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The Diamond Sutra

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture No. 74 : The Diamond Sutra

Mr. Chairman and friends.
Sometimes it happens that we live as it were, we dwell very much in the present. Sometimes again
we let our thoughts go; we think of the future. And sometimes again we allow ourselves the luxury
–if you like- of just floating back into the past, not to say drifting back into the past. So it so
happens that this afternoon my mind goes floating back into the past; and I’m afraid it goes floating
back many years. It goes back 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, it goes back to the summer of
1942, or it might have been 1941, but in either case that’s a pretty long time ago. And of course it
was here in London and it was during the war. And I remember that I’d very recently returned from
the country, from the southwest in fact, and I was at that time very deep in the study of Eastern
philosophies and religions, the different systems, teachings, translations of texts; I was reading in
fact at that time all the books on these Eastern teachings, these Eastern traditions, that I could
possibly get hold of, especially books on Buddhism. And it was at this time, more than 20 years
ago, here in London that I came across, I encountered two works which made a tremendous
impression on me. In fact it wasn’t just a question of an impression but even, one may say, an
impact. One might go so far as to say that reading them, just going through them for the first time
was even a tremendous spiritual experience. So much so that I may even affirm that the perusal of
those two works then changed radically the whole course of my life; or perhaps I should say it made
me realize for the first time what the course of my life really was, made me realize, in a word, that I
was a Buddhist, whatever that may mean. Now, the first of these works, the first of these
tremendous works was the ‘Platform Scripture’, which we, in our ignorance, then called the ‘Sutra
of Wei Lang’. The other work was the Diamond Sutra. And it is of course with the Diamond Sutra
that we are concerned today.
And we are concerned with it, we’re dealing with it not just as it were for biographical reasons, not
just because I happened to be impressed by it and still am impressed by it today, we’re dealing with
it, we’re concerned with it, vitally concerned with it rather because it is one of the most important,
one of the best known and also one of the spiritually most valuable of all the Buddhist scriptures, of
all the Buddhist texts.
It forms, it constitutes an integral, an essential part of the mainstream of Buddhist tradition,
especially in the Mahayana Buddhist world, whether we turn to China, whether we turn to Tibet,
whether we turn to Japan or to Mongolia, or to Korea, or to Vietnam, there we find, in one language
or another, one translation or another, recited almost daily, commented upon, meditated upon,
explained, expounded, there we find the Diamond Sutra; so that if we do not have some
acquaintance at least with this great work, then we do not really, do not truly know Buddhism. Or at
least it must be said that our knowledge of Buddhism is imperfect.
Now Western Buddhists, whether it’s Buddhists in this country or Buddhists in the United States or
in Germany or France, Western Buddhists have, no doubt, quite a lot to grumble about. Here in the
West we’ve no large monasteries containing hundreds of monks, that’s one great disadvantage we
suffer from; we’ve no sympathetic employers to give us three months leave with pay when we want
to go and meditate, which is what happens in Burma, we’ve no Buddhist processions even, just to
enliven things, through the streets of London, we don’t even have any public holidays on full moon
days, and of course we’ve no Zen masters, and we’ve no cremation grounds to visit in the
moonlight, and sometimes, sad to say it even rains during our retreats, but there is one thing at least
that we can’t grumble about – we can’t grumble about the lack of translations of the Diamond
Sutra. There are at least eight complete translations in English alone, leaving aside those in French,
German, Italian, Russian and other languages. The first English translation of the Diamond Sutra,
chronologically speaking, is that of Samuel Beal, which was published more than one hundred
years ago, published, to be precise, in the years 1864 to 65 in a journal, and the latest translation of
the Diamond Sutra is that of Charles Luk, published in 1960. So we’ve no excuse for not at least
reading this work. Our Chairman referred to buying it and putting it on the shelf as it were, well,
that’s easy enough, but we’ve no excuse even for not reading it because the translations are there.
Now the full title of the work in the original Sanskrit – it’s a Sanskrit Buddhist text – is
‘Vajracheddika-Prajnaparamita-Sutra’. So let’s take that, it’s all one word in Sanskrit, let’s take it
bit by bit, backwards. First of all, what is a Sutra? S-u-t-r-a , what is a Sutra? A Sutra is simply the
literary record of a discourse delivered by the Buddha or of a dialogue in which the Buddha takes a
part, usually of course a leading part, and a Sutra can be either short or long, even very short or very
long, some Sutras are just a few pages, even a few lines, others go on for volume after volume after
volume, and of course there are hundreds of Sutras, some of them survive in the original Sanskrit or
in the original Pali, others survive only in Chinese translations or Tibetan translation. So from just
these few facts we can begin to see that the picture is a little complex, not to say confused, but
we’re not going into all that sort of literary detail today.
At the moment we are more concerned with a more important question, and that is ‘what do we
mean by Buddha?’. We say that a Sutra is a discourse or a dialogue given by the Buddha, but what
do we mean by Buddha? Literally the Buddha or a Buddha is one who is wise. The word Buddha
comes from a root meaning ‘to know, to understand’, so a Buddha is one who is wise, one who is
awake, one who is, in a word, enlightened, but essentially really the word means ‘one who knows,
one who sees face to face Reality, or one who fully and integrally experiences Reality in the heights
and the depths of his being.
So a Sutra, a discourse given by the Buddha, a dialogue in which the Buddha takes part is therefore
not just a religious text in the ordinary sense. A Sutra is very much more than that. A Sutra
represents the utterance, the word, the expression of an enlightened mind, if you like of the
Enlightened Mind, a Sutra is as it were a communication from the heart of Reality, the heart of True
Being, it’s, if you like, the Truth of Existence speaking, even appealing, to the Truth in us; so that
when we read the Diamond Sutra we are not just reading a book, not even a religious book, not
even a scripture, when we read the Diamond Sutra, or in fact any Sutra, then, if we are receptive,
and this must be stressed again and again, if we are receptive, then we are in contact, so far as the
medium of words allows, so far as our own limitations of various kinds permit, in contact with a
higher level of being, a higher level of consciousness.
This is what the reading of the Sutra, the Diamond Sutra really means, really represents. And we
may have occasion to return to this theme a little later on.
Next, the Diamond Sutra is a Prajnaparamita-Sutra. Prajnaparamita means ‘Transcendental
Wisdom’. Prajna is knowledge in excelsius, or Wisdom; Paramita is ‘that which goes beyond’, in
other words, the Transcendental or the transcending, that which crosses over to the further shore. So
‘Prajnaparamita’ is translated often not only as Transcendental Wisdom, but as ‘The Wisdom That
Goes Beyond’, the Wisdom that takes the plunge into the Beyond, the plunge into the
Transcendental, the higher dimension if you like.
It’s the Wisdom that goes beyond all duality, that transcends all mind-made distinctions and
divisions. And it is of course the fundamental thesis of Buddhism that it is by developing this
Wisdom, this Transcendental Wisdom, this Wisdom that goes beyond, that we gain Nirvana,
Enlightenment or Buddhahood, or whatever else one cares to term it.
So all the Buddhist scriptures, whether Sutras or other works, all the Buddhist scriptures have some
bearing on the development of Transcendental Wisdom, the Wisdom that goes beyond. But there
are some Sutras which deal with it directly, which deal with it almost exclusively, deal with almost
nothing else, simply and solely the Perfection of Wisdom, or Transcendental Wisdom, and these
Sutras or Sutras of this class are known as Prajnaparamita-Sutras, or Sutras devoted to the
Perfection of Wisdom or Transcendental Wisdom.
And there are altogether some thirty five of these Sutras, devoted and dedicated to Transcendental
Wisdom. Some are long, some are short, and the Diamond Sutra is one of them. It’s called the
‘Vajracheddika-Prajnaparamita-Sutra’, to indicate that it belongs to that group, that class of Sutras
dealing specifically, dealing almost exclusively with Transcendental Wisdom, dealing with
different aspects, various aspects of Transcendental Wisdom.
And finally, the title of the work is the ‘Vajracheddika-Prajnaparamita-Sutra’. So what does this
mean?
‘Vajra’, the first part of the word means both diamond and thunderbolt. ...

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