A Diamond that Cuts through Illusion

By James William Coleman

When I first started reading the sutras it was more with a sense of obligation and grim determination than anything else.  There were so many unfamiliar terms and cultural references I didn’t understand, and of course there was the repetition.  But somewhere along the way I made an amazing discovery–not only do the great sutras contain nuggets of unsurpassable wisdom, reading them could be a real joy.

I found that the key was to relax and be a little playful.  It was okay to skip over the parts that seemed boring or repetitious and just focus on the passages that spoke to me.  I also learned not to shut down and turn away when I came to a part I didn’t understand, but to just keep on going and then to come back to it from time to time.  It turned out that the most confusing passages often offered the richest fruit when they finally opened to me. 

Some of the most profound and mysterious of those passages are in the Diamond Sutra, and I have been mulling them over for years. It truly is, as one of the other translations of its title puts it, The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion. It challenges some of our most deep-seated ideas about the teachings and about ourselves in a way that is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago when it helped usher in a whole new orientation to Buddhist thought and practice. 

Like so many other Buddhist sutras, the Diamond Sutra begins with a description of the setting in which the Buddha gave his teachings. The Buddha lived a wandering life, and when he gave these teachings he was staying in a park in the middle of a forest donated by one of his followers, and he was accompanied by over a thousand of his monks.  One morning after he did his begging rounds and ate his meal, one of his greatest disciples approached him. He was called Subhuti, born of emptiness, and he bowed respectfully and asked a portentous question: “What should someone who wishes to follow the bodhisattva path and attain complete enlightenment do to master his mind?”

Subhuti’s question shows that he was still thinking in the traditional terms found in most of the early sutras: he assumed there is a path one can follow, that enlightenment awaits at its end, and the way to get there is through mastery of the mind.  But the Buddha’s response and the dialogue that followed destroyed that way of thinking blow by blow:

Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to the following thought: “However many beings there are in whatever realms of being that might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form… I shall liberate them all.”

The sutras of the first turning of the wheel that contain the Buddha’s earliest teachings seldom use the term bodhisattva, and when they do it refers only to the Buddha before he had attained enlightenment. But this sutra starts off using the term in a completely different way, one that provides a radical new vision of Buddhist practice that laid the foundation for the growth of the Mahayana.

The teachings of the first turning always instructed the Buddha’s followers to be loving, kind, and compassionate toward all living beings, but the goal of Buddhist practice was to attain nirvana—the complete end of all personal suffering and with it the end of rebirth into this world. Yet here the Buddha tells Subhuti that those who wish to follow the bodhisattva path should dedicate themselves to the liberation of all sentient beings, not just themselves. Of course, the bodhisattva is herself a sentient being deserving of liberation, but as many other Mahayana sutras make clear, the bodhisattva vows to forgo release into the bliss of nirvana until all other beings have been freed. It is the power of this great aspiration that drives the seeker down the bodhisattva path, and it represents a fundamental pivot in the orientation of Buddhist practice from the “other-worldly” goal of nirvana to the “worldly” concern with the liberation of all beings.

As if that weren’t enough, the Buddha drops an even bigger bombshell in the very next sentence:

And when this innumerable, immeasurable, infinite number of beings have been liberated, no beings have in truth been liberated.

The great bodhisattva vow may sound too impossibly lofty to ever achieve, but at least it is pretty easy to understand. But what in the world does the Buddha mean here? How can this huge number of beings have been liberated, if no beings have been liberated? It just doesn’t seem to make sense.

The Buddha goes on to explain:

And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates a perception of a being, a life, or a soul.

While different commentators understand these profound and mysterious teachings in different ways, it does seem clear that the Buddha is, at least in part, reaffirming the doctrine of anatman or “no-self” that he asserted in so many places in the sutras of the first turning. Aside from self, atman is also the Hindu word for soul, so the Buddha is obviously rejecting the Hindu belief in a soul or in some independently existing essence at core of the individual. But he also seems to go a lot farther than that when he rejects the ideas of a person, a being, or a life.

Although the full implications of this teaching aren’t explicitly spelled out in this sutra, when the Buddha says a bodhisattva does not believe in the idea of a self, person, being, or life, I think he was challenging our belief in ideas themselves. Our ideas of a self, a person, a being, a life, or for that matter anything else are simply creations of our mind.

If we confuse our ideas about reality with reality itself, we become lost in a sea of suffering and confusion. We use our ideas to create a simplified picture of the world that gives us the illusion that we understand what is going on and can control it. But the fact is our ideas, concepts, and beliefs are only that—ideas, concepts, and beliefs. They are not the world that we so desperately try to grasp. The belief that any words or concepts can grasp the true reality of being is a fundamental delusion lying at the root of all human suffering.

Yet if there aren’t really any sentient beings, why does the Buddha tell us that aspiring bodhisattvas should dedicate themselves to liberating them? I have often pondered this profound question, and I think that the answer is that dedicating oneself and one’s life to the liberation of all beings everywhere is a wonderful and wholesome thing to do that brings vast benefit to the world. But only, as the Buddha points out, if we don’t become attached to those ideas and start believing there really are any suffering beings or some kind of independent “me” that is liberating them. The idea that we might liberate all suffering beings is only a dream, but it is a beautiful and a beneficial dream, and we need such dreams to guide us along the way.

By this point, the Buddha’s audience of dedicated followers was probably getting pretty confused for this is a deep and difficult wisdom, but I doubt that anyone was vomiting blood and collapsing as some of the other sutras tell us they did. The rest of this great sutra works and reworks these themes to make their implications more clear, and as the true meaning of these profound revelations dawned on his audience, I imagine they became more and more upset. Later on in the sutra, the Buddha explicitly recognizes how extraordinarily difficult these teachings are to accept: “If there are people who are able to hear this sutra, and are not startled, terrified, or fearful, know that the existence of such a person is extremely rare.”  Why are these teachings so terrifying? Because they pull the rug out from under everything we depend on, even the teachings themselves.

As in several of the sutras of the first turning, the Buddha tells us explicitly that however helpful the teachings are, sooner or later they have to be abandoned:

Bhikshus, you should know that all the teachings I give you are like a raft. All teachings must be abandoned, not to mention the non-teachings.

In other words, the teachings are a raft to ferry us across the river of suffering to the shores of liberation, but once we get across we no longer need the raft and it must be abandoned. If we cling to the teachings as some kind of ultimate truth, then our attachment will only make us suffer. Later on in the sutra, the Buddha makes the point even more strongly when he tells Subhuti:

Subhuti, do not say it ever occurs to the Tathagata that “I teach the dharma.” If anyone says that the Tathagata has something to teach, that person slanders the Tathagata.

If just calling the Buddha a teacher slanders him, we are left without the slightest shred of security or certainty that there is anything to gain from listening to him, and I think that is exactly what the Buddha intended.

We need to liberate all sentient beings even though there aren’t any sentient beings? The great teacher says that to call him a teacher slanders him? If all this seems pretty confusing and mysterious, you are in good company.  I think most people feel that way when they first encounter these wondrous teachings. I certainly did. But if you just relax and stay with it, you may eventually have the same response that Subhuti did:

The venerable Subhuti was moved to tears by the force of this teaching. Wiping his eyes, he said to the Buddha, “How rare in this world, how remarkable is this teaching. I have never heard such wonderful teachings before! Those who hear what is said in this sutra and give birth to a perception of its truth are the most remarkably blessed of bodhisattvas.”

You don’t have to be a brilliant student or a great mystic to penetrate this profound wisdom. All you need is the faith to believe that the wisdom of the sutras can indeed transform your life, and the willingness to keep at it and let the teachings unfold in their own time.  If you just dive into the great sea of Dharma and keep on swimming, sooner or later you are bound to reach to other shore.

All quotations are from Red Pine, The Diamond Sutra: Text and Commentaries Translated from Sanskrit and Chinese (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2001).