There is much to learn from all of the Buddhist scriptures and each of the three main branches of Buddhism have their own interpretations of the texts. For those who follow the Theravada tradition, the Pali Canon are the most revered scriptures. For those who follow the Mahayana or Vajrayana traditions, the Prajñāpāramitā Sutras are the most revered scriptures. The age of both collections are disputed, ranging from anywhere between 100 B.C. and 500 C.E. It is generally accepted that the Pali Canon is older and is considered the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, whereas the Prajñāpāramitā are considered interpretations of his teachings.
As I follow the path of Zen, a sub-branch of Mahayana, my interests lay mostly within the Prajñāpāramitā, which can be translated as meaning “perfection of wisdom”. Within the Prajñāpāramitā, there are many scriptural texts, among them are the popular Diamond Sutra, Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. In this series, I will be discussing each of them.
The version of the Diamond Sutra that I read was a translation by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, a guiding light in my journey to and through Buddhism for at least the past eleven years. The sutra reads like a riddle and I believe this was very much intended, as the premise of the text is to see through illusion, and Nhat Hanh put it perfectly when referring to the sutra as “the Diamond that cuts through illusion.”
In the Diamond Sutra, Siddhartha Gautama is speaking to Subhuti, one of his ten most beloved and ardent students, about seeing through the illusions that cloud our perceptions of life, people, and even the Universe. In the text, Siddhartha refers to himself as Tathagata (pronounced Tat-ta-gata), a title he claimed after reaching enlightenment. In the Pali language, Tatha means “in this manner” and Gata means “gone.” The Gata translation is sometimes considered Agata, which is the Pali word meaning the opposite of gone and actually means “arrived.”
For centuries there has been debate over what this title is really supposed to mean, but the Buddha himself laid out why he claimed the title in the Sutra-Pitaka, the second nikaya in the Tipitaka. The Tipitaka is preserved in the Pali language and is known as the Pali Canon, however, there are other versions of the texts in Sanskrit and Chinese. I discussed the contents of the first nikaya in my article “From Samanera to Bhikkhu”, which gives instructions for those seeking the Theravadan monastic life.
Nikaya is a Pali word meaning “collection” and merely refers to the vast wealth of scripture contained within the entire Pali Canon. In the Sutra-Pitaka, the Buddha states that his title means he is all-knowing, that everything he speaks is truth, that his actions are the same as his words, and that he is the all-seeing.
Tathagata and the Buddha were not the only titles that Siddhartha took on or received in his lifetime. Aside from being the former crowned prince of the small Kingdom of Shakya, Siddhartha was also referred to as Shakyamuni. Shakya was the name of Siddhartha’s family clan, and the word muni means “sage.” Therefore, translated this title means “Sage of the Shakyas.” Because there was more than one Buddha, Siddhartha is sometimes referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha.
According to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, there have been many Buddhas over time, one appearing in each era according to Theravada. Mahayana teaches that there can be more than one Buddha at any given moment as there exists a Buddha Nature in us all, but it’s important to realize that these are aspects of various Buddha attributes and that it doesn’t mean that there is literally more than one true Buddha in our current era.
The Diamond Sutra sets out to reveal to those willing to study it that everything which is, is also everything which isn’t, and that’s why it’s called everything that is. Confused? Well, don’t feel bad, dharma teachings are often very confusing, but they are intended to make you think, to contemplate, to meditate on what is being taught. In Zen, this principle of meditating on meanings is practiced in what is called Koans.
Throughout the sutra, Tathagata poses many examples to Subhuti, essentially challenging him to decipher the truth in his questions and statements about reality. With every question and statement Subhuti becomes wiser to what is true and what is not, and why what isn’t true still exists in our concepts of what is true.
The best way to teach the fundamental lesson within the Diamond Sutra is to look at physics. Everything that we see around us is actually not what it initially appears. Even our very perception of reality is not complete. We see in three dimensions, but according to modern theories in physics, there are most likely eleven dimensions.
Albert Einstein once wrote, “To we convinced physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” Physicist Brian Greene has stated, “The notion that events end or that moments in time somehow disappear, is almost logically incoherent. Because if a moment exists and if a moment is the smallest unit of time, then there’s no notion of that moment changing. How can a moment change? A moment is a single unit, a single point in the temporal landscape.”
We know that our bodies are made of tissue and that tissue is made of cells and those cells are made of atoms and those atoms are made of subatomic particles like protons, and protons are made of quarks. Based on the teachings of the Diamond Sutra, the statement that we are human is not actually true, we are tissue, we are cells, we are atoms, we are subatomic particles, we are quarks. And this is true of other things made of matter.
The Diamond Sutra goes even further than teaching us to question what we are. It also challenges us to question the names of things. After all, does a flower know it is a flower? What is a flower? Does a flower actually exist? The word “flower” is merely a sound made with a mouth and everything that we see as a flower is actually not that sound or the grouping of letters we call a written word.
If the word “flower” can be granted and kept, then a flower is the soil its roots pull nutrients from and the minerals and organic matter that make up those nutrients. It’s the photons from the sun it absorbs into its leaves and transforms into energy. It’s the hydrogen and oxygen in the form of water that it absorbs through its roots. A flower is the chemical compounds within it, the pigment chlorophyll in its stem and leaves and anthocyanin in the colorful petals of its bloom. A flower is really not one thing, but rather a collection of many things and many actions. We humans are no different.
I recently wrote an article titled “The Passenger,” which discusses what it means to be a conscious being and questions what it means to be a self. Buddhism teaches that the self is an illusion and the Diamond Sutra is the sword of truth that cuts through that illusion, to make clear to the student through its concepts that by studying the teachings of Siddhartha one can attain the dissolution of the self or the ego and cut away the veil that hides true reality, and gain the realization that fundamentally we are everything and nothing all at once.