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Paradox in the Diamond Sutra

No one claims the Diamond Sutra is an easy text to understand.

It’s said to be so full of meaning that it can point us directly to Enlightenment, so of course it’s not an easy text. It would be crazy for someone to pick this text as their first class to teach at their local Buddhist temple. *ahem*

Anyway, it’s tough. That’s what I’m trying to say. A lot of the passages are have to be read multiple times to be understood and it’s so repetitive that that can be overwhelming too.

But I want to talk about what I think is the hardest part to grasp for most people. That’s the use of paradoxical statements. I’m going to present one example, but bear in mind that the Buddha uses this kind of statement several times in the sutra.

“What do you think, Subhuti? Does a bodhisattva create a serene and beautiful Buddha field?”
“No, World-Honored One. Why? To create a serene and beautiful Buddha field is not in fact creating a serene and beautiful Buddha field. That is why it is called creating a serene and beautiful Buddha field.”

What the hell? Right?

So, what’s going on here? How can creating a Buddha field be not creating a Buddha field? And that’s why it’s called a Buddha field?

Subhuti clearly just contradicted himself. And the Buddha does, by the way, tell him that he’s right. In other parts of the sutra the Buddha makes the same kind of statement. What does it mean?

This Sutra is trying to take us beyond our dualistic thinking. Words like “serene” and “beautiful” and even “Buddha field” are labels that we put on the world. We create labels for everything in the world around us and then we pretend those labels are real.

But what if they’re not? What if we change the things we observe by naming them, and if we just let things be as they are we would see the world more clearly?

What if all the lines we draw, all the boundaries we set in the world are self-created too?

I’m not talking about the boundaries separating you and I, but the lines between us and everything around us. What if we’re more connected to each other, and to everything, than we realize.

Every line we draw in our minds to separate or categorize things is self-created.

The truth is there is no separation.

I’m not sure my explanation is any less complicated or hard to understand than the statements in the Diamond Sutra.

But I tried.

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Teachers Who Inspire

My study of the Diamond Sutra has made me think about the importance of having a spiritual teacher. We think sometimes about reasons to have a teacher and I think a teacher’s role in inspiring us is sometimes downplayed.

I’ll quote from the beginning of the sutra here:

“That day, when it was time to make the round for alms, the Buddha put on his sanghati robe and, holding his bowl, went into the city of Sravasti to seek alms food, going from house to house. When the alms round was completed, he returned to the monastery to eat the midday meal. Then he put away his sanghati robe and his bowl, washed his feet, arranged his cushion, and sat down.

At that time, the Venerable Subhuti stood up, bared his right shoulder, put his knee on the ground, and, folding his palms respectfully, said to the Buddha, ‘World-Honored One, it is rare to find someone like
you. You always support and show special confidence in the bodhisattvas. World-Honored One, if sons and daughters of good families want to give rise to the highest, most fulfilled,awakened mind, what should they rely on and what should they do to master their thinking?'”

That was probably an unnecessary long quotation. But, here’s what I have to say about it. At first it might seem like the Buddha didn’t do anything. But, that’s not the case.

What he did was engage his daily routine with complete mindfulness. As he puts on his robe, goes from house to house, eats, etc. he is being completely present in the moment. This kind of awareness is described in the Zen tradition. It’s said that chopping wood and carrying water can be spiritual practices if they’re engaged with total mindful awareness.

Anyway, the Buddha’s student Subhuti can see how serene and aware the Buddha seems to be, even in the midst of routine activities.

I imagine myself in Subhuti’s role, so I imagine him thinking, “The Buddha is Enlightened as hell. I should ask him for a teaching.”

And the whole sutra is about Subhuti asking for teachings.

Now, what does all this mean to me?

I’ve studied with a variety of Buddhist teachers. I have seen that it makes a big difference when I’ve met one that is fully present. It’s so easy to be out of this moment, with our minds wandering.

But when we see someone who is fully present in this moment, I think we can tell. We can be inspired by teachers like that, just as Subhuti was. And we can ask them for teachings, just like Subhuti did.

Teachers can motivate us if it seems like they are more present than we are.

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Diamond Sutra: chapter 4

“Also, in the practice of kindness and generosity, a disciple should be detached. Give for the sake of giving, not for the sake of appearances. Be compassionate because being compassionate is good, not for some external reward. Why? Because practicing kindness and generosity without attachment is the way to reaching the Highest Perfect Wisdom, it is the way to becoming a living Buddha.”
“Subhuti, do you think that you can measure all of space?”
“No, Most Honored One. One cannot possibly measure all of space.”

“Well, Subhuti, the same is true of the merit of the disciple who practices kindness and generosity without any attachment to appearances, without cherishing any idea of form. It is impossible to measure the merit gained by this. Subhuti, my disciples should let their minds absorb and dwell in these teachings.”

The Buddha is telling Subhuti (and us) that what we should do is give for the sake of giving, not to create a good reputation. Generosity is the first of the Six Perfections in Mahayana Buddhism. The perfection of generosity represents more than just giving material things. Obviously, it does represent giving money or items to the needy. It also represents giving your time, things like helping a friend move or spending time comforting someone who is suffering from a loss.
We can also give someone less tangible things, like our love, respect, or patience. We can offer stability, being reliable. If we make plans with someone and keep those plans, we are giving them stability. We can give someone space when they want to be alone, or quiet when they are being bothered by too much noise.
The practice of generosity is beneficial to us. It increases our confidence and self-esteem. It also helps lessen our attachments. If we give material things, it helps us lessen our attachment to material things. Cultivating generosity is helpful in developing love, joy, and compassion.

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Diamond Sutra: chapter 2

After a while a respected monk named Subhuti, who was sitting with the other followers, rose from his seat.
He bowed and then addressed the Buddha:
“Most Honored One, It is wonderful that you given so much knowledge and wisdom to your followers. It is remarkable that you look after our welfare so well.”
“I have a question to ask you. If sons and daughters of good families want to develop the highest, most fulfilled and awakened mind, if they wish to attain the Highest Perfect Wisdom, what should they do to help quiet their minds and subdue their cravings?”
The Buddha replied:
“I am mindful of the welfare of my followers. Listen carefully with your full attention, and I will sanswer your question.”
“If sons and daughters of good families want to develop the highest, most fulfilled and awakened mind, if they wish to attain the Highest Perfect Wisdom and quiet their minds while subduing their cravings, then they should follow what I am about to say to you. They will then be able to subdue their discriminative thoughts and craving desires. It is possible to attain perfect tranquility and clarity of mind by absorbing and dwelling on the teachings I am about to give.”
Then the Buddha addressed the assembly.

This is more introductory material. Subhuti has asked the Buddha to describe the essence of his teaching. These people have been following the Buddha’s example for a while and Subhuti is asking him to explain in a clear way what they should do, how they can quiet their minds and control their desires.