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The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom by Red Pine

This translation of a classic text—said to produce enlightenment through hearing a single line—will help modern yogis achieve self-knowledge.

By Richard Rosen


Legend has it that the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Hui-neng, achieved enlightenment after hearing just one line of the Diamond Sutra (in Sanskrit Vajracchedika Sutra, literally "Diamond Cutter Sutra"). One of the holiest and most popular of the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, it belongs to a compilation of about 40 books known as the Great Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom (Maha Prajnaparamita).

The first of these books was written about 100 B.C.E., with the others added on over the succeeding several centuries. They vary greatly in length: The longest is a monumental 100,000 lines, the shortest, one syllable or sound, "A," in which all the wisdom in all the books is said to be concentrated.

The Diamond Sutra has been rendered into English many times over the last 40-odd years; those editions are now joined by a wonderful new translation and commentary, The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom (Counterpoint), by Red Pine, the pen name of Bill Porter, an American who dropped out of his graduate studies in anthropology to become a Buddhist scholar and the acclaimed translator of Cold Mountain, Lao-tzu, and others.

Like the other sutra books in the Prajnaparamita, the Diamond Sutra is an eyewitness account of one of the Buddha's teachings. It took place, by Red Pine's estimate, around 400 B.C.E., when the Buddha was in his mid-60s. The teaching itself was passed along orally until its composition in Sanskrit, in just 300 lines (divided into 32 chapters), sometime after 300 C.E.

These texts always take the form of a question-and-answer session between the Buddha and one of his disciples, who serves as a sounding board for the teaching. We find this same give-and-take in many Hindu scriptures, such as the Upanishads and Tantras, where a sage or god is questioned by one of his followers or devotees. In the Diamond Sutra the questioner role is played by an arhan, a "venerable one," named Subuthi. To a certain extent he is, like the questioners in other dialogues, a stand-in for the reader, our partner in learning—though as a highly realized practitioner, Subuthi has the experience and insight to ask pointed questions that might never occur to the average person.

The Buddhist sutra ("thread") is no different from its Hindu counterpart, which we're familiar with from books like the Yoga Sutra and the Shiva Sutra. These threads are extremely compact packets of information that collectively provide only the skeleton of the teaching. This presents two challenges to all translators. The first is finding the right English words to communicate the sense of the Sanskrit—a language in which many of its words have layers of meaning, especially as used in the ancient scriptures. Deciding on a particular word's exact meaning within the context of the whole teaching can be tricky business.

Red Pine has done an admirable job in two ways. The exchange between the Buddha and Subuthi sounds harmonious to the modern English ear without sacrificing any of its noble character. He also explains how he surmounted the difficulties he faced in the process of translation; these comments heighten our appreciation of the teaching's subtlety and depth.

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