The Diamond Cutter Sutra
January 22, 2018
Bodhgaya, Bihar, India – When His Holiness the Dalai Lama arrived at the Kalachakra Maidan this morning, he was greeted as usual by thousands of smiling faces and folded hands. He returned the smiles and saluted some old friends. From the edge of the stage he waved to more distant members of the audience and they waved back, some even jumping up and down for joy. After greeting old friends among the Lamas on the stage, His Holiness took his seat on the throne. The ‘Heart Sutra’ was recited in Chinese.
“Today, I’m going to explain the ‘Diamond Cutter Sutra’ primarily for Chinese students as I have done once before,” His Holiness announced. “I’m also thinking of explaining the ‘Heart Sutra’. I have generally been giving teachings annually to Chinese in Dharamsala, but on this occasion we’ve been able to gather here in this sacred place. At the beginning of this series of teachings I taught a group of Indian Buddhists, recalling that Buddhism originated in India before spreading across Asia.
“The Pali tradition, with its exemplary Vinaya traditions, spread to countries like Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. The Sanskrit tradition in the way it was followed at Nalanda spread to China and from there to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Later it was carried to Tibet and on to Mongolia. China was therefore among the earlier countries to which Buddhism spread. Nowadays, wherever in the world there are Chinese, they set up a Buddhist temple, which shows how close Buddhism is to the Chinese heart—it is China’s traditional religion.
“In 1954 I visited Beijing and other parts of China where I was shown many Buddhist temples. In particular I remember a stupa in Beijing that reflected the links between Tibetan Buddhist Masters and the Chinese Emperors, which contained a statue of Vajrabhairava. Later, during the Cultural Revolution all religions were considered aspects of blind faith and efforts were made destroy them. However, it seems that it takes more than that to uproot long ingrained faith and after Deng Xiao Ping relaxed restrictions, Buddhism has revived. A university survey some years ago found evidence of 300 million Buddhists in China, which friends tell me has grown to 400 million. President Xi Jinping observed in Paris and Delhi that Buddhism has an important role in Chinese culture.”
His Holiness expressed his admiration of the fact that all the world’s major religions flourish in India. What’s more, these different religious traditions, indigenous and from abroad, theistic and non-theistic, live together in respectful harmony.
“I’m a Buddhist monk,” he said, “but I respect all religious traditions. The key thing is to be sincere and to put what you believe into practice. All these different traditions teach love, compassion and tolerance even if they hold different philosophical views. While I have immense respect for Buddhist philosophical positions, I never say that Buddhism is the best tradition. To do so would be as mistaken as saying that one particular medicine was the best for everyone in all circumstances.
“The Buddha encouraged his followers to be sceptical and to examine what they heard in the light of reason. He said,
O monks and scholars,
As gold is tested by burning, cutting and rubbing,
Examine my words thoroughly
And accept them only then—not just out of respect for me.
His Holiness discussed his childhood interest in mechanical toys and how, when he visited China in 1954, he visited factories and power plants and burned with curiosity to know how they worked. Mao Zedong observed that he had a scientific mind. In exile he thought of holding discussions with scientists. When warned that science is a killer of religion he considered the role of reason and logic in the Nalanda Tradition and decided there was no danger. In fact, the interaction led to mutual benefit and one result is that science is now part of the standard curriculum in many Tibetan monastic institutions. Scientific knowledge has extended Buddhist understanding.
“The crucial point is that we have to study. Paying homage to Amitabha and simply reciting sutras is not sufficient. I have heard that there are many temples and monasteries in China. They would do well to become centres of learning. As a result of our efforts to extend opportunities to study amongst Tibetans, we now have nuns qualified as Geshemas after almost 20 years of rigorous study. It requires a change of focus. I remember visiting Singapore in 1965 or 66 and being very moved to hear the ‘Heart Sutra’ chanted in Chinese. However, the monks who were alert when I gave empowerments and permissions dozed off when I explained more general teachings. Westerners, people who are not traditionally Buddhist, take notes when they come to teachings.”
As he took up the text of the ‘Diamond Cutter Sutra’, His Holiness explained how after attaining enlightenment the Buddha declared ‘Profound and peaceful, free from complexity, uncompounded luminosity—I have found a nectar-like Dharma. Yet if I were to teach it, no-one would understand, so I shall remain silent here in the forest.’ However, when they met again, Kaundinya and his former companions requested him to teach. He explained the Four Noble Truths in terms of the four characteristics of each truth, as well as the 37 Factors of Enlightenment. These are clearly recorded in the Three Baskets of the Pali Tradition. Pali was the language of the first council at Rajgir during which the Vinaya was compiled.
Later, the Buddha gave the Perfection of Wisdom teachings on Vulture’s Peak that came to be recorded in Sanskrit. His Holiness clarified that the teachings found in the Pali tradition were those that had been given openly in public, whereas those of the Sanskrit tradition were given before a more select gathering. Where the teachings of the Pali Tradition form the very foundation of Buddhism, the Perfection of Wisdom teachings are the Buddha’s supreme instructions.
With regard to the ‘Diamond Cutter Sutra’, His Holiness mentioned that the former Ganden Throne-holder, Rizong Rinpoche, had given it to him, although there is no ‘explanatory transmission’. Like other works in the Kangyur and Tengyur collections its Sanskrit title ‘The Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra’ is given to show that it was not composed in Tibetan. The sutra deals with wisdom and what it cuts through is ignorance. It begins with the Venerable Subhuti asking the Buddha the following question, “World-Honoured One, if sons and daughters of good families want to give rise to the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind, what should they rely on and what should they do to master their thinking?”
In explaining that the highest Madhyamaka view is that things can only be said to exist by way of designation, His Holiness quoted Nagarjuna’s observation that bodhisattvas aspiring to omniscience cannot be fully qualified if they continue to cling to an idea of independent objective existence. He was further prompted to remark that Nagarjuna’s key work ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’ is very precious and is available in Chinese. “I read it,” he said, “and I repeat and think about verses from it every day.”
He explained that of the ‘Fundamental Wisdom’s’ 27 chapters, if you were to read chapters 26,18, 24 and 22 you would come to understand how we fall into cyclic existence, how there is no independently existent self, and how things have no objective existence, but are interdependent. He also commended his Chinese listeners to make themselves aware of the Chinese translations of Aryadeva’s ‘400 Verses’, ‘Buddhapalita’ and Chandrakirti’s ‘Entering into the Middle Way’ and ‘Clear Words’.
His Holiness noted that during the first turning of the wheel of dharma, the Buddha explained that there is no permanent, single, autonomous self. During the second turning, he elaborated on this and made clear that form, shape and colour, for example, have no independent existence at all—therefore the ‘Heart Sutra’ famously says, “Form is empty, emptiness is form”. Among the Two Truths, conventional truth is what is designated by worldly convention. Not only is the person a mere designation, empty of independent existence, but the psycho-physical aggregates that are the basis of designation are also empty of any independent existence.
Recalling what he had been saying earlier about his experience of the way Vinaya is observed in Thailand, His Holiness noted that a monk is to eat before midday. He brought the session to an end in expectation of continuing tomorrow. Members of the audience expressed their enthusiasm by smiling, clapping and waving as His Holiness left the stage.