The Diamond Sutra section 3

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.

The Diamond Sutra sections 1 and 2

Section two of the Diamond Sutra has been posted here. The sutra can also be accessed from a link at the top of this page.

The first section of the sutra, which was posted yesterday, tells us who heard the Buddha’s talk, where the talk occurred, and who was there. The “I” of the phrase “Thus have I heard…” is Ananda, one of the Buddha’s main disciples.

The second section tells us why the Buddha gave this talk. It is a response to a question asked by Subhuti. Since Subhuti is a senior monk, who is well-versed in the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness, we know that the questioner is asking for a deep answer.

Subhuti’s question is “…when good men and good women commit themselves to anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, on what should they base themselves, and how should they subdue their minds?”

Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi means “complete, unsurpassed enlightenment,” which is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice.

Since all “conditioned things” are empty (including us), Subhuti is asking how does an empty being attain enlightenment? Or, as he put it, “…on what should they base themselves?” (“…and how should they subdue their minds?”) An important sense of this question is how does an empty being “base” itself on anything?

The Buddha repeats Subhuti’s question word-for-word. This repetition is common in Buddhist literature as it avoids ambiguity. The rest of the sutra is the Buddha’s answer to Subhuti’s question.

Tathagata is one the ten names of the Buddha.

The Diamond Sutra

I am going to start putting up a translation of the Diamond Sutra. The link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page or here. To share the sutra we are going to use the Creative Commons license which allows copying and sharing but prevents commercial use of the material.

I will put up the whole sutra gradually as I want to reread it and make changes where necessary. At first I am just going to put up a plain translation. Eventually I will add a translation with notes, explaining in some detail what terms mean or why something has been translated as it has.

The Diamond Sutra is a concise Buddhist teaching that emphasizes wisdom and generosity. The translation of the sutra presented here was made from Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation, which was completed in 401 CE. It is the oldest known complete version of the sutra.

I apologize for the need to use the Creative Commons license at all, but suppose it will make sense to most readers. In the beginning, I am afraid the license will be quite prominent, but as the page grows it will just be a small paragraph at the end.

In my view, the Diamond Sutra is one of the world’s great texts. It provides a view into the past and into the Buddha’s teachings that inspires readers to this day. It describes a very high level of awareness, or conscious wisdom, concerning giving help to others. The giving is generally understood to be the giving of the Buddha’s teachings, but it can also be understood as giving of yourself, what you know, giving the best of your own unique and indescribable awareness.

A great advantage of the Buddhist tradition is there is no “word of God” that has to be followed exactly forevermore. Nothing in Buddhism is written in stone. Rather than being the start of an unchangeable tradition, the Buddha’s teachings are best seen as the start of a living, growing tradition that can and should be worked and reworked by every generation.

As the Diamond Sutra itself says:

All conditioned things

are like dreams, like illusions,

like bubbles, like shadows,

like dew, like lightning

and all of them should be contemplated in this way.