The Diamond Sutra
by Sangharakshita

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
‘Vajra’, the first part of the word means both diamond and thunderbolt. ...

... And the diamond or the
thunderbolt occupies a quite important place in Buddhist symbolism. It also gives it’s name to one
of the three great phases of the development of Buddhism in India; first as you know came the
Hinayana, the little vehicle, then the Mahayana, the great vehicle, and then the Vajrayana, the
vehicle, the path or the way of the diamond or the thunderbolt. And in Buddhist symbolism, in
Buddhist thought the Vajra, the diamond or the thunderbolt connotes something of irresistible
strength, irresistible potency, something capable of pulverizing, something capable of smashing, of
shattering everything that stands in its way.
And ‘Cheddika’ means ‘that which cuts’, or it means ‘a cutter’.
So we can now understand the meaning of the full title of the Diamond Sutra, the ’Vajracheddika-
Prajnaparamita-Sutra’. It means the Sutra or the discourse on the Transcendental Wisdom that cuts
like the thunderbolt, or cuts like the diamond. And this in turn gives us a clue to the meaning and
the significance of the whole of the Sutra itself. To begin with the Sutra is, by very definition, by
virtue of the fact that it is termed a Sutra it is the word of the Buddha, what we call ‘Buddha-
Vachana’, the word or the utterance of the Buddha, the Enlightened One. That is to say the
Diamond sutra is the expression, is an expression of the Enlightened Mind, it doesn’t come from
the ordinary mind, doesn’t come from the brain, doesn’t come from the logical mind, doesn’t come
from the lower consciousness, doesn’t come from any mundane, any conditioned consciousness; the
Diamond sutra is the expression of the Enlightened Mind. And the Enlightened Mind is one with
Reality, the Enlightened Mind knows Reality, sees Reality face to face; so the Diamond Sutra, if
you like, is a revelation, an exposition of Reality itself, so that reading it, reflecting upon it,
meditating upon it, bearing it in mind, we make contact, it may be through a thick veil, but we make
contact, so far as we’re able, with Reality. And when we make that contact through the Diamond
Sutra with Reality then the light of Reality illumines the darkness of our hearts and the darkness of
our minds. And as it illumines the darkness of our hearts and the darkness of our minds, there
appears in this light shining as it were from Reality through the Diamond Sutra into us, there
appears Transcendental Wisdom. And though we compare this transcendental Wisdom to, as it
were, light, it’s at the same time like a diamond, like a thunderbolt, this Transcendental Wisdom
cuts through all our thoughts, cuts through all our ideas, all our concepts about Reality. It cuts
through, it destroys, it shatters all our negative emotions, our fear, our anxiety, our anger, our
jealousy, our possessiveness, our craving, our clinging, it cuts through all our negative emotions, it
cuts through all our psychological conditionings, our conditionings on account of belonging to this
nationality, this race, speaking this language, living in this sort of environment and so on, it cuts
through all our psychological conditionings, all our prejudices, all our metaphysical assumptions, it
smashes, in a word, this diamond , this thunderbolt of Transcendental Wisdom, it smashes
everything conditioned, everything, that is, that stands in between us and Reality, in between us and
the seeing of the Truth face to face, and above all, we may say, this thunderbolt of Transcendental
Wisdom smashes us as we at present know ourselves to be.
When we as we at present experience ourselves, when we come into contact with that
Transcendental Wisdom, then we feel its impact, like a thunderbolt as it were smashing and
destroying us. Now this, if one begins to think about it, if one begins to feel it, now this is a very
terrible thing. I remember that D.H. Lawrence in one of his poems says: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall
into the hands of the living God. They are so large and they cradle so much of a man.’ Let me just
read them again. ‘It is a fearful thing’, he says,’ to fall into the hands of the living God.’ Not the
dead God, the living God…’They are so large and they cradle so much of a man.’ Now Lawrence,
being a poet, expresses the matter theistically, since that was his natural idiom as it were, but we
can paraphrase that first line ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’, we can
paraphrase it in more buddhistic terms, perhaps more truly, and we can say that it’s a fearful thing,
we can say it’s a terrible thing to get caught in the grip of Reality. It’s a terrible thing to get caught
in the grip of Transcendental Wisdom. It’s a terrible thing to get caught even in the grip of the
Diamond Sutra. Because once you get caught, well, you’re caught, you may wriggle and wriggle,
but you can’t get free.
So the question arises: is one prepared for this? The question arises: does one want to get caught?
Does one want to get caught, gripped by Reality, by Transcendental Wisdom, by the Diamond
Sutra. If we don’t, then it’s better to leave the Diamond Sutra alone. It’s even better just to leave it
on the shelf, collecting dust. If we don’t want to get caught by the Diamond Sutra it’s even better
just to walk out of the door now.
But even if we do want to get caught, even if we’re happy to get caught, eager to get caught, it’s
better to proceed very slowly and very cautiously. ‘Humankind cannot bear very much Reality’. I’ve
quoted these words more than once before and I make no apology for quoting them again.
‘Humankind cannot bear very much Reality’. And we certainly cannot bear very much of the
Diamond Sutra. We can bear very little of it in fact, if any of it. And this is why we’re working our
way into it, working our way into the subject, working our way into the Diamond Sutra very slowly.
And in fact as our chairman said, rather anticipating what I’m going to say, though he didn’t know I
was going to say it, there can be no question of giving a complete, a systematic exposition of the
teaching of the Diamond Sutra in all it’s depth, in all it’s breadth, even if such an exposition could
be given. Because probably there is not a single person in this room who could bear it. It would just
be too much.
If some Buddha or some Bodhisattva was to come along, was to appear in mid air as it were, and
start expounding the Diamond Sutra in its fullness and really telling us what it was all about, then
everybody would probably collapse in their chairs, would have to be carried out, feet foremost, and
if ever we were to get round, if ever we do get round to really talking about the Diamond Sutra,
then I’d suggest that we need to have the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade standing by. So meanwhile
we’re going slowly and cautiously.
We’ve understood the meaning of the title of the Sutra and this has given us some insight into the
meaning and significance of the whole work. So we’ll now have a look at the literary framework of
the Sutra, and after that, if we feel brave enough and venturesome enough we may just take a quick
glance at some of the major insights of the Sutra.
But before we do that just a few words about the text, the text of the Diamond Sutra. It is quite a
short work and it consists of a number of apparently unconnected paragraphs, it doesn’t read
smoothly and continuously, apparently, one topic leading on to the next, you get a bit of this and a
bit of that without any apparent order or sequence. The Chinese versions of the Diamond Sutra are
divided into two parts and altogether thirty two short, in fact very short chapters, but we find no
such divisions in fact in the original Sanskrit text. Now Han Shan, who was an enlightened Ch’an
master of the Ming dynasty in China makes an interesting suggestion: according to him, the
Buddha’s statements in the Sutra, in the Diamond Sutra are meant to resolve the unspoken doubts
of the monk Subhuti whom he is addressing. So according to Han Shan the actual Sutra, the text of
the Sutra gives only the Buddha’s statements, but it does not give Subhuti’s unspoken doubts in
relation to which the statements were made by the Buddha. And this is the reason for the seeming,
the apparent lack of connection and continuity. So in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra Han
Shan tries to spell out, tries to make explicit Subhuti’s unspoken doubts, and in this way make the
whole Sutra more connected and more intelligible to the student. Now according to Han Shan there
are 35 doubts which arose in Subhuti’s mind as he sat in front of the Buddha, which the Buddha
resolved, 17 coarse doubts which are dealt with in part one of the Sutra and 18 subtle doubts which
are disposed of in part two. And, as Han Shan interprets the Sutra, when all doubts are cut off by
the thunderbolt of Transcendental Wisdom, then one’s Absolute Mind, which is the Mind of
Supreme Enlightenment is revealed, is made manifest.
So much then for the text of the Sutra, now for its literary framework, especially the introduction.
So far as form is concerned the Sutra is a dialogue, it's a dialogue between two persons. On the one
hand there's the Buddha, on the other there's the monk Subhuti. But Subhuti says very little, very
little indeed. If Han Shan's interpretation is correct, this is simply because the dialogue is mainly
between the Buddha on the one hand and Subhuti's unspoken doub ...

... doubts on the other.
Now there's something worthy of notice here, and that is that the dialogue is between the Buddha
and Subhuti; that is to say between Gautama the Buddha who lived 2500 years ago and Subhuti. In
other words the dialogue takes place between two historical characters. No mythological
Bodhisattvas or other such beings are involved. In the Heart Sutra, well, along comes the
Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Then in other Sutras, other Perfection of Wisdom or Transcendental
Wisdom Sutras there's the Bodhisattva Manjushri; these are mythological, if you like, archetypal
figures. They didn't exist historically speaking. But it isn't like that in the Diamond Sutra. The
Diamond Sutra is a dialogue between two historical characters, Gautama the Buddha and Subhuti.
And this fact suggests something of great significance. It suggests that so far as this Sutra at least is
concerned we are firmly on the historical plane. We're not in some higher heavenly world, we're not
in some remote Buddhafield; we're here on this earth, on the historical plane. We found ourselves in
this Sutra in the midst of the everyday, one might even say workaday world. And in this Sutra we're
concerned with a communication, if you like between two live human beings. The Buddha, an
enlightened human being, Subhuthi, a non-enlightened, but a nearly enlightened human being on
the other hand. This is not a dialogue between personified virtues or archetypes or spiritual symbols
but between human beings. And this is borne out, this fact is borne out by the introduction to the
Let me read the actual words; the Sutra begins like this: 'Thus have I heard at one time:
The Lord ( that is to say Gautama the Buddha) dwelled at Sravasti in the Jeta grove in the garden of
Anathapindika, together with a large gathering of monks consisting of 1250 monks and with many
Bodhisattvas, Great Beings. Early in the morning the Lord dressed, put on his cloak, took his bowl,
and entered the great city of Sravasti to collect alms. When he'd eaten and returned from his round
the Lord put away his bowl and cloak, washed his feet and sat down on the seat arranged for him,
crossing his legs, holding his body upright and mindfully fixing his attention in front of him. Then
many monks approached to where the Lord was, saluted his feet with their heads, thrice walked
round him to the right and sat down at one side.'
So, could anything be simpler, could anything be quieter, could anything be more subdued, if you
like, than this little introduction? One might say that it's almost Greek, almost Doric even in its
severity, in its simplicity. And this is significant, this is meaning-ful, because after all the Diamond
Sutra is a Mahayana Sutra and the Mahayana Sutras usually begin very splendidly indeed. The
scene of many Mahayana Sutras as described in the introductions is very often laid in some higher
heavenly world and we open with a magnificent description usually of how the Buddha sits there in
all his glory on a great elaborate lotus throne, surrounded not only by monks and nuns but by
millions upon millions of non-human beings in their various orders, all in attendance. And then the
Mahayana Sutra at the beginning usually describes how, before the Buddha opens his mouth, how,
before he preaches, all sorts of wonderful things happen, all sorts of miracles occur. They often
describe how down from the sky there come falling and raining great golden flowers called
Mandaravas, that are as big as a cart wheel, and thousands of these come floating down, and then
we are told very often that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas start arriving from other worlds, other
universes; they've heard on some sort of intergalactic Bodhisattva radio as it were, that the Buddha,
Gautama the Buddha here is going to give a discourse and they come flocking in from all quarters
of the universe; and then the Sutra describes this. And then it describes sometimes how a great ray
of light issues from the Buddha's forehead when he's in meditation and circles all around the
universe, billions and billions of miles and then comes back and hovers over the heads of every
person in the assembly. So this is the usual opening of a Mahayana Sutra, very gorgeous, very
splendid, very mythological, full of symbolism, full of light, full of color, full of music, full of
perfume; but here in the Diamond Sutra there's absolutely nothing of all that. Absolutely nothing.
Here, in the introduction to the Diamond Sutra, everything is simple, everything is natural,
everything is ordinary, is even prosaic. And if we just think, if we just close our eyes we can even
as it were imagine the scene. We can imagine the group of huts in somebody's garden, a few miles
out of the city, in somebody's grove; and we can just see as it were the Buddha in his yellow robes,
staying there with his disciples.
And some of the disciples no doubt were not living in the huts, they were camping out in the open
air under the trees. And if we just watch, if we just imagine a bit further we can as it were see the
Buddha just quietly leaving his hut, early in the morning, maybe at nine o'clock and walking all the
way into the city and then in the city just going quietly from door to door with his begging bowl,
just receiving whatever was given, a few handfuls of rice, a little curry and so on. And then we can
imagine him retiring to a grove of trees nearby quietly eating what he had gathered, and then slowly
and meditatively walking back to his hut, just lying down, resting for a while, then getting up, then
sitting outside, meditating, and then we can see, then we can imagine, in the cool of the evening, the
disciples from their huts- their begging rounds also over, their meal also finished- just gathering
round, just waiting and just listening. And then Subhuti speaks.
So this is the setting, this is the very simple, this is the very natural, this almost the humble setting
for the astounding, for the staggering discourse that follows. There are no signs, there are no
wonders, no miracles, no lights appearing in the sky, everything is so simple, so natural, so
ordinary, and what does this mean? What does this simplicity mean, what does this naturalness
mean, this ordinariness mean? Because it certainly means something, every word in the Sutra
means something. And only too often people skip over the introduction just to get at the meat of the
Sutra as it were, and they miss half the significance of the whole thing. Because as I've observed in
some other connection, I think in connection with the Heart Sutra, the frame here is part of the
picture, and it shouldn't be ignored. So this simplicity, this naturalness of the introduction
describing the opening scene of the Sutra means that Reality is to be experienced in the midst of
everyday life, ordinary life, everyday life. Because there's just nowhere else to experience it. If you
experience, if you are to experience Reality anywhere, it can only be here. If you are to experience it
at any time, it can only be now. So it's here and now. Don't let one's attention be diverted to higher
heavenly worlds, yes, the symbolism is very beautiful, is very meaningful, but don't misunderstand
it; it's here and it's now that we have to realize, that we have to see, that we have to attain. So it also
means, this simple description, this opening scene of the Sutra, it means that ultimately Reality,
Transcendental Reality, and everyday life are non-different. You don't have to get away from the
conditioned in order to realize the unconditioned. It's the conditioned in its depths which is the
Unconditioned. Or as the Heart Sutra says: 'Form is emptiness (i.e. Reality) and emptiness is form'.
Our everyday life may be whatever it may be. It may be pleasurable, it may be painful, it may be
wildly ecstatic or it may be unbearably agonizing, or again it may be just plain dull and boring most
of the time. But it is here, in the midst of all these experiences, good, bad and indifferent,
pleasurable, painful and neutral, it's in the midst of all these experiences and nowhere else that
Enlightenment, that Buddhahood is to be attained.
And this is what the introduction to the Sutra, in its own way, is trying to tell us.
And in a sense this is the whole message of the Sutra, the whole message of the Diamond Sutra.
And perhaps we really we need not go any further than this. If we grasp this, if we understand this,
if we take this as the message that the Diamond Sutra is trying to communicate to us, or that the
Buddha is trying to communicate to us in the Diamond Sutra, then perhaps it will be quite enough
and we need not go, as I've said, any further.
However, for the sake at least of formal completeness, let us proceed.
Another point is that the Buddha delivers the Diamond Sutra in the open air. Now, have we ever
noticed this, those of us who've read the Sutra? Have we ever considered the significance of this
fact that the Buddha habitually taught in the open air? Now here are we sitting in a room and
listening to a talk, listening to a discourse. But this is not what happened in the Buddha's days. The
Buddha himself, habitually, as I've said, taught in the open air, he and his disciples lived in fact for
the most part in the open air. For nine months of the year they wandered about from place to place,
on foot of course. They wandered through forests, they took their time, they rested under trees, they
meditated under trees, they ...

... climbed mountains, they crossed rivers, sometimes they went into
villages, usually just once a day to collect food. Sometimes they might go in to preach and to teach,
and then only for some three or four months of the year at most during the rainy season when one
couldn't go round very easily, did they stay indoors. And even then, what did indoors mean? It
didn't mean a house. Indoors meant in a cave or in a hut in somebody's garden or maybe on the
outskirts of the forest. So how simple was life in those days. One just had, if one was a monk, one's
three robes and one's bowl, and that was all you needed to get by with, perhaps also a needle and a
water-strainer. There were no houses for one, there were no mortgages, no telephone or telephone
bills, no television, no refrigerator, no car, no radio, no newspapers, no books, not even the
Diamond Sutra.
So, life being simpler, thinking was simpler, too. Minds in those days were uncluttered, they were
undistracted, and great truths were more easily, surely, apprehended. So, we ought to be aware of
all this, aware of the great part that life in the open air played in the lives of the Buddha and his
disciples. Now, we should be aware of this not so as to discourage ourselves, of course, not so as to
make us think that it was easy then to develop Transcendental Wisdom, but difficult, if not
impossible now. No, we should be aware of this so that we can realize perhaps, how many factors
have arisen between us and Enlightenment since the Buddha's day, factors which are not part of the
normal human existence but rather of a highly artificial way of life.
Now let us come on to Subhuti. He's the other person in the dialogue, but we haven't said much
about him. The introduction represents him, as we've seen as rising from his seat, putting his upper
robe over one shoulder, kneeling on his right knee, bending forth his folded hands towards the
Buddha; in other words, Subhuti shows the Buddha the most profound respect. And what does this
mean? It means that Subhuti is receptive. And receptivity is the first requisite of the disciple, indeed
of anyone who would learn anything. You can be anything else you like, you can be wicked, you
can be stupid, you can be full of faults, full of weaknesses, you may backslide, you may make
mistakes, but in a sense it doesn't matter. But one must be spiritually receptive, one must be willing
and ready to learn, one must know that one does not know, and then everything is possible. So
Subhuti had this great quality, this great quality of receptivity, and perhaps it's for this reason that
the Diamond Sutra is addressed to him.
Subhuti was also highly appreciative of the Buddha, and the first words that Subhuti speaks in the
Sutra to the Buddha are, significantly, words of praise. Subhuti says: 'It is wonderful, oh Lord, it is
exceedingly wonderful oh Well-Gone, how much the Bodhisattvas, the Great Beings, have been
helped with the greatest help by the Tathagata, the Arahat, the Fully Enlightened One. It is
wonderful, oh Lord, how much the Bodhisattvas, the Great Beings, have been favored with the
highest favor by the Tathagata, the Arahant, the Fully Enlightened One.' These are Subhuti's first
words to the Buddha, words of praise, words of appreciation. Subhuti appreciates what the Buddha
has done for his disciples, especially for the great Bodhisattvas. He appreciates the help that the
Buddha has given them, and he realizes that the disciples have been favored. There's no question of
giving them what they deserve. Nothing conditioned can deserve the Unconditioned; it's simply that
the Buddha's compassion overflows without any consideration of merit.
So it is of the utmost importance that we should preserve this sense of wonder at the gift of the
teaching. It's so easy, we may say, for the wrong sort of familiarity, to breed contempt. We might
for instance have heard of some wonderful Sutra that had never been translated before. And then
suddenly you hear there's a new, there's an English translation out, you can read it. So you're very
happy and very eager, with great interest, with great enthusiasm, with great faith you get hold of
that, and you read it, and you're so pleased to have it, because this is your first chance to go through
it. But if you're not careful, after a while you'll become careless. The wonder of it will wear off, the
enthusiasm will die down, you'll no longer be so interested or so appreciative, you'll no longer value
so highly the opportunity that you have of reading that newly translated Sutra. So, we should watch
this, we should be careful of this, and make sure that the wrong sort of familiarity does not breed,
even if not contempt, at least not breed even indifference and carelessness.
Now having praised the Buddha, and only after having praised the Buddha, Subhuti puts to the
Buddha his first question, and he asks: 'How then, oh Lord, should a son or daughter of good
family, who have set out in the Bodhisattva vehicle stand, how progress, how control their
And it's with the Buddha's reply to this question that the main body of the Sutra begins. And it's
here that we encounter the first of the great Insights that the Sutra contains. So let's see what the
Buddha says in reply to Subhuti's first question.
'The Lord said: 'Here Subhuti: Someone who has set out in the vehicle of a Bodhisattva should
produce a thought in this manner: as many beings as there are in the universe of beings,
comprehended under the term 'beings', egg-born, born from a womb, moisture-born or miraculously
born, with or without form, with perception, without perception, and with neither perception nor
non-perception, as far as any conceivable form of beings is conceived, all these I must lead to
Nirvana, into the realm of Nirvana which leaves nothing behind. And yet, although innumerable
beings have thus been led to Nirvana, no being at all has been led to Nirvana. And why? If in a
Bodhisattva the notion of a being should take place he could not be called a Bodhi-being. And
why? He is not to be called a Bodhi-being in whom the notion of a self or of a being should take
place, or the notion of a living soul or of a person.’
So this is perhaps the Sutra’s fundamental Insight. The Insight that is to say, that beings do not
exist, in other words, that we do not exist. That’s a rather staggering idea to come up against, isn’t
it? That our present mode of perception, our present mode of consciousness, even of being that tells
us ‘I am I’ is false, is wrong. Now the question arises: Do we take this statement seriously? We hear
that beings do not exist, that we do not exist, so do we take this statement seriously? Can we even
take it seriously? Are we prepared, in other words, for this, as it were, blotting out, as it would
appear to be, of our present existence? Are we prepared for what is sometimes called ‘The Spiritual
Because if there’s no Spiritual Death, then there’s no Spiritual Birth or Rebirth.
Now in the passage quoted the Buddha goes even beyond this, the Buddha makes a highly
paradoxical statement, and incidentally the whole Prajnaparamita literature, the whole literature
dealing with Transcendental Wisdom is full of paradoxes. And this paradoxical statement of the
Buddha’s is about the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva represents of course, as those who attended our
last course of lectures will remember, represents the spiritual ideal of Buddhism in general and of
the Mahayana in particular.
A Bodhisattva is one who seeks to gain Enlightenment, not for his own sake merely , but for the
good and the benefit of all. So what is it that the Buddha says? He says that the Bodhisattva should
resolve to lead all beings to Nirvana, to help them, to guide them, to teach them, to lead them in
such a way that they all reach Nirvana, they all reach Enlightenment or Buddhahood. And second,
the Buddha says, the Bodhisattva should realize that in reality no being exists. First one is exhorted
to lead all beings to Enlightenment, to Nirvana, then you’re told to see that no beings exist. So
obviously there’s a contradiction here, and there’s meant to be a contradiction here, and this
contradiction is meant to express the very essence of the Bodhisattva ideal.
Usually we think of compassion as directed towards individuals, you see individual so and so
suffering perhaps, and then your compassion or your pity at least arises. But the Bodhisattva does
not perceive individuals. The Bodhisattva perceives the truth of selflessness, he perceives the truth
of non-individuality, the truth of emptiness, that is to say Sunyata. And it is out of this perception,
this perception of non-individuality, selflessness, emptiness, out of this perception, this realization,
if you like, that his compassion arises, a compassion which we perceive, which we interpret as
compassion for individuals.
Now this fundamental insight of the Sutra, that beings do not exist, this insight into the truth of
selflessness or emptiness is worked out in the Sutra in various ways, has various fields of
application. And we shall now turn to some of them, and then conclude.
Following Dr. Conze, we may say, that in the Diamond Sutra the Buddha establishes the doctrine or
the teaching, or the realization rather, of selflessness or emptiness in an ontological, a psychological
and a logical perspective. So let us take each one of these in turn.
Ontologically th ...

... the doctrine of selflessness or emptiness means that no such thing as a separate entity
exists. There’s nothing which is really and truly and absolutely separate in itself. In pre-Mahayana
Buddhist thought the alleged separate real entities were technically known as dharmas. And we
therefore have the Mahayana counterteaching, as we may call it, of Sarvadharmasunyata, or ‘all
dharmas are empty’ and this means, or this statement means, that separate entities do not really
exist. Habitually of course we chop reality up into bits. We split it up, we divide it, we distinguish
one thing from another, this is this, that is that, then we start preferring this to that, liking this more
than that, choosing this rather than that, sticking to this and not to hat. But this, according not only
to the Diamond Sutra, but to the whole Buddhist tradition, is wrong. One should try instead to see
things, not exactly as one, you don’t reduce all difference to unity, blotting out the difference, but
one should try to see things as sort of somehow interfused. And in this connection there’s the very
beautiful simile of the Gandavyuha-Sutra of the intersecting beams of light. It’s said that in Reality
things are like beams of light that mutually intersect. You’ve got beams of light as it were flashing
in all directions, shining in all directions, beams of light of different colors, red light, blue light,
green light, yellow light, a ray of this color, a beam of that color, in all directions, crossing and
criss-crossing. Now what happens? One ray of light, one beam of light, does not obstruct any of the
others, they all shine through one another, they’re not lost or merged in one great light, no, they all
maintain, as it were, their separate individualities, but their separate individualities offer no
obstruction to interpenetration by other individualities, so that they’re all mutually interpenetrating.
So we should see things, we should see Reality like that, not chopped up, as it were, into mutually
exclusive bits, but see all things as interfusing and interpenetrating one another, with neither
individuality-final nor unity-final, but both there, without obstruction to each other, at the same
Now the fact that separate entities do not really exist also negates the traditional categories of
Buddhist thought. Buddhist thought uses various terms, it speaks, say, of the Buddha-, the
Bodhisattva-merit, Wisdom, and so on. But the Sutra says one should not think that these terms
refer to any fixed or absolute or final entities; all these terms, which Buddhism itself uses are just
devices, ‘Upayas’, to help us on our way; they’ve a provisional value only, not an ultimate value,
not an absolute value, and this of course brings us right back to the famous parable of the raft, in
which the Dharma, the teaching, is compared to a raft, it’s something to carry you across to the
other shore, and then to be abandoned. It also brings us back to Zen. There is a story, some of you
no doubt know it, that a disciple asked a Zen master: ‘If I met the Buddha, what should I do?’ No
doubt the disciple had thought the master would say ‘Well, you should bow down and worship
him’. But the master said: ‘If you meet the Buddha, kill him!’ So what does this mean? It means: if
you’re really set on Enlightenment, on Buddhahood, as we call it, don’t let even the concept of
Buddha stand between you and Enlightenment. We might even go so far as to say ‘there’s nothing
which stands between people and realization of Reality so much as religion. Because it’s meant to
help them, and then they get stuck in their helps and don’t go beyond. So there’s nothing which
hinders you so much in your search for Reality as those things that help you. So Buddhism is
probably unique in seeing this so clearly, and trying to sweep out of the way, to clear the path
leading to Enlightenment even of Buddhism itself. No doubt you need Buddhism for a long time,
you need your prayers and your meditations and your scriptures and your chanting, and you need
even your social gatherings and your retreats, and you need to use Buddhist terms and Buddhist
ideas and to think buddhistically, but in the end you have to go beyond it all, in the end you have to
sweep it all aside and just be left as it were on your own, without even Buddhism to guide you and
to help you, before you can fully encounter Reality. So this is just another aspect of this ontological
application of the doctrine of selflessness or emptiness or Sunyata.
Now psychologically the doctrine of selflessness means that we should not be attached anywhere,
should not stand or settle down anywhere, should not depend on anything, should not lean on
anything or take anything as a support. Because after all, if entities do not really exist, there’s
nothing for us to depend on anyway. But it’s very hard for us to realize this, we usually, we nearly
all the time want to depend on something, settle down somewhere, anywhere; so often you hear
people say, especially later on in life: ‘I’d like to settle down’. It’s not just material, it’s
psychological, it’s even spiritual, they want to find some cozy corner, some little nest, where they
can be all warm and secure and safe and think: ‘Well, here I am, nothing can shake me’, just like a
little bird in its nest on a bough, thinking ‘well, this is absolutely fixed’. But of course it isn’t quite
like this, it isn’t possible, but sooner or later, secure as we fancy ourselves, safe as we fancy
ourselves, our supports are rudely pulled out from underneath us, and then of course we have to
suffer. So the Diamond Sutra says or suggests, that we develop an attitude which is detached, which
doesn’t settle down anywhere, which doesn’t try to establish itself anywhere, which is free, which is
as it were flowing, which is completely spontaneous. Not spontaneous in the sense of impulsive or
irresponsible, it should be a sort of spiritual spontaneity, arising out of, freely and creatively arising
out of our realization of the truth of selflessness and emptiness.
Now thirdly and lastly, logically the doctrine of selflessness means, that rational thought is
transcended. The basis of traditional logic, we may say, both in the West and in the East, is the law
of contradiction, that a thing cannot be both A and not-A at the same time in the same sense. It
can’t be both, say, black and not black at the same time. But the Sutra says ‘oh yes, it can’. The
Sutra says ‘a thing is itself, it is what it is, because it is not itself, it is not what it is. It is A because
it is not-A. It is A because it is not-A. In other words, according to the Sutra, logic is abrogated,
reason breaks down. Not that reason is of no use at all. It’s very useful indeed in the affairs of
everyday life, but it’s of no use at all where Ultimate Reality is concerned. If we want to soar in the
Void, if we want to wing our way through the Void, we must leave reason, leave logic far behind.
And this is not easy to accept. It’s even easy to misunderstand. There’s no question of submerging,
there’s no question of a descent into irrationality, we must rise above reason, above logic, not fall,
not sink below, and only then will Transcendental Wisdom develop, only then shall we really
apprehend the message of the Diamond Sutra.
Now much more could be said, but we must close now. We’ve touched, I’m afraid, we can touch in
fact, only the fringes of a vast subject. We simply cannot do more than this. To employ a simile we
may say that the Diamond Sutra is like the sun, like the great sun shining in the sky. We know that
if we approach too near the sun, even by a few miles, we shall be blinded, we shall be scorched, we
shall be consumed; but if we’re receptive, if we keep as it were respectful distance, then, even from
a distance, we can perceive the light of the sun, we can feel the warmth of the sun. And the
Diamond Sutra is like this. If we keep a sort of respectful distance from it, don’t go too near, we can
feel the warmth of that teaching, the Compassion, as it were, we can see, we can perceive the light,
the Wisdom, as it were, the Transcendental Wisdom. And one day perhaps we shall be ready to
plunge right into the heart of this sun, to become one with this sun; because then we shall be
spiritually dead and at the same time never more spiritually alive. And then we shall have fulfilled
the word of the Buddha in the Diamond Sutra.