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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

The second challenge is fleshing out the teaching with a commentary. Because the Sanskrit words are open to so many different, sometimes conflicting, interpretations, deciphering the original intent of the teaching is also tricky. Red Pine's commentary, augmented with numerous quotes from other commentaries of both Indian and Chinese exegetes, is figuratively and literally enlightening. Reading along, at times I experienced a momentary shift into a higher gear of consciousness. This is the mark of a truly edifying spiritual document: the ability to actually induce, at least temporarily to some degree, the supreme state of consciousness being explicated by the teaching.

So what's this Diamond Sutra all about? And why should a yoga student, with enough yoga books around to fill the reading needs of several lifetimes, want to read a Buddhist text? Like the Yoga Sutra, the Diamond Sutra is in a sense a "medical" treatise; in this case the disease, which infects us all, is spiritual ignorance—what Patanjali calls avidya: the misidentification of our authentic nature with our limited self. The "antidote" to this disease, prescribed by the Buddha, is the "perfection of wisdom," a seemingly colossal task that really means nothing more than "to see things as they are and to share this vision with others." In another sense, then, the sutra is a self-help book, detailing the manner in which you should conduct yourself, both in outward behavior and inward attitude, in order to "be like Buddha."

Amazingly, the entire teaching, according to Red Pine, can be understood as a kind of gloss on a series of mundane incidents reported in the first chapter. One morning, the story goes, the Buddha left his small garden preserve and went with his bowl to the nearby city to beg for his daily meal. After eating, he returned to the garden, stowed his bowl, and washed his feet. Then he "sat down on the appointed seat," adjusted himself carefully, and "turned his awareness to what was before him."

This ordinary (for a Buddhist monk) morning outing turns out to be a teaching of the highest order, for those who have eyes to see. As Red Pine makes clear, every gesture, no matter how commonplace, is charged with significance; the Buddha here demonstrates how to impeccably align being, doing, and the principles of his teaching, so that there's no separation between life and spiritual practice. It's as if the Buddha's actions are a language in which each word embodies its own meaning. Red Pine remarks: "The Buddha never stops teaching. When asked, he teaches through words. Otherwise, he relies on his example."

This practice is based on the "six perfections" of charity, morality, forbearance, vigor, meditation, and wisdom; you might recognize a loose parallel with Patanjali's five virtues (see Yoga Sutra, 1.20) of faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. These perfections are a guide in everything we do, especially charity. For the Buddha, charity is the ultimate renunciation: the giving up of not only material things but also all wrong notions about the self. Just as Krishna counsels Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddha repeatedly implores us to remain unattached to the "fruits" of charity, and for that matter to any results based on the other five perfections. The Diamond Sutra furnishes us with an extensive outline of and strategy for the two great "poles" of Patanjali's system, persevering discipline (abhyasa) and detachment or renunciation (vairagya), under which all his other practices are subsumed.

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