Diamond Sūtra | About


1. Introduction

The Diamond Sūtra is the popular shortened name of the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, a Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtra from the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras or 'Perfection of Wisdom' genre.

Translated into a variety of languages over a broad geographic range, the Diamond Sūtra is one of the most influential Mahāyāna Sūtras in East Asia, and it is particularly prominent within the Chan (or Zen) tradition, along with the Heart Sūtra.

A copy of the Tang-dynasty Chinese version of the Diamond Sūtra was found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in 1900:

They are dated back to 11 May 868. It is, according to the British Library, "the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book."

It is also the first creative work with an explicit public domain dedication, as its colophon at the end states that it was created "for universal free distribution."

The Sanskrit title for the sūtra is the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, which may be translated roughly as the "Vajra Cutter Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra" or "The Perfection of Wisdom Text that Cuts Like a Thunderbolt".

In English, shortened forms such as Diamond Sūtra and Vajra Sūtra are common.

The title relies on the power of the Vajra (diamond or thunderbolt, but also an abstract term for a powerful weapon) to cut things as a metaphor for the type of wisdom that cuts and shatters illusions to get to Ultimate Reality.

2. History

The exact date of the composition of the Diamond Sūtra in Sanskrit is uncertain - arguments for the 2-4th centuries CE have been made.

The first Chinese translation dates to the early 5th century, but, by this point, the 4-5th century monks Asaṅga and Vasubandhu seem to have already authored authoritative commentaries on its content.

The Vajracchedikā Sūtra was an influential work in the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition:

Early translations into a number of languages have been found in locations across Central and East Asia, suggesting that the text was widely studied and translated.

In addition to Chinese translations, translations of the text and commentaries were made into Tibetan, and translations, elaborations, and paraphrases survive in a number of Central Asian languages.

The 1st translation of the Diamond Sūtra into Chinese is thought to have been made in 401 by the venerated and prolific translator Kumārajīva:

Kumārajīva's translation style is distinctive, possessing a flowing smoothness that reflects his prioritization on conveying the meaning as opposed to precise literal rendering.

The Kumārajīva’s translation has been particularly highly regarded over the centuries, and it is this version that appears on the 868 Dunhuang scroll. It is the most widely used and chanted Chinese version.

In addition to the Kumārajīva translation, a number of later translations exist:

The Diamond Sūtra was again translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Bodhiruci in 509, Paramārtha in 558, Dharmagupta (twice, in 590 and in 605-616), Xuanzang (twice, in 648 and in 660-663), and Yijing in 703.

The Diamond Sūtra gave rise to a culture of artwork, sūtra veneration, and commentaries in East Asian Buddhism:

By the end of the Tang Dynasty (907) in China there were over 80 commentaries written on it (only 32 survive), such as those by prominent Chinese Buddhists like Sengzhao, Xie Lingyun, Zhiyi, Jizang, Kuiji and Zongmi.

Copying and recitation of the Diamond Sūtra was a widespread devotional practice, and stories attributing miraculous powers to these acts are recorded in Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Mongolian sources.

One of the best known commentaries is the Exegesis on the Diamond Sūtra by Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School.

The Diamond Sūtra features prominently in the Platform Sūtra, the religious biography of Huineng, where hearing its recitation is supposed to have triggered the enlightening insight that led Huineng to abandon his life as a woodcutter to become a Buddhist monk.

3. Contents

The Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra contains the discourse of the Buddha to a senior monk, Subhūti:

Its major themes are Anātman (not-self), the Emptiness of all phenomena (though the term 'Śūnyatā' itself does not appear in the text), the Liberation of all beings without attachment and the importance of Spreading and teaching the Diamond Sūtra itself.

In his commentary on the Diamond Sūtra, Hsing Yun describes the 4 main points from the sūtra as:

1) giving without attachment to Self
2) liberating beings without notions of self and other
3) living without attachment
4) cultivating without attainment

In the sūtra, the Buddha has finished his daily walk to Śrāvastī with the monks to gather offerings of food, and he sits down to rest.

Elder Subhūti comes forth and asks the Buddha: "How, Lord, should one who has set out on the Bodhisattva Path take his stand, how should he proceed, how should he control the mind?"

What follows is a dialogue regarding the nature of the 'perfection of insight' (Prajñāpāramitā) and the nature of Ultimate Reality (which is illusory and empty).

The Buddha begins by answering Subhūti by stating that he will bring all living beings to final Nirvāṇa – but that after this "no living being whatsoever has been brought to extinction":

This is because a Bodhisattva does not see beings through reified concepts such as 'person', 'soul' or 'self', but sees them through the lens of perfect understanding, as Empty of inherent, unchanging self.

The Buddha continues his exposition with similar statements which use negation to point out the Emptiness of phenomena, merit, the Dharma (Buddha's teaching), the stages of Enlightenment and the Buddha himself.

Further examples of the Diamond Sūtra's through negation include statements such as:

As far as ‘all dharmas’ are concerned, Subhūti, all of them are dharma-less. That is why they are called ‘all dharmas.’

Those so-called ‘streams of thought,’ Subhūti, have been preached by the Tathāgata as stream-less. That is why they are called ‘streams of thought.’

All beings,’ Subhūti, have been preached by the Tathāgata as being-less. That is why they are called ‘all beings.’

The Buddha is generally thought to be trying to help Subhūti unlearn his preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality.

Emphasizing that all phenomena are ultimately illusory, he teaches that true Enlightenment cannot be grasped until one has set aside attachment to them in any form.

Another reason why the Buddha makes use of negation is because language reifies concepts and this can lead to attachment to those concepts,

but True Wisdom is seeing that nothing is fixed or stable, hence according to the Diamond Sūtra thoughts such as "I have obtained the state of an Arhat" or "I will bring living beings to Nirvāṇa" does not even occur in an Enlightened One's mind because this would be "seizing upon a self...seizing upon a living being, seizing upon a soul, seizing upon a person."

Indeed, the Sūtra goes on to state that anyone who says such things should not be called a Bodhisattva.

The Diamond Sūtra's central argument here is that all dharmas lack a self or essence, or to put it in other words, they have no core ontologically,

they only appear to exist separately and independently by the power of conventional language, even though they are in fact dependently originated.

The mind of someone who practices the Prajñāpāramitā or 'perfection of insight' is then a mind free from fixed substantialist or 'self' concepts:

"However, Lord, the idea of a self will not occur to them, nor will the idea of a living being, the idea of a soul, or the idea of a person occur. Why is that?

Any such idea of a self is indeed idealess, any idea of a living being, idea of a soul, or idea of a person is indeed idealess. Why is that? Because the Buddhas and Lords are free of all ideas."

Throughout the teaching, the Buddha repeats that successful memorization and elucidation of even a 4-line extract of it is of incalculable merit, better than giving an entire world system filled with gifts and can bring about Enlightenment.

Section 26 (of the Chinese version) also ends with a 4-line gāthā:

All conditioned phenomena
Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,
Like dew or a flash of lightning;
Thus we shall perceive them.”

The translation of the gāthā from Sanskrit states:

"A shooting star, a clouding of the sight, a lamp,
An illusion, a drop of dew, a bubble,
A dream, a lightning’s flash, a thunder cloud—
This is the way one should see the conditioned."