On Being a "Good" Buddhist - Reflections on the Diamond Sutra


The Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra is often called, quite simply, The Diamond Sutra. Thich Nhat Hanh (1992) suggests, however, that we refer to it by its full name: The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion. The Diamond Sutra and the Mahaprajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, or Heart Sutra, are perhaps the two best known sutras amongst all those that comprise the Mahaprajnaparamita (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 128). I’ll be quoting quite liberally from The Diamond Sutra throughout this post. Unless otherwise noted, all translated passages are those of Price & Mou-lam (1990). Okay, let’s dive right in:     



Buddha said: Subhuti, all the bodhisattva heroes should discipline their thoughts as follows: All living creatures… are caused by me to attain unbounded liberation nirvana. Yet, when vast, uncountable, immeasurable numbers of beings have thus been liberated, verily no being has been liberated. Why is this, Subhuti? It is because no bodhisattva who is a real bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.

 – The Diamond Sutra (p. 19)





Why did the Buddha say these words? Yes, he had a teaching to convey, but my question is more fundamental than that. How is it that one who does not cherish “the idea of an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality” even begins to think that he has a teaching to convey – one that will be worthwhile for an entire world to heed? The answer, I think, relates to the fact that the recognition of having a unique gift to offer does not in and of itself constitute the cherishment “of an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.” Rather, it is the recognition of what is. The recognition that each of us, each self that is not other, is a unique gift to be offered to the world lies at the very core of the bodhisattva ideal. Practice, then, for the bodhisattva, involves the cultivation of and the offering up of this gift of the self that is not other for the liberation of all beings – the seamlessly interconnected web of life in totality.



So, what is our gift – the gift of the self that is not other? Will it be our time, our voice, our heart, our labor, our talent, our money, our intention, our meditation, our prayer? Perhaps, for some, it will be the totality of being, without any such distinction as I’ve just made. For me, practice involves an ongoing evaluation of how my time and energy and resources might best be utilized for the betterment of the world. That is what the Zen aphorism “chop wood, carry water” means to me in this complex modern age. Can anyone make such an evaluation for us? Can anyone decide for the tree which direction its roots should extend in order to best receive the nourishment of the earth? Can anyone tell it which way to hold its branches in order to best receive the sun? By being thus, by being true to its being, with its entire being, the tree without fail ultimately maximizes what it offers up for the sake of all beings – without any cherishment “of an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.”



Ah, but then again, there are people who seem to know precisely what our gift should be. Full of ideas, they are, as to how we might be of utility in the fulfillment of their vision of a liberated world. They seem to know just what it takes for us to be “good” Buddhists. What does it mean to be a “good” Buddhist, anyway?



Some years ago a friend of a friend was going through a rough patch in life. He’d lost his girlfriend and his apartment and, inexplicably, he was going to have to leave town for a few months. So he asked me if he could park his vehicle in my driveway in order to keep it from getting towed away if it were to be parked on the street somewhere. Well, given the unpredictability of this young man and the uncertainty as to the length of time the vehicle would be sitting in my driveway, given as well the fact that the vehicle had already seen better days and likely had very few miles left on it, I foresaw having to deal with an abandoned car – the title of which was not in my possession. Despite my almost instant misgivings, I duly considered the circumstances and then politely refused the request. “Well, thanks a lot, bo-dhi-satt-va Mark!” this friend of a friend replied in a voice fairly dripping with sarcasm. Apparently in his mind a bodhisattva is one who is at everyone’s beck and call to comply with any request under the sun. Is that what it means to be a “good” Buddhist – to be at everyone’s beck and call – to give in to every request for our time or whatever else might be desired of us? After all, we are trying to save all beings aren’t we?



Subhuti, [the Buddha said]… incalculable is the merit of the bodhisattva who practices charity without any attachment to appearances. Subhuti, bodhisattvas should persevere one-pointedly in this instruction.

– The Diamond Sutra (p. 20)



Hmmm, was I a “bad” Buddhist then for not letting that friend of a friend park his vehicle in my driveway for months on end? Perhaps some of your minds are already racing off, chasing after thoughts of: “well, you could have said this,” or “you might have done that,” or “what if you’d offered to do this,” or, better yet, “so…, what is it that you were so afraid of, anyway? Why were you so afraid of letting him park in your driveway for a few months?” Of course, the assumption underlying these musings is that there is some perfect way to behave in any given situation – the way that a “good” Buddhist would behave – and any other way of behaving is born of our fear, conditioning, and delusion. But since we’ll never be able to agree on what that perfect way to behave actually is, we’ll very likely end up running off to find a teacher – you know, someone who’s enlightened and knows all the right answers – who can assure us that we either are, indeed, a “good” Buddhist, or who can at least provide us with a prescription for how to become one. Ah, but then again, maybe this concern about being a “good” Buddhist or a “bad” Buddhist is really just an outgrowth of our “attachment to appearances”. This “good” Buddhist stuff is getting harder and harder to figure out, isn’t it? 



Subhuti, what do you think? If anyone filled three thousand galaxies of worlds with the seven treasures and gave all away in gifts of alms, would he gain great merit?

Subhuti said: Great indeed, World-Honored One! Wherefore? Because merit partakes of the character of no-merit, the Tathagata characterized the merit as great.

Then Buddha said: On the other hand, if anyone received and retained even only four lines of this discourse and taught and explained them to others, his merit would be greater. Wherefore? Because, Subhuti, from this discourse issue forth all the buddhas and the consummation of incomparable enlightenment teachings of all the buddhas.

– The Diamond Sutra (p. 25)



What are we to make of this passage? An initial reading might prompt the recollection of the proverb pointing out the difference between giving someone a fish and actually teaching them to fish. Such a reading only works up to a point, however. Yes, the Buddha is valuing education over the giving away of even vast sums of material wealth, but the education that is being valued is not related to that of teaching someone to accumulate material comfort on their own. Rather, the education that the Buddha is speaking of relates to that of the fundamental nature of reality. The Buddha had long since forsaken that which material wealth can impart. He knew all too well from his days living as a wealthy prince that material comfort can only go so far toward keeping suffering at bay. Existence is suffering, after all. Thus, the truly valuable gift to someone existing in this realm of samsara is the gift that liberates them forever from the delusion that has them suffering in the first place.



We might also look at this passage through the lens of translation versus transformation. Relative changes taking place upon this plane of ordinary reality merely amount to translation. According to Ken Wilber, much of religious practice involves translation – allowing us to feel good about ourselves and our lives, perhaps even comforting us in our suffering. Such comfort might even be confused, if only for a brief time, with the actual alleviation of suffering. Unfortunately, though, it does nothing to alleviate suffering in the ultimate sense; it doesn’t cut through the illusion that gives rise to our suffering in the first place. It merely “kicks the can down the road”, to use an expression; it merely “rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic”, to use another. The Buddha’s teachings, however, point out the path toward transformation – the alleviation of suffering via the realization of the truth about the nature of existence. Transformation, by the way,  is the title of an earlier blog piece of mine. 



So, what does it mean to be a “good” Buddhist? Are we being good Buddhists when we erect statues and shrines in the name of the Buddha?



Subhuti, what is called “the religion given by Buddha” is not, in fact, buddha-religion.

– The Diamond Sutra (p. 25)



Thich Nhat Hanh (1992) translates this line as:



Subhuti, what is called Buddhadharma is everything that is not Buddhadharma. (p. 7)



Are we being good Buddhists when we forsake our own life’s work in order to dutifully follow or comply with the dictates of another? Are we being good Buddhists when we involve ourselves in frenzies of doing, doing, doing – no matter how apparently high-minded our motivation might be, no matter how much we might think we’re being a bodhisattva?



Subhuti, someone might fill innumerable worlds with the seven treasures and give all away in gifts of alms, but if any good man or any good woman awakens the thought of enlightenment and takes even only four lines from this discourse, reciting, using, receiving, retaining, and spreading them abroad and explaining them for the benefit of others, it will be far more meritorious.

Now in what manner may he explain them to others? By detaching from appearances – abiding in real truth. So I tell you:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:

A star at dawn, a bubble in stream;

A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

When Buddha finished this discourse the venerable Subhuti, together with the bhikshus, bhikshunis, lay brothers and sisters, and the whole realms of gods, men, and titans, were filled with joy by his teaching, and taking it sincerely to heart they went their ways.

 – The Diamond Sutra (p. 53)



“They went their ways.” What an interesting ending. They took the teaching sincerely to heart and yet they didn’t renounce their homes and their families and their work. They didn’t renounce their possessions and stay for the rest of their lives with the Buddha so as to accompany him on his alms rounds and follow him from place to place and hear his teaching over and over again. They didn’t even vow to return home and found temples or erect monuments. They went their ways. Now, just in case this ending is a bit too abrupt for some readers, let me quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation, which is a bit wordier in this regard:



After they heard the Lord Buddha deliver this sutra, the Venerable Subhuti, together with the bhikshus and bhikshunis, laymen and laywomen, and gods and asuras, filled with joy and confidence, undertook to put these teachings into practice. (p. 24)



Okay, how about we say that they went about their ways, each one undertaking to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice. Perhaps we could say that each one vowed to actualize the self that is not other to the very best of their ability. So, do you think you know what signs to look for in order to spot the “good” Buddhists in your midst? Is there something in their demeanor or their dress, their actions or their words, that shouts out to you, “I’m a Buddhist! And a good one at that!” God, I hope not. {Wink.}



References


Nhat Hanh, T. (1992). The diamond that cuts through illusion: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita diamond sutra. Parallax Press.

Price, A. F., Mou-lam, W. (1990). The diamond sutra & the sutra of Hui-Neng (tr. by A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam). Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.



Image Credits


Blue Diamond by Anusorn P nachol via:






Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Comments

  1. Hi Mark, the universe must be wanting me to hear this teaching today. I was at the MABA service today and this was the topic of the Dharma talk. a few of your exact quotes from the Diamond Sutra were discussed.
    Very nice job with this post. You are a very "good" Buddhist for sharing your teachings with the world ;-).

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  2. Wow, Stacey, I'm always intrigued by such synchronicity! Believe me, I was NOT tipped off as to what the subject matter of the talks would be! Anyway, I hope that between both the talk and the post you are intrigued enough to get a copy of the sutra in full. BTW, thanks for your vote of confidence as to whether I'm a "good" Buddhist or not. And thank you, as always, for reading! Mark

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  3. Yes Mark, my plan is to get a book on the Diamond Sutra soon. I have been told TNH's book on the subject is nice, although rather "thin". I may begin there as a introduction. Look forward to your next post! Stacey

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  4. 'Thin' is such a loaded word! I have the utmost respect for Thich Nhat Hanh, but I do believe that his commentary on the Diamond Sutra could have gone a little deeper. He does suggest that readers spend some time with the sutra before reading his commentary so as to see what understanding might arise from the sutra itself - without being influenced by his interpretation. I mean no malice when I say that I think that is good advise. I've had the Price and Mou-lam translation for years. I like it even if it does have some language that sounds a bit stilted to our modern ear. The TNH translation is nice for providing guidance wherever some of those stilted parts might get in the way. Either way, I'd suggest struggling with it prior to reading commentary. Thanks again, Stacey! Mark

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  6. As always, the lessons covered in this post were well written and instructional.

    Some dharma talk or post I read said that Bodhisattva doesn't translate into "door mat." Good and bad are little holes we've dug for ourselves. That's why we PRACTICE.

    I learn something valuable every time I "Cross Nebraska."

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  7. Thanks Mark. I will be sure to struggle with a translation itself prior to any commentary.

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  8. Thanks, MPL! I agree with your sentiment regarding being a "door mat." As I was writing on this topic I was thinking that a great title for a future post might be 'The Codependent Buddhist'! There could be plenty of fun to be had with that one, eh? And, yes, how we dig our own holes!

    Thanks again, Stacey!

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