Note to readers: It will probably take a month or more to put up the entire sutra. If you read along as we go, section by section, you will absorb the sutra slowly and easily and be able to get much more out of it than if you read it quickly.
Section three has been added to the Diamond Sutra. A link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page or here.
Kumarajiva’s translation of the Diamond Sutra was divided into thirty-two sections by Prince Zhaoming of the Liang Dynasty (502-587). The sutra has been divided in different ways by others, but the Zhaoming division has remained the most widely used to this day. The titles of the sections are also his.
Section Three is called “The Heart of the Mahayana” because it contains the basic Mahayana vow to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment. In a word, to “save” them. The version and explanation of the vow in this section is the “heart,” or deepest explanation of the vow, because it includes both the helping part and the empty part.
As the Buddha says in this section, “All great bodhisattvas…should realize as they vow to save all sentient beings that in truth there are no sentient beings to be saved.”
This is both an answer to Subhuti’s question and a rephrasing of it. In the last paragraph of this section, the Buddha answers with more detail: “Subhuti, if a bodhisattva has laksana of self, laksana of human beings, laksana of sentient beings, or laksana of a soul, then he is not a bodhisattva.”
Laksana is a Sanskrit word meaning “characteristic,” “mark,” “symptom,” or “mental thing (dharma).” It is often translated as “characteristic,” “mark,” “thought,” or “idea.”
The basic meaning of laksana is “dharma of the mind” or “thing of the mind.” Thus, if a bodhisattva has any “thing at all in their mind about there being selves, human beings, sentient beings, or souls” when they are generous, they are not truly a bodhisattva. This describes the ultimate selflessness of self and other.
In this translation, the word “soul” has been used. A more literal translation would be an entity that “takes rebirth” or lives after this body is gone.
Word choices are fascinating and need to be discusse, but to avoid getting lost in them, it is best to remember that in this section, the Buddha is categorically saying that no matter what kind of sentient being you can conceive of, in truth, there are no sentient beings, there is no saving them, and if a bodhisattva has an iota of a sense that they are doing that or that they have a self, then they are not truly a bodhisattva.
In other posts we have discussed fractals in the humanities. This concept may help in understanding the meaning of this section and in glimpsing the meaning of the sutra itself. Surely all of us at one time or another have acted with a pure heart and a pure mind to give to or help another with no thought of ourselves or even of them. For at least a moment we dwelt within a pure state of mind and feeling that was utterly selfless, sublime.
Rather than say that state is the Diamond Sutra, let’s say that it is a state that points toward the meaning of the sutra. That state is a small fractal of the larger fractal set described by the sutra. Altruistic consciousness freed from the marks self, other, calculation, design.