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.

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Progress Report: Annotations and Mañjuśrī’s Sūtra for February

Now that I have a good translation of Kumārajīva’s Diamond Sūtra finished, I’ll begin working on an annotation that attempts to interpret it with both my personal reading and notes gleamed from the Vasubandhu/Asaṅga commentary that exists in Chinese. Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras are perplexing by design, but the Diamond Sūtra can seem like an disorganized enigma to  new readers. I’ll also work on building a bit of a glossary that can be used with other texts, too.

I’ll also be editing my rough draft of the Mañjuśrī Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra that I completed in December. This Sūtra won’t be new to English-speaking readers: Free translations have been published by Rulu and Lapis Lazuli Texts. There is also a translation from Sanskrit by Edward Conze in Perfect Wisdom: The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts. The difference, though, will be the edition that I’ll be translating.

There were a total of three versions of the Mañjuśrī Sūtra rendered in Chinese. Saṃghabhara and Mandrasena both produced translations of two different versions of this Sūtra at roughly the same time (indeed, they collaborated with each other on other projects). While the content of these two versions are essentially the same, the two do differ significantly. Rulu and Lapis Lazuli Texts both translated the Mandrasena version, which was Taisho No. 232. My translation will be using Xuanzang’s Chinese, which is more verbose than either Taisho No. 232 or 233, and it seems to create a hybrid of the two when they differ from each other.

So, that’s the roadmap for February: Beginning a contemporary annotation of the Diamond Sūtra and the release of the Xuanzang’s Mañjuśrī Sūtra.

T235. Kumārajīva’s Diamond Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra

Thus I have heard: One time, the Buddha was at Anāthapiṇḍada Park in Jeta Grove near Śrāvastī with a congregation of 1,250 great bhikṣus. When it was time to eat, the Bhagavān put on his robes and took his bowl into the great city of Śrāvastī to ask for food. Having gone from place to place in that city asking [for food], he returned to his dwelling. After he finished eating his meal, he put away his robes and bowl, washed his feet, prepared a seat, and sat down. [continued … ]

Translated to Chinese by the Indian Tripiṭaka Dharma Teacher Kumārajīva
Translated to English by Charles D. Patton, II

(Second Edition, 2019)

1.

Thus I have heard: One time, the Buddha was at Anāthapiṇḍada Park in Jeta Grove near Śrāvastī with a congregation of 1,250 great bhikṣus. When it was time to eat, the Bhagavān put on his robes and took his bowl into the great city of Śrāvastī to ask for food. Having gone from place to place in that city asking [for food], he returned to his dwelling. After he finished eating his meal, he put away his robes and bowl, washed his feet, prepared a seat, and sat down.

2.

The Elder Subhūti was in that large congregation at the time. He rose from his seat, bared his right shoulder, and knelt down on his right knee. He then saluted the Buddha with his palms together and said, “How extraordinary, Bhagavān! The Tathāgata well attends to the bodhisattvas and well confers [his teaching] to the bodhisattvas. Bhagavān, how should good sons and good daughters who have set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi abide? How should they control their minds?”

The Buddha replied, “Good, good! Subhūti, as you have said, [749a] the Tathāgata well attends to the bodhisattvas and well confers [his teaching] to the bodhisattvas. Now, listen closely: I shall explain for you how good sons and good daughters who have set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi should thus abide and thus control their minds.”

“Yes, Bhagavān! I would be happy to hear this.”

3.

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should thus control their minds: ‘Whatever type of sentient beings they may be, whether they are womb-born, egg-born, water-born, or born of transformation; whether they have form or no form, perception or no perception, or neither perception nor no perception, I will cause them all to enter the Nirvāṇa that has no remainder and completely liberate them.’ Thus having completely liberated measureless, countless, and limitless sentient beings, no sentient beings really will have attained complete liberation. Why is that? Subhūti, if a bodhisattva has the concept of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul, then he is not a bodhisattva.

4.

“Furthermore, Subhūti, no dharma should be a bodhisattva’s abode when she practices generosity. That is to say, she doesn’t abide in forms when she is generous, and she doesn’t abide in sounds, odors, flavors, touches, or notions when she is generous. Subhūti, a bodhisattva should thus be generous and not abide in appearances. Why is that? If a bodhisattva does not abide in appearances when she is generous, her merit will be unfathomable.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the extent of space to the East be fathomed, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān.”

“Subhūti, can the extent of space to the South, West, North, the four intermediate directions, up, and down be fathomed, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān.”

“Subhūti, the merit of a bodhisattva who has no abode in appearances when she is generous is likewise; it cannot be fathomed. Subhūti, bodhisattvas should only abide according to this teaching.”

5.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can you see the Tathāgata by way of his body’s signs, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. It’s not possible to see the Tathāgata by way of his body’s signs. Why is that? It has been explained by the Tathāgata that his body’s signs in fact are not his body’s signs.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “The signs possessed by anyone are false. If you see that these signs are not signs, then you’ll see the Tathāgata.”

6.

Subhūti said to the Buddha, “Bhagavān, isn’t it unlikely that sentient beings will hear such words and statements and really believe them?”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Don’t say that. During the last 500 years after the Tathāgata’s extinction, there will be people who observe the precepts and cultivate merits. They will be capable of believing these statements and consider them to be true. You should know [749b] that these people will not have planted their roots of goodness with one buddha, two buddhas, three, four, or five buddhas. They will have planted their roots of goodness with measureless hundreds of thousands of buddhas. If they hear these statements for even a single thought, they will become pure believers.

“Subhūti, the Tathāgata knows and sees that all of these sentient beings will attain such measureless merits. Why is that? These sentient beings will have no more concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. They will have no concepts of Dharma nor concepts of what is not Dharma. Why is that? If the minds of these sentient beings were to acquire concepts, then they would become attached to a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. If they were to acquire concepts of Dharma, then they would become attached to a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Why is that? If they were to acquire concepts of what is not Dharma, then they would become attached to a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Therefore, they should neither acquire the Dharma nor acquire what is not Dharma. It’s for this reason that the Tathāgata always says, ‘You bhikṣus, know that the Dharma I teach is like the Parable of the Raft. The Dharma must be abandoned, so what about what is not Dharma?’

7.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Did the Tathāgata attain anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi? Does the Tathāgata have a Dharma that he teaches?”

Subhūti replied, “As I understand the meaning of what the Buddha has taught, there’s no definite Dharma called ‘anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi,’ and there’s no definite Dharma that the Tathāgata can teach. Why is that? The Dharma taught by the Tathāgata can’t be acquired or expressed, and it’s neither Dharma nor not Dharma. What is the reason for that? All the noble sages are distinguished by this unconditioned Dharma.”

8.

“Subhūti, what do you think? If someone filled the billion-world universe with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving, would the merits attained by this person be rather many, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Numerous, Bhagavān. Why is that? These merits in fact would not have the nature of merits. Therefore, the Tathāgata says that his merits would be many.”

“Suppose someone else takes even a four-line verse from this sūtra and expounds it for other people. His merits would surpass that of the other’s. Why is that? Subhūti, all the buddhas and their Dharmas of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi are produced from this sūtra. Subhūti, the so-called ‘Buddha’s Dharma’ is not the Buddha’s Dharma.

9.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is the srota-āpanna capable of thinking, ‘I have attained the fruit of a srota-āpanna,’ or not?”

Subhūti replied, “No, Bhagavān. Why is that? Srota-āpanna is a name for entering the stream, but nothing is entered. He doesn’t enter forms, sounds, odors, tastes, touches, or notions. He is called a srota-āpanna.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? [749c] Is the sakṛdāgāmin capable of thinking, ‘I have attained the fruit of a sakṛdāgāmin,’ or not?”

Subhūti replied, “No, Bhagavān. Why is that? Sakṛdāgāmin is the name for having one more rebirth, but really there is no rebirth. She is called a sakṛdāgāmin.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is the anāgāmin capable of thinking, ‘I have attained the fruit of an anāgāmin,’ or not?”

Subhūti replied, “No, Bhagavān. Why is that? Anāgāmin is the name for not returning, but really there’s no returning. Therefore, he is called an anāgāmin.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is an arhat capable of thinking, ‘I have attained an arhat’s awakening,’ or not?”

Subhūti replied, “No, Bhagavān. Why is that? There really is no dharma called an arhat. Bhagavān, if an arhat were to think, ‘I have attained the arhat’s awakening,’ then she would be attached to a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Bhagavān, the Buddha has said I’m the best among people who’ve attained the samādhi of no conflict and the best arhat who is free of desire. I do not think, ‘I am an arhat who is free of desire.’ Bhagavān, if I were to think, ‘I have attained the arhat’s awakening,’ the Bhagavān would not say that Subhūti is someone who enjoys the araṇya practice. Nothing is really practiced by Subhūti, but he is called Subhūti who enjoys the araṇya practice.”

10.

The Buddha asked Subhūti, “What do you think? Was there a Dharma attained by the Tathāgata in the past when he was with the Buddha Dīpaṃkara, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. There really was no Dharma attained by the Tathāgata when he was with the Buddha Dīpaṃkara.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does a bodhisattva adorn a buddha land, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. Why is that? What adorns the buddha land is not an adornment. It is called an adornment.”

“Therefore, Subhūti, bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should thus form pure thoughts: They should not abide in forms when forming thoughts, nor should they abide in sounds, odors, tastes, touches, or notions when forming thoughts. They should abide in nothing when they form their thoughts.

“Subhūti, suppose, for example, a person has a body that’s like Sumeru the Mountain King. What do you think? Would this body be large, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Enormous, Bhagavān. Why is that? The Buddha has taught that it’s not a body. It is called a large body.”

11.

“Subhūti, suppose there were as many Gaṅgā Rivers as the number of sand grains in the Gaṅgā River. What do you think? Would there be many sand grains in those Gaṅgā Rivers, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Numerous, Bhagavān. Just the number of Gaṅgā Rivers would be countless. How many more would their sand grains be?”

“Subhūti, I am speaking honestly now when I ask you this: If there were good sons and good daughters [750a] who filled as many billion-world universes as the number of sand grains in those Gaṅgā Rivers with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving, would they attain many merits, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Numerous, Bhagavān.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Suppose a good son or good daughter takes even a four-line verse from this sūtra and explains it for other people. The merits of this would surpass the merits of the previous example.

12.

“Furthermore, Subhūti, you should know that all the world’s devas, humans, and asuras should give offerings to a place that follows what’s taught in this sūtra like they would to a buddha’s shrine, even if it’s just a four-line verse. How would it be if someone can accept, retain, read, and recite all of it? Subhūti, you should know that this person will accomplish the supreme, best, and extraordinary Dharma. Wherever there is a copy of this sūtra, a buddha or a venerated disciple is present there.”

13.

At that point, Subhūti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, what shall be the name of this sūtra? How are we to preserve it?”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “This sūtra’s name is Diamond Prajñā Pāramitā. You should preserve it with this title. What is the reason for that? Subhūti, the prajñā-pāramitā that the Buddha teaches isn’t the prajñā-pāramitā.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is there a Dharma that’s taught by the Tathāgata, or not?”

Subhūti said to the Buddha, “Bhagavān, nothing is taught by the Tathāgata.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Are the particles in a billion-world universe many, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “Numerous, Bhagavān.”

“Subhūti, the Tathāgata teaches that particles are not particles. They are called particles. The Tathāgata teaches that worlds are not worlds. They are called worlds.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is it possible to see the Tathāgata by way of the 32 signs, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. It’s not possible to see the Tathāgata by way of the 32 signs. Why is that? The Tathāgata teaches that the 32 signs in fact are not signs. They are called the 32 signs.”

“Subhūti, suppose a good son or good daughter gives as many lives as the sands of the Gaṅgā River as gifts, and suppose someone else takes even a four-line verse from this sūtra and explains it for other people. His merits would be numerous.”

14.

When Subhūti heard the teaching of this sūtra and deeply understood its meaning, he was moved to tears and wept. He said to the Buddha, “How extraordinary, Bhagavān, that the Buddha has taught such a profound sūtra! From the time I attained the wisdom eye until now, I’ve never heard such a sūtra before. [750b] Bhagavān, if someone else were to hear this sūtra with a faith that’s pure, then she will form the concept of reality. It should be known that this person will achieve the best and extraordinary merits. Bhagavān, this concept of reality isn’t a concept. Therefore, the Tathāgata teaches that it’s called the concept of reality.

“Bhagavān, now that I’ve heard such a sūtra, confidently accepting and retaining it isn’t difficult to do. Suppose there are sentient beings during the last 500 years in the future who come to hear this sūtra, and they confidently accept and retain it. They will be the best and extraordinary people. Why is that? These people will have no concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. What is the reason for that? The concept of a self in fact is not a concept. The concepts of a person, a sentient being, and a soul in fact are not concepts. Why is that? Those who are separated from all concepts are called buddhas.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “So it is, so it is! Suppose again that someone who comes to hear this sūtra isn’t astonished, alarmed, or frightened by it. You should know that this person would be quite extraordinary. Why is that? Subhūti, the best pāramitā that the Tathāgata teaches is not the best pāramitā. It is called the best pāramitā.

“Subhūti, the pāramitā of tolerance, the Tathāgata teaches, is not the pāramitā of tolerance. Why is that? Subhūti, my body was once cut to pieces by King Kaliṅga, and at the time I had no concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Why is that? When I was dismembered back then, I would have become angry if I had had the concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul.

“Subhūti, I also recall that 500 lifetimes ago I had become the sage Kṣānti. During that life, I had no concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul. Therefore, Subhūti, bodhisattvas should be free of all concepts to set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. They shouldn’t abide in forms when forming that thought, nor should they abide in sounds, odors, tastes, touches, or notions when forming that thought. They should form thoughts that abide in nothing. If that thought abides in something, then it would not be an abode. Therefore, the Buddha has taught that the bodhisattva’s thoughts should not abide in forms when he is generous.

“Subhūti, bodhisattvas should thus be generous in order to benefit all sentient beings. The Tathāgata teaches that all concepts in fact are not concepts. He also teaches that all sentient beings are not sentient beings.

“Subhūti, the Tathāgata speaks honestly, speaks genuinely, speaks thusly, doesn’t speak falsely, and doesn’t speak inconsistently.

“Subhūti, the Dharma attained by the Tathāgata is neither real nor fake. Subhūti, if a bodhisattva’s thoughts abide [750c] in dharmas when she practices generosity, she will be like someone who enters darkness and sees nothing. If a bodhisattva’s thoughts don’t abide in dharmas when she practices generosity, she will be like someone with eyes seeing a variety of forms in broad daylight.

“Subhūti, if there are good sons and good daughters in future times who can accept, retain, read, and recite what’s in this sūtra, the Tathāgata knows and sees with his buddha wisdom that all these people will achieve measureless and limitless merits.

15.

“Subhūti, suppose there are good sons and good daughters who give their bodies as gifts in numbers like the sands of the Gaṅgā River in the morning, who give their bodies as gifts in numbers like the sands of the Gaṅgā River in the afternoon, and who give their bodies as gifts in numbers like the sands of the Gaṅgā River in the evening. They thus use their bodies as gifts for measureless hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of eons. Suppose someone else hears this sūtra with faith and doesn’t reject it. His merits would be greater than those of the other. How would it be if he copies, accepts, retains, reads, recites, and explains it for others?

“Subhūti, essentially speaking, this sūtra has inconceivable, inestimable, and limitless merits. The Tathāgata teaches it for those setting out on the great vehicle. He teaches it for those setting out on the supreme vehicle. If there are people who can accept, retain, read, recite, and fully explain it for others, the Tathāgata knows and sees that all these people coming to achieve immeasurable, inexpressible, limitless, and inconceivable merits. Such people carry the Tathāgata’s anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Why is that? Subhūti, if someone enjoys lesser Dharmas, she is attached to the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul. She cannot hear, accept, retain, read, recite, or explain this sūtra for others.

“Subhūti, wherever it may be that this sūtra is found, all the world’s devas, humans, and asuras should present offerings there. They should know this place to be a shrine and pay their respects by bowing, circumambulating, and scattering flowers and incense around it.

16.

“Moreover, Subhūti, if good sons and good daughters who accept, retain, read, and recite this sūtra are disrespected by others, they will have fallen into unpleasant destinies because of misdeeds done in previous lives. These misdeeds done in their previous lives will be extirpated because they are disrespected by others in the present life, and they will attain anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.

“Subhūti, I recall being in the presence of Buddha Dīpaṃkara measureless asaṃkhyeya eons ago. I had met, made offerings to, and served 84 hundreds of thousands of tens of thousands of millions of nayutas of buddhas, and none of it was in vain. [751a] Suppose someone in the final era is able to accept, retain, read, and recite this sūtra. The merits of my offerings to those buddhas would not be a hundredth of the merits attained by him. They wouldn’t be a thousandth, a ten thousandth, or a millionth of it. There is no fraction of his to which my merits could be compared.

“Subhūti, if I were to fully describe the merits attained by good sons and good daughters in the final era who accept, retain, read, and recite this sūtra, some people hearing it would be perplexed and incredulous, and they wouldn’t believe it. Subhūti, you should know that the meaning of this sūtra is inconceivable, and its effects are also inconceivable.”

17.

Subhūti then asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, how should good sons and good daughters who have set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi abide? How do they control their minds?”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “Good sons and good daughters who set their minds on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi will form this thought, ‘I should completely liberate all sentient beings. Once I’ve completely liberated all sentient beings, there really won’t be a single sentient being that was completely liberated.’ Why is that? Subhūti, if a bodhisattva has the concepts of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul, then he is not a bodhisattva. What is the reason for that? Subhūti, there really is no dharma that is setting one’s mind on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.

“Subhūti, what do you think? When the Tathāgata was with the Buddha Dīpaṃkara, did he have a Dharma that attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. As I understand the meaning of what the Buddha has taught, the Buddha had no Dharma that attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi when he was with the Buddha Dīpaṃkara.”

The Buddha said, “So it is, so it is! Subhūti, there really is no dharma that is the Tathāgata’s attainment of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Subhūti, if there was a dharma that is the Tathāgata’s attainment of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi, then the Buddha Dīpaṃkara wouldn’t have given me the prediction, ‘In a future life, you will become a buddha named Śākyamuni.’ That’s because there really is no Dharma that attains anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Therefore, the Buddha Dīpaṃkara gave me that prediction and said, ‘In a future life, you will become a buddha named Śākyamuni.’ Why is that? The meaning of ‘Tathāgata’ in fact is the suchness of dharmas.

“Suppose someone were to say, ‘The Tathāgata has attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.’ Subhūti, there really is no dharma that is a buddha attaining anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Subhūti, there is nothing about the Tathāgata’s attainment of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi [751b] that is either real or fake. Therefore, the Tathāgata says, ‘All dharmas are the Buddha’s Dharma.’ Subhūti, the term ‘all dharmas’ in fact is not all dharmas. Therefore, it is called all dharmas.

“Subhūti, take for example a person whose body is huge.”

Subhūti said, “Bhagavān, the Tathāgata has taught that the person’s body that’s huge is not a large body. It is called a large body.”

“Subhūti, a bodhisattva is likewise. If she makes the statement, ‘I shall completely liberate measureless sentient beings,’ then she is not called a bodhisattva. Why is that? Subhūti, there really is no dharma that’s called a bodhisattva. Therefore, the Buddha teaches that all dharmas have no self, person, sentient being, or soul.

“Subhūti, suppose a bodhisattva makes this statement, ‘I will adorn the buddha land.’ He is not called a bodhisattva. Why is that? The Tathāgata has taught that adorning the buddha land in fact is not an adornment. It is called adorning [the buddha land]. Subhūti, if a bodhisattva fully comprehends the Dharma of selflessness, the Tathāgata has taught that she is called a genuine bodhisattva.”

18.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the flesh eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the flesh eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the deva eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the deva eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the wisdom eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the wisdom eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the Dharma eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the Dharma-eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Does the Tathāgata possess the Buddha eye, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata possesses the Buddha eye.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Has the Buddha spoken about the sands that are in the Gaṅgā River, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata has spoken about these sands.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? There are Gaṅgā Rivers equal to the sands in a single Gaṅgā River, and buddha worlds numbering like the sands of all those Gaṅgā Rivers. Would they thus be rather many, or not?”

“Numerous, Bhagavān.”

The Buddha told Subhūti, “The Tathāgata knows all the types of thought that are possessed by the sentient beings in those lands. Why is that? The Tathāgata has taught that thoughts are not thoughts. They are called thoughts. What is the reason for that? Subhūti, past thoughts are inapprehensible, present thoughts are inapprehensible, and future thoughts are inapprehensible.”

19.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Suppose someone filled the billion-world universe [751c] with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving. Would this person obtain many merits by means of these causes and conditions, or not?”

“So it is, Bhagavān. This person would obtain numerous merits by means of these causes and conditions.”

“Subhūti, if these merits were real, the Tathāgata would not say that he would obtain many merits. The Tathāgata says that he would obtain many merits because these merits don’t exist.”

20.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Buddha be seen by way of his perfected form body, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata should not be seen by way his perfected form body. Why is that? The Tathāgata has taught that the perfected form body in fact is not a perfected form body. It is called the perfected form body.”

“Subhūti, what do you think? Can the Tathāgata be seen by way of his perfected signs, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. The Tathāgata should not be seen by way of his perfected signs. Why is that? The Tathāgata has taught that the perfection of signs in fact is not a perfection. It is called the perfection of signs.”

21.

“Subhūti, don’t say that the Tathāgata had this thought, ‘I will have a Dharma that I will teach.’ Don’t think this. Why is that? Suppose a person says, ‘The Tathāgata has a Dharma that he teaches.’ That in fact is slandering the Buddha because he cannot understand what I teach. Subhūti, there is no Dharma that a Dharma teacher can teach. She is called a Dharma teacher.”

It was then that the Venerable Subhūti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, isn’t it doubtful that there will be sentient beings in future eras who will hear this Dharma and believe it?”

The Buddha replied, “Subhūti, they won’t be sentient beings, nor will they not be sentient beings. Why is that? Subhūti, ‘sentient beings, sentient beings,’ the Tathāgata has taught, are not sentient beings. They are called sentient beings.”

22.

Subhūti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, was the Buddha’s attainment of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi the attainment of nothing?”

The Buddha replied, “So it is, so it is! Subhūti, there is not even the slightest dharma that I can be obtain in anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. It is called anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.”

23.

“Again, Subhūti, the Dharma is level, without high or low. This is called anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Because they have no self, person, sentient being, or soul, cultivating all wholesome dharmas attains anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi. Subhūti, the term ‘wholesome dharma,’ the Tathāgata has taught, is not a wholesome dharma. It is called a wholesome dharma.

24.

“Subhūti, suppose someone takes and uses for gift-giving piles of the seven treasures like all the Mount Sumerus that exist in a billion-world universe, [752a] and suppose that a person accepts, retains, reads, recites, and explains for others even a four-line verse from this Prajñā-pāramitā Sūtra. The former’s merits would not be to a hundredth, a thousandth, a ten thousandth, or a millionth of her merits. There’s no fraction of it to which the former’s can be compared.

25.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Don’t say that the Tathāgata thinks, ‘I will liberate sentient beings.’ Subhūti, don’t think that. Why is that? There really aren’t any sentient beings that the Tathāgata liberates. If there were sentient beings that the Tathāgata liberates, then the Tathāgata would have a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul. Subhūti, the Tathāgata teaches that having a self is not having a self, but ordinary people take it to be having a self. Subhūti, ‘ordinary people,’ the Tathāgata has taught, are not ordinary people.”

26.

“Subhūti, what do you think? Is it possible to examine the Tathāgata by way of the 32 signs, or not?”

Subhūti replied, “So it is, so it is! The Tathāgata is examined by the 32 signs.”

The Buddha said, “Subhūti, if the Tathāgata is examined by the 32 signs, a wheel-turning holy king would be a Tathāgata.”

Subhūti said to the Buddha, “Bhagavān, as I understand the meaning of what the Buddha has taught, the Tathāgata should not be examined by way of the 32 signs.”

The Bhagavān then spoke this verse:

“If he sees me by way of my form
or seeks me by way of my voice,
this person practices the wrong path
and cannot see the Tathāgata.

27.

“Subhūti, suppose you were to think, ‘It was not because he perfected the signs that the Tathāgata attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.’ Subhūti, don’t think that it was not because he perfected the signs that the Tathāgata attained anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.

“Subhūti, suppose you were to think, ‘Someone who sets their mind on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi teaches the elimination of dharmas.’ Don’t think that. Why is that? Someone who sets their mind on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi doesn’t teach the elimination of dharmas.

28.

“Subhūti, suppose a bodhisattva filled worlds numbering like the sands of the Gaṅgā River with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving. Suppose someone else knows that all dharmas are selfless, and he can achieve tolerance of them. The merit attained by this bodhisattva is greater than that of the former bodhisattva. Subhūti, this is because bodhisattvas don’t accept merit.”

Subhūti asked the Buddha, “Bhagavān, how do bodhisattvas not accept merit?”

[752b] “Subhūti, a bodhisattva should not covet the merits that he makes. Therefore, I say he doesn’t accept merit.

29.

“Subhūti, suppose someone says the Tathāgata comes, goes, sits, and lies down. This person doesn’t understand the meaning of what I teach. Why is that?  A Tathāgata doesn’t come from anywhere and doesn’t go anywhere. Therefore, he is called a Tathāgata.”

30.

“Subhūti, suppose a good son or good daughter were to grind the billion-world universe to particles. What do you think? Would that multitude of particles be rather many, or not?”

“Numerous, Bhagavān. Why is that? If this multitude of particles really existed, then the Buddha would not say it’s a multitude of particles. What’s the reason for that? The Buddha has taught that this multitude of particles in fact is not a multitude of particles. It is called a multitude of particles.

“Bhagavān, that billion-world universe the Tathāgata mentioned is not a universe. It is called a universe. Why is that? If these worlds really existed, then this would be the concept of an entity. The Tathāgata has taught the concept of an entity is not the concept of an entity. It is called the concept of an entity.”

“Subhūti, the concept of an entity is inexpressible. Only ordinary people covet such things.

31.

“Subhūti, suppose someone says, ‘The Buddha teaches the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, or a soul.’ Subhūti, what do you think? Does this person understand the meaning of what I teach, or not?”

“No, Bhagavān. This person does not understand the meaning of what the Tathāgata teaches. Why is that? The Bhagavān has taught that the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul are not the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul. They are called the views of a self, a person, a sentient being, and a soul.”

“Subhūti, someone who sets her mind on anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi should thus know, thus see, and thus be confident about all dharmas. She does not form the concept of a dharma. Subhūti, the term ‘concept of a dharma,’ the Tathāgata teaches, in fact is not the concept of a dharma. It is called the concept of a dharma.

32.

“Subhūti, suppose someone filled a measureless asaṃkhyeya of worlds with the seven treasures to use for gift-giving. Again, suppose there is a good son or good daughter who has set their mind on the bodhisattva’s thought and accept, retain, read, recite, and expound for others even a four-line verse taken from this sūtra. Their merits would surpass that of the former’s. How would they expound it for people? Not grasping onto concepts or suchness, they would be unmoved. Why is that?

“All conditioned dharmas are like
Dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
dew, and like lightning:
They should thus be contemplated.”

Once the Buddha had taught this sūtra, the Elder Subhūti, the bhikṣus, bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas, [752c] upāsikās, and all the world’s devas, humans, and asuras who heard what the Buddha taught rejoiced. They faithfully accepted and handed it down.

The Diamond Prajñā Pāramitā Sūtra

Progress Report

Things have been busy as I juggle a number of different projects in addition to my translation work. I’m still working on a re-release of Kumārajīva’s Diamond Sutra in English, having taken a break from it to draft an English translation of Mañjuśrī’s Teaching of the Perfection of Wisdom from Xuanzang’s Chinese. I’ve decided that for 2019, my initial goal will be translate the smaller Perfection of Wisdom texts to English. You can see the initial list of texts here.

I’ve also decided that I will publish the translations to this blog and fuller editions with introductions and/or annotations as e-books this year. I hope everyone had a wonderful New Year and for this year to be better than the last.

Progress Report: the Diamond Sūtra

The past two weeks, I’ve been working on my new edition of Kumārajīva’s Diamond Sūtra. This critical translation will be as accurate and readable as I can make it. My concerns as a translator of a text like this are twofold:

  1. It needs to readable, modern English.
  2. It needs to represent as closely as possible what Kumārajīva wrote.

These two concerns clash somewhat, but they aren’t impossible to accomplish. It means that the prose adheres to generally accepted standards of modern English grammar and style. Contractions are fine, sentences should not be complex or long-winded, and clauses should not be convoluted or awkward in order.

One difficulty of goal #2, however, is the need to preserve some of Kumārajīva’s choices as a translator, such as when he chose to transliterate Sanskrit words rather than render them to Chinese. Another is the fact that some of his word choices are ambiguous. He uses the Chinese word 相 in a couple different ways, as an example. Comparing his Chinese to Sanskrit and later translations to Chinese makes these ambiguities easier to manage, even as I attempt to keep the English a translation of his voice and not what I speculate was what he was translating.

Such are the puzzles of translating translations of ancient documents. They guarantee that there will always be judgement calls that others will nitpick, but careful readings and flexible use of modern English idioms can at least ensure that the reader isn’t misled.

As I review and edit my old version of this sūtra, many topics of interpretation have occurred to me. One is Subhūti himself. He’s quite a character: An obscurity in the Pali Canon, yet an imposing standard-bearer in the Prajñā-pāramitā literature. How or why did he get drafted for the role? Another is the role of the Diamond Sūtra in relation to the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, in which Subhūti teaches the bodhisattvas how to practice the prajñā-pāramitā rather than asking the Buddha about it. And, of course, there’s the task of deciphering a text that doesn’t appear to have any rational organization to it as it rambles along reiterating several points in different ways.

I’ll try to take some time in the next week or two to outline some of these topics here on the blog, and I will also expand on them in an introduction to the new translation. Currently, I’ve completed the first pass on the manuscript and have begun the second pass to resolve the more thorny issues of translating this classic of Buddhist literature.

A New Start: 20 Years Later

It’s been a little more than 20 years since I first laid eyes on a volume of the Taisho Daizokyo as a young student at Ohio State University. I had begun to teach myself to read Chinese because of my frustration with how much one translation of the Dao De Jing varied from the next. In those days, circa 1998, the World Wide Web was just beginning, and I was one of many eager experimenters who learned HTML and created free home pages to share with the world. These two interests quickly combined, and I began publishing English translations (albeit novice translations) to my website, which began as the The Gateless Passage and in later years morphed into Dharma Pearls.

Many of my translations from those early days are still circulating. The Diamond Sūtra, in particular, was released to the public and was posted on websites ranging from Buddhist to New Age in interest. You can find a well-preserved example at Buddhism Today. It was my first attempt at translation, and it was a good place to start because of lack of difficult technical terms, transliterations, and Kumārajīva’s easy Chinese prose.

Over the next 10 years, I translated a number of other short texts like Xuanzang’s Smaller Pure Land Sūtra and the Visualization of Amitabha Sūtra. My largest project was an attempt at translating the Great Parinirvāṇa Sūtra from Chinese, but it was about 25% into the draft that I realized my knowledge of Buddhism and Chinese were still too lacking to complete it properly.

However, my studies of Buddhism and classical Chinese continued, and I’ve finally decided it’s time to return to this work. I will be updating my previous translations, editing them both for accuracy and style, and republishing them. I will also be returning to my draft of the Nirvāṇa Sūtra, dusting it off, and continuing the work that I had begun many moons ago.

Stayed tuned for more reflections, articles, excerpts, and news; and thanks for reading!