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Barbara O'Brien

The Meaning of the Diamond Sutra

By November 28, 2012

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This has become something of a pet peeve -- Whenever I see the Diamond Sutra mentioned other than by a dharma teacher, and sometimes then also, it is said that the sutra mainly is about impermanence.

This is a bit like saying football mainly is about tackling. Yes, there is tackling, but other things are going on too, like passing and touchdowns.

I came across this today in an otherwise interesting article by Conrad Walters, who co-authored a book called Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha's Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World's Oldest Printed Book. The world's oldest printed book -- actually a scroll -- is a copy of the Diamond Sutra believed to have been printed in 868 CE.

This scroll was one of many found in a cave in Gansu Province, China, in 1900. The cave had been sealed for centuries and was discovered when the abbot of a nearby monastery noticed an odd crack that turned out to be the sealed door. In 1907 a Hungarian-British explorer was allowed to see inside the cave and take a few scrolls. He chose randomly, and one of the scrolls he happened to choose was the 868 printing of the Diamond Sutra.

Eventually the scroll was taken to London and housed in the British Museum, where it is today. You can see the whole scroll on the British Museum website. But it took European scholars many years to appreciate exactly what had been found.

The Conrad Walters article linked above comes with a video that examines the scroll's well-preserved illustration in some detail, and if Buddhist art interests you at all, it's worth taking a look.

Anyway, Walters says,

The Diamond Sutra, one of Buddhism's most popular teachings, is said to recount a conversation between the Buddha and Subhuti in which the central message is that nothing is permanent. Or, as a poetic line in the sutra puts it, the reality we perceive is as insubstantial as "a bubble in a stream."

Yes, sorta kinda, but not exactly. The "bubble in a stream" is a reference to the famous short verse at the end of the sutra. But some scholars argue that the verse isn't directly connected to the Diamond Sutra at all but sort of wandered into the text from another of the Prajnamaramita Sutras. Possibly some ancient copyist thought the Diamond needed a stronger ending.

So there's that. But even the short verse isn't exactly about impermanence. Here is Edward Conze's translation from the Sanskrit --

Taraka timiram dipo
Maya-avasyaya budbudam
Supinam vidyud abhram ca
Evam drastavyam samskrtam.

As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned.

There's a lot to reflect on in that gatha, and it seems too glib to say it is just about impermanence.

I have more to say, but I think I will save it for the next post.

 

Comments
November 28, 2012 at 2:57 am
(1) Mayya says:

‘Nothing is permanent’ ………, if so, is this concept permanent? i see a contradiction in this statement?

November 28, 2012 at 7:06 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

is this concept permanent? i see a contradiction in this statement?

A bubble in a stream. Just because two bubbles resemble each other doesn’t make them the same bubble. Just so, even though a similar thought arises multiple times doesn’t make it the same thought. “Same” is an illusion. It assumes that the thing being discussed has an intrinsic self-nature with continuous existence, even when that thing (like an idea) isn’t immediately manifested. The reality is that each time the idea arises in someone’s thoughts, it is like a bubble in a stream that forms and dissipates.

November 28, 2012 at 9:53 am
(3) Sciamanna says:

I suspect that people focus on the ending verse because it is the only part that makes some straightforward sense… :-)

I confess to having no great love for the Diamond Sutra – but I do love the final verse.

I will also be very interested to read your further thoughts. What is the last verse about, if it’s not impermanence and maya?

November 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

I suspect that people focus on the ending verse because it is the only part that makes some straightforward sense…

Exactly. It’s like an oasis of recognition in a desert of confusion. But it may not be that straightforward.

I will also be very interested to read your further thoughts. What is the last verse about, if it’s not impermanence and maya?

I have an article on the verse here that explains it in more detail. Certainly the verse is about impermanence but it also is about the limitation of the senses. The original verse describes a “mock show” — something like a card trick act, I think — and an eye obstruction, sometimes translated as cataracts. Things are not just impermanent; they are not what they seem to be.

November 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm
(5) Joseph says:

I’m far from being an expert on the sutra, having read it once, but I think we need to avoid the satisfactions of pedantry in these matters. Don’t we often refer to Hamlet, say, as “a play about indecision,” or that The Idiot is “a novel about radical innocence”? I realize it is somewhat different with sacred texts because they carry spiritual as well as intellectual meanings, but in non-specialist contexts, it seems to me that saying that the Diamond Sutra “is about impermanence” is relatively harmless.

I do think the concluding verse is both lovely & open to multiple interpretations — I look forward to reading more about it.

November 28, 2012 at 6:19 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

it seems to me that saying that the Diamond Sutra ‘is about impermanence’ is relatively harmless.

Except it isn’t. It’s about emptiness, the perfection of wisdom, if you want to be concise. To say that it’s about impermanence is to say that Alice in Wonderland is about rabbits. Yeah, there’s a rabbit, but knowing that doesn’t tell you anything about the book.

November 28, 2012 at 6:32 pm
(7) Joseph says:

I can appreciate the need to be accurate. My teacher is always talking about “precision” in practice, so I take your point.

November 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Joseph — it’s not really about “precision.” It’s about missing the major meaning. If someone reads it looking for tips on impermanence that will be found, but that’s missing what the sutra is actually saying.

November 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm
(9) Joseph says:

Barbara, “precision” on the part of the reader / interpreter of the sutra. Looking at your blog post again just now, I see that you are arguing that people read the Diamond Sutra through the lens of that final, perhaps spurious, verse. That makes their reading imprecise, perhaps careless.

November 29, 2012 at 7:24 am
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

I see that you are arguing that people read the Diamond Sutra through the lens of that final, perhaps spurious, verse.

Yes.

That makes their reading imprecise, perhaps careless.

It makes them miss what the sutra is saying by several thousand miles, actually. Again, impermanence is important, but the sutra is talking about something else entirely.

November 29, 2012 at 4:59 pm
(11) Conrad Walters says:

Thanks for unpacking the shorthand of my Huffington Post article. Indeed, the Diamond Sutra is complex and demands this sort of elaboration.

You may find some comfort in hearing that for our book (Journeys on the Silk Road), co-author Joyce Morgan interviewed His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Stanford linguist Paul Harrison and Buddhism scholar Robert Thurman to help explain aspects of the Diamond Sutra.

Afterwards, we also had the manuscript checked by a respected Buddhist nun who teaches in India, the US and Australia. She was ruthless, and it was a long, educational and (in hindsight, at least) hilarious evening.

November 29, 2012 at 6:24 pm
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

Conrad — what you wrote was not inaccurate — closer than people usually get, actually — but it’s a matter of emphasis. The teachings of impermanence to dependent origination to sunyata all support each other, so one can’t say the book has no connection to impermanence, but sunyata is the more emphasized element in the Diamond than is impermanence.

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