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Diamond Sutra 1 - Samish Island

First of four talks on the Diamond Sutra given at Samish Island Sesshin based on Red Pine edition

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jun 24, 2008
Location: Samish Island
In topic: Sutras and Commentaries
First of four talks on The Diamond Sutra given at Samish Island Sesshin based on Red Pine edition.
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Diamond Sutra 1 - Samish Island

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | June 24, 2008

Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum

Tonight I am going to begin the first of three talks on the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra.  Three talks are not enough to cover these thirty-two chapters of the Diamond Sutra, so I am going to see if I can at least say a word about the first five of the chapters.  Thich Nhat Hanh has said this about the first five chapters:

Please read and re-read the first five chapters of the sutra.  All of the essentials have been presented, and if you re-read these sections, you will come to understand its meaning.  Once you understand, you may find the Diamond Sutra like a piece of beautiful music.  Without straining at all, the meaning will just enter you. 

I'm using Red Pine's translation.  Red Pine is a tremendous Buddhist sage and treasure of our time.  He has recently come out with these translations. It really makes a new contribution to these texts, whenever a new translator with a fresh eye and good understanding and good ability in the language comes along.  It is like the sutra comes alive all over again. 

The Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, chapter one: 

Thus have I heard: Once the Bhagavan was dwelling near Shravasti at Anathapindada Garden in Jeta Forest, together with the full assembly of 1250 bhikshus and a great many fearless bodhisattvas.

One day before noon, the Bhagavan put on his patched robe and picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti for offerings.  After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat.  After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.

A number of bhikshus  then came up to where the Bhagavan was sitting.  After touching their heads to his feet, they walked around him to the right three times and sat down to one side. 

All traditional commentaries begin with the title - Vajracchedikaprajnaparamita Sutra.  "Vajra" means diamond, which we know, because usually the sutra is given the English name Diamond Sutra.  In tantric Buddhism, vajra also means "thunderbolt; a lightning flash in the sky."  In both cases, the sense is of something "dazzling, brilliant, bright, powerful, sudden, and dramatic." 

A diamond, of course, cuts through everything, and nothing can cut it.  Since the cchedika part of vajrachhedika means "cutter," we can imagine a diamond cutter like a sword.  So you always see Manjushri Bodhisattva holding up a sword.  We can imagine that it is made out of diamond, which cuts through confusion and delusion.  But a cosmic thunderbolt also cuts through in the same way.  Here maybe the metaphor is "illuminating."  A diamond, a lightning flash, cuts through the darkness of the sky and illuminates the whole sky suddenly.  So you could say that the Vajracchedika is the diamond-sword-thunderbolt sutra. 

Prajna paramita I think we all know.  Prajna means wisdom.  Paramita means "perfection" or "going beyond," in the sense that something that is perfect is something that goes beyond the thing.  In other words, it is unsurpassable.  It's perfect.  It can't surpass perfection. 

Usually when I talk about prajna, wisdom, I always say that this is not the same as what we usually mean by wisdom.  This is a very particular kind of wisdom.  It is the wisdom that perceives the empty nature of conditioned existence.  Like the Heart Sutra says, form - which stands for form, feelings, perception, formations, consciousness - is emptiness.  Form is empty; feelings are empty; perceptions are empty; impulses to action are empty; and consciousness is empty. The whole of human experience, the whole of the world is empty.  Also, wisdom implies that one appreciates that emptiness is empty.  So what is emptiness?  It is form; it is feelings; it is perceptions; it is volitions and impulses; it's consciousness.  It's no other thing than that.

That is what I usually say.  But now I am saying that when we say the word "wisdom" conventionally - "Oh, she is such a wise person" - we actually mean the same thing.  Even non-Buddhist conventional wisdom means the same thing.  When we say that someone is wise - just our conventional idea of someone being wise - we are saying, "This person has perspective. This person has some equanimity."  We don't mean smart or quick.  We mean they have perspective. They have some measure of equanimity. 

To see the real nature of things, the empty nature of things, is exactly to have some equanimity and some perspective.  A wise person in all senses - in the conventional sense and the Buddhist sense - is a person who can always say, even in the direst circumstances, "Don't worry, it will be okay."  And you can believe the person when they say this, because you can tell that she knows what she is talking about.  The person really knows that it will be all right.  I think that when you appreciate the empty nature of things, this is how you feel!  Whatever it is, it will be all right.

So Prajna Paramita isn't perfect wisdom about something - a Buddhist doctrine, Buddhist practice, or technique.  It is really an attitude toward life - an attitude of unshakeable confidence.  Unshakeable, because the only thing that is really unshakeable is something that is on a foundation of absolutely nothing.  That you can't shake!  A foundation built on absolutely nothing is absolutely unshakeable.  It's an attitude of confidence, an attitude of equanimity, because what in the world could ever push you out of shape?  Literally, everything is without pressure, without weightiness, without burdensome qualities.  Everything is empty. 

[Norman re-reads the sutra as quoted above.]

The bodhisattvas are quite noticeably fearless.  I don't think this means that they were brave, heroic individuals.  I think it means that they were fearless, because of having let go of the basic fear that is always characteristic of selfishness - a belief in the solid, real, separate, self-existent nature of oneself and others. 

If I am solid, separate, real, and self-existing, then naturally I am afraid.  Even if at the moment I do not feel particularly scared, the fear is always there somewhere inside of me, ready to be activated whenever stimulation arises.  Whereas, if I am a bodhisattva, understanding that I am not solid, real, separate, or self-existent, then I am always unfolding every moment in love, so what would I have to fear? 

The next part is the Buddha's daily routine, so we want to know what the Buddha did every day. 

One day before noon, the Bhagavan put on his patched robe and picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti for offerings.  After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat.  After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.

The sutra says, "Some time before noon," meaning after all the practice that he did every morning, sitting and walking meditation, he put on his robe and went to town to beg for food.  It says that he put on his "patched robe."  In the early sangha, there were three robes that were the clothing of monks.  You could possess three robes; no more, no less.  You had a five-panel robe, a seven-panel robe, and a nine-panel robe.  The five-panel robe was worn around the camp, just like regular clothing.  You would put the seven-panel robe on top of the five-panel robe when you were meditating or, maybe, teaching, studying, or discussing dharma.  If it was a little more formal, you put on the seven-panel robe.  And when you were going to town, or going to visit someone, you put on the nine-panel robe. 

In our tradition, the five-panel robe has morphed into the rakusu, which is a five-panel robe.  In a sense, it is more informal clothing, just as in the Buddha's time the five-panel robe was more informal clothing.  So the five-panel robe has become the rakusu, not in all schools of Buddhism, but in some of the Far Eastern schools.

The kesa that the priests wear is a seven-panel robe, and there is also a nine-panel okesa, and a twenty-five-panel okesa, and other, more elaborate okesas.  The nine-panel okesa would be an okesa that you would wear to public ceremonies, in the same spirit as going out to visit royalty or visit somebody in town. 

So the Buddha was allowed one meal a day. He ate the meal, and put aside his nine-panel robe.  He washed his feet, very carefully taking care of his robe, his bowl, his life.  You can imagine his doing it all with great dignity, and apparently doing it himself.  Not having people doing everything for him.  The bowl to be taken care of by himself.  His robe to be taken care of by himself.  He washed his own feet.  He sat down, crossed his legs, adjusted his body, and turned his awareness to what was before him. 

His turning his awareness to "what was before him" is actually pretty interesting. It is translated as if it were a casual term, but it is a technical term, pratimukymsmrti upastapaya.  I know this word as upastthana, meaning "basis" or "foundation."  The four foundations of mindfulness are kayasmrti upastthana, the foundation of kaya, the body; vedanasmrti upastthana, the foundation of vedana, the sensations and deeply conditioned gut reactions; cittasmrti upastthana, the foundation of citta, the thoughts and emotions; and dharmasmrti upastthana, the foundation of dharma, the basic underlying structures of reality, the shape of mind and reality deeper than our personal conditioning. 

Mindfulness, by the way, is actually the same word as remember.  So mindfulness is basically remembering to be present.  Every time you are off and you come back, that is mindfulness.  Mindfulness is when you come back and are aware. 

This is interesting, because you have pratimukym, which means the object that happens to be there in front of you.  So you could say that this is a fifth foundation of mindfulness.  Having trained, as the Buddha certainly had, in the careful, progressive craft of mindfulness of the body - kaya, vedana, chitta, dharma - at this particular moment, he wasn't practicing in this way.  He was practicing using whatever was in front of him as the basis for mindfulness. 

Awareness means holding in the present moment - without speculation and without the additional covering - what arises with the usual pattern of self-centered thinking.  Self-centered thinking is a screen between awareness and object.  It is a kind of confusion.  Florence [an Everyday Zen priestmentioned the "inner judge."  The inner judge is the one who activates self-centered thinking.  We all know that when the inner judge is activated, it is hard to tell what is actually there. 

The Buddha was practicing a relaxed attention to whatever arises, so there was no need to cut something out or to have intense focus on something.  Whatever arose was focused on.  I recommend that you practice that way, and if you detect that the thinking is self-centered, then come back to the breath and the body. You push the reset button and start over again.  That way the breath and the body will help you to un-hook yourself from the strong habit of self-centered thinking.  Then you can relax again and allow what arises.