Notes on the Diamond Sūtra

Introduction

The Diamond Sūtra is one of the shorter Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras. The scholar and translator Edward Conze (1904-1979) believed that the Diamond Sūtra was a summary of the larger Perfection of Wisdom sūtras written in the fourth century CE. Today, some would argue that the Diamond Sūtra may actually have been one of the earliest of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras and go back to the first century BCE and that later works were expanding upon its themes. In any case, Kumārajīva (344-413) translated the Diamond Sūtra into Chinese in the year 401. The earliest printed book that can be dated is actually a Chinese copy of the Diamond Sūtra from the year 868.

The full title is actually the “Diamond Cutter of Perfect Wisdom Sūtra” (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra). The “diamond cutter” refers to the vajra, or indestructible thunderbolt of the god Indra. In this case, emptiness is like the thunderbolt of Indra because it cuts through all things but is itself indestructible, not being a thing at all there is no-thing to cut.

The translator and commentator Red Pine points out that the Diamond Sūtra was divided into 32 chapters by Prince Chao-ming (501-532), the eldest son of Emperor Wu, whose meeting with the first Zen patriarch Bodhidharma will be discussed below. This is interesting because the Buddha supposedly possessed the 32 marks of a “great man,” an idea that the sūtra itself deconstructs. So the sūtra is, in a sense, the body of the Buddha, but there is no such body as we shall see.

I am sympathetic to the idea proposed by some that the Diamond Sūtra was originally on palm leaves and that it got dropped and the parts were reassembled arbitrarily. Of course the real reason may be that it is indeed circling around the same subjects from different angles to show that they are all empty, or that perhaps later chapters are just accretions added to a core text.

Before I get into each individual chapter, I just want to point out from the start that according to Tiantai and Nichiren Buddhism this sūtra can be regarded as part of the Shared teachings of the Four Teachings by Content and as part of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) period of the the Five Periods of the Buddha’s teachings according to the T’ien-t’ai sutra classification system. What the sūtra is pointing out is that all the categories and ideas presented by the Buddha are ungraspable. They may be spoken of by the Buddha as a matter of utilizing conventional speech, but one should not make the mistake of attributing any substantial reality to the things spoken of because they are all actually empty. In fact, their emptiness allows phenomena to be how we experience them to be. All things are what they are only temporarily, only as the conglomeration of certain causes and conditions, and only because our minds have interpreted such temporary aggregations to be a specific person, place, thing, feeling, or idea. This is not to say that such “things” don’t exist at all, but not in the way we normally think they do as substantial persons, places, or things. The emptiness of all phenomena is a major theme of the Mahayana sutras, particularly the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and was also taken up by Nagarjuna in terms of the two truths of the conventional and the ultimate, and Chih-i in terms of the three truths of the empty, the provisional, and the Middle Way.

1. Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was dwelling in the Jeta Grove of Anāthapiṇḍada’s park near Śrāvastī with a large gathering of 1,250 monks. 

At mealtime, the World Honored One put on his outer robe, took up his bowl, and entered the great city of Śrāvastī to beg for food. After he had finished his sequential begging within the city, he returned, ate the food, put away his outer robe and bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat, and sat down. 

I appreciate the fact that the sūtra opens so prosaically. An ordinary day in the life of the historical Buddha. This is where the liberation of the perfection of wisdom begins and ends, in the midst of ordinary life. Red Pine says, “The remaining thirty-one chapters of this sutra attempt to explain what happens in the first.” (p. 39) Furthermore, according to Red Pine, the opening of the sūtra shows the six perfections of bodhisattva practice in action (at least if one goes by other versions which have additional content).

Taken together, the Buddha’s actions in this first chapter represent the Six Paramitas, or Perfections. Picking up his begging bowl, the Buddha practices the perfection of charity. Donning his monk’s robe, he practices the perfection of morality. Begging in the city, he practices the perfection of forbearance. Eating his meal, returning to his abode, putting away his robe and bowl, and washing his feet, he practices the perfection of vigor. Sitting down and focusing on what is before him, he practices the perfection of meditation. And remaining unattached throughout the practice of these five perfections, the Buddha practices the perfection of wisdom. Thus, the first chapter contains a brief but practical introduction to the teaching of all six perfections. (Red Pine, p. 53)

The setting of the sūtra in Anāthapiṇḍada’s Park (whose name in Pāli is Anāthapiṇḍika and literally means “Feeder of the Defenseless”) in Śrāvastī with 1,250 monks present is significant. The Buddha did not meet the wealthy merchant Sudatta (who was called Anāthapiṇḍada) and receive the donation of the park for a monastery until after the third year of his teaching. The number 1,250 is interesting because I believe it is the largest group of monks gathered around the historical Buddha at any one time according to the Pāli accounts, consisting of the 1,000 followers of the three Kāśyapa brothers and the 250 former followers of the false sage Sañjaya, who left him for the Buddha along with Śāriputra and Mahāmudgalyāyana. By that time, in additon to Śāriputra and Mahāmudgalyāyana, the other seven of the ten major śrāvaka disciples had also joined the Sangha: Mahākāśyapa (who is not one of the Kāśyapa brothers), Rāhula, Aniruddha, Ānanda, Upāli, Mahākātyāyana, Pūrna, and Subhūti. So the setting would seem to be early in the Buddha’s life, once he had firmly established the Three Treasures.

Note that, though the Mahāyāna teachings are the subject of this sūtra, there are not yet any bodhisattvas present, at least in Kumārajīva’s translation of the sūtra. Things are presented in a very down-to-earth prosaic manner. I feel like this is because the sūtra is presented as occurring at just the point in time when the teachings of the śrāvakayāna, or hearer-vehicle, has reached its zenith and the Mahāyāna teachings are just beginning to be presented.

2. At that time, the elder Subhūti arose from his seat in the assembly, uncovered his right shoulder, placed his right knee on the ground, put his palms together with respect and said to the Buddha, “How rare, World Honored One, is the Tathāgata who keeps in mind and protects all bodhisattvas and causes them to be well-instructed. 

“World Honored One, if a good man, or good woman, resolves their mind on unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening, how should they dwell, how should they subdue their minds?”

The Buddha said, “Excellent, excellent, Subhūti. It is just as you say. The Tathāgata keeps in mind and protects all bodhisattvas and causes them to be well instructed. Now listen carefully; I shall tell you. A good man or good woman who resolves their mind on unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening should thus dwell, should thus subdue their minds.”

The elder Subhūti promptly answered, “Yes, certainly, World Honored One. I want to hear. I am delighted to listen.”

Subhūti was the nephew, or perhaps younger brother, of Anāthapiṇḍada who had joined the monastic Sangha soon after the establishment of the Jeta Grove monastery. He was one of the ten major disciples and known as the foremost in understanding emptiness as well as foremost in peaceful (or solitary) abiding. He attained arhatship primarily through the cultivation of meditation on boundless loving-kindness leading to insight. Here he asks how one is to conduct oneself and practice as a bodhisattva in order to attain the Buddha’s unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening. Presumably, since Subhūti is here the questioner, the discourse in this sūtra is set in the period before the other Perfection of Wisdom sūtras wherein Subhūti is presented as able to teach about emptiness.

According to Red Pine, “To bare one’s shoulder shows that one is prepared to carry something, in this case the Buddha’s teaching concerning prajna.” (p. 59)

I think it is significant that this discourse occurs in a location donated by the wealthy merchant Sudatta, whose was called Anāthapiṇḍada because he was renowned for his generosity to the poor and defenceless as well as to the Sangha. Furthermore the discourse is directed to the disciple most known for attaining liberation through the contemplation of loving-kindness. Even though the Diamond Sūtra seems to focus on the  perfection of wisdom that negates all our common ways of thinking about life and existence, it also seems to be underscoring the importance of loving-kindness and generosity as the proper corollary of the cultivation of the perfection of wisdom.

3. The Buddha said to Subhūti, “All bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should thus discipline their minds with the view, “I must cause all living beings – those born from eggs, from wombs, from moisture, or by transformation; those with form, those without form, those with perception, those without perception, or those who have neither perception nor non-perception – to enter  final nirvāṇa without remainder and be taken across to extinction. Yet of the immeasurable, boundless numbers of living beings thus taken across to extinction, there is actually no living being taken across to extinction. 

“And why? Subhūti, if bodhisattvas hold on to the mark of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a life-span, then they are not bodhisattvas.”

Here we get to the main point of this sūtra. Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas train themselves by making the determination to lead all sentient beings to nirvāṇa without remainder, though they do so without getting hung up on the idea of a self (ātman), a living being (sattva), a life-span (jīva), or a person (pudgala).

A bodhisattva is an “awakening being.” One who has aroused the “thought of awakening” (bodhicitta) to realize the unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening of a buddha for the sake of liberating all beings. A mahāsattva, or “great being,” would be an advanced bodhisattva, perhaps someone like Avalokiteśvara (World-Voice-Perceiver) or Mañjuśrī or Samantabhadra (Universal-Good).

The listing of the different types of beings is meant to be a comprehensive list of all possible types of living beings. Such a listing of beings that the Buddha is aware of can also be found in MN 12.29-43 (Ñāṇamoli, pp. 168-173). Those “with form” include all beings except the gods of the formless heavens who are “those without form.” Those “with perception” are all beings with the exception of the following two types: those “without perception” who are the gods dwelling in the Heaven of No-Perception (Asañjñisattva, sometimes translated as “No-Thought”) and those “with neither perception nor non-perception” who are born in the Heaven of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception. Those without perception are gods who were reborn in that state because they cultivated the dhyānas, or “meditative absorption,” and achieved the fourth dhyāna in order to enter a state of mental cessation. Those with neither perception nor-non-perception entered the boundless attainment corresponding to the last and most refined of the formless heavens. All of these attainments, however, are temporary and part of the triple world of saṃsāra.

The nirvāṇa without remainder is a reference to one of two different types of nirvāṇa in pre-Mahāyāna Buddhism. The first is sopadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa, or the “nirvāṇa with remainder,” and the second is anupadhisopadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa, ornirvāṇa without remainder.” Actually, these are not two different kinds of nirvāṇa, as though the unconditioned could be divided into categories, so much as they are descriptions of the impact that nirvāṇa has at the point of realization and later on upon the death of one who has realized it. These are described in the Itivuttaka (Ireland, pp. 31-32).

Nirvāṇa with remainder is what the Buddha attained beneath the Bodhi Tree. This type of nirvāṇa is the extinction of the defilements during one’s lifetime. One is still vulnerable to physical pain and discomfort, as well as the need for food and sleep and other natural functions, but one no longer suffers any emotional distress because all greed, anger, and ignorance have been rooted out. In addition, one who attains nirvāṇa with remainder no longer produce any karma. In other words, their actions are no longer tainted by craving or egocentricity or the desire to possess or acquire anything further from or in life. Because their actions are accompanied only by pure intentions with no trace of craving or aversion there are no longer any karmic repercussions. However, while they no longer create any further karma, karma from their past (including past lives) may still come to fruition for good or ill until the time of their passing. Fortunately, those who attain nirvāṇa with remainder are able to deal with all the vicissitudes of life with calm and equanimity from that point on.

Nirvāṇa without remainder describes the total extinction of all pain and suffering with no chance of it arising anymore. This is attained upon the death of the physical body and the dissipation of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness). Nirvāṇa without remainder is also called parinirvāṇa, which means “final nirvāṇa.” Parinirvāṇa thus refers to the death of a buddha or arhat whereupon they transcend the cycle of birth and death and are forever beyond the reach of all forms of pain and suffering.

Unfortunately, some sūtras occasionally use the term “nirvāṇa” to refer to the parinirvāṇa of a buddha or arhat, and so people mistakenly got the impression that nirvāṇa was a state that could only be achieved at death and some even came to the conclusion that it was a kind of heavenly reward. In actuality, nirvāṇa is something that is realizable in this very lifetime; though it is true that the second type, parinirvāṇa, is only attained at death. Even then, parinirvāṇa depends upon the attainment of nirvāṇa during one’s lifetime, as it is the culmination of the cessation of suffering which is begun at the point when one extinguishes the defilements and directly encounters the unconditioned that transcends all conditioned objects of clinging.

Mahāyāna Buddhism developed another term for the kind of nirvāṇa attained by the Buddha and that should be the actual goal of bodhisattvas: apratisthita-nirvāṇa, or the “nirvāṇa of non-abiding.” This is a nirvāṇa whereby through wisdom a buddha or advanced bodhisattva does not dwell in samsāra but through compassion does not abide in nirvāna either, but rather freely engages in liberating activities throughout samsāra. In contrast, parinirvāṇa is referred to disparagingly as “reducing the body to ashes and annihilating consciousness.” The reason for the disparagement is because Mahāyāna Buddhism teaches that it is better to continue to take rebirth in the world as bodhisattvas to help liberate all beings and eventually attain buddhahood and teach the Dharma for beings who have not had a chance to hear and practice it than to simply leave the cycle of rebirth as the arhats and pratyekabuddhas do. Actually the buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas realizes that samsāra and nirvāṇa are simply reality when viewed from a deluded or awakened perspective respectively, and their actual goal is enable all other beings to realize this as well.

To say that the bodhisattva no longer conceives of (or cherishes, or holds to, or perceives) anyone they save as having the mark of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a life-span, is to say that they realize that all these categories are empty. They are all just conceptual designations that don’t actually apply to the flowing interdependent nature of reality. To say that there is a “self” is to say that there is a fixed, independent entity behind all appearances and changes that living beings go through. In fact, to think of “sentient beings” as composed of some kind of spiritual essence is to attribute some kind of metaphysical substance to the abstract concept “sentient being.” To think in terms of a life-span or life-force is to again attribute a metaphysical substance to what is just a conceptual abstraction and thereby. The same can be said of the concept of person. Now the bodhisattva (in fact the word for “sentient being” is part of their name) goes on to use such terms in a conventional manner, but they are able to do so without error because they realize the terms are just conventions used to designate phenomena that arise through causes and conditions that are actually empty of any substantial essence.

The practical meaning of all this is that it points to a shift in the way we relate to ourselves, others, and all our experiences. Overcoming getting hung up on the “mark” or notion of a self, a sentient being, a person, or a life-span is about transcending self-consciousness and self-absorption. It is to overcome comparisons between ourselves and others and therefore to do away with arrogance, inferiority, entitlement, pity, jealousy, envy, lust, and even sentimental dualistic compassion or the kind of love beset by clinging and/or the need to control another. In place of all that the bodhisattva is at peace and yet also able to act wisely and appropriately in accordance with their direct awareness of the interdependent flow of causes and conditions. The bodhisattvas will only feel that they are acting naturally and remain in tranquility, though others still in a dualistic frame of mind will perceive their actions to be heroic or saintly.

The Diamond Sūtra does not actually use the term emptiness or talk about it directly. It refers instead to the lack of a mark of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a life-span. The “markless” is one part of what the Abhidharma calls the triple gateway to liberation: the empty, the markless, and the wishless. These are derived from statements such as the following by the Buddha in AN 3.183 (Bodhi 2012, p. 376), “Monks, for direct knowledge of lust three things are to be developed. What three? Emptiness concentration, markless concentration, and wishless concentration. For direct knowledge of lust, these three things are to be developed.” These three gateways are three different but related contemplations that consider how all conditioned things are empty of self, that there are no marks or characteristics of things that can be permanently grasped, and that there are no conditioned things that can be wished for that would ever be able to bring ultimate lasting satisfaction. Through contemplating the empty, the markless, and the wishless one arrives at nirvāna, the unconditioned, that is empty of self, without any conditioned marks, and a state of total contentment wherein there is no need to wish for anything else. To abide in nirvāna, then, is to abide in the empty, the markless, and the wishless.

Edward Conze points out the following regarding this chapter and the two that follow:

Chapters 3 to 5 now deal with the career of a Bodhisattva, its beginning, middle, and end. That career begins with the “Vow,” which expresses his decision to win enlightenment, not only for himself, but in the intention of benefiting others (chapter 3). This is followed by the practice of the six perfections, which extends over many aeons (chapter 4). The last stage of a Bodhisattva’s journey is finally reached with the attainment of Buddhahood (chapter 5). (p. 15)

4. “Moreover Subhūti, as to dharmas, bodhisattvas should not dwell anywhere when they give. They should not dwell in forms when they give, nor should they dwell in sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, or dharmas when they give. Subhūti, bodhisattvas should give thus: they should not dwell in marks. And why? If bodhisattvas should dwell in marks when they give, their merits are immeasurable. Subhūti, what do you think, is space in the east measurable?”

“No, World Honored One.”

“Subhūti, is space in the south, west, north, or in the intermediate directions, or above, or below measurable?”

“No, World Honored One.”

“Subhūti, the merits of bodhisattvas who do not dwell in marks they give are just as immeasurable. Subhūti, bodhisattvas should only dwell in what is taught thus.”

Here the Buddha states that a bodhisattva practices the first of the six perfections, generosity, without regard to any phenomena (dharmas) such as objective sensory or mental objects, and that in doing so his merit is incalculable just like space is immeasurable.

I should mention that in Sanskrit you can not capitalize the word dharma. I do so in English when I am using the word Dharma in the sense of Reality, Truth, or the Teachings of the Buddha. However, dharma can also refer to any phenomena. In Abhidharma it is specifically used in the sense of any physical or mental constituent of our experience that seems to be indivisible, which is to say is simple and not a complex of other factors. It is also used in the sense of the objects corresponding to the mind as a sensory field, just as sights and sounds correspond to the visual and auditory sense fields. The Mahāyāna teaching of emptiness, however, points out that even these seemingly indivisible dharmas are also impermanent, also cannot  be found apart from causes and condition, and are also mental creations, which is to say abstractions or conventional designations. There is no dharma that exists as an independent unalterable simple thing or essence. This is what distinguishes Mahāyāna śūnyatā, or “emptiness,” from the pre-Mahāyāna anātman, or “no-self.” The no-self teaching only deconstructs the notion that there is an unchanging, independent and inherent self, whereas emptiness deconstructs the notion that there are any unchanging, independent and inherent self-nature within phenomena on any level.

In Theravāda Buddhism there are ten perfections practiced by bodhisattvas: generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. In Mahāyāna Buddhism there is a different set of ten: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, wisdom, skillful means, vow, power, and knowledge. The first six of the Mahāyāna list constitute what are called the six perfections. In both the Theravāda and Mahāyāna lists generosity comes first. For the perfections to be perfections, however, bodhisattvas must be guided by the wisdom that intuits the empty nature of all phenomena. This way they can act without clinging to the notion of themselves as a giver, or as some person-in-need as a recipient, or even to any ideas about what is given. This does not mean they act unconsciously or thoughtlessly. It means that they act unselfconsciously, without ulterior motives, without condescension or hope or reward, and without consideration for the worldly value of what is given.

One passage from the Larger Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra that is particularly relevant here would be this:

The supramundane perfection of giving, on the other hand, consists in the threefold purity. What is the threefold purity? Here a bodhisattva gives a gift, and he does not apprehend a self, a recipient, or a gift; also no reward of giving. He surrenders that gift to all beings, but does not apprehend those beings, or himself either. And, though he dedicates that gift to supreme awakening, he does not apprehend any awakening.” (Adapted from Conze 1984, p. 199)

The story of the meeting between Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu is a dramatization of this teaching.

The emperor spoke to him as follows: “Since I’ve assume the throne I’ve built temples and written [about] scriptures, plus I’ve brought about the ordinations of incalculable number of monks. What merit does this [activity] have?

Bodhidharma replied, “No merit whatsoever.”

The emperor then asked: “Why does this have no merit?”

Bodhidharma said, “These are matters of small consequence in the affairs of men and gods that are caused by worldly transgressions [literally, outflows]. It’s like shadows chasing form, nothing real about it [literally, although it’s there it’s not real].”

The emperor then asked, “What is genuine merit?”

Bodhidharma said, “Across the vastness, nothing holy.”

The emperor said, “Who is facing me?”

Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”

(Ferguson, pp. 14-15)

Another story that I feel reflects this theme well is about the unselfconscious, spontaneous and all-pervasive awareness and activity of World-Voice-Perceiver Bodhisattva:

Yunyan asked Daowu, “What does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion do with so many hands and eyes?”

Daowu said, “It’s like someone reaching back for the pillow at night.”

Yunyan said, “I understand.”

Daowu said, “How do you understand.”

Yunyan said, “All over the body is hands and eyes.”

Daowu said, “You said a lot there, but you got only eighty percent.”

Yunyan said, “What about you, elder brother?”

Daowu said, “Throughout the body is hands and eyes.”

(Cleary 1998, p. 229)

Generosity, when practiced with a mind that sets no limits, produces unlimited merit. As Edward Conze says:

The attitude which, in the practice of virtue, ignores all ‘things’ and ‘signs,’ can be described as completely disinterested. The Bodhisattva is here biddent to forget all about himsefl, and about the rewards which come to him from his meritorious deeds. The practice of the six perfections must inevitably, in the nature of things, lead to numerous benefits, either in this life or the next. All these benefits – be they honor, prosperity, friends, or good health – are bound up with the six sense-objects, collectively known as ‘signs.’ It would certainly be foolish to despise this quality of ‘merit’ which is attached to good deeds as their fruit.  For merit is the indispensable condition for all further spiritual progress. Nevertheless, to aim at merit is to diminish it. And why? Because giving, etc., when accompanied by wrong metaphysical views assuming the reality of gift, giver, and reward, produces only limited results. But if it aims at emptiness alone, then the reward become truly infinite. The selfless Bodhisattva’s merit, as Kamalasīla says, is here compared to space, or the sky, because it is all-pervading, vast, and inexhaustible. (p. 19)

In regard to all this, I am particularly struck by the statement made by a Chinese commentator on the Diamond Sūtra named Chian Wei-nung (1871-1938) cited by Red Pine about the perfection of generosity or charity:

All the Buddha’s teachings can be summarized by the word ‘renunciation.’ But renunciation is another word for charity. By renouncing attachment to a self, we become arhats. By renouncing attachment to dharmas, we become bodhisattvas. By renouncing renouncing, we become buddhas. Thus charity is the ultimate practice. (p. 89)

5. “Subhūti, what do you think, can the Tathāgata be seen by his physical marks?”

“No, World Honored One, the Tathāgata cannot be seen by his physical marks. And why? It is because the physical marks are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no physical marks.”

The Buddha said to Subhūti, “All with marks is deceptive. If you can see all marks as no marks then you see the Tathāgata.”

In this section it is pointed out that the Tathāgata, the Buddha, cannot be seen in terms of signs, and that if one can see that such signs are actually non-signs, which is to say “empty,” than a person will see the Tathāgata.

First of all the signs or marks being spoken of are the thirty-two physical marks that in Indian tradition were supposed to be possessed by a wheel-turning king or a buddha. A wheel turning king is a divine emperor who is able to bring peace and justice to the entire world. A buddha, however, is one who changes the world by awakening himself and others to its true nature. In either case, they are said to bear these thirty-two marks so that they can be identified by those who know what to look for, such as the brahmins. Some of the thirty-two marks would strike people today as bizarre mutations, such as webbed hands and feet or hands that extend past the knees or the thousand spoked wheels on the soles of the feet. Others would perhaps inspire a sense of awe and wonder, such as a golden complexion that radiates light. Finally, there are marks like the tuft of curly hair growing between the eyebrows and the protuberance at the crown of the head that can be seen in most portraits or sculptures of the Buddha. In any case, these marks are a symbolic way of expressing the power and dignity of one who is able to change the entire world, either politically or spiritually. In MN 30, the Buddha explained the past karmic causes for each of the thirty-two marks, thereby pointing out the meritorious acts that each represented. These marks, however, are still mere appearances and do not by themselves reveal whether the possessor is a buddha, an advanced bodhisattva,  a heavenly-being, or a wheel-turning king. It is just as in the story of the brahmin Dona in AN 4.36 (Bodhi 2012, pp. 425-426) who saw the Buddha walking up the road just after his awakening. He saw that the Buddha possessed the thirty-two marks and asked him and asked him if the Buddha was destined to become a deva (god), gandharva (celestial musician), a yakṣa (nature spirit) or a human being. This was a polite way of asking about the Buddha’s present identity. The Buddha, however, denied that he would become anything, and identified himself only as a buddha, an “awakened one.” In the Diamond Sūtra, however, what is being asserted is not just that the marks are not exclusive to buddhas and therefore cannot be solely used to identify them, but the more profound point that any characteristic or mark is empty of inherent existence.

Another point that this section is making is the same one made by the Buddha in SN 22.87 (Bodhi 2000, p. 939) to an elder monk named Vakkali who desperately wanted to see the Buddha one last time before he died. The Buddha said to him, “Enough, Vakkali! Why do you want to see this foul body? One who sees the Dharma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dharma. For in seeing the Dharma, Vakkali, one sees me; and in seeing me, one sees the Dharma.”

The Dharma that is being asserted here is that if one can realize that all marks or phenomena have no inherent existence, then one can conventionally refer to them as what they seem to be without making a mistake. While we do experience different phenomena that seem to be marked off from one another, these marks are not ultimatly real. Everything we experience is a flowing interdependent nexus of all the causes and conditions that allow it to appear. As long as we realize that, we can deal with the marks as conventionally real. Red Pine cites the Zen Master Ch’ing-yuan (d. 740), a disciple of the 6th patriarch Hui-neng, who related this way of thinking to the development of his Buddhist practice: “When I first began to practice, the mountains and rivers were simply mountains and rivers. After I advanced in 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.” (p. 108) From the Tiantai point of view, bodhisattvas must first understand the emptiness of all phenomena, but after that they must learn to reengage with the provisional existence of all phenomena according to causes and conditions. In other words, bodhisattvas must see that all things are empty of an inherently existing self-nature and then they can truly allow things to be as they are, free of psychological projections, metaphysical assumptions, or attempts to grasp at or cling to them. This is said to be the main point of the Diamond Sūtra. The rest of the sūtra is reiteration, elaboration, and further applications of the dialectic of the perfection of wisdom: “If x is not x, then it is x.” Thich Nhat Hanh put it this way, “If we look deeply into A and see that A is not A, we see A in its fullest flowering. (p. 349)

6. Subhūti said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, in the future will there be living beings, who, when they hear such phrases spoken will truly believe?”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Do not speak in such a way! After the Tathāgata’s extinction in the last five hundred years, there will be those who hold the precepts and cultivate merit who will believe such phrases and accept them as true. You should know that such people will have planted good roots with not just one buddha, two buddhas, three, four, or five buddhas, but will have planted good roots with measureless millions of buddhas. All who hear such phrases and produce even one thought of pure faith are completely known and completely seen by the Tathāgata. Such beings thus obtain measureless merit. 

“And why? Those beings have no further mark of a self, a person, a being, or a life-span; no mark of dharmas and no mark of no-dharmas. If the hearts of beings grasp at marks, then that is attachment to self, to persons, to beings, and to life-spans. For that reason you should not grasp at dharmas, nor should you grasp at no dharmas. Regarding that principle, the Tathāgata often says, ‘All you monks should know that the Dharma which I speak is like a raft. Even dharmas should be relinquished, how much more so no-dharmas.”

Here we get into the notion of the different ages of the Dharma. The three ages of the Dharma appear in the Pāli Canon and in the Mahāyāna sūtras as a way of summarizing the teaching that even the Dharma itself (as a conceptual teaching and historical phenomena) will decline. It fits in very well with the common Vedic motif of the cycle of creation, maintenance, decline, and destruction. According to the teaching of the three ages, the Former Age of the True Dharma begins with the first rolling of the Wheel of the Dharma by the Buddha at the Deer Park. It will continue for a thousand years to be followed by the Middle Age of the Semblance of Dharma. After a thousand years of the Middle Age of Semblance the 10,000 years of the Latter Age of the Degeneration of Dharma will begin. During the first age, those with a strong affinity for the Buddha and the Dharma will be born during the lifetime of the Buddha or soon enough afterwards to be able to benefit from the True Dharma and thereby attain awakening. Those with a weaker karmic affinity will be born in the Semblance Age when the true spirit of Buddhism has been lost and only the outwards forms remain more or less intact. But even they are able to make some progress, and according to Mahāyāna teachings they can be reborn in the pure lands of the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas after their deaths and thereby attain awakening in those happier circumstances. Those born in the Latter Age of Degeneration, however, have no good roots or genuine karmic affinity for the Dharma, so they are born into an age when even the outward forms are disappearing and rather than practice the Dharma people will only fight over it. It is also taught that the Latter Age will be the time of the five defilements. The five defilements are: 1) the decay of the age due to famine, plagues, and war; 2) the decay of views as people take up wrong views; 3) the decay of evil passions as people’s greed, hatred, and ignorance increase; 4) the decay of living beings as their physical and spiritual strength ebbs; and 5) the decay of lifespan as people live shorter lives.

When the teaching of the three ages is taken too literally, people start trying to affix dates so they can definitively state when one age has ended or begun. In East Asia, it was believed that the Buddha lived from 1029 to 949 B.C.E. due to the attempts of Chinese Buddhists to show that the Buddha predated Lao-tzu and the Taoist teachings. Assuming these dates for the life of the Buddha, many East Asian Buddhists believed that the Latter Age had begun in 1052 C.E. However, modern scholars believe the Buddha’s actual dates were 500 years or more later than that. The Japanese Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura set the dates as late as 463-383 B.C.E. What all this means is that if the dates of the three ages are taken literally, then the Latter Age did not actually begin until the 16th or 17th century. In addition, the idea that the world suddenly shifts gears spiritually like clockwork when a particular calendar date comes around should strike us as naive and entirely too arbitrary.

The three ages of the Dharma should not be dismissed however. It is a teaching that shows an awareness of the contingent and corruptible nature of the historical manifestations of the Dharma. It is a recognition that existentially, if not historically and geographically, we are indeed alienated from the true spirit of the Buddha’s teachings and that we should listen to the Dharma as if hearing it for the first time (which many of us are) and not take it for granted. It is a recognition that Buddhism as a historical phenomena cannot remain static but must meet new challenges in every age. Furthermore, the three ages teaches us to never be complacent about the Three Treasures – the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This teaching challenges us to try to renew the Dharma in the face of all corruption, deceit, oppression, and misunderstanding. It should not be taken in a way that causes us to be cynical or to despair that we are living in an age too corrupt to practice Buddhism.

The Diamond Sūtra is referring here to this notion of the latter age. In some systems the three ages are broken down into five five-hundred year periods. The fifth or last five hundred year period would then correspond to the first five-hundred years of the Latter Age of the Dharma. However, the Buddha is asserting that even in this period there will be those who have served countless Buddhas and therefore can still transcend the deluded notion of marks, or even of no-marks and thereby take faith, that is to say have utmost confidence, in the Diamond Sūtra. This is quite an amazing assurance, as it is saying that even if you have just a moment of confidence in the sūtra this is proof that you are well on your way in bodhisattva practice and have already encountered and presumably trained under countless buddhas in your past lives, therefore you can have great confidence in your present merit and abilities.

There is an also an allusion to the well-known parable of the raft which appears in MN 22.13-14 (Ñāṇamoli, pp. 228-229). The parable points out that just as a person who crosses a river on a raft would not then carry the raft around on the other bank, so practitioners should not become attached to the Dharma. As the Buddha says, “Monks, when you know the Dharma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even good states, how much more so bad states.” The original is saying that to have attachment to the teaching of non-attachment is to defeat the very purpose of the teaching. One should have the attitude of non-attachment even to the True Dharma, and even more so one should not cling to what is not the True Dharma. In other words, uphold the right teaching in the right way, gently and with a sense of humor, and without aggression or defensiveness. The Diamond Sūtra, however, is making a more subtle point. Here dharma a adharma, or “non-dharma,” is not being used in the sense of good and bad, but in the sense of being attached to the perception of phenomena as having inherent existence or having an aversion to phenomena because one wants to reject them completely because they do not have inherent existence. The first view is the eternalism of those who believe in a permanent independent essence behind ever-changing phenomenal appearances, whereas the other is the nihilism of those who do not recognize that even without inherent existence there is still the interplay of causes and conditions wherein there are consequences to be experienced based upon one’s actions and attitudes. The bodhisattva is not caught up in false notions or abstractions that give rise to attachment and aversion, rather the bodhisattva accepts phenomena for what they are -  empty of inherent existence but fully present as provisionally existent.

7. Subhūti, what do you think? Has the Tathāgata attained unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening? Has the Tathāgata spoken any dharma?”

Subhūti said, “As I understand what the Buddha has said, there is no concrete dharma called unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening, and there is no concrete dharma which the Tathāgata has spoken. And why? The dharmas spoken by the Tathāgata cannot be grasped and cannot be spoken. They are neither dharmas nor non-dharmas. And why? Unconditioned dharmas distinguish worthy sages.

Here the logic of emptiness is turned upon the Buddha’s perfect awakening and upon the very notion of a Buddha Dharma taught by the Buddha. Even these “things” are not things in the sense of having inherent existence. This is not to say that there is no experience of the Buddha attaining unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening or no experience of the Buddha turning the wheel of the Dharma, but in this experience there is no-thing to grasp. Phenomenal appearances or experiences are therefore not things that can be touched or taken hold of in any ultimate sense, and that makes them unconditioned, which would make them identical to nirvāṇa which in Abhidharma classification is an unconditioned dharma or phenomena. This is a curious thing. Everything we ordinarily experience arises from causes and conditions and so they are in that sense the opposite of nirvāṇa, which is the experience of liberation when one no longer ignorantly clings to causes and conditions. However, because an experience is not a graspable thing but an interdependent flowing together of causes and conditions the experience or phenomena, a dharma, is ultimately empty of inherent existence and therefore ultimately there is nothing to grasp and therefore it is untouchable, even unthinkable, and therefore unconditioned like nirvāṇa. This is why the Buddha in the Lotus Sūtra says, “All things are from the outset/ In the state of tranquil extinction./ The Buddhas’ sons who complete the practice of the Way/ Will become Buddhas in their future lives.” (The Lotus Sūtra p. 40) Those who awaken to this are sages.

8. Subhūti, what do you think, if someone filled three thousand great thousand world systems with seven precious gems and gave them as a gift, would they obtain   great merit?

Subhūti said, “Great indeed, World Honored One. And why? Such merit is not of the nature of merit. Therefore the Tathāgata speaks of great merit.”

“If, on the other hand, a person were to receive and uphold from this sūtra even so few as as four lines of verse and speak them for others, their merit would surpass the previous ones. And why? Subhūti, all buddhas and all Buddha Dharmas of unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening come forth from this sūtra. Subhūti, the Buddha Dharma that is spoken is no Buddha Dharma.”

Now the logic of emptiness is applied to the notion of merit.

The Buddha also asserts the unsurpassable merit of upholding even a four line verse from the sūtra. In fact, later on in chapters 26 and 32 some verses will be supplied as likely candidates for summing up the teaching of emptiness as conveyed by this sūtra. The point being that unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening comes from getting the point about the emptiness of all things, including Buddha Dharma itself. This may be true, but from the point of view of the Lotus Sūtra and the Tiantai teachings there are positive implications to this insight that are not being made explicit here. In other words the emphasis here is on emptiness, but within the insight into the empty nature of all things are insights into the provisional reality and Middle-Wayness of all things that must be also realized or else the insight into emptiness is only partial.

9. Subhūti, what do you think, can a stream-enterer have the thought, ‘I have obtained the fruit of stream-enterer.’?”

Subhūti said, “No World Honored One. And why? A stream-enterer means one who has entered the flow, and yet he has not entered anything. He has not entered forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, or dharmas. For that reason he is called a stream-enterer.”

Subhūti, what do you think, can a once-returner have the thought, ‘I have obtained the fruit of once-returner.’?”

Subhūti said, “No World Honored One. And why? A once-returner means one who returns once more, but he actually does not have a returning. For that reason he is called a once-returner.”

Subhūti, what do you think, can a non-returner have the thought, ‘I have obtained the fruit of non-returner.’?”

Subhūti said, “No World Honored One. And why? Non-returner means one who does not return but he actually does not have non-returning. For that reason he is called a non-returner.”

Subhūti, what do you think, can an arhat have the thought, ‘I have obtained the fruit of arhat.’?”

Subhūti said, “No World Honored One. And why? Actually there is no dharma called an arhat. World Honored One, if an arhat had the thought, ‘I have attained arhatship’ that would be attachment to self, to persons, to beings, and to a life-span. World Honored One, the Buddha says that in my attainment of the samādhi of peaceful abiding I am the foremost among men, that I am the foremost arhat free from desire. If I had the thought, ‘I have attained arhatship’ then the World Honored One could not say, ‘Subhūti is the foremost of those who delight in practicing peaceful abiding.’ Since Subhūti actually has no practice, he is called ‘Subhūti, who delights in practicing peaceful abiding.’

Here the four classes of pre-Mahāyāna holiness are deconstructed according to the logic of emptiness. These four classes are referred to as “paths” when one first enters such a state and “fruits” when one realizes the benefits from the path attained. Specifically, the benefits of the four classes refers to progressive liberation from the ten fetters which keep us trapped in the ordinary life of birth and death and all the suffering, fear and anxiety which makes up that life as explained by the Buddha in MN 22.42-47 (Ñāṇamoli, pp. 235-236).

The first class is that of the stream-enterer who is liberated from the first three of the ten fetters. The first fetter is identity view. This is the notion that there is a substantial, autonomous, unchanging, and independent self that must be protected and appeased. The next fetter is debilitating doubt in regard to the three jewels of Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. This does not refer to a healthy sense of doubt that can motivate us to find out the truth for ourselves; rather, it refers to lack of trust, either in oneself or in the three jewels, which can prevent one from following the path at all. Finally, there is the fetter of the wrong grasp of rules and observances. This refers to the belief that rules or ritual observances of themselves can bring about salvation or ensure good fortune or safeguard against misfortune. This kind of superstition engenders a false security and a dependency which blocks the way to following the true path to liberation as taught by the Buddha. It should be noted that these three fetters primarily deal with beliefs and opinions that prevent one from following the Dharma. These three fetters keep one preoccupied with one’s own welfare and the maintenance of the status quo, which then becomes a distrust of the three jewels. The stream-enterer is firmly convinced that only by trusting the three jewels and taking up the five precepts (at least) can they escape from the constant bondage of self-concern and false security and thereby attain liberation. The stream-enterer has entered the stream of the true teaching, follow the precepts perfectly and, at most, will only undergo seven more rebirths as a human or heavenly being in the realm of desire before realizing nirvāṇa. Here there is a play on words whereby one becomes a stream-enterer precisely because one does not entered the stream or flow of worldly fascinations and assumptions.

The second class is that of the once-returner. The once-returner has partially overcome the fetters of sensual desire and ill will. Such feelings may still occur, but they no longer hold sway over them. Not only are the once-returner’s ideas and behavior in accord with the Dharma, even his emotional life has been tamed. As the name indicates, the once-returner will only undergo one more rebirth as a human or heavenly being in the realm of desire before achieving nirvāṇa. Here the play on words is that one becomes a once-returner by realizing that in emptiness there is no coming or going from one substantial inherent dharma to another and therefore no question of returning anywhere.

The third class is that of the non-returner. The non-returner is completely liberated from the fetters of sensual craving and ill will. These negative emotions no longer arise at all. For the non-returner, nirvāṇa will be attained either within their present lifetime or after being reborn in the pure abodes among the heavens in the realm of form. Here again the play on words is that if all things are empty the non-returner is one by virtue of realizing that there can be no question of returning or not-returning to any substantial position.

The final class of holiness is that of the arhat. The arhat is one who has overcome even the more subtle forms of clinging that are the last five of the ten fetters. The sixth fetter is the desire for a form realm existence. This is the notion of a continued existence in a spiritual body in a refined heavenly existence. The seventh fetter is the desire for a formless realm existence. This is the notion of a continued existence as a pure thought form. Both of these are simply more subtle cases of a desire to immortalize an unchanging autonomous self and show a preoccupation with continued existence. It is still self-attachment, though in a much more refined and sophisticated form. The eighth fetter is conceit, which refers to pride in one’s accomplishments on the path. Though not necessarily craving, this fetter still betrays a lingering self-preoccupation. The ninth fetter is restlessness. Restlessness is the residual need to accomplish something and make one’s mark upon the world. It is the habitual need to assert a self in the midst of the world’s demands and temptations. Finally, there is the fetter of ignorance. This is the fetter that obscures the selfless true nature of reality that is revealed by the Dharma. It is not the mere intellectual ignorance or delusion that is broken through by the stream-enterer. This is the root ignorance that views the self as a substantial reality and gives rise to all the habits, emotions and ideas that stem from the inability to come to terms with the selfless ungraspable nature of reality. The arhat has seen through all this, and has liberated himself from all passions, fixations and false views. The arhat is one who has achieved the freedom of nirvāṇa. Here it is pointed out that there can be no equation of arhatship with any substantial inherently existing dharma.

The rest of this section is playing upon the idea of Subhūti as one who peacefully abides or dwells alone. In emptiness, there is no dwelling or abiding anywhere or in anything by anyone.

 10. The Buddha said to Subhūti, “What do you think? Was there any dharma which the Tathāgata obtained while with Burning Light Buddha?”

“No, World Honored One, there was actually no dharma which the Tathāgata obtained while with Burning Light Buddha.”

“Subhūti, what do you think, do bodhisattvas adorn buddha-lands?”

“No, World Honored One. And why? The adornment of buddha-lands is no adornment, therefore it is called adornment.”

“Therefore, Subhūti, the bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should thus produce a pure mind. They should produce a mind that does not dwell in forms. They should produce a mind that does not dwell in sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, or dharmas. They should produce a mind that does not dwell anywhere. Subhūti, suppose a person had a body like Sumeru, king of mountains. What do you think, would that body be big?”

Subhūti said, “Very big, World Honored One. And why? It is said by the Buddha to be no body. Therefore it is called a big body.”

In accordance with the teachings of causation it has been taught that Śākyamuni Buddha had many previous existences as a bodhisattva. In each of these he perfected the various virtues that would come to fruition in the future as buddhahood. In the first such story, the bodhisattva was a wealthy brahmin named Sumedha who left his town to become a hermit in order to find an answer to the inevitable sorrows of life. One day, while visiting another city he had the good fortune of meeting Dīpamkara or Burning Light Buddha, the buddha of that time and place. He was so overcome by the meeting that he made a vow before Burning Light Buddha to become a buddha himself. Burning Light Buddha then predicted the future buddhahood of Sumedha. Here that story is deconstructed according to the logic of emptiness.

A buddha-land is the sphere of a buddha’s influence and it is brought about through the purification caused by bodhisattva practice. It is, in a sense, the concrete manifestation of a bodhisattva’s merit and the power of their vows. Here it is also subjected to the logic of emptiness, because it is also nothing but meritorious causes and conditions, and cannot even be perceived except by those whose view is pure as show by the Buddha in the Vimalakīrti Sūtra (See Thurman, pp. 18-19).

A mind that does not dwell is a mind that is not obsessed, fixated, or biased. It is a mind that is free.

It does not matter how large an object or being seems to be, it is still empty of inherent existence though it may exist provisionally. Even a mountain that seemingly lasts thousands of years is just a collection of dirt and rock and vegetation that are always shifting and changing.

11. “Subhūti, if there were as many Ganges Rivers as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River, what do you think, would the grains of sand in all those Ganges Rivers be many?”

Subhūti said, “Very many, World Honored One. The Ganges Rivers alone would be incalculable, how much the more so the grains of sand in them.”

“Subhūti, I will not tell you the truth. If a good man, or good woman, used the seven precious gems to fill three thousand great thousandfold world systems equal in number to the grains of sand in all those Ganges Rivers, and gave them as a gift, would they obtain many merits?”

Subhūti said, “Very many, World Honored One.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “If a good man, or good woman, were to receive and uphold this sūtra, even just a four line verse, and speaks of them to others, their merit will surpass the former’s merit.

The merit of upholding and sharing the insight into emptiness which is the perfection of wisdom incalculably surpasses any other merit making activity. This kind of rhetoric can be found in other sūtras as well. I believe the point is valid as long as one is not just paying lip service to a text or merely passing on a conceptual formulation. The perfection is the very heart of unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening and without it the first five perfections beginning with generosity are merely actions based on good intentions (at best) but tainted by worldly aims and attitudes.

12. “Moreover, Subhūti, you should know that all the gods, men, and fighting demons of the world should make offerings to any place at which even so few as four lines of verse from this sūtra are spoken and so forth, just as they would to a buddha’s shrine or temple; how much the more so to any place where people can completely receive, uphold, read, and recite the sūtra. Subhūti, you should know that such people can accomplish the foremost and most rare of Dharmas. In any place the sūtra text is found, there is the Buddha or one of the revered disciples.

This is pretty straightforward. It shows a shift from the worship of the Buddha as a person to his Dharma.

13. Then Subhūti said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, what should the sūtra be named? How should we respect and hold it?”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “The name of the sūtra is The Diamond Cutter of the Perfection of Wisdom.  You should respect and uphold it by that name. And why? Subhūti, the perfection of wisdom is spoken by the Buddha as no perfection of wisdom, therefore it is called the perfection of wisdom. Subhūti, what do you think? Is there any Dharma spoken by the Tathāgata?”

Subhūti said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, nothing has been spoken by the Tathāgata.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Are all the motes of dust in the three thousand great thousandfold world systems many?”

Subhūti said, “Very many, World Honored One.”

“Subhūti, all motes of dust are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no motes of dust, therefore they are called motes of dust. The world systems are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no world system, therefore they are called world systems.”

“Subhūti, what do you think, can the Tathāgata be seen by means of the thirty-two marks?”

“No, World Honored One, one cannot see the Tathāgata by means of the thirty-two marks. And why? The thirty-two marks are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no thirty-two marks, therefore they are called the thirty-two marks. Subhūti, a good man, or good woman, might give up his life as many times as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River; but if a person were to receive and uphold even so few as a four line verse of this sūtra and explain them for others, his merit would be greater.”

Here is where most sūtras would begin to come to an end, with the supplying of a name that can sum up the discourse and make it easy to call at least the gist of it to mind. It goes on however to once more apply the logic of emptiness to the Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma and then to the whole universe. Obviously in a conventional common sense way the Buddha did teach and we are living in a universe, but the Buddha is pointing out here that ultimately there is no inherent essence in even the Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma or in the entirety of the universe. There is an experience of such things but nothing ultimately graspable as an independent unchanging thing in any of it.

And again the thirty-two marks are spoken of as above.

And again the unsurpassable merit of upholding even a four line verse, such as will be supplied later, is stated.

14. Then Subhūti, upon hearing the sūtra spoken, and deeply understanding it meaning, wept and said to the Buddha, “How rare, World Honored One, is this sūtra so profoundly spoken by the Buddha. From the time I obtained the wisdom eye until the present I have never before heard such a sūtra. World Honored One, if someone hears the sūtra with a pure heart of faith then he produces a real mark. That person should be known to have accomplished the foremost and most rare of meritorious acts. World Honored One, the real mark is no mark, therefore the Tathāgata calls it the real mark. 

“World Honored One, now as I hear this sūtra, I believe, understand, receive and uphold it without difficulty. If in the future, in the last five hundred years, there are beings who when they hear this sūtra believe, understand, receive, and uphold it, such people will be foremost and rare. And why? Such people will have no mark of self, no mark of persons, no mark of beings, and no mark of a life-span. And why? The mark of self is no mark. The mark of persons, the mark of beings, and the mark of a life-span are no marks. And why? Those who have relinquished all marks are called buddhas.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “So it is, so it is. If someone hears this sūtra and is not frightened or alarmed, or terrified, you should know that person is most rare. And why? Subhūti, the foremost of the perfections, is spoken of by the Tathāgata as no-foremost perfection, therefore it is called the foremost perfection. 

“Subhūti, the perfection of patience is spoken of by the Tathāgata as no perfection of patience. And why? Subhūti, it is as in the past when the king of Kalinga dismembered my body. At that time I had no mark of self, no mark of persons, no mark of beings, and no mark of a life-span. And why? When I was cut limb from limb, if I had a mark of self, a mark of persons, a mark of beings, or a mark of a life-span, I would have been outraged. 

“Subhūti, further I recall that in the past, for five hundred lives, I was Kṣāntivādin, the Teacher of Patience. During all those lives I had no mark of self, no mark of persons, no mark of beings, no mark of a life-span. For that reason, Subhūti, a bodhisattva should, relinquishing all marks, produce the mind of unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening. He should produce that mind without dwelling in forms. He should produce that mind without dwelling in sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects, or dharmas. He should produce that mind which does not dwell anywhere. 

“Any dwelling of the mind is no dwelling. Therefore the Buddha says, ‘The mind of a bodhisattva should not dwell in forms when he gives.’ Subhūti, a bodhisattva to benefit all beings, should give thus. All marks are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no marks, and all beings are spoken of as no beings. Subhūti, the Tathāgata is one who speaks the truth, who speaks what is actual, who speaks what is so, who does not speak what is false, who does not speak what is no so. Subhūti, the Dharma obtained by the Tathāgata is neither true nor false. 

“Subhūti, bodhisattvas whose minds dwell in dharmas when they give are like a man who enters darkness and cannot see a thing. Bodhisattvas whose minds do not dwell in dharmas when they give are like a man with eyes in the bright sunlight who can see all kinds of forms. 

“Subhūti, in the future, if a good man or woman, can receive, uphold, read, and recite this sūtra, then the Tathāgata by means of the wisdom of all buddhas, will completely know and see that person. That person accomplishes measureless and boundless merit.” 

Many other sūtras would end with a short account of how the hearers benefited from hearing the discourse. In this sūtra the account is much longer and blends into a whole new cycle of teaching and reiterating the points previously made.

The wisdom eye is one of the five kinds of eyes. The five are the physical eye, the heavenly eye, the wisdom eye, the dharma-eye, and the buddha-eye. These will be explained in detail in my comments for chapter 18.

It is significant that the Buddha mentions how rare it will be for someone to hear this sūtra and not be frightened, alarmed, or terrified. It is common for the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras to point out that beginner bodhisattvas are often afraid when they first hear about emptiness. This is why I do not think the word śūnyatā should be translated as “openness” or something less alarming than “emptiness.” The word is supposed to be alarming. It is supposed to shake people up, esp. those who are clinging to the notion that there are indivisible bits that make up reality. That the Buddha immediately shifts to talking about the perfection of patience is also significant because the perfection of patience cultivated by bodhisattvas also implies being patient with the teaching of emptiness, and being patient with the empty nature of things until such time as it is perceived that emptiness does actually mean freedom and liberation and is the wellspring of a non-dual compassion.

Note that the perfection of generosity and patience are the only ones that the sūtra really singles out. I believe this is because the eightfold path and threefold training already emphasize the other four perfections: morality, energy, meditation, and wisdom. Generosity and patience are not absent in the pre-Mahāyāna teachings but they are implicit in the eightfold path under right intention and are not part of the threefold training. In the Mahāyāna, however, they are so indispensable that they are given prominence in the six perfections. In addition, wisdom is redefined as not just the insight into selflessness but the insight that no dharmas have inherent existence. Furthermore, the other five perfections must be guided by wisdom so that when practiced the practitioner will do so without clinging to the dichotomy of subject and object. The perfections will be practiced with an authentic unselfconscious sincerity.

The story of King Kalinga is based upon story number 28 in the Jātakamālā or Garland of Past Life Stories of the Buddha (Speyer, pp. 332-350). It is about a forest ascetic who was the past life of the bodhisattva who would become Śākyamuni Buddha. At that time he was named Kṣāntivādin, which means “Teacher of Patience.” The story is also told as the 313th story in the Pāli Jātaka collection. In the story the evil King of Kalinga visits a park with his harem girls. The king gets drunk and falls asleep so the girls wander in the park and find Kṣāntivādin. They gather around him to listen to his teachings about the virtue of patience. The evil king then wakes up, finds his harem girls with the sage and assumes he was trying to seduce them. When the sage tells the king that he was teaching the virtue of patience the king tests him by having him dismembered. Throughout the ordeal the bodhisattva never becomes angry or resentful. In the end, the king is swallowed up the by earth and falls into hell, whereas the mutilated sage ascends into heaven.

To say that the Dharma spoken of by the Buddha is neither true nor false means that it is not an object that one can say anything about. Because any given dharma or phenomena is empty one cannot assert it to be a factual existence, but because it is provisionally existent as the experience or appearance of causes and conditions one cannot say that it is false or totally non-existent.

15. “Subhūti, a good man, or good woman, might in the morning give up as many bodies as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River, and again at noon might give up as many bodies as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River, and again in the evening give up as many bodies as there are grains of sand in the Ganges River, giving up bodies in that way throughout measureless millions of kalpas. But if someone else were to hear this sūtra and believe it with no reservations, that person’s blessings would surpass the former’s. How much the more if people can write it out, receive, uphold, read, recite, and explain it for others. 

“Subhūti, the merits of this sūtra are inexpressible, inconceivable, boundless, and beyond all praise. It is spoken by the Tathāgata for those who have set out on the Great Vehicle, those who have set out on the Supreme Vehicle. If people can receive, uphold, read, recite, and speak of it for others, they are completely known by the Tathāgata; they are completely seen by the Tathāgata. Such people accomplish immeasurable, inexpressible, boundless, inconceivable, merit and thus sustain the Tathāgata’s unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening. And why? Subhūti, those who delight in lesser Dharmas are attached to a view of self, a view of persons, a view of beings, and a view of a life-span. They cannot hear, receive, uphold, read, or recite the sūtra or explain it for others. Subhūti, the gods, men, and fighting demons of the world make offerings at any place where this sūtra is found. You should know such a place is a stūpa where everyone should respectfully bow, circumambulate, and scatter flowers and incense.”

As above.

16. “Moreover, Subhūti, if a good man, or good woman, receives, upholds, reads, and recites this sūtra and if people ridicule them, it means those people have karmic offenses from previous lives which destine them for evil paths. But because in their present lives they are ridiculed by others, their previous karmic offenses are destroyed and they will attain unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening. Subhūti, I recall that in the past for limitless asaṃkhyeya kalpas prior to meeting Burning Light Buddha, I encountered eighty-four thousands of millions of billions of nayutas of buddhas, and made offerings to them all, and served them all without exception. but if there are people in the final period who can receive, uphold, read, and recite this sūtra, the merit they will obtain is a hundred times more, to the point of being so great it exceeds all calculation and comparison, than the merit I gained from making offerings to all those buddhas.

“ Subhūti, if I were express thoroughly the merit of a good man, or good woman, who in the final period receives, upholds, reads, and recites this sūtra, those who heard might go insane, and disbelieve. Subhūti, you should know that this sūtra’s meaning is inconceivable, and that its resulting recompense is also inconceivable.”

Here the Buddha states that being ridiculed for upholding the sūtra happens not because the sūtra is ridiculous but as the fruition of the past evil karma of the practitioners which is thereby expiated. Furthermore, the benefits for upholding it in the Latter Age are incalculable.

17. Then Subhūti said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, if a good man, or good woman, resolves their mind on unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening, how should they dwell, how they subdue their minds?”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “A good man, or good woman, who has resolved their mind on unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening should think thus: ‘I should take all beings across to extinction. Yet when all beings have been taken across to extinction, there actually is not a single being who has been taken across to extinction.’ And why? Subhūti, if bodhisattvas have a mark of self, of persons, of beings, of a life-span, then they are not bodhisattvas. 

“For what reason? Subhūti, actually there is no dharma of resolving the mind on unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening. Subhūti, what do you think? While the Tathāgata was with Burning Light Buddha, was there any dharma of unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening?”

“No World Honored One. As I understand what the Buddha has said, while the Buddha was with Burning Light Buddha there was no unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening attained.”

The Buddha said, “So it is, so it is, Subhūti. There actually was no dharma of unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening which the Tathāgata attained. Subhūti, if there had been a dharma of unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening which the Tathāgata attained, then Burning Light Buddha would not have given me the prediction, ‘You will in the future attain buddhahood and be named Śākyamuni.’ Since there actually was no dharma of unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening attained, Burning Light Buddha gave me the prediction saying these words, ‘You will in the future attain buddhahood and be named Śākyamuni.’ And why? ‘Tathāgata’ means thusness of all dharmas. If someone were to say the Tathāgata attains unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening, Subhūti, actually there is no dharma of unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening which the Buddha attains, in that, there is neither true nor false. For that reason the Tathāgata speaks of all dharmas as Buddha-Dharmas. Subhūti, all dharmas are spoken of as no dharmas, therefore they are called dharmas. 

“Subhūti, it is like a person’s big body.”

Subhūti said, “World Honored One, the person’s big body is spoken of by the Tathāgata as no big body, therefore it is called a big body.”

“Subhūti, bodhisattva are also thus. If they were to say, ‘I should take measureless beings across to extinction, then they would not be called bodhisattvas. And why? Subhūti, there actually is no dharma called a bodhisattva. For that reason the Buddha spoke of all dharmas as devoid of self, devoid of persons, devoid of beings, and devoid of a life-span. Subhūti, if  bodhisattvas were to say, ‘I shall adorn buddha-lands,’ they would not be called bodhisattvas. And why? The adornment of buddha-lands is spoken of by the Tathāgata as no adornment. Therefore it is called adornment. Subhūti, if bodhisattvas comprehend that all dharmas are devoid of self, the Tathāgata calls them true bodhisattvas.”

Most of this is reiteration. The title Tathāgata can be parsed different ways to mean “One Thus Gone” or “One Thus Come.” Therefore the play on words here. The Buddha is one who either thus comes or thus goes from the realm of truth, but here it is thusness coming or going, though in actually there is nowhere to come from, nowhere to go to, and no-thing to come or go, it is all thus.

18. “Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the physical eye?”

“So it is, World Honored One. The Tathāgata has the physical eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the heavenly eye?”

“So it is, World Honored One. The Tathāgata has the heavenly eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the wisdom eye?”

“So it is, World Honored One. The Tathāgata has the wisdom eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the dharma eye?”

“So it is, World Honored One. The Tathāgata has the dharma eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata have the buddha eye?”

“So it is, World Honored One. The Tathāgata has the buddha eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Has the Tathāgata spoken of the sand grains in the Ganges River?”

“So it is, World Honored One. The Tathāgata has spoken of that sand.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? If all the grains of sand in one Ganges River became an equal number of Ganges Rivers, and all the grains of sand in all those Ganges Rivers became that many buddha-lands, would they be many?”

“Very many, World Honored One.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “All the various thoughts that occur to all beings in all those buddha-lands are completely known by the Tathāgata. And why? All thoughts are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no thoughts, therefore they are called thoughts. For what reason? Subhūti, past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped.”

What are these “five kinds of eyes”? The five kinds of eyes are the physical eye, the heavenly eye, the wisdom eye, the dharma eye, and the buddha eye that are cultivated by bodhisattvas in order to attain buddhahood. The Buddha describes them to Śāriputra in the Large Sūtra on Perfect Wisdom.

Śāriputra: What is a bodhisattva’s perfectly pure physical eye?

The Lord: There is the physical eye of a bodhisattva that sees for a hundred miles, for two hundred miles… (Conze 1984, p. 76 slightly adapted)

The Buddha goes on to say that the physical eye can see across not only the whole world but effectively the whole universe, though Buddhist cosmological terms are used and I would rather pass over those kinds of details right now. The point is that the physical eye sees the colors and forms of the physical world. Even our current microscopes and telescopes that augment the power of our vision do not go beyond what Buddhism means by the physical eye.

The next eye the Buddha describes is the heavenly eye.

Śāriputra: What is a bodhisattva’s perfectly pure heavenly eye?

The Lord: A bodhisattva wisely knows the heavenly eye of the gods, beginning with the four great kings; but the gods do not wisely know a bodhisattva’s heavenly eye. With his perfectly pure heavenly eye he wisely knows, as it really is, the decease and rebirth of all beings in the world systems numerous as the sands of the Ganges River, in each of the ten directions. This is a bodhisattva’s perfectly pure heavenly eye. (Ibid, p. 77)

The heavenly eye is effectively the same as the fifth of the six supernatural powers described previously.

The next eye the Buddha describes is the wisdom eye.

Śāriputra: What is a bodhisattva’s perfectly pure wisdom eye?

The Lord: A bodhisattva who is endowed with that wisdom eye does not wisely know any dharma – be it conditioned or unconditioned, wholesome or unwholesome, faulty or faultless, with or without outflows, defiled or undefiled, worldly or supramundane. With that wisdom eye he does not see any dharma, or hear, know, or discern one. This is the perfectly pure wisdom eye of a bodhisattva. (Ibid, p. 77)

The wisdom eye is sometimes equated with the sixth of the six supernatural powers, as that was the power that enabled the Buddha to rid himself of the taints and awaken to the working of dependent origination in which there can be found no self-nature among the dynamic flux of causes and conditions. Here the explanation takes a paradoxical turn typical of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras by asserting that wisdom is to not know or recognize any dharmas. This will require a bit of explanation, one that I think is worth going over because of the light it sheds on the Mahāyāna view of reality.

The word “dharma” in the above passage does not mean “Truth” or “Reality” but rather phenomena. In pre-Mahāyāna Buddhism, beings and objects and all other things we experience in life are analyzed into their seemingly indivisible components. For instance, according to the Theravādin enumeration the aggregate of form consists of the following dharmas: earth, air, fire, water, eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, form, sound, smell, taste, femininity, masculinity, heart-base, life faculty, and nutriment. Note that touch is not a dharma but is accounted for by the earth, fire, and air that provide for solidity, temperature, and pressure. Theravādin Buddhism also enumerates the following “non-concrete” forms: space, bodily and verbal intimation, lightness, malleability, wieldiness, production, continuity, decay, and impermanence. This is obviously a pre-scientific way of analyzing natural phenomena and processes. The dharmas pertaining to the mind would include consciousness or bare awareness, and its many concomitants such as contact, feeling, perception, volition, one-pointedness, attention, thought, examination, greed, hatred, wrong view, faith, compassion, sympathetic joy, and so on. Each of these discrete dharmas flash into and out of our experience of life according to prevailing causes and conditions and it is out of these that we build up our concepts of self and other, subject and object.

The Mahāyāna objection to this is when the dharmas are taken to be actual things that have a self-nature. The Mahāyāna, and in particular the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, points out that the dharmas are just abstractions, concepts derived from the experience of the dynamic flux of causes and condition in which there are no such base realities with a fixed and independent self-nature. What Mahāyāna Buddhism is saying is that to hold that there are actual dharmas, no matter how discrete, minute, or seemingly indivisible, whether physical or mental, is to overlook the sheer emptiness of all phenomena on every level. Any phenomena or dharma can be said to be empty because they are all impermanent, they are all composed of causes and conditions that are themselves composed of other causes and conditions and so on without end, and they are all experienced only through the filter of our perceptions and mental constructs. There can be no fixed independent or lasting self-nature because all that can be experienced is impermanent, utterly contingent, and conditioned by the mind that experiences them. They are empty of any self-nature, and therefore ungraspable. The alleged dharmas are nothing more than abstractions, whether for the sake of conventional speech or for the sake of analysis, and therefore it can be said that there are no dharmas to know. The wisdom eye, therefore, is the eye that sees that there is nothing to see.

The next eye the Buddha describes is the dharma eye. Here I will provide only a couple of lines of the Buddha’s explanation as the full explanation makes reference to many things that would take us too far afield to get into here.

Śāriputra: What is a bodhisattva’s perfectly pure dharma eye?

The Lord: Here a bodhisattva knows by means of the dharma eye, that “this person is a faith-follower, that person is a dharma-follower. This person is a dweller in emptiness, that person is a dweller in the signless, that person is a dweller in the wishless…” (Ibid, p. 77)

The Buddha’s definition goes on to cover all the types of people who are cultivating themselves and thereby attaining various insights and stages of liberation up to and including those bodhisattvas who are about to attain buddhahood. The basic idea is that while the wisdom eye sees the emptiness of all dharmas, the dharma eye recognizes them again as provisionally existent and with an eye (so to speak) for the spiritual progress of all those within its gaze. It is an eye that does not dismiss things or refuse to acknowledge things because they are empty but rather sees deeply into the spiritual potentials and actualities of beings based on their changing conditions and circumstances. With this eye the bodhisattvas and the buddhas are best able to judge what would be the most skillful manner of assisting sentient beings attain liberation.

The fifth of the five eyes is the buddha eye.

Śāriputra: What is a bodhisattva’s perfectly pure buddha eye?

The Lord:  The bodhisattva, when immediately after the thought of enlightenment he has, with a wisdom conjoined with one single thought-moment, entered on the adamantine concentration, reaches the knowledge of all modes. He is endowed with the ten powers of a Tathāgata, the four kinds of fearlessness, the four kinds of analytical knowledge, the 18 unique properties of a buddha, the great friendliness, the great compassion, the great sympathetic joy, the great equanimity, and the unhindered deliverance of a buddha. And that eye of the bodhisattva does not meet with anything that is not seen, heard, known, or discerned – in all its modes. That is the bodhisattva’s perfect buddha eye. (Ibid, p. 79 adapted)

Several categories of powers and attributes are referred to and these have already been explained except for the four kinds of analytical knowledge that has to do with the Buddha’s analytical knowledge relating to meaning, the teaching of the Dharma, language, and inspired speech. The point is that the buddha eye represents the fullest realization of what it is to be completely awakened and to know all things fully in all their aspects, as both empty and provisionally existent according to causes and conditions. It is the eye that guides the Buddha’s selfless and compassionate response to any and every situation. It is the eye that encompasses and surpasses the first four eyes.

It would be easy, I think, for us to dismiss the five eyes as nothing more than religious rhetoric and hyperbole. I’d like to point out, however, that they express an interesting perspective on how spiritual awakening came to be understood. The physical eye is simply our mundane vision perfected and augmented, but the other four are pointing to capacities of understanding that should be considered. The heavenly eye is not just the psychic power of clairvoyance, but is also the ability to understand the patterns of the conduct of beings and where those patterns will likely lead for better or worse. The wisdom eye is the ability to uproot attachment and aversion by seeing that ultimately there are no subjects or objects with any independent fixed self-natures to have any attachment or aversion for. The dharma eye on the other hand corrects the tendency of the wisdom eye to dismiss phenomena as merely empty because it sees that things do nevertheless arise and cease in accord with causes and conditions and that within that flux suffering can be alleviated through the application of skillful methods of teaching and practice. The buddha eye brings it all together and maintain the Middle Way that encompasses both the empty and yet provisionally existent nature all phenomena.

The line “Past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped,” is the basis of a well-known story about an arrogant scholar of the Diamond Sūtra who was humbled by an old lady who owned a tea-shop. As a youth the Zen Master Deshan Xuanjian (819-914) was so famous in northern China as an expert on the Diamond Sūtra that he was called “Diamond Zhou.” Hearing that the Southern school of Zen were apparently bypassing the study of the sūtras for their “direct transmission” and “direct pointing to the mind” he went south to refute them. Along the way he stopped at an inn to buy dim-sum (“mind-refreshers”) from the old lay who ran the inn. The old woman asked him what he was carrying in his backpack and he explained that they were his commentaries on the Diamond Sūtra. The woman was intrigued and asked him “The sūtra says that past, present, and future mind cannot be grasped, so can you show me the mind that you want to refresh?” Diamond Zhou was speechless. He eventually met the Zen master Longtan Chongxin (n.d.), attained his own direct awakening and then burned his commentaries. (See Ferguson, pp. 216-217) I like this story for many reasons. It shows the comeuppance of an arrogant scholar whose knowledge of Buddha Dharma was only conceptual and second-hand through books at the hands of a clever old lay woman. At the same time, it also shows that many, if not most, Zen masters were actually quite learned in the sūtras, and so for them what was needed was a more direct and personal assimilation of the teachings. In other words, they had read about awakening but needed to go on to be awake themselves. I don’t think Deshan actually needed to burn his commentaries but it does dramatically show that he no longer felt the need to cling to scholarly analysis.

19. “Subhūti, what do you think? If someone filled the three thousand great thousandfold worlds with the seven precious gems and gave them as a gift, would that person for that reason obtain great merit?”

“So it is, World Honored One. That person would for that reason obtain great merit.”

“Subhūti, if merit was real, the Tathāgata would not have spoken of obtaining great merit. It is because merit does not exist that the Tathāgata has spoken of obtaining great merit.”

The point is that merit, as with anything else, is not a static object. If it were, it would not at all be like anything we actually experience in life, because we do not experience static objects but flowing interrelated phenomena. So there is no inherently existing independent fixed merit, or anything else, and because there is not we can experience the flow of interdependent merit.

20. “Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Tathāgata be seen in the perfection of his physical form?”

“No, World Honored One. The Tathāgata cannot be seen in the perfection of his physical form. And why? The perfection of his physical form is spoken of by the Tathāgata as no perfection of physical form, therefore it is called the perfection of physical form.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Tathāgata be seen in the perfection of marks?”

“No, World Honored One. The Tathāgata cannot be seen in the perfection of marks. And why? The perfection of marks is spoken of by the Tathāgata as no perfection of marks. Therefore it is called the perfection of marks.”

As above.

21. “Subhūti, do not say the Tathāgata has the thought, ‘I have spoken Dharma.’ Do not think that way. And why? If someone says the Tathāgata has spoken Dharma he slanders the Buddha due to his inability to understand what I say. Subhūti, in the spoken Dharma there is no dharma which can be spoken, therefore it is called the spoken Dharma.”

Then the sagacious Subhūti said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, will there be beings in the future who will believe this sūtra when they hear it spoken?”

The Buddha said, “Subhūti, they are neither beings nor no-beings. And why? Subhūti, beings, beings, are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no beings, therefore they are called beings.”

As above.

22. Subhūti said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, is it that the Tathāgata in attaining unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening did not attain anything?”

The Buddha said, “So it is, so it is, Subhūti. As to unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening, there is not even the slightest dharma that I could attain, therefore it is called unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening.”

Here is why one should be careful when one talks about “attaining” or “obtaining” or “getting” awakening. It is not an object and to speak in that way reinforces the habit of relating to everything (including spirituality) in terms of grasping and attachment and “I, me, and mine.”

23. “Moreover, Subhūti, this dharma is level and equal, with no high or low. Therefore it is called unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening. To cultivate all good dharmas with no self, no persons, no beings, and no life-spans is to attain unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening. Subhūti, good dharmas are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no good dharmas. Therefore they are called good dharmas.”

As above.

24. “Subhūti, if there were heaps of the seven precious gems equal in amount to all the Sumerus, kings of mountains, in the three thousand great thousandfold world systems, and someone gave them as a gift, and if someone else were to take from the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra as few as four lines of verse, and receive, uphold, read, recite, and speak them for others, his merit would surpass even the previous one’s by more hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of times than either calculation or analogy could express.”

As above.

25. “Subhūti, what do you think? You should not maintain that the Tathāgata has this thought: ‘I shall take being across.’ Subhūti, do not have that thought. And why? There actually are no beings taken across by the Tathāgata. If there were beings taken across by the Tathāgata, then the Tathāgata would have the existence of a self, persons, beings, and of life-spans. Subhūti, the existence of a self spoken by the Tathāgata is no existence of a self, but common people take it as the existence of a self. Subhūti, common people are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no common people, therefore they are called common people.”

The Buddha uses conventional speech like everyone else but does not buy into the categories of regular speech as referring to anything that ultimately exists.

26. “Subhūti, what do you think? Can one contemplate the Tathāgata by means of the thirty-two marks?”

Subhūti said, “So it is, so it is, World Honored One. One can contemplate the Tathāgata by means of the thirty-two marks.”

The Buddha said, “Subhūti, if one could contemplate the Tathāgata by means of the thirty-two marks, then a sagely wheel-turning king would be a Tathāgata.” 

Subhūti said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, as I understand what the Buddha has said, one should not contemplate the Tathāgata by means of the thirty-two marks.” 

At that time the World Honored One spoke a gāthā, which says,

If one sees me in forms,

If one sees me in sounds,

He practices a deviant way,

And cannot see the Tathāgata.

See section five for more on this. Also here is the first of two four line verses that one should presumably receive, uphold, read, recite, and explain to others to gain incalculable merit that is not merit and therefore is merit.

27. “Subhūti, you may have the thought that the Tathāgata did not attain unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening by means of the perfection of marks. Subhūti, do not think that the Tathāgata did not attain unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening by means of the perfection of marks. Subhūti, you should not think that those who have resolved their minds on unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening affirm the annihilation of all dharmas. Do not have that thought. And why? Those who have resolved their minds on unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening do not affirm the annihilation of marks.”

Extremely important point here. The teaching of emptiness is not nihilism. It is not about getting rid of or extinguishing dharmas, nor is it saying that dharmas do not exist at all. It is the teaching that dharma do not have any inherent independent fixed identity even while they do exist as the appearance or experience of the interdependent flow of causes and conditions. On a conventional level the bodhisattvas do cultivate themselves and perfect the thirty-two marks in order to attain unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening, but they do so without attachment or aversion for any inherently existent dharmas because they realize there are not any to begin with.

28. “Subhūti, a bodhisattva might fill world systems equal to Ganges Rivers’ sands with the precious gems and give them as a gift. But if another person were to know that all dharmas are devoid of self and accomplish patience, that bodhisattva’s merit would surpass that of the previous bodhisattva. And why? Subhūti, it is because bodhisattvas do not receive merit.”

Subhūti said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, how is it that bodhisattvas do not receive merit?”

“Subhūti, since bodhisattvas cannot be greedily attached to merit which they cultivate, they are said to not receive merit.”

As above in regard to the story of Bodhidharma and the Emperor Wu. This is also why it shows a relatively immature level of development for Buddhists to be practice for the sake of gaining merit or “benefits.”

29. “Subhūti, if someone were to say the Tathāgata either comes or goes, either sits or lies down, that person would not understand the meaning of my teaching. And why? The Tathāgata does not come from anywhere, nor does he go anywhere. Therefore he is called the Tathāgata.

Once more playing on the meaning of the title “Tathāgata” as “One Who Thus Comes” or “One Who Thus Goes.” From the ultimate view of emptiness there are no inherently existing dharmas that come or go. This is also why it shows a misunderstanding of emptiness to say that things emerge from or go back to emptiness. Things are emptiness right in the moment of experiencing them, their emptiness is simply another way of saying they are caused and conditioned and therefore have no inherent independent fixed identity or essence. There is no emptiness apart form the way phenomena exist as conditioned phenomena, there is no mysterious metaphysical realm that thing come from or go back to.

30. “Subhūti, if a good man or good woman were to pulverize three thousand great thousandfold world systems into motes of fine dust, what do you think, would that mass of fine dust be large?”

Subhūti said, “Large, World Honored One. And why? If that mass of fine dust motes actually existed, the Buddha would not speak of it as a mass of fine dust motes. And why? The mass of fine dust motes is spoken of by the Buddha as no mass of fine dust motes. Therefore it is called a mass of fine dust motes. World Honored One, the three thousand great thousandfold world systems are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no world systems, therefore they are called world systems. And why? If world systems actually existed, then there would be a totality of marks. The totality of marks is spoken of by the Tathāgata as no totality of marks, therefore it is called a totality of marks. Subhūti, the totality of marks cannot be spoken of, but people of the common sort greedily attach to such things.”

The whole point of speaking of things as empty is to undercut the habitual attitude of attachment by pointing out that when you look deeply into how things are one sees that they are empty of any inherent existence to have attachment for.

31. “Subhūti, if someone were to say that the view of a self, the view of persons, the view of beings, and the view of a life-span are spoken of by the Buddha, Subūti, what do you think? Does that person understand the meaning of my teaching?”

“No, World Honored One, that person does not understand the meaning of the Tathāgata’s teaching. And why? The view of a self, the view of persons, the view of beings, and the view of a life-span are spoken of by the World Honored One as no view of a self, no view of persons, no view of beings, and no view of a life-span. Therefore they are called the view of a self, the view of persons, the view of beings, and the view of a life-span.”

“Subhūti, those who have resolved their hearts on unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening should thus know, thus view, thus believe and understand all dharmas, and not produce the marks of dharmas. Subhūti, the marks of dharmas are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no marks of dharmas, therefore they are called marks of dharmas.”

As above.

32. “Subhūti, someone might fill measureless asaṃkhyeyas of world systems with the seven precious gems and give them as a gift. But if a good man, or good woman, who has resolved his mind on awakening were to take from this sūtra even as few as four lines of verse and receive, uphold, read, recite, and extensively explain them for others, his merit would surpass the other’s. How should it be explained to others? With no grasping marks: Thus, thus, unmoving. And why? 

All conditioned dharmas

Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,

Like dew drops and a lightning flash:

Contemplate them thus.

After the Buddha spoke this sūtra the elder Subhūti, all the monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, and the world with its gods, men, and fighting demons, heard what the Buddha had said, rejoiced, believed, received, revered, and practiced. 

These final verses seem very similar to me to the discourse and especially the verses of SN 22.95 (Bodhi 2000, pp. 951-953) that deal with the emptiness of the five aggregates:

“Form is like a lump of foam,

Feeling like a water bubble;

Perception is like a mirage,

Volitions like a plantain trunk,

And consciousness like an illusion,

So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.

“However one may ponder it

And carefully investigate it,

It appears hollow and void

When one views it carefully.”

And here the Diamond Sūtra draws to a close.

Sources

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.

______________, trans. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012.

Conze, Edward, trans. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom with the divisions of the Abhisamayālaṅkāra. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

_____________. Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.

Cleary, Thomas, trans. The Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.

Ferguson, Andy. Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2011.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Awakening of the Heart: essential buddhist sutras and commentaries. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2012.

Hua, Hsüan. A General Explanation of the Vajra Prajñā Paramitā Sūtra. San Francisco: The Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1974.

Ireland, John D., trans. The Itivuttaka: The Buddha’s Sayings. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1991.

Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu, trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Edited and revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Price, A.F., and Mou-lam, Wong, trans. The Diamond Sutra & The Sutra of Hui Neng. Boston: Shambhala, 1985.

Speyer, J.S., trans. Jātakamālā or Garland of Birth-Stories by Āryaśūra. Electronic Edition, 2010 at ancient-buddhist-texts.net. URL: http://bit.ly/2ueyqXY

Thurman, Robert, A.F., trans. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti: A Mahāyāna Scripture. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.