Diamond Sutra: Dharmas, Laws, and Notions

Today, I want to continue with a short explanation of the specific meanings of the term “dharma” in the Diamond Sutra.

Yesterday, I narrated a contemplation about baseballs to demonstrate how I understand the Diamond Sutra‘s insistence that named things are just names. In the process I explained the very general use of “dharma” in Buddhist texts: The separate concepts we have for the things we deal with in our everyday life, ranging from objects like baseballs to abstract things like skills, relationships, and professions. If you can name it and have a specific understanding of it, it’s a dharma. This is the meaning used in expressions like “all dharmas are empty.”

There are a couple more specific meanings of dharma found in the Diamond Sutra: Dharmas, laws, and notions.

The word “dharma” in Sanskrit is very general: It means a rule, pattern, or way that guides how things happens, how people behave, or how the mind understands its experience of life. As a result, it has different meanings in different contexts.

When dharma is translated as a proper noun “Dharma” it means a religious, secular, or professional doctrine or teaching that people use as a guide. The Buddha’s Dharma is the teaching and guidelines that Buddhists follow as a religious practice. The Dharmas of ordinary people would mean the ways of life among secular people. The Dharma of humans would mean the way of life of people in general compared to animals or mythical beings like the devas that live in the heavens. This is one use of the word dharma.

Dharma can also mean the rules and regulations created by humans to control each other’s behavior. I usually translate this use of dharma as “law” or “rule.” Dharma can mean laws that are enforced by governments, and it can mean the rules created by organizations, or even the informal “rules” of politeness. It could refer to a rule that you take your shoes off when entering a particular friend’s house.

A third meaning of dharma in the Diamond Sutra is the sixth type of sensation in Buddhist theory of experience: The mental sensation. There are the five bodily sensations: Sight, sound, odor, taste, and touch. Dharma is the term used for the sensations that happen in the mind’s eye when dreaming, imagining, thinking, or remembering things. I translate the term as “notions” for want of a better word in English because it runs a gamut of things like thoughts, emotions, decisions, mental imagery, etc. The baseball that we imagined holding in our hand yesterday was this type of dharma.




Diamond Sutra: A Baseball Is Not a Baseball; It’s Called a Baseball

The Diamond Sutra addresses a number of Buddhist concepts and themes but at the core of its mystery is an unexplained formula that is repeated over and over. It can be summarized as a sort of equation:

X is not X. This is called X.

The Sutra authors apply this equation to many things: The stream-enterer, the once-returner, the non-returner, and Subhuti’s famous practice as a peaceful hermit meditator who doesn’t argue about anything are the first things the formula is applied to in section 9 of the text.

We are given a strong hint before that in sections 6-8 about the reasoning behind the formula. The Buddha makes the point that even the teachings of the Buddha himself must be transcended and discarded at the end of the spiritual journey. They are like a raft that gets us safely from one side of a raging river to another. Therefore, the spoken teachings are not really the Buddha’s Dharma, they are just descriptions of it. Indeed, when that Dharma is examined closely, it’s like every other dharma.

But what is a dharma?

Suppose you are sitting at a desk. You might not be sitting at a desk now. If you are, imagine you are sitting somewhere else. Imagine there is a baseball sitting close by, and you notice it. It’s clearly a baseball. It looks like one, has the correct size and appearance: A white leather ball with stitching around it in that way baseballs are stitched.

Imagine you pick it up and hold it in the palm of your hand. It has a particular weight, a smooth feel against your hand. You squeeze it. It’s solid, but it does give just a little. If you’ve ever played baseball, you can remember a game you played. Catching a baseball like this one with a baseball glove and the sting of catching a baseball in the wrong way so that it hits your hand too fast. You can remember hitting a ball like this with a bat.

You may not have ever seen a baseball nor played a baseball game. You may only vaguely know about the game through snatches of conversation, or you might have seen a little of a game on television or at a website somewhere.

But now, you are holding a baseball in your hand in your mind. You feel it and see it; you can even smell it: It vaguely smells like old leather.

Now, this baseball you are imagining in your mind with all of these characteristics is an example of a dharma. It is something that is unique and particular. It has a baseball-ness all its own, and other baseballs can be recognized because they are very similar. In fact, unless you pay close attention, other baseballs will seem identical to it. They are all instances of the dharma ‘baseball.’

Depending on how well you know baseballs, if you’ve ever played the game or watched others play baseball, your ‘baseball’ dharma is going to differ from someone else’s. You might only know vaguely what an American baseball looks like, whereas someone who has played baseball as a child and as an adult knows much more. They know it’s weight, how much force to use when throwing it to someone else, how to catch it without hurting their hands, and how to hit it in different ways with a baseball bat. That person’s ‘baseball’ dharma is much more detailed, but it’s still a dharma.

Now, imagine you get up and take the baseball to a table. You want to know how a baseball is made; what’s inside of a baseball? You might know, but you’d like to see what it looks like out of curiosity. You find a sharp knife and cut through the leather skin that covers the ball, or you carefully sever the thread that sows it together. Either way, you work at it until the skin has been removed. You find a tightly wound ball of yarn! You might have known that was what was underneath; if you didn’t it might be a surprise. You cut through the yarn and unravel it.

At the center of the ball, after you’ve made a tangled pile of yarn, is a small ball of cork wood. It’s light and soft.

We’ve destroyed the baseball, reduced it to its constituent parts. A couple pieces of colored cow’s hide, a large pile of yarn in a couple colors, and a ball of cork.

Now, imagine you go back to your desk that you were sitting at. There’s another baseball sitting on it, just like the one you just destroyed.

How is that possible? You just destroyed a baseball, but you can imagine there is another one. The ball you imagined destroying and the new baseball you just imagined finding are not actually the dharma of baseballs. You can always imagine a baseball because you have the concept of a baseball–that is the dharma of baseballs.

If you did not have the concept of a baseball, this entire thought experiment would have been very difficult to imagine. You would have imagined calling something a baseball, but it may not have looked or felt or weighed the same as a baseball as I was meaning when I described it. This is because you did not have the concept of a baseball, or only a very vague one that was just a word and maybe an image from a magazine somewhere.

The Diamond Sutra’s authors might say, “The Buddha has explained that this is not a baseball. It’s called a baseball. Therefore, there are many baseballs.”

Indeed, it’s because the dharma of baseballs is something created in your mind that you can imagine any number of baseballs you’d like to, and they will all be like that concept that you have. It’s also why you can imagine all sort of things that are definitely not baseballs. It’s why you can imagine things that are only similar to baseballs.

But before anything was ever conceived as a baseball, there weren’t any baseballs. If someone came and saw a baseball who had never seen or heard of baseballs before, it wouldn’t be a baseball to them. It would just be an odd looking sphere. Maybe a ball.

The dharma of baseballs is a fiction our mind uses to understand the world as we experience it. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is one of the central insights that underlies the Diamond Sutra.

You can support my translation project at Patreon.