness. It's not a big blank desert. Things appear in consciousness because that's the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is that which cognizes a world, an object. Even thought the object may not be fundamentally something other than the consciousness itself, the nature of the consciousness, the function, is to be bright and to cognize. So that's why emptiness, the Vajra, is a flash of light.
As you know, the actual physical light itself is a mystery. Nobody knows if it's a particle or a wave, or exactly how it works. And the speed of light seems to be some sort of strange and magical constant in the universe. I don't understand all this stuff, but somehow light is just not another thing out there. It's some kind of fundamental and mysterious thing. I was just reading the other day the story of creation in the Bible. It's the strangest thing. You know how it says: "God said, 'Let there be Light.'" Much later on in the story the sun and moon are created. Did you know that? I didn't know that. When you think, "Let there be Light," then you think, "Oh, then there's sunrise," but no! First there's light, then much later there's the creation of the planets, and the sun, and so forth. Because this original light is not the physical light of the planets, but it's the light of consciousness itself, and out of the consciousness itself, differentiating one part from another, the creation of the universe is set in motion.
Almost exactly the same thing, strangely enough, is said in the Shurangama Sutra. Although it's bad form in Buddhism to speak about the creation of the world, and the beginning, because there is no beginning. Buddha even said in an old sutra somewhere, "I don't talk about stuff like that," because it's not worth it, because then we're all going to run and think about, "Let's see now, was there light first or second, and what colour was it," and all this. In the meantime, we're rotting away in front of our very eyes, and our life is passing, and we're worrying about stuff like that, so the Buddha said, "I don't talk about that." Nevertheless, later on in the Shurangama Sutra he did. In the Shurangama Sutra it says something like, "Consciousness was light." That was all. But this light was neither bright nor dark, was neither light nor dark, it was a light that was beyond our conception of light and dark. But then because of the nature of consciousness, brightness got added to this light. Before, it was neither light nor dark, but then extra brightness, somehow-we don't know how, but because of the nature of the consciousness extra brightness got added to it, and then out of that extra brightness one thing led to another and the world as we know it came to be. It says this in the Shurangama Sutra, which is pretty much exactly the same thing that it says in Genesis, in the Bible.
Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but the Dalai Lama says (imagine being the Dalai Lama, aie-yi-yi, he has to watch what he says), he always says, "Buddhism is really different from Judeo-Christianity because in Judeo-Christianity there is a Creator God, and in Buddhism there isn't, and that's a really big difference." But then, one time in a meeting he sort of said, "You know, on the other hand, I have to admit that emptiness is a kind of Creator, because it's thanks to emptiness that everything exists. No emptiness-nothing exists. But only because of emptiness, things exist." He said that, but don't quote me that he said that, because I'll probably get him in trouble. We don't want to get him in trouble. But he did say that, and I think that that's very much what it says in the Shurangama Sutra, which they probably didn't read in Tibet. They wrote it in China, even though they claim that it was written in India, but that's another story.
So emptiness is the source of all existence, it's the brightness of consciousness itself. Why is there anything here? Do you ever wonder? Even the stars-why should there be anything at all? How is that? And what's on the other side of all this? But out of the brightness of emptiness, the myriad forms come to be, and here we are, sitting in this room. So emptiness is also brightness.
Sometimes I quote from an old sutra, one of the earliest sutras, which begins with the Buddha saying, "This mind, O monks, is luminous. Only, it is obscured by adventitious defilements from without." So the nature of our consciousness, the nature of our mind, is empty luminosity. Actually, at the heart of our own consciousness, we share the world with everything that is. We don't have to go far away to see the stars, the stars are in us. This is the nature of our consciousness, the nature of our mind, but we've covered it up with beginningless confusion, and separation, and ego, and making the world very small for ourselves. And then ultimately being bound in that small world that we've created. So our path and practice is to recognize the vastness that we already are, and to recognize that the smallness of the self that we've created is our gift. There's no other way to be alive but through a self that mediates the world, but that self is surrounded, and flows out of this big, luminous space, called emptiness. So that was true from the very beginning in Buddhist teaching. This mind is luminous, only it is covered over, darkened, by adventitious defilements from without.
And the third aspect of Vajra is that it's like a sword, it cuts. In the vows that we chant-I don't know what translation we use-"Desires are limitless, I vow to end them," or something like that. But really what it says is "Desires are limitless, or without number, I vow to cut them." To cut the entanglements. Desire is life, so we're not somehow trying to make desire disappear. We're trying to take the sword of wisdom, the Vajra sword, and cut through the entanglements that bind that desire to this small world that we've created, and free it. The desire of our lives is the desire of the whole universe, to be alive and to carry out life's necessities. If we can embrace desire in that way, then it's wholesome, but when we get all twisted up around it, and entangled with it, then it appears as something very difficult, and suffering.
So we cut through that, and only Prajna-wisdom, only emptiness, and our embracing of and being inspired by emptiness can make that cut clean. Cut right through: like a whole skein of thread, you think, "How could I ever untangle that? I started a month ago, pulling this, and pulling that. Sometimes I pull this one, and this one gets more tight over here-it's an impossible job, impossible." But, when you have the Prajna sword, it cuts through the whole thing, just like that, and you don't have to worry about the little knots, because it cuts through right away. So that's the third characteristic of Vajra. That's Vajra: ultimately durable, bright light, and cutting through.
So then, Vajrachedika Prajna Paramita, we'll talk about those words a little bit. Paramita is often translated as "perfection," like Prajna Paramita translates as "the perfection of wisdom." But it also means "the other shore." Wisdom beyond wisdom, wisdom on the other shore of wisdom is Prajna Paramita. Of course, you only have another shore because you have this shore, right? You can't have another shore unless you have this shore. When you reach the other shore, you appreciate this shore. In fact, you recognize that this shore already is the other shore, only you had to go to the other shore to recognize that, and to see that. But when you get there you have an appreciation for this shore.
So the Six Paramitas means the Six Perfections, the Six Qualities that go beyond and reach the other shore. There's giving, energy, patience, morality, concentration, and wisdom, and each one is a Paramita, going beyond itself. For example, Kshanti Paramita, the Paramita of Patience, is to be patient to the other shore of patience, patience beyond patience. This is patience that has gone so far in being patience, that it has fallen off the edge of patience and become something else, non-patience. It's not even patience anymore, it's perfected patience so much that it's gone beyond it. Because of this, the bodhisattva who practices the perfection of patience can't see anything called patience. The bodhisattva who perfects patience, goes to the other shore with patience, doesn't say, "Look how patient I am!" They say, "I don't see any patience, what patience?"
The same with Prajna Paramita, wisdom beyond wisdom, one doesn't say, "I have wisdom, see? I have cognized emptiness." You don't see such a thing, because Prajna Paramita is wisdom beyond wisdom, it's wisdom that burns down wisdom, leaps over wisdom, goes beyond wisdom. So you can never point out or identify giving, patience, energy, and so forth, all you can do is live your life fully, you see? Somebody else might say, "Oh look, how patient." You say, "Fine. But I don't see any patience, I don't see any energy. I only see facing this moment in freedom." So this is Paramita, to go beyond.
Prajna, as we've been saying, means wisdom, literally, or specifically, the wisdom-eye that sees reality, the empty nature of phenomena. And sees it not only when you look up at the sky or something, but in every moment, knowing that the spaciousness of the sky, and the light of the sun, and the durability of the sword, is right there in every moment. That is the quality of every moment, if we see it fully. Prajna-wisdom sees this. And one good way of looking at Prajna-wisdom, or understanding it usefully, is to think of it in terms of three kinds of Prajna. There's a teaching in various traditions of three kinds of Prajna: intellectual understanding, experience, and realization. In a way, you can see that it's kind of stupid to think of Prajna as having three kinds, and this and that, it's not really quite subject to that kind of thinking, but yet, as an expedient device it may be useful to look at in that way.
Intellectual Prajna, or conceptual Prajna, you can imagine what that is. That means studying the Prajna Paramita texts, and understanding them. Prajna teachings, written teachings are a way of looking at the world, a way of understanding the world logically and intellectually. It's kind of a logic about reality, a way of thinking about reality, and we do think about reality as human beings. Every one of us, whether we know it or not, has a very coherent view of reality, that's probably not the greatest view. That view that we have of reality, that we don't realize we have, is responsible for keeping us bound in our suffering. So it's not a bad thing to study and train the mind in a different view, a view that is liberating rather than binding. That's not a bad thing to do, and you can do that.
You can study texts and try to understand, and there are a lot of people who can understand-there are many scholars and teachers and so on who can understand Prajna, intellectual, conceptual Prajna, very well, and that's something that in the dharma we have great respect for, and we realize that there's virtue in it. It tends to be denigrated in Zen, but I think that that's not so great a thing. To interpret the Zen tradition as anti-intellectual and against learning, I think would be a mistake. It would be not a true understanding of Zen, and also not good for us. We have minds, and it makes sense to use them, and use them for clarity and liberation. If we don't use them, we use them anyway, it's just that we use them for confusion. Thinking that we're somehow going beyond our thinking, we'll just allow our thinking to confuse us even more. So why not recognize that we are thinking creatures, and we should use our thinking for clarity and liberation. Not to say that we all have to be experts on these things, but just to recognize that it's something worthwhile, and to respect it. So that's intellectual, or conceptual Prajna.
The next kind of Prajna is called experience, or experiential Prajna. This is also important, and this is what is emphasized in Zen. This means actually having an experience, in our own body and mind, of seeing the empty nature of phenomena. Sitting on your cushion, maybe sometimes you can see all of a sudden that your thoughts don't mean anything. You've been thinking about all this stuff, and worrying about it so much, and maybe you realize all of a sudden, "It's just like smoke! What's the difference? What am I so obsessed about? I'm worried about myself, but what do I have to worry about?" Thought is like a feather floating down-no substance to it. Maybe you can realize this. Or maybe sometime you can realize the emptiness of your self, of your ego, of the construct that you think of as "me." Maybe sometime you can recognize, "Oh, there's no difference between me and that tree out there, and the ceiling of this room. It's all me, and none of it's me." That would also be an experience of realizing emptiness.
So, I think we all have our moments, right? Otherwise we wouldn't all be here doing this cockamamie thing, twisting ourselves up into a pretzel for days on end, and even paying for it. Unless we had some immediate experience, even if only a glimpse, even if only a taste, even if only a glimmer, that our life as constructed and defined is not what it seems to be, I think we'd know this in our sitting practice. We have some experience of it, and we can deepen that experience, and we need to make effort in our sitting so that we can have those experiences. They're important, but they're not that big a deal. You shouldn't think, "Oh, I had an experience of emptiness, whoa! Fantastic! Now everything is good, everything is fine." Because it's not, you'll notice after that. It might be fine for a short while, and please enjoy it while you can. But then, the fact that your habits of thinking and being are so strong, that fact will reassert itself, dashing the little teeny fingertip bit of emptiness underfoot. Then, your having thought that now you've had an experience of emptiness and everything is from now on going to be fine, this turns into utter discouragement. "Oh no! Look at all that effort I put into my practice, I thought my practice was going to save me. I'm forever doomed to be myself, as I am." So don't let that happen to yourself. Recognize that experiences of emptiness are very important, but they are not a miracle cure. This disease that we have is not going to be cured that fast.
That takes the third kind of Prajna, which is realization. And the realization part is the part that I like to emphasize, because in the end, that's the most important part. That means folding in whatever intellectual understanding one has, whatever experience one has, into every moment of your life. Learning how to live as though things were empty. And that means not being bound, it means releasing the love that's in you, that spaciousness in you that knows-somehow we all know deep inside-that the world is not out to get us, that the world is us and we are the world, and that the world loves us and we love the world, and that that's the only way to live. Something in us knows this, and we have to begin to live as if that were so, because it is so. And recognize the ways in which we don't live that way, and begin to be clear about how it makes us feel to live as if we were separate. To begin to let go of that and train ourselves, day by day by day by day, not only on our cushions, but in all of our activity, to live in the world of awakening. When we can do that, and keep our stability with Prajna, everyday, through all the circumstances, wonderful and terrible, that life will bring us-and life, for sure, will bring us both-when we can feel that we're ready, in a state of readiness and openness all the time, with whatever life brings, and that we know that every moment we can let go and open up our hands, because everything is empty and there's no other way to live, then this we call a realization.
This realization is truly an endless, endless, endless process. There's no place we're going to arrive there. There's only the effort every day to keep walking that way. So that's good, right? Who would want to have a path that ends? It's not worthy of us, something that limited. So the realization of Prajna is an endless, endless process. So that's my speech about Vajrachedika Prajna Paramita. And sutra, you know already, means "string together scripture."
I read for you the beginning of the sutra, the scene is set. The Buddha is sitting in the Jeta Grove, which was give to him by the lay practitioner Anathapindika. He goes and he begs, and comes home to where he's staying, sits in meditation for a little while, and then the monks and nuns and bodhisattvas gather round, and Subhuti comes and asks him a question to get him to begin teaching for the day. Before he asks the question Subhuti says, "It's wonderful how much you have supported us bodhisattvas, O Buddha. It's wonderful the way you always, tirelessly, are there for us, and we really appreciate that. So now I have a question for you: how should we control, or organize, or direct, or orient ourselves in our approach to our own mind and heart? How should we be doing that? What's the way for us to practice and view our own consciousness? What kind of mind should we cultivate? Can you help me, can you help us all with this? This is my question." So before I speak about Buddha's response, which is the main point, I'll just say a few things about all that.
First of all, I always like to tell the story of the Jeta Grove. I think everyone should know about the Jeta Grove, Anathapindika's gift to Buddha. Anathapindika was one of Buddha's closest disciples, and there's a beautiful sutra, which I think Thich Nhat Hahn has translated and taught, about the last moments of Anathapindika's life, where the Buddha-I can't remember now if it was the Buddha himself; actually I think it was not the Buddha, I think it was Subhuti. I think the Buddha sent Subhuti, he said, "Subhuti, Anathapindika is dying now. Would you please go to him and sit by his bed, and give him some teachings so that he can die beautifully and in peace." And Subhuti went there and gave beautiful teachings to Anathapindika, who opened his heart as he died.
Anyway, Anathapindika, when he first heard about the Buddha he was immediately enthusiastic, and he wanted to give the Buddha a great gift. He found out that the Buddha didn't have a local place to stay, so he decided that he would give the Buddha this great, beautiful grove, which was owned by Jeta, who was the son of the king Prasanajit, who was the local king. The prince had this big grove, and Anathapindika went to him and said, "I would like to buy this grove, to give it to the Buddha." Prince Jeta thought, "No way! I want this grove. This is a nice grove, I like this, I'm going to keep it for myself." But he was kind of a wiseguy type of prince, so he said to Anathapindika, "Oh sure, no problem. All you have to do is cover the entire thing with gold, and that's how much I want for it. Once you do that, it's yours." Thinking of course, ha-ha, it's a ridiculous idea, but Anathapindika actually did it.
This thing was acres, and acres, and acres, with trees and streams and everything. Anathapindika, his enthusiasm for the teaching was so great that he actually went out and got these bags of gold and spread it out all over. He showed Prince Jeta this and Jeta said, "Well, you know, I was kidding! I really don't want to sell this grove." But Anathapindika reminded the prince that when you're a member of the royalty your word is law, you can't go back on your word. Since Prince Jeta had said this, he had to give him the land. So he did, but he said, "You know what, you didn't cover the trees with gold, so I still own the trees." But when he saw Anathapindika's face he said, "But I'll give the trees myself, to the Buddha." So he threw in the trees, which is why it's called the Jeta Grove, and not Anathapindika's Grove, because Anathapindika said, "Well, since you so magnanimously threw in the trees, why don't we call it the Jeta Grove." So it's called the Jeta Grove, and Buddha taught at the Jeta Grove a lot. You often hear it mentioned, a very important place.
So then, I want to say a word about bodhisattvas, because our practice is a bodhisattva practice. So what is a bodhisattva? Well, as we all know, a bodhisattva is an enlightening being. I remember once, I'll never forget this-probably some of you, maybe, even were here at the time-but I once came up to Vancouver and I did a weekend retreat, and the entire retreat the subject of my lectures was my dog. I have this little dog, very small, about this big, who is a fearless, enthusiastic dog. I was saying that this little dog is a real bodhisattva, we should all be like this dog because he takes on impossible jobs. He chases deer and cattle and things like that, and he doesn't think, "Now wait a minute, this cow is three, four thousand pounds!" He'll chase herds of cattle because, hey, they shouldn't be there!
This is the spirit of bodhisattvas. Think about it. In a minute, if I ever stop talking, we're going to end the lecture, and we're going to say, "Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all." Right? That's just like the dog, chasing a herd of cattle. How could we possibly save all of the sentient beings, when they're numberless? Even if we had a lot of time, which we don't (or maybe we do?). Still, a numberless number of sentient beings, that's really a tall order, not to mention the other vows. So bodhisattvas have this taste for the impossible, and they're sure that they're going to accomplish the impossible. This is how they practice. They practice with these gigantic agendas. You think you have a list of things and you can't get through it-forget about that, that's peanuts. Your list has the names of every sentient being that ever lived on it. That's a big list! So the next time you feel beleaguered by all the things you have to do, realize that it is a very small number of things to do, compared to saving all sentient beings, cutting all desires, and entering all dharma gates, and so forth. This is a very small list.
So this is how bodhisattvas are, they have this totally impractical certainty. There's one Zen teacher who, at the end of sesshins (a Japanese guy, you know how they love karaoke), he used to get a karaoke mic and sing "The Impossible Dream." Which is really good, because that is the bodhisattva: dreams the impossible dream. And vows that "I will carry this out. I will definitely do this. No question about it. It's going to take a while, I know, but I'm rolling up my sleeves, and I'm going ahead, and as long as it takes, definitely, I'm going to keep going." So that's the bodhisattva spirit. It's kind of a little bit stupid: innocent, stupid, enthusiastic, dedicated. The beauty of it is the bodhisattva says, "The way to help all these beings, ultimately, is that they should all be awakened. They should all untie the knots of their bondage and be free, and I'm going to see to it that that happens. That's going to be my main thing. I myself also would like to be enlightened, but I'm going to make sure that the rest of them get enlightened, and then at the end I'll go through the enlightenment door at the last minute and close it behind me."
So bodhisattvas are not that concerned about their own enlightenment. They're mostly concerned about others, and they're concerned about keeping on with their task in that direction. Of course they're working on their own awakening too, always understanding more, always opening more. But that's not the main thing, that they should open more; the main thing is that they should continue with this task of benefiting others, forever, and ever, and ever, even though they have no idea how to go about it. Because it's not obvious sometimes, how do you benefit others? Sometimes, sitting in a cave for a long time benefits others. One never knows exactly. It's not so obvious what to do. But they know that that's their spirit, and they make great vows. So that's the spirit that we have to cultivate, and we're not worried about how well we're doing, are we making progress, are we improving, or something like that. We abandon all that.
It turns out, of course, that the only way you can save all sentient beings, and go along with that program, is when you realize that there are no beings to save, because they're empty. In emptiness there are no beings whatsoever, there's only the flow of all being and non-being together. So that's what Buddha says to Subhuti. He says, "I appreciate you bodhisattvas very much, and that's what I'm here for, that's what the Buddha is here for. The Buddha is here to be a beacon of light, encouraging the bodhisattvas. And now, if you want to know how to organize your minds, how to orient yourselves, here's how.
"Subhuti, someone who has set out in the vehicle of a bodhisattva should produce a thought in this manner, or should orient herself or himself like this, thinking: as many beings as there are in the universe of beings, comprehended under the term beings, egg-born, born from a womb, moisture-born or miraculously born, with or without form, with perception, without perception, and with neither perception nor non-perception, as far as any conceivable form of beings is conceived, all these, all of it, I must lead to nirvana, into that realm of nirvana which leaves nothing behind. And yet, although innumerable beings have thus been led to nirvana, no being at all has been led to nirvana. And why? If in a bodhisattva the notion of a being should take place, he should not be called a bodhisattva. And why? She should not be called a bodhisattva in whom the notion of a self or of a being should take place, or the notion of a living soul or of a person."
So as I was saying in relation to the word "Paramita"-patience falling off patience, going beyond patience so that you don't see anything called patience-saving beings that are empty, you don't see anything called "saving beings." You have this spirit to save beings, but you don't see, you're not keeping count, "692, 693…700." It's not like that, because you don't see anything that you are doing. You only have this spirit to go forward, and often the example is given, and I know I've given it myself many times-I'm sure those of you who know me well have heard me say this before-it's a little bit like your hand and your foot. You're going along, walking barefoot in the forest, and you step on a thorn-ouch!-and you have a big thorn in your foot and it really hurts. Now the hand doesn't say, "Ah, the foot has a thorn in it. I think that I'll be a bodhisattva and help out this poor foot over here, and pull the thorn out. Won't the foot appreciate it and think, 'What a great hand he is,' if I do that. And anyway I'm a bodhisattva and I'm supposed to be saving these other guys, so there's this foot, I'll do it." This is not what happens. What happens instead, is you pull the thorn out, because the hand knows that the foot is the same person, right? It's the same body. If somebody hit you on the head you don't think about it, you go "OWW!" Because it's an automatic reaction, and you don't think, "Gee, what a nice person I am to hold my head here. Isn't that nice, the head got hit, the hands were so nice to go there." You don't think that way, because this is life: as you get hit on the head, automatically your hand come up.
Well this is how it is to save sentient beings. You don't think, "I'm saving sentient beings." You think, "of course you do this, of course." And this is a deep thing about human beings, that this is what you do. This is your spirit every day, every minute, recognizing the emptiness of the difference between yourself and any other. Recognizing that this world that appears in this flash of lightning right now, we are creating together, we're all in this together. Really in it together, we are creating this thing together in some mysterious and deep way. So naturally, we're all brothers and sisters, and just helping each other the best way that we know how, right here and now, without any question of doing that. Just automatically doing it, because that's life. That's really what life is. That's emptiness, and that's how bodhisattvas practice.
So this language may sound mysterious, and strange, and like "Are they kidding?" But I think you can see that somehow, deeply, we know that this is so. And we know that we have to realize this, and actually live like that, not thinking, as we so often think, "What a harsh, difficult place the world is. Where can I be at home?" Certainly, we feel that. But also, I think we all know that deeper down inside we have the mind that says, "I'm always home, I'm always among friends. I'm always served by the whole world, and I'm always serving the whole world, moment by moment. And when I know that that's my life, then I really feel like I'm alive as I should be, and I feel at ease in my life, come what may."
So, not such a big mystery, emptiness, not such a big mystery, not such a complicated thing. We can study the Diamond Sutra, as we will these few days, and try to let the words of it sink in. On our cushions we will try to return to the breath, and the posture, and the present moment, let everything else go-all concerns and thinking and everything, just let it go-and come back. And if thinking arises again, just come back again, no problem. Every moment is the first moment, so just come back every moment. And then in our lives, when the retreat is over, just like the bodhisattvas of old, we'll make firm commitments and deep vows that no matter what, we're really going to continue this way of practice, we're really going to be present, we're really going to cultivate kindness, we're really going to cultivate this world as a world of sharing and connection, and not a world of alienation and atomization. When we see our minds going to confusion we're going to be aware of that, take a breath, let go, and come back, just the same way we do in meditation practice.
So this is my modest proposal, that we should do this, and if you think it's a good idea, then go for it. If you think it's a bad idea, maybe there's a better idea. If you find a better idea, let me know, I'm always interested in good ideas.
Transcribed on 1/20/01 by Colin MacDonald