The Diamond Sutra section 5: Seeing the Truth That Lies Beneath Perception

The fifth section of the Diamond Sutra has been added. A link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page or here.

In this section, the Buddha continues his discussion of laksana (marks, characteristics) by asking, “Subhuti, what do you say, can you see the Tathagata in his bodily laksana?”

In this context, Tathagata means an “enlightened Buddha,” with an emphasis on enlightened. This question could reasonably be interpreted to mean, “…can you perceive the enlightened state of a Buddha through mundane (bodily) characteristics or marks?”

Subhuti answers, “No.” He then explains himself by negating “bodily laksana,” which are essentially delusive and thus not profoundly real.

The Buddha confirms his answer and emphasizes its import by saying, “All laksana are delusive. If you can see that all laksana are not laksana, then you will see the Tathagata.”

Thus, enlightenment and the generosity and wisdom upon which it is based or of which it is a manifestation cannot be perceived by mundane (bodily) laksana. In fact, the Buddha says, to become enlightened you must be able to see that “all laksana are delusive.”

A common interpretation of this section is that that the word laksana refers to the thirty-two marks of a Buddha. Since these thirty-two marks are discussed later in the sutra, it probably makes more sense to interpret them straightforwardly as “bodily laksana,” indicating mundane perception of the enlightened state.

The thirty-two marks or signs are also know as the thirty-two marks of a great man.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on the thirty-two marks says the twenty-ninth mark is “Eyes dark brown or deep blue.” A few other pages I checked on Google claim the eyes are are “clear” and the pupils dark. Traditionally, this laksana has been translated as “blue” or “very blue.”

The Dhammawiki page linked above has this:

He has very blue eyes (Pali: abhi nila netto). Note 1: “very (abhi) blue (nila) eyes (netto)” is the literal translation. Nila is the word used to describe a sapphire and the color of the sea, but also the color of a rain cloud. It also defines the color of the Hindu God Krishna. Note 2: “His lashes are like a cow’s; his eyes are blue./ Those who know such things declare/ ‘A child which such fine eyes/ will be one who’s looked upon with joy./ If a layman, thus he’ll be/ Pleasing to the sight of all./ If ascetic he becomes,/ Then loved as healer of folk’s woes.'” (Lakkhana Sutta)

In Chinese, the Buddha’s eyes are described as “blue” or “jade-like.” Some years ago, I had a discussion with a very capable Pali translator on this point. He wanted to know what I thought (as someone who knows the Chinese) about describing the Buddha’s eyes as “clear.” I said I did not think that that was what the Chinese was saying and that, furthermore, that would be a strange meaning for ancient Chinese, as “clear eyes” is not the kind of thing they would have written. He agreed with what I said, and being an intelligent man, was amused by the whole controversy.

Whatever the case, I suppose it’s inevitable that PC sensibilities will enter even the history of Buddhism. It does seem likely that the Buddha, who is frequently referred to as an “Aryan,” was born into an actual Aryan family. We know he spoke an Indo-European language (Magahi) and that he could easily have had blue eyes. Alexander the Great had blue eyes as did many other people in those days.

A major interpretation of the thirty-two marks is that they are mystical and only an enlightened being can see them anyway. They are not a very important part of Buddhism. As the Diamond Sutra itself says, “All laksana are delusive.”

Still, it is fascinating to observe how people react to imagining a blue-eyed Buddha. In my experience, most Westerners who have not studied much Buddhism, imagine the Buddha to have looked Chinese. Some imagine he looked Indian. Just as Christ gained blond hair and blue eyes in some European portrayals of him, so possibly, a blond-haired blue-eyed Buddha gradually morphed into having a Chinese visage in the northern tradition and a darker Indian one in the southern tradition.

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