The Diamond Sutra: Part One


The Diamond Sutra: Part One



I will attempt to summarize and reveal the basics of the “Diamond Sutra”: Jingang Jing (金刚经). It has been suggested that before looking into this sutra, one consider first the “Heart Sutra”. In my mind, this Diamond sutra appears to be a continuation and elaboration of it. Most of this discussion will use portions of a translated text, along with quotes by a long line of Buddhist commentators and monks over the ensuing centuries to aid in understanding.

One afternoon Shakyamuni (the clan name into which he was born) Buddha spoke in front of his inner circle. One of them, Subhuti, asked the Buddha how we all can become buddhas. The Diamond Sutra is the Buddha’s answer. Historians believe this event occurred around the year 400 BC when the Buddha was sixty-five years old.
This sutra follows a common format of other Eastern philosophies, that of a dialectical process, where in this case Subuti deepens and widens his understanding of the Buddhist dharmas. At the time when Subhuti was engaged with these discussions, he was considered to be Buddha’s top, most advanced student. So these teachings are not entry-level material.

Decades earlier, during his earlier teachings, the Buddha taught people to free themselves from suffering by realizing the impermanence and interdependence of everything. He called this insight shunyata (emptiness). This Emptiness is not defined like in our popular culture, where a cup is empty because there is nothing in it. But rather it is a viewpoint, as well as an awareness or consciousness, where nothing exists independently. No person, thing, or event has a nature of it’s own. The Buddha regarded this emptiness as the true nature of reality. This emptiness was discussed and revealed in the Heart Sutra. The Diamond Sutra instead concentrates on the three bodies of a Buddha, and builds upon the shunyata foundation by going steps further. Here the Buddha taught that even Emptiness is empty. This is core to Mahayana Buddhism.

To obtain enlightenment, Buddha and the commentators have explained it this way: one must get rid of these four perceptions. First is the perception of a self that focuses on the five aspects (Skandhas) of form, sensation, perception, volition, and cognition. Second is the perception of a being, where one believes that the combination of these five aspects (Skandhas) creates a separate entity, a separate being. Third is the perception of a life, where separate self possesses a lifespan of a definite length. And fourth is the perception of a soul, which is the belief that something is reborn into another life. These essentially express the folly of trying to enlighten “someone” when there is no someone to enlighten.

“A person who is attached to objects is like a bird that walks on the sand…a person not attached is like a bird that flies through the sky. One leaves tracks, while the other leaves none.”–Hsu-fa (Xufa)

Every object of our senses is known by it’s characteristics, or attributes. Each entity is a combination, a consolidation of these attributes. We have all been programmed to believe that our bodies have an independent physical existence, as well as a spiritual one. This incarnated physical body is the first of three bodies. Shakyamuni also could be known by one of these.

Every Buddha also has a second body that lives in the Formless Realm. This body is called the sanbhoga-kaya, a reward, and/or a enraptured body. The Formless Realm appears to me to be similar or equivalent to the “wu” () of Laozi. See chapter one of the “Dao De Jing“. One acquires this body while entering the spiritual, or bodhisattva path. A bodhisattva has been described as one who has awakened, but instead of moving into Nirvana, they become reincarnated to help other beings achieve the higher consciousness. The acts of selflessness and compassion is fundamental to Mahayana Buddhism. Buddha referred to this body as the “body of merit”, as it results from the practice of good works.

But the Buddha went on to tell Subhuti about the third body. This is the true body, called the dharma-kaya. Both the first and second bodies are manifestations of this dharma-kaya.

Once again Hsu-fa (Xufa) says: “The Buddha’s incarnated body is like an image that appears and disappears in a mirror. His real body is the mirror’s basic quality to reflect. The Buddha doesn’t talk about emptiness here, only the absence of attributes in order to break through appearances…”

At this point, Subhuti had yet to understand the emptiness of emptiness. The Buddha wants him to look beyond his physical and spiritual bodies to his real body, which is free from all attributes, including the attribute of emptiness!

“When I first began to practice, the mountains and river were simply mountains and river. After I advanced my practice, the mountains and rivers were no longer mountains and rivers. But when I reached the end of my practice, the mountains and rivers were simply mountains and rivers again”. —Ch’ing-yuan (Qingyuan). This quote appears like the lines from a song written and recorded by the English singer Donavan called “There Is a Mountain”.

“The Buddha’s three bodies are like a reflection on sunlit water. The incarnated body is the reflection. The reward body is the sunlight. And the real body (dharma-kaya) is the water. Here, the Buddha tells Subhuti that if he wants to see the water, he needs to look past the reflection and the sunlight.” —T’ung-li (Dengli).

“The dharmas (teachings) the Buddha wants us to let go of are the dharma of self, the dharma of dharma, and the dharma of emptiness. The Buddha first teaches people that the self is empty, so to keep them from clinging to the self. He then teaches them that dharmas are empty, to keep them from clinging to dharmas. Finally, he teaches them that emptiness is empty to keep them from clinging to emptiness”. —T’ung-li (Dengli)

And near the end of this sutra, Buddha encourages Subhuti to let go of the dharma of Enlightenment.

Letting go of one’s self, one finds the river; letting go of being, they return for one more birth; letting go of their life, they return no more (No Birth: also known as arhan, an ending stage of the path where one is free from further rebirths); and by letting go of their soul, they free themselves from the passion that binds them to the endless round of birth and death. The wheel of sansara (life and death, where all the suffering takes place) has been abandoned. At this stage, Subhuti has found the river, yet he can only hear it from a distance. He has heard the words the Buddha has spoken, yet he is still attached to the detachment of self.

One can find many sources on Buddhism in general, and the Diamond Sutra in particular nowadays. The internet can be a good source.
Recognition goes out to the works of Red Pine, who has authored books on the subject of eastern philosophies, and of course including the Diamond Sutra.

This short essay is merely a summary of portions of the Diamond Sutra text. I have found it expedient to present it in two parts. Part one reveals the initial discussion, questions and answers, between the Buddha and Subhuti. Part two will complete the process. Further reading and research is recommended if one is to find more details and elaborations about this subject.

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