Teisho no 3 September 2013: The Diamond Sutra

As you know, the Diamond sutra is one of the Prajnaparamita sutras, and the Prajnaparamita sutras are the basis of our Zen practice. Indeed, unless you have worked thoroughly with the Prajnaparamita Hridaya and the Diamond Sutra, you are not really ready to practice Zen. There is a tendency to dismiss the sutras, to dismiss the whole background of Buddhism, and just to take the zazen as being what it’s all about. While it is true that the heart of our practice is zazen, nevertheless it is fed and nourished by the sutras and above all by the Prajnaparamita sutras.

I wrote a book on the sutras and I do recommend that you refer back to it from time to time in order to maintain, so to say, contact with the roots of our tradition. We must not make the mistake that we can cut with all of this tradition, and dismiss it as so much unnecessary tomfoolery. It is true that we do have to cut off many of the accretions that have grown up as a consequence of it passing through the Japanese culture. Indeed, I would like, as far as possible, to cleanse it, for our purposes, of its Japanese associations. Not because there is anything wrong with Japanese Zen and the Japanese masters: far from it. But we must realize that the Zen that we  practice must be rooted in and relevant to our Quebec society. It is within this society in which we live now that we are going to practice. We do not have to go back into the past to practice, even though we do need the sustenance that can come from the past.

The Diamond Sutra begins very dramatically, and it begins very dramatically because it has no drama at all. Anybody that has read any of the sutras, the Hua Yen Sutra for example or the Lotus Sutra, know all the bombast that goes into the beginning, where Buddha is surrounded by a hundred thousand Bodhisattvas  and ten thousand Mahasattvas and devas. This we don’t need. It was necessary for the time in which it was brought up because it was a way by which the overwhelmingness of Buddhism could be demonstrated, the sheer massiveness, the sheer radicalness of Buddhism could be shown. And unfortunately, many of us still don’t realize just how radical Buddhism really is, just how far reaching, how profound the teaching is.

But nowadays we are bombarded all the time with the outrageous, with the overwhelming, with the massive. Therefore, the beginning of the Diamond Sutra is most appropriate for our time. One day at breakfast time the World Honored One put on his robe and carrying his bowl made his way into the great city of Sravasti to beg for his food. In the midst of the city, he begged from door to door according to the rule. This done, he returned to his retreat and ate his meal. When he had finished, he put away his robe and begging bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat and sat down.

The utter simplicity of that, the lack of bombast… one must see into this, see into  the sheer humility of the whole account.  This is the World Honored One, and yet, this is an old man going about his daily routine. And it is that old man going about his daily routine that is our teacher. As long as we have Buddha up there, exalted, on a throne, flashing radiant light from here to there in the midst of many cosmoses and so on, it is all out of our reach. We are lost in awe, in wonder perhaps, but at the same time must ask, “What good is all that to me?” But then there is this old man, and we can really be acquainted with him, close to him, we can enter into his world in a very direct and complete way. When you read the Diamond Sutra, don’t skip the beginning; dwell on it, dwell on what it is telling us about simplicity and humility.

And Subhuti asked, “World Honored One, if people want complete awakening, how should they control their thoughts?” And he says,  “Bodhisattvas should discipline their thoughts thus: All living beings are caused by me to attain unbounded liberation.” What does Buddha mean by that, who is “me” that assures us of complete liberation? Who is that me? This ‘me’ is the Tathagata; the Tathagata liberates us. And again what does that mean? It does not mean what the Christians mean when they talk about Jesus saving us. When Jesus saves us there is that man over there, Jesus: the man who, by sacrificing himself on the cross, saves us from our sins. I do not quite know what that really means but, you can see in general what it means: someone saves someone else. But this is not the meaning of All living beings are caused by me to attain unbounded liberation.

This “me” of Buddha is “me” of the Tathagata, and the only way that you are going to encounter “me”, the Tathagata, is through the simplicity to which the opening of the Diamond sutra introduces us. And as we say, the way to encounter the Tathagata is by just allowing what is to be. When you do that, then the Tathagata is with you, the Tathagata is you.

All living beings are caused by me to attain unbounded liberation. Yet when vast immeasurable innumerable numbers of beings have been liberated, not one has been liberated. Why is this? Because no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego entity, a personality, a being or a separate individuality.

Now, of course this is nothing new to you. In fact…you have heard it so many times that you can just dismiss it and get on with your normal way of dreaming. But listen to what it says: no one is liberated. Not one being has been liberated. He liberates innumerable numbers of beings but no one has been liberated. Why is this? And he says, “Because there is no ego entity, personality, being or separate individuality.”

You are used hearing this also, and some of you have applied it to yourself. Some of you are beginning to realize perhaps, and perhaps even profoundly, that you are not something. “There is no ego” is not a philosophical statement, and it does no good reciting it to yourself in some belief that it is a kind of magical incantation, which will bring you nearer the truth: it will not. ‘There is no ego’ has no reason or “because.”  But if you’ve really examined everything that you think you are, from every angle, then it will come to you that you are not even a shadow. It is not that you are absent; ‘no ego’ is not annihilation, and Buddhism is not a nihilistic teaching. But our need to cling to a limited sense of self means that we lose sight of the truth that we encompass all that there is within our universe, that nothing lies outside, that we contain all. Being “open to all” is true liberation. The possibility of being open to all is present for all of us; at every moment it is like that–– we encompass all–– except we are looking elsewhere.

What is important in what Buddha is saying is that there are no other people either. Listen: ‘there are no other people either.’ You have populated your universe with all kinds of people: people that you like, people that you dislike, people you say are your friends, people who are members of your family, and everyone of them you have endowed with an ego, a personality, a being or a separate individuality. But there is no other individual, separate individuality or being.

One of the interesting things is that you even give an ego to the cat or the dog that is your pet. People ask sometimes, what happens to my dog when it dies, and they really feel there is an entity in that dog or cat, that is the essence of the cat, an essence that is “a cat.” And they even see a person, a real person in an idol. If you were once a young girl, and you were brought up in the traditional way, you would have been given dolls. And you used to endow the dolls with a personality, a personality that was real for you for the time being. When you go to a cinema, those people up there are real for you during the length of the film. You see their personality; you know them as a person. This is particularly true of soap operas; people fall in love with characters in the soap opera, they get terribly upset, depressed sometimes even to a pathological degree, because soap opera people get into difficulties. Those film or soap opera characters are real to some people, like your aunt is real to you.

What is going on here, what is this? Once upon a time the world was populated by gods and they were real, they weren’t imaginary. The people that worshiped gods were not mad, they did not have some idiotic feelings that meant they had to create gods. When Moses talked to God he talked to God, he talked to “someone.”

The late Julian Jaynes, a psychologist, gave convincing argument for the truth that people actually talked to gods. There are many people, who, when a close member of the family dies, still talk to them. So what is real here? Are you real? When you say to somebody “you”, what, or who, are you talking to? Have you asked yourself about this? Because if you do, you’ll see that it offers an opening into this profound mystery of being. Just see it for a moment: there are no people, there are no beings, none of the cats, dogs or whatever that you’ve ever known had a personality or being. When you see me, what do you see? When you talk to me, what do you talk to? You ‘create’ me in exactly the same way that you ‘create’ yourself. That sense of “me,” which you have, is the same sense of “you.” When you say “you” it is the same as when you say “me”.

Of course, overlaying the foundation of that sense of self there are various nuances. It is interesting that when you think, let’s say of a friend, there is a certain quality that person has that no other person has in your memory. And all of these people that you have encountered, each one is given a kind of quality, they are thought of as carrying their own kind of being, and it is that which makes us feel they are individual and separate. But we are feeling the feeling; the feeling does not belong to the people themselves. 

Now, obviously, you are not a figment of my imagination, and I assure you I am not a figment of yours. There is something that is real here. We are not dismissing it all and saying it is all unreal. But, what is it then? Because if you can penetrate into that, you are, at the same time, penetrating into the question “Who Am I?

We have to break through this inertia that leads us to take everything for granted, the inertia that tells us that it is too much trouble to think otherwise. This inertia is an awful tyrant. Moreover, because other people have told us one way or another that this is how it is, we accept that that is how it is. Everybody in society agrees that there are individuals, separate people, personalities, that there are ego entities or whatever. Humanism that came out in the 17th century turned this into a kind of religion. It is a religious belief, the person is the soul, the soul that God created. We cannot have abortions because the foetus has a soul that God created. God didn’t create anything because there is no ego entity, personality or person called God to create in the first place, and in the second place there is no entity that has been created.

So what are you? And what are all those people around you? What is your friend, or husband or lover or mother or father? Ask yourself about this now: suppose there is no ego entity anywhere, what is there then? What are you in the face of death. To really consider this calls for a kind of stretching of the girders of the soul, a kind of opening that is really difficult because one keeps on wanting to go back to the inert way, to the way of saying, “Oh, what does it matter. That is how it is.”

And then there is the question, “Can the Tathagata be recognised by some material characteristics?” You can understand this question at two levels. One is, “Can you recognise a realised person by some material characteristics?” (the 32 marks of the Buddha for example). But at the same time, the question can also mean: does kensho give you any way by which you separate out, are different from others such that others can identify it. Many people are practicing in order to get kensho so that they will have at least something that separates them from others, something that is like a reward for the work they are doing.

Subhuti says, No Honored One. The Tathagata cannot be recognised by any material characteristic. None at all.

A story is told of a “highly developed man” (if you like to use those words.) All the birds recognised his spiritual attainment and they brought flowers and dropped them at his feet. This man became very worried and asked himself, “What has gone wrong, what have I done wrong?” He was asking, why is it that practise has not eliminated everything that distinguishes me from everything else. Why cannot I take my true place as the universe itself? 

Buddha says, “My teaching of the good law is to be likened unto a raft. The dharma must be relinquished, how much more so the adharma.” This is a very famous saying. Unfortunately this too has sometimes been misunderstood. Some people say, “Well Buddha himself has said that we should not hold on to his teaching. So let us throw it all away. Buddha himself said it should not be held on to, why are we holding on to it?” But you see, that’s like somebody in the middle of a river saying,  “Well, it is only a raft, let’s get rid of it.” He would not get very far, would he? No, the only time you get rid of it is when you have reached the other shore… when you really see that there is no thing, when you really see there is no person. There is then no dharma left anyway, there is nothing to give up, there is not “now I can give it up and let it go.”   What Buddha is saying is “this is the direction to go.” Do not go in the direction in which one worships the scriptures and feels there is something sacred about the writings that must be preserved and venerated.

Then there is a very enigmatic statement that is interesting because it undercuts the very way we think, particularly in the West. He says, the Tataghata declares the world is not really a world, it is called a world. The logic of the West is based on the logic of identity, everything is what it is. And he says, no it isn’t. It is called that but that doesn’t mean to say it is that. Because we give ‘things’ names, we give them, or appear to give them, endurance; we appear to give them something that can go on for eternity. It is particularly true when we come to talk about you and me. “I” is a word; that is all. It has not any kind of substance; it is simply a word, a puff of air that makes a sound. But “I”! We can hear sometimes people when they use this word… it is so precious, so juicy, so succulent, that they can’t let it go. Have you spent a day not using the word “I”? Please do so. You’ll find it is an extremely long, boring, uninteresting day. It is not enlivened periodically by that juicy word “I.” You’ll then see what part it plays in our lives and you’ll also ask perhaps, “Why am I spending so much time defending, protecting, nurturing this word, this sense of being!”

No wisdom can we get hold on, no highest perfection. There is no wisdom, no highest perfection. As it says here, when told of this, if one is not bewildered and in no way anxious about it, then one is on the Way. It is only when one has really seen into the truth that one can say that there is no wisdom or highest perfection and not be stressed out by it. Of course, there is a difference between saying it and really saying it. When you really realise this — there is no thing,  no perfection, there is no ultimate attainment, no knowing, no being, no thing — when you really get into it, in the first instance it is like looking into an awful chasm. And we immediately shy away from it; this is one of the things people say: they have this profound fear but they don’t know what they are afraid of. They are afraid of this chasm, they are beginning to taste the truth, and the truth is too terrible to bear. It is only too terrible to bear because we have devoted our lives to not seeing it, to turning our back constantly on it. And it is because of this that when we start opening up we often go through periods of severe anxiety.

The philosopher Heidegger, who incidentally was profoundly affected by Zen Buddhism, experienced this fear.  He says, “’Dread of’ is always a dreadful feeling ‘about’ – but not about this or that.” In dread, “there is nothing to hold on to. Dread “reveals nothing, it holds us in suspense because we [along with every thing else] slip away from ourselves. For this reason it is not ‘you’ or ‘I’ who has the uncanny feeling but ‘one.’”

He went on to say, “Dread strikes us dumb…all affirmation fails in the face of it. The fact that when we are caught in the uncanniness of dread we often try to break the empty silence by words spoken at random, only proves the presence of Nothing”

My work at one time called for a lot of travelling and I used to drive a lot. Sometimes I’d be driving and just get the feeling the world was crumbling in front of me, because I was looking into, I was  seeing, this no thingness , and there was this sense I was driving into nothing …. I had to stop the car periodically just to recover (and to recover was to reassure myself that everything was ‘normal.’)

The sutra says, A bodhisattva courses in the Prajnaparamita. In form, in feeling, will, perception and consciousness, nowhere in them do they find a place to rest. There is nowhere to rest. And again, rest is above all what we want. The most we can offer the dead is that they rest in peace. And we constantly want to rest, “just let me rest for a while”; how often have you felt that in your life? Shakespeare, I think it was in the Tempest, said: Time must have a stop. That’s it. Somewhere, something has to stop, something has to come to a culmination, a closure; something has to end. In Zen, it is looked upon as the last word of Zen. I’ve got to find the last word of Zen, I’ve got to get to that point where I have arrived, I have made it, I can rest there. This is the ultimate drive in most of us. And the sutra says: there is no rest. There is no ultimate point of arrival; there is no Judgment Day or ultimate realisation where you can say: I have done it at last.

One of the great things about school was that we were always having exams. Alright, having exams was a pain, but at the same time they gave us a sense of ‘we are going to achieve’. And when we got our marks, we felt we had got something.  School life was punctuated by periods of achievement, or possible achievement. In life there is no rest… you just get through one thing, and as you get through it so another thing comes up, and then as you get through that…and on its goes. As someone said, life is just one damned thing after the other.

If a Bodhisattva practices charity with a mind attached to formal notions, she is likened to a person groping sightless in the gloom. But a Bodhisattva who practices charity with mind detached from any formal notions, is like a person whose eyes open in the radiant glory of the morning to whom all kinds of object are clearly visible. Elsewhere, it says again that when you practice charity or when you help other people you must realise there are no other people to help. And this is so important. Because, very often we feel–– and this is and particularly in our Western society, so-called Christian society––that one of the ways we can progress on the spiritual path is by helping other people.

Or very often it is just a feeling: I want to help other people. But if you are helping other people and there are people that you feel you are really helping, then sooner or later, you will feel superior to those people. You can’t help it. You are in the driver seat, the helper; they are in the receiver seat, the helpless. You see it very often in the medical profession: nurses and doctors. There is a certain superiority they have over you because they genuinely want to help; but they see you as a person, they are taught to see you as a person, as an object with all kinds of levers and pulleys that must be kept going .

This notion of seeing other people as other people and helping them leads into all kinds of difficulties.  No wonder we have the expression “As cold as charity.” You help people because you help people; not because you are a good person, not because it helps you into heaven. If you do that––help people because you help people–– then there are no people that you help. That does not mean you do away with them, that you’ve got a blank space in front of you. But we must divest ourselves of this sense there are other people in the world. And of course, when people think about that with their minds: “Oh God, that would be lonely! That is madness!” No. Because you are everybody else; you are your mother, you are your father, you are your lover, you are your enemy. It is not ‘as though you are.’ You are the other. Most religions see this in one way or another, in Christianity “everyone is my brother and sister”.

You are.  But it is not the ‘you’ that you think you are; it is not you the personality, you the sense of self, that is. No, that sense of self by definition is individual, isolated and unique. If that is the case, how can you be the other. But the point is that this isolated, unique sense of self is not you. You are not an empty space either. Here is the wonderful, wonderful mystery. And because you fiddle around with all kinds of other things, you cannot get into this mystery, which is such a terrible shame. It is a beautiful mystery if you can allow it to be.

There is another saying in the Diamond sutra that is also very worthwhile to bear in mind, very worthwhile: “One who is reviled by others has transgressed in former lives which dooms him or her to fall into an evil world. But because of the scorn and vilification by others in the present life the transgressions in the  former life are wiped out. You see, somebody comes up and says to you: “Who the hell do you think you are. Get out…!” You immediately turn round and say: “What?!”  Immediately the bristles are up and the fangs come out. But this, the humiliation that we feel in the face of that insult, is the sense that I, the unique one, is no longer unique. I, the unique one, has been dislodged from its throne. And when you are working on the tan, what are you trying to do? If you are sincere, if you are honest, you are trying to see into this shadow. And by doing that, you are naturally getting the unique one off its throne. You are doing the very thing yourself that your enemy would do for you. So when your enemy, or this person that does not like you, comes up, when they do their work, this is wonderful. They are doing your work for you; and this is free! It is given to you without any kind of charge!

There was a Sufi teacher who told his student to pay people to insult him. And he did so for 3 years and then the teacher said, “Ok, you don’t need to do that anymore.” And this student went off, and he was about to enter into a town and there was a beggar sitting outside the gate who would curse everyone who went through.  He would insult them in every possible ways. So of course when this student went through he too was insulted as well. And he laughed, “Thank you very much,” he said, “during the last 3 years I have been paying for that!” You see, in future let’s look at this: if you have got somebody insulting you like that at the office… feel the pain, feel the scorn, it is not that it is a way of shielding from it, on the contrary… but you see, as I said, you could spend hours on the tan and still not get that degree of erosion of the sense of self that comes in those few minutes.

* * *

Nectar from Heaven

final cover copy

                                  Monk:  Who can bring the nectar of heaven?

                                 Zen master Joshu: Thank you for bringing it to me.

The new book, Nectar from Heaven: stories from heart to heart, is now available for sale.   It is made up  of a collection of  stories and inspirational pieces that I have used over the years during the sesshin talks that I give, as well as at the last evening of sesshin.  It is a companion book to What more do you want? Zen Questions: Zen Responses.  I have written them in the hope that they, as well as the articles that appear in Thoughts along the Way, in addition to making up for my having to curtail my participation in the Center’s activities, will be of value to those who practice Zen but who do not have a competent teacher.

I have not attempted to interpret the stories in any way.  Each story has a specific point to make, a point which has relevance both to our practice as well as to life. I have added short quotes to the stories by way of amplification or simply because the quotes have an appeal.

The stories have been garnered from many different religious traditions, and some of them I have written myself as they helped me, at some time, to get a thought across to the sesshin participants.  The book has been very nicely illustrated by some drawings that my wife, Jean, has done, and by other drawings generously donated by my good friend, Jeffrey Frith a very fine Australian artist.

The book is not only addressed to people who practice Zen, or other spiritual way.  The stories have relevance and value for everyone.  They would, therefore, make an ideal Holiday present!

The cost of the book is 15.00 plus 6.00 postage and handling.

Best wishes to you all

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3 Responses to Teisho no 3 September 2013: The Diamond Sutra

  1. Tamara says:

    Thank you Mr. Low, I very much appreciate your guidance. This article comes at the right time; I’ve just been upset over an argument having to do with not being appreciated for the help I give. You’ve touched on both the part of me being upset (“how dare they..” the thoughts went) and about how there is no one to help. I wish I had read the article before getting so upset, as I feel I would have dealt with the insult differently. The challenge for me is to understand what “there is no one to help” means.

  2. André Martel says:

    Hello Albert, just finished reading this Teisho, thank you for posting it.
    My thoughts are with you often.
    best regards

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