One of the most frequently quoted passages from the Mahayana Buddhist sutras is this short verse --
So you should view this fleeting world --
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
This common translation has been manipulated a bit so that it rhymes in English. The translator Red Pine (Bill Porter) gives us a more literal translation --
As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space / an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble / a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightening / view all created things like this.
In Buddhist texts, a short verse like this is called a gatha. What does this gatha signify, and who said it?
This verse is found in two sutras, the Diamond Sutra and a sutra called "The Perfection of Wisdom in 500 Lines." Both these texts are part of a canon of texts called the Prajnaparamita Sutras. Prajnaparamita means "perfection of wisdom." According to scholars, most of the Prajnaparamita Sutras probably were written early in the first millennium CE, although some may date from the 1st century BCE.
The verse often is attributed to the Buddha, but if the scholars are right about the date, the historical Buddha did not say this. We can only speculate about who the poet might have been.
The Gatha and the Diamond Sutra
Of the two texts containing this verse, the Diamond Sutra is by far the more widely read. The gatha is found very near the end of the sutra, and it is sometimes read as the summation or explanation of the preceding text. Some English translators have "tweaked" the text a bit to emphasize the verse's role as a summary or capping verse. The verse seems to be about impermanence, so we are often told the Diamond Sutra primarily is about impermanence.
The scholar-translator Red Pine (Bill Portman) disagrees. A literal reading of the Chinese and Sanskrit doesn't make it seem to be an explanation of the text at all, he says.
"This gatha, I suggest, is not meant as an example of explaining this teaching, for the Buddha has just noted that the bodhisattva's explanation is no explanation. This gatha is simply an offering given to us by the Buddha, the Buddha's way of saying goodbye." [Red Pine, The Diamond Sutra (Counterpoint, 2001), p. 432]
Red Pine also questions whether the gatha was in the original text, which has been lost. The same gatha provides a summary of the Perfection of Wisdom in 500 Lines, and it actually fits better into that sutra. Some long-ago copyist might have thought the Diamond Sutra needed a stronger finish and tossed in his favorite verse.
The Diamond Sutra is a work of great depth and subtlety. To most first-time readers, it is steeper than the Matterhorn. No doubt many have slogged through the text in a state of complete bafflement to find this little oasis of a gatha at the end. At last, something that is understandable!
But is it?
What the Gatha Means
In his book The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Diamond Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh says that "created things" (see Red Pine's translation, above) or "composed things" are not what they appear to be.
"Composed things are all objects of mind that are conditioned to arise, exist for awhile, and then disappear, according to the principle of dependent co-arising. Everything in life seems to follow this pattern, and, although things look real, they are actually more like the things a magician conjures up. We can see and hear them clearly, but they are not really what they appear to be."
The scholar-translator Edward Conze gives the Sanskrit with English translation --
Taraka timiram dipo
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.
The gatha is not just telling us that everything is impermanent; it is telling us that everything is illusory. Things are not what they appear to be. We should not be fooled by appearance; we should not regard phantoms as "real."
Thich Nhat Hanh continues,
"After reading this verse we may think that the Buddha is saying that all dharmas [in the sense of 'phenomena'] are impermanent -- like clouds, smoke, or a flash of lightning. The Buddha is saying 'All dharmas are impermanent,' but he is not saying that they are not here. He only wants us to see the things in themselves. We may think that we have already grasped reality, but, in fact, we are only grasping its fleeting images. If we look deeply into things, we will be able to free ourselves from the illusion."
This points us to the wisdom teachings, which are the main teachings in the Prajnaparamita Sutras. The wisdom is the realization that all phenomena are empty of self-essence, and any identity we give them comes from our own mental projection. The main teaching is not so much that things are impermanent; it is pointing to the nature of their impermanent existence.