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The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom by Red Pine

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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.

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.

But unlike classical yoga, which focuses on the salvation of the individual practitioner, the only completely right practice for the Buddha is that which compassionately helps other beings. This is the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva (“Buddha-in-waiting”), the spiritual warrior who, as Red Pine writes, “resolves to attain buddhahood in order to liberate others.” Nowadays most yoga students and teachers are perhaps already committed to some form of this practice, whether they’re aware of it or not; the Diamond Sutra helps us to recognize, appreciate, and solidify our determination to delay reaching our own final destination—nirvana—until we’re sure that everyone else is along for the ride.

The knottiest teaching in this book is surely the doctrine of the “emptiness” of all things, of the self and being, of the teaching at hand, even emptiness itself. I won’t pretend that I digested this one, though it seems to me that for the Buddha the self is a limiting factor and that selflessness paradoxically opens the bodhisattva up to all selves. As a longtime student of yoga scriptures, I’m accustomed to a nice atman or purusha hovering in the neighborhood, “eternal, pure, and joyful,” (Yoga Sutra, 11.5) as Patanjali puts it—something on which to hang my metaphysical hat. The prospect of emptiness made me dizzy and left me wondering how I was supposed to create content for something that’s utterly contentless. I felt better when I read that the Buddha’s words are, to the uninitiated, the “most traumatic teaching” they will ever encounter. I suppose it’s breathtakingly freeing to be free of everything, including freedom itself.

A diamond is the hardest naturally occurring substance. You can’t cut it, but it can cut through any substance. It’s also extremely valuable and, in the way it reflects light, exceedingly beautiful. The Diamond Sutra, along with Red Pine’s commentary, is a precious tool that reflects the brilliance of the Buddha’s teaching and enables us, if we give it the chance, to cut through what’s hardest in our lives: our own self-ignorance.

For a dyed-in-the-wool yoga student like myself, reading this book—and more importantly, meditating on its teaching—alternately confused and excited me, made me exquisitely uncomfortable by challenging a number of my cherished self-beliefs, and inspired new perspectives and new directions in my practice.

Contributing Editor Richard Rosen is deputy director of the Yoga Research and Education Center, in Santa Rosa, California, and teaches public classes in Berkeley and Oakland, California. His book The Yoga of Breath will be published next summer by Shambhala.