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(This post was originally published on May 17th, 2017)
The Diamond Sutra is a Buddhist holy text written somewhere between 300 C.E. and 500 C.E. There is a lot to say regarding its history, theology, and origins; however today I just want to bring us right to the text. In the interest of transparency, I will say that I have studied Buddhism sincerely for over twenty years and have been a committed meditator for twenty-six years. However, I do not claim to be a Buddhist—I would say I was a pilgrim and have found the teachings of Buddhism invaluable, as a life of wandering is fraught with peril. Therefore note that my commentary today on The Diamond Sutra is that of a very reverent non-Buddhist.
I was young when I first read The Diamond Sutra, and before my Buddhist adventure (that still continues) my first religious experience and education was Christianity. At first glance there is a very similar sentiment that any Christian will recognize, and that is charity without vanity. Matthew 6:3 I think is the best example: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (NRSV) This concept is woven throughout The Diamond Sutra (a bodhisattva is kind of like someone trying really hard to be a very good person) (The Diamond Sutra is a dialogue between the Buddha and one of his disciples Subhuti): “Subhuti, if a bodhisattva should practice generosity while still depending on form, he or she is like someone walking in the dark.” (p.147, The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Mu Soeng). That is just one metaphor the Buddha uses in saying that a person aspiring to be good should practice generosity without dwelling on their generosity. While my thinking evolved regarding this sutra it did so while keeping this foundation, as I believe in order to go deeper with this wisdom you first need to sincerely practice giving alms without feeling high about giving alms.
After a decade or so with this sutra, I finally began to tackle one of the weirdest and most opaque aspects of Buddhism: everything is illusionary. And they really aren’t kidding with this one. Woven throughout the sutra is Buddha in various ways telling Subhuti (Tathagata is another word for Enlightened One): “The Buddha said to Subhuti, ‘All that has a form is an illusionary existence. When the illusory nature of form is perceived, the Tathagata is recognized.’” (p.142, The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Mu Soeng) The Buddha even includes himself in this, as he repeatedly states that not only is he illusionary, but his teachings are too. And yet, we are told to study this sutra, and yet, somehow study it just like we were instructed to give alms: study the sutra, however, do not get all high about it. Oddly enough, many commentators on this sutra and on Buddhism in general, cite quantum physics with regards to this Buddhist teaching that everything is illusionary and fleeting. String theory too is also cited in that it claims that matter is not really solid matter, rather, matter is vibration. For me, I do not like using science (and lay misunderstanding and oversimplification of science—like quantum physics) to explain religious experience, as science is revolutionary and in time everything we think we know—scientifically—with be churned over and recast in order to assimilate new discoveries. For me religion should be allowed a different kind of evolution, as its purpose is based not on fact-finding but on the subjective interior experience of being. Huston Smith (1919-2016) was a famous scholar of world religions, and one of the aspects he found that connected all religions was the element of the unknowable, mystery. My experience has been that in submitting to the unknowable, a kind of moving quietude arises. “[Subhuti speaking] The truth is ungraspable and inexpressible. It neither is nor is not. How is it so? Because all noble teachers are exalted by the unconditioned.” (p. 143, The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Mu Soeng).
After twenty years, I can say that I no longer see it as a lesson in charity like in Matthew 6:3 (though it is), nor do I see it as a lesson is releasing your ego through submitting to the unknown (though it is). Now, actually I am moved to tears by this sutra. It no longer bothers my intellect much—as it mightily did in the past. Rather, it touches my heart. Constantly, the Buddha is saying that form is illusionary and yet, form is not no-form either. Buddhist thinking is not nihilistic—they are not trying to imply that nothing exists—rather what we humans keep focusing on and obsessing about is illusionary—even if we are obsessing about wholesome things like a sutra or giving to charity. In Buddhism, every person has a Buddha Jewel inside of them, and it is claimed to be our greatest treasure. That jewel is a metaphor for our basic goodness. Anytime you are moved to do something kind you are awakening your jewel or goodness. It does not need to be developed or obsessed about or even considered; it is our fundamental inheritance. In the sutra, the Buddha says that we are not the future, as the future does not yet exist, and we are not our past, as it has already disappeared, and yet, we cannot ever stop time--so there is no solid, static person to claim. But if we are fleeting bubbles always popping and moving forward without ever a static pause why is it that the Buddha claims that we are also not no-form? Because while yes, we are not our past nor our future—our basic goodness remains. It is all that is.
Buddhism has one really amazing outrageous claim and that is all sentient beings—even demons—have this Buddha jewel—this basic goodness. Nothing a being can do—Nothing—will ever remove or even scratch this jewel. It is likened to a diamond in its purity, luster, and hardness. It is only a matter of time for when all the flesh and bones and shame finally falls away and the Buddha arises. We don’t have to do anything—just fall away. A good start is Matthew 6:3 or The Diamond Sutra.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
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