The Diamond Sutra

Pilings, Clear LakeSomeone on a forum site I follow wondered if there was any redeeming value to “The Diamond Sutra”. Here’s my response, and a bit more.

Let me first say that I have not personally read the Diamond Sutra, except in occasional excerpts that I’ve encountered. What I’ve encountered did not make me want to read the Sutra.

My understanding is that the sixth patriarch of Zen in China, Huineng, experienced an awakening of some sort on hearing a line from the Diamond Sutra read out loud. The line Huineng heard is reputed to be:

Let the mind be present without an abode.

(from the Diamond Sutra, translation by Venerable Master Hsing Yun from “The Rabbit’s Horn: A Commentary on the Platform Sutra”, Buddha’s Light Publishing pg 60)

That line, I find to be significant. We have this passage from the Pali Suttanta:

That which we will…, and that which we intend to do and that wherewithal we are occupied:–this becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being there, there comes to be a station of consciousness. Consciousness being stationed and growing, rebirth of renewed existance takes place in the future, and here from birth, decay, and death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow, and despair come to pass. Such is the uprising of this mass of ill.

Even if we do not will, or intend to do, and yet are occupied with something, this too becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness… whence birth… takes place.

But if we neither will, nor intend to do, nor are occupied about something, there is no becoming of an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being absent, there comes to be no station of consciousness. Consciousness not being stationed and growing, no rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and herefrom birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow and despair cease. Such is the ceasing of this entire mass of ill.

(SN II 65 “Kindred Sayings on Cause” XII, 4, chapter 38 “Will”, Pali Text Society vol. 2 pg 45)

It’s a declension of the origin of suffering, beginning from intention, will, or deliberation, and progressing to suffering. The more usual declension begins with ignorance:

Conditioned by ignorance activities come to pass; conditioned by activities consciousness, conditioned by consciousness name-and-shape, conditioned by name-and-shape sense, conditioned by sense contact, conditioned by contact feeling, conditioned by feeling craving, conditioned by craving grasping, conditioned by grasping becoming, conditioned by becoming birth, conditioned by birth old age-and-death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow, despair come to pass. Such is the uprising of this entire mass of ill.

(SN II 2, Pali Text Society Vol II pg 2)

The activities in this declension are intentional or “determinative” actions of speech, body, or mind (AN III 415, PTS Vol III pg 294 and SN II 3, PTS Vol II pg 4).

In the unusual declension up above, Gautama moves from intentional or willful activity to a station of consciousness. I would say a station of consciousness is the opposite of a mind that is present without abode.

In my writing, I put forward a practice that focuses on the mind that is present without abode, or as I describe it, the location of awareness that moves:

The practice… is a practice that everybody is already familiar with, even if they don’t think of it as a practice. What I’m referring to is waking up in the morning, or falling asleep at night; if you’ve ever had a hard time waking up or falling asleep, then you know that there can indeed be a practice! In my experience, the practice is the same, whether I am waking up or falling asleep: when I realize my physical sense of location in space, and realize it as it occurs from one moment to the next, then I wake up or fall asleep as appropriate.

… Just before I fall asleep, my awareness can move very readily, and my sense of where I am tends to move with it. This is also true when I am waking up, although it can be harder to recognize…

(“Waking Up and Falling Asleep”, A Natural Mindfulness)

Here’s koun Franz talking about the same thing:

Okay… So, have your hands in the cosmic mudra, palms up, thumbs touching, and there’s this common instruction: place your mind here. Different people interpret this differently. Some people will say this means to place your attention here, meaning to keep your attention on your hands. It’s a way of turning the lens to where you are in space so that you’re not looking out here and out here and out here. It’s the positive version, perhaps, of “navel gazing”.

The other way to understand this is to literally place your mind where your hands are–to relocate mind (let’s not say your mind) to your center of gravity, so that mind is operating from a place other than your brain. Some traditions take this very seriously, this idea of moving your consciousness around the body. I wouldn’t recommend dedicating your life to it, but as an experiment, I recommend trying it, sitting in this posture and trying to feel what it’s like to let your mind, to let the base of your consciousness, move away from your head. One thing you’ll find, or that I have found, at least, is that you can’t will it to happen, because you’re willing it from your head. To the extent that you can do it, it’s an act of letting go–and a fascinating one.

(No Struggle (Zazen Yojinki, Part 6), by koun Franz, from koun’s “Nyoho Zen” site)

Is “let the mind be present without an abode” actually from the Diamond Sutra?–as I said, I’ve never actually read the Diamond Sutra. I know a lot depends on the particular translator/translation.

Now I would add to my response above that as Dogen pointed out, letting the mind be present without abode is just one leg of a three-legged stool:

When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point… Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent.

(“Genjo Koan”, Dogen; tr. Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi.)

Finding my place where I am is letting the mind be present without abode.

Finding my way at this moment is discovering Huineng’s “Dharma body of your own nature” at work (Putting the Dharma Body to Work). Once I find centrifugal force at the location of my awareness, I can find the appropriate counter from everything that surrounds the place of awareness, even things outside the range of my senses.

I have written about action that happens when the foreground of bodily activity and the background of autonomic respiration change places (Action That Arises in the Breath). To me, such action is the immediate actualization of the inconceivable, of things outside the range of my senses.

All three legs of the stool are in one place, without abode.

One Reply to “The Diamond Sutra”

  1. Here’s a comment from my friend Steve:

    The Diamond Sutra is relatively short, and like most Sutras it is repetitive and stylized. It’s one of only two Sutras which are associated almost exclusively with Zen Buddhism — the other being the even shorter Heart Sutra. Both are part of the larger Prajnaparamita series of sutras.

    The phrase that occurs repeatedly throughout the Diamond Sutra is the exhortation not to “…cherish any idea of an ego, a person, a being, or a soul.” That is said to be “Supreme Enlightenment.” I’d also say it is “no-abode.”

    Another formula, similar to that found in the Heart sutra, and one that reoccurs with reference to different objects, is “…a true idea is no-idea and is therefore called a true idea.” Or, “The true dharma is no-dharma and is therefore called the true dharma.” Or one could say: true abiding is non-abiding and therefore it is called true abiding.

    Another phrase that is often quoted from the Diamond Sutra is “The past cannot be grasped, the future cannot be grasped and the present cannot be grasped.”

    If you’re looking for logical, intellectual conceptualizations then the Diamond Sutra is pretty unintelligible. In it the Buddha utters the following gatha:

    If one by form sees me,
    By words seeks me,
    Then one walks a false path,
    And cannot see the Tathagata.

    The phrase you mention is hard to find in most translations and when it does appear it’s in the context of practicing the paramita of generosity or charity with a “…mind that has no fixed abode,” and is therefore completely unattached to the notion of acquiring merit.

    Two other much longer sutras that are associated with Zen are the Surangama and the Lankavatara. They are also difficult reading, but, for me at least, well worth the effort.

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