The Diamond Sūtra
Man’s Oldest Preserved Printed Text
Ink on Paper, Cave 17, Donhuang, China
‘Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th day of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong’
[May 11, 868, CE]
British Museum Library, London
The radical young scholar-monks of the emerging Buddha-Dharma pick up the thread around 500 BCE. They set their results down in a pioneering text, the Maha Prajñā Pāramitha Sūtra, a text which in time defines the very basis of the Mahayana Tradition of Buddhism and a root source for a variety of later traditions including C’han Zen.
What is central to the Sūtra is its exhaustive use of the Self-Negating Expression. In fact the Sūtra is simply the exclusive application of the Self-Negating Expression, reflected in almost every verse, as it applied to the parameters, the contours of the emerging Buddhist World-View.
Secondly, unlike in the mystical Upaniṣadic verses, ‘Self’ in the Buddhist Sūtric articulation is consistently an empirical one. It is not simply to be asserted but directly observed in undeniable inferential link.
That is, as an identifiable Subject in counterpoint to an identified Object. A-natman [‘No-‘Self’] is the key element that differentiates the literature of the Buddha-Dharma from its Vedic roots.]
But step lightly. The Sūtra uses categorical language as a pedagogic tool and it is not to be taken literally. The claim to an absence of a ‘Separated Self’ is an assertion and Shūnyam frowns on assertions and negations [the loop remains unrounded in the Self-Negating Expression].
It implies that there was a ‘Separated Self’ which needed to be disabused of its presence. Ultimately, all assertions are meaningless-including this very one [See: Shūnyam]. I find myself repeatedly reaching for such expedient short-cuts in writing many of the Posts.
Sūtra, cognate with ‘Suture’, a strung-together lock, was originally meant as a mnemonic arrangement [hence the repetitious reinforcements], the anchoring reference to an oral teaching tradition.
The recensions of the larger text expand in stages and reach as high as 100,000 Slokas [Sloka, a metrical unit of 32 syllables]. By the time the Sūtra reaches these rarefied heights of loquacious amplification, the core insights of the original text are lost or faded into footnotes.
Pious scribes and well-meaning monks had tamed Shūnyam’s fierce bellow into a feeble whimper, a reverent purr.
A downward spiral begins progressively compacting the now unwieldy texts. The 300 Sloka version is the Vajrachedika Sūtra, [In English, the ‘Diamond’ or ‘Diamond-Cutter’ Sūtra].
‘Arouse the Mind with no abiding place‘ says its most the celebrated line. [The metaphor of the Raft, the central metaphor of Buddhism, also originates here.]
The language of the Diamond Sūtra is manifestly opaque to one unfamiliar with its intent. It is special because it is uniquely cognizant of the centrality of the Self-Loop. The Self-Eating Expression is the principal, the only theme of the Sūtra.
Here is an example parsing the second verse below: The Teaching is that there is no ‘Teaching’. When you see that you gain the Teaching. Until then, you are held back in class. The purport of the Self-Negating Expression is to scuttle all ‘Teaching’ including itself as a ‘Teaching’.
‘Enlightenment’, a newly popular expression, is the settled conviction of the absence of a Separated ‘Self’. If you think you have newly arrived at that primal truth, you are not done with the platform of a Separated ‘Self’. There is not, never was a Separated ‘Self’ to begin with; and there is no Separated ‘Self’ to newly realize its own absence.
‘Wake up and realize you were never asleep. If you think you have newly woken up , by that very fact you are still asleep’.
For the below excerpts, I’ve chosen the simpler but remarkably precise A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam translation from the Chinese.
Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata attained the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment?
Subhuti answered: As I understand Buddha’s meaning there is no formulation of truth called Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.’
Subhuti, what do you think? Does a holy one say within himself: I have obtained Perfective Enlightenment?
Subhuti said: No, World-honored One. Wherefore? Because there is no such condition as that called “Perfective Enlightenment.
World-honored one, if a holy one of Perfective Enlightenment said to himself “such am I,” he would necessarily partake of the idea of an ego-entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality….
‘Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata conceives the idea: I must set forth a Teaching. For if anyone says that the Tathagata sets forth a Teaching he really slanders Buddha and is unable to explain what I teach.’
‘Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata a teaching to enunciate?
Subhuti replied to the Buddha: World-honored One, indeed, the Tathagata has nothing to teach.’
On Achievement [‘Acquisition’]:
Then Subhuti asked Buddha: World-honored One, in the attainment of the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment did Buddha make no acquisition whatsoever?
Buddha replied: Just so, Subhuti. Through the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment I acquired not even the least thing; therefore it is called ‘Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.
The 25 Sloka compacting of the MahaPrajñāpāramithā is the Hridaya Sūtra [‘Heart Sūtra’]. It is to be read and interpreted only as supplement to the Vajrachedika for its very tight phrasing can seriously miscue the entrant.
In the later periods, it was common for senior scholars to try and insert, delete or alter key phrases in the reconstructed verses as means of elaborating and legitimizing their own views or in a misguided attempt at straightening and simplifying the Loop.
The way to spot a slide in the core content is to stay alert to sudden qualifying lines, lines conflicting with an earlier or later primary metric, or inappropriate, redundant refrains. In general, if the language slips to the linear, if it is avoiding confronting the Self-Loop, it is most likely a later addition.
So watch your step as you read these aged lines. They can be very helpful to the informed reader, fatally beguiling to the casually curious.