Sunday Dharma: The Diamond Sutra in 30 Lines

Kongokai Diamond realm MandalaThe Vajracchedika-prajnaparamita or Diamond Sutra is a relatively short sutra drawn from the massive Maha Prajna-paramitra or Great Transcendent Wisdom Sutra. A Chinese version, a scroll printed in 868 CE, is the world’s oldest, dated, printed book.

If there is one word that sums up The Diamond Sutra it might be “paradoxical.” It is difficult to understand at first, but those who persevere will eventually understand why it is one of the most important and influential Buddhist texts. The sutra emphasizes the illusory nature of all phenomena and stresses the value of compassion, especially the spirit of giving without expecting to receive something in return.

As I said the Maha Prajna-paramitra is massive, voluminous.  Both the Diamond and Heart sutras were attempt to distill it all into more manageable works.   The Diamond Sutra is 300 lines of Sanskrit.  I don’t know how many lines English versions contain but the early translation by E.B. Cowell, F. Max Mulller, and J. Takakusu is about 9000 words, and that includes footnotes interspersed throughout the text.

This is my much condensed interpretation of the Diamond Sutra, prepared with an eye toward a piece that could be easily chanted.

Diamond Wisdom That Cuts Through Illusion

Om Transcendent Wisdom Diamond Sutra

On the path to liberation, true heroes of the mind
Lead all beings to shore of bliss, leaving none behind.
They have no thoughts of beings; they have no thoughts of bliss,
For the highest wisdom is non-wisdom such as this.

This teaching is like a diamond, wisdom shining bright.
It cuts through all illusion; the light of all insight.
Yet there is no teaching, no wisdom to be taught.
Fearless is he or she who understands this thought.

Do not depend on perceptions of beings, self or soul.
Cultivate compassion and let all discrimination go.
What has no self, no soul nor separate being cannot be seized.
All things are Buddha; all things are awakening.

Buddha has said, do not think that I have attained a pure and perfect mind,
Nor that I sit or stand, or come or go anywhere at any time.
Those that think they see me cannot really see,
And not a grain of anything has been attained or proclaimed by me.

The awakened have gone beyond all concepts to reveal
This diamond doctrine, its meaning hidden deep but not concealed.
Like a dew drop, an illusion, a shadow, a bubble floating in a stream,
Like a dream at night, a flash of light, so is this world to be seen.

Om Transcendent Wisdom Diamond Sutra


Seeds of Peace

Seeds of Peace is a book by Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai social activist. It has the Buddhist seal of approval with a foreword by the Dalai Lama, a preface by Thich Nhat Hanh and a blurb on the back cover by Joanna Macy.

I have seen the book at Borders and other places many times and it was one of those books on my list, but I figured I would wait until I ran across it in a used book store which was bound to happen sooner or later. Yesterday, I saw it on one of the selves in my local thrift store, and it was dirt cheap, at only 50 cents.

Sulak Sivaraksa is founder and director of the Thai NGO Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation, a social, humanitarian, ecological and spiritual movement. The back cover says that in Seeds of Peace, “Sulak draws on his study and practice of Buddhism to approach a wide range of subjects, including economic development, the environment, Japan’s role in Asia, and women in Buddhism.

Published in 1992 Seeds of Peace is still very relevant, considering the recent unrest in Thailand and the ongoing discussions over the role of women in Buddhism. On the later subject, he devotes an entire chapter, which he concludes by saying, “If those in Buddhist countries would study the life and teachings of the Buddha, much of the prejudice and ignorance of the present day would be alleviated.”

You’d think that would be the first thing Buddhists would do . . . study the life and teachings of the Buddha . . .

Another chapter that piqued my interest is “Buddhism with a small ‘b’”, and although his focus is on Asia, like the statement above, people everywhere can benefit from his point of view:

Buddhism, as practiced in most Asian countries today, serves mainly to legitimize dictatorial regimes and multinational corporations. If we Buddhist want to redirect our energies towards enlightenment and universal love, we should begin by spelling Buddhism with a small ‘b.’ Buddhism with a small ‘b’ means concentrating on the message of the Buddha and paying less attention to myth, culture, and ceremony.

We must refrain from focusing on the limiting, egocentric elements of our tradition. Instead, we should follow the original teachings of the Buddha in ways that promote tolerance and real wisdom. It is not a Buddhist approach to say that if everyone practices Buddhism, the world would be a better place. Wars and oppression begin from this kind of thinking.

If you’d like to know more about Sulak Sivaraksa, visit his Wikipedia page or his website.


Stephen Prothero and the emptiness of views

Ku: Emptiness
Ku or emptiness, from The Book of Five Rings

Stephen Prothero is a Boston University religious scholar who has been a rather prolific article writer as of late. He has a book he’s promoting and that is probably the reason he has been submitting so many articles. Prothero’s theme is “God is Not One” or “All Religions are Not Alike.” He argues that seeing all religions as teaching the same thing is misleading and dangerous.

I think that’s an important message, however based on Prothero’s most recent article, “The Dalai Lama is Wrong,” I have concerns about the messenger.  Prothero’s article is a response to a piece for the NY Times the Dalai Lama wrote recently entitled “Many Faiths, One Truth,” in which the Buddhist teacher says that one way to counter the rising tide of intolerance is for world religions to find common ground and bridge differences.

I haven’t read much of Prothero’s work, only an article or two, so there might be some nuance that I am unaware of, however in general, I already know the message. I know not all religions are the same. I am reminded of that each day when I switch on the television to hear about the latest terrorist plot or someone’s religious concept that makes no sense to me.

In his piece, the Dalai Lama writes that when he was young he felt that Buddhism was superior to other religions, and now he understands how “naïve” he was. I used to feel the same way. I was a young Buddhist revolutionary out to save the world from “heretical religions.” Nowadays, I am more concerned with trying to get people to understand that Buddhism is not witchcraft and that we are not in league with Satan. I see the threat of religious intolerance, and you cannot find intolerance with more of the same.

So, now I try to be more tolerant. I still recognize the vast differences between the faiths, as does the Dalai Lama. He remarks on these differences often when he gives teachings. He’s not that naïve.

Prothero childes the Dalai Lama for suggesting there is “’one truth’ behind the ‘many faiths,’ and that core truth . . . is compassion.” However, that is not what the Dalai Lama stated, instead he wrote that in his discussions with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, “A main point . . . was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism,” and that “In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion,” and “[The] focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths.”

The Dalai Lama is right when he says that compassion is one truth behind many faiths. That is not the same as saying it is The One Truth, as Prothero implies.

Prothero says that “Jesus did not die on a cross in order to teach us to help old ladies across the street.” Well, no Jesus was not a Scout Master, that is true. But try telling millions of Christians around the world that the central message of Jesus’ teachings was NOT love, and see how they respond. Prothero also says that “Jesus came, according to most Christian thinkers, to stamp out sin and pave the path to salvation.” Well, yeah, sorta.

From my understanding, the prevalent view is that Jesus came so that people could know God. In John 17, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Supposedly, God loves us and sent Jesus so that that we could return His love. Jesus, out of love, in the ultimate compassionate act, took on the sins of humanity to open the door to a relationship of mutual love with God, and thereby, the kingdom of Heaven. But, maybe Prothero is thinking what’s love got to do with it?

Prothero’s real problem is that he does not understand who the Dalai Lama is. At one point, he says, “I know that when it comes to the Dalai Lama we are all supposed to bow and scrape.” Yes, it’s proper etiquette to show the Dalai Lama some respect. But he’s not the Buddhist Pope and he’s not infallible. I’ve heard him say many times that he is not a living Buddha, or the reincarnation of a mythical Bodhisattva, and that “I don’t claim to have any great realizations.” Behind all the pomp and circumstance, he is actually a rather humble man. He’s also complex and paradoxical, and so is the world he inhabits, all of which are subjects for future posts.

I think of the Dalai Lama as a teacher of Madhyamaka philosophy. Madhyamaka or Middle Way is a Buddhist tradition based on the teachings of Nagarjuna, the philosopher who systemized the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness.

In his teachings, Nagarjuna sought to lay bare the basic truth of all philosophies, and all activities of human beings. In Middle Way philosophy, all views are considered to be empty. K. Venkata Ramanan, in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, writes, “The rejection of views which is an essential point in the philosophy of the Middle Way means that no specific view, being specific, is limitless, and no view, being a view, is ultimate. The ultimate view is not any ‘view.’ ‘Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.’” This is a complicated point, and at the risk of over-simplifying it, I will say that it means all views are relative. It does not mean to go to the extreme of literally having no views, but rather understanding that all views can be equally valid from the side of each viewer, and at the same time, all views are ultimately non-substantial or empty. That’s why it is called Middle Way because it is the middle path between extremes.

This must be entirely lost of Mr. Prothero, who, one would think, should be aware that this philosophy constitutes the core of not only the Dalai Lama’s teachings but also his approach to the problem between Tibet and China, which he calls the Middle Way Approach.

Nagarjuna regarded non-contentiousness (anapalambha) as the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings. The tendency to seize, to cling, is the root of conflict and suffering:

The wayfarer that can understand this does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.

In stressing a few of the similarities between religions and calling for mutual understanding, the Dalai Lama is fulfilling his duty as a teacher in the Gelug sect, a Middle Way school. How could anyone expect him to shirk his responsibility? He is only asking us to cease clinging to our views long enough to establish some common ground so that we might make the world a safer place.

Prothero also says “And I cannot agree with the Dalai Lama’s claim that ‘the essential message of all religions is very much the same.’” I have read the Dalai Lama’s article several times and I can’t find that statement.  If Prothero were paraphrasing that might be all right, but to put it in quotes to give the impression that those words in that order is what the Dalai Lama wrote, is either a case of sloppiness or just plain distortion.

Finally, Prothero says that the Dalai Lama makes “the equally fantastic claim that all the religions are at heart vehicles for compassion.” No, he does not. He is merely pointing out that all the religions can be a vehicle for compassion, if we can just get over ourselves, and our dogmas.


The Joy of Marxism

The Three Marx GurusI am a Marxist. To the left is a rare photograph of my three principle gurus, Harpo, Groucho, and Chico. Last week at a press conference in New York, the Dalai Lama announced that he, too, was a Marxist. Unfortunately, we’re talking about two different kinds of Marxism.

Frankly, I don’t care if the Dalai Lama is a [Karl] Marxist or not. It’s not going to have much of an impact on the world economy. I don’t see eye to eye with the Dalai Lama on everything, but I think he is a nice guy and just about the only person in the world today consistently giving deep teachings on Madhyamaka philosophy and God love him for it. While I have not been able to find a complete transcript of the press conference, from what I’ve read about it apparently the Dalai Lama did draw a distinction between Marxism and Communism,  for whatever that is worth.

Now, as a True Marxist, I believe that a little socialism is a good thing and that too much capitalism can be bad. After all, as Groucho said, “Money cannot buy you happiness, and happiness cannot buy you money.”

Few are aware that Groucho was a student of Madhyamaka philosophy. Here’s a couple of passages that demonstrate what I mean.  The first comes from Nagarjuna’s Averting the Arguments (translated by JL Garfield):

If I had even one proposition,
It would be just as you have said.
Although if I had a proposition with the characteristic
that you described I would have that fault,
I have no proposition at all.
Thus, since all phenomena are empty,
at peace, by nature isolated, how could there be a proposition?

Groucho, the master philosopher, proclaimed this in Horse Feathers:

I don’t know what they have to say,
It makes no difference anyway,
Whatever it is, I’m against it.
No matter what it is or who commenced it,
I’m against it!
Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood:
Whatever it is, I’m against it.
And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,
I’m against it!

Both avert every argument. There is essentially no difference between the two, except that Groucho’s verse rhymes. Where Nagarjuna rejects all propositions based on emptiness, Groucho rejects them based on contrariness. But contrariness is merely a state of being that is ultimately empty, so there you are.

Groucho’s sense of space and time is comparable to that of another Buddhist philosopher, Dogen. In Moon in a dewdrop, an anthology of Dogen’s works, Kazuaki Tanahashi writes, “To become familiar with Dogen’s concept of the time-being, we may need to remind ourselves that all phenomena are in motion, and that motion is perceived in relation to time.” He goes on to say that since every motion is relative, motion for one person may be stillness for another, and naturally the opposite would hold true.

There is a scene in Animal Crackers, where Groucho, as Capt. Spaulding, the African explorer, arrives past the time he was expected at the party. Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) is exasperated that her guest of honor is late, and when Groucho does finally make his entrance, it is only to say:

Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay, I came to say I must be going. I’m glad I came but just the same I must be going. I’ll stay a week or two, I’ll stay the summer through, but I am telling you, I must be going.

From Mrs. Rittenhouse’s perspective, Groucho has just arrived and should be staying, and especially since he is the guest of honor, she expects him to be in motion no longer. However, Groucho’s penetrating insight into space and time and deep compassion compels him to tell his hostess that he is always in motion, and further suggests that time is a continuum not marked by coming and going. In this way, Groucho echoes Dogen’s words: “Should you reckon one-sidedly that time only goes by, you will not comprehend time as something that has not yet arrived.”

I much prefer the Marxism of Harpo, Groucho and Chico, to that of Karl. He had only one good line and that was about religion being the opiate of the people, and no jokes. The Marx Brothers, on the other hand, had plenty of jokes and awfully good lines, such as Chico’s “Mustard’s no good without roast beef,” and Harpo’s immortal “Honk, honk.”

I must also admit that in addition to being a Marxist, I am an Lennonist:

God is a concept by which we measure our pain. I’ll say it again. God is a concept by which we measure our pain.

I’m not sure what Lennon means by that exactly. I don’t know what anyone means. The only thing I know for sure is that everybody’s got something to hide except for me and my monkey.


Einstein on Desolation Row

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk . . .

Einstein on Desolation Row

Now you would not think to look at him but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.

– Bob Dylan (b. May 24, 1941)

Speaking of Einstein, here’s something that was translated by a friend of mine from a speech he gave in Berlin during the 1920’s:

To belong to those humans who are allowed and able to devote their best powers to the observation and research of objective, non-temporary matters means a special grace.

How happy and thankful I am that I am blessed with this grace, which creates a far-reaching independence of personal fate and of the behaviour of fellow man.

But this independence must not make us blind of the knowledge and duties which binds us constantly to the former, present, and future humankind. Our situation on earth seems strange. Everyone of us appears to be here unwilling and uninvited for a short stay, without knowing  why and what for. We only feel in our daily life that man is because of others. Because of those we love and numerous other beings with whom we are united in destiny. Often I feel oppressed when I think how largely my life is based on the work of my fellow man. And I know how much I owe them.

I never strove for affluence and luxury. And I even feel contempt for it. My passion for social justice often brought me into conflict with people, as well my dislike of any relation or dependence which didn’t appear to me absolutely necessary.

Always I respect the individual and harbor insuperable dislike of violence and of the club. For all these motives I am a passionate pacifist and antimilitarist, I decline all kind of nationalism, even it behaves as patriotism.

Privileges springing from position and property always appeared to me as unjust and disastrous. As well an excessive personality cult. It is true, that I am a typical “one-horse-carriage” in my daily life, but the consciousness to belong to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice never allowed the feeling of loneliness to arise.

The most beautiful and deepest that man can experience is the feeling of the mysterious. It is the foundation of religion as well as of all deeper striving of art and science.

Who never experienced that seems to me if not a dead person but then a blind person.

To feel that behind the experience of things there is something hidden and unreachable for our spirit, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirect and as a weak reflection, that is religiousness.

In this sense, I am religious. It is sufficient for me to have a presentiment in amazement of these mysteries, and to try with humility to comprehend intellectually a weak reflection of this sublime structure of being.