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The Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra

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Jake Lyne

In April 1997, the Western Chan Fellowship held a retreat in Scotland on Holy Island off Arran. St Molaise was a Christian hermit there in the 7th Century. During the retreat, we celebrated his feast day and held a ceremony in St Molaise's cave hermitage in the Saint's honor. This article is based on a talk that was given on the retreat.

Like a lamp, a cataract, a star in space, an illusion, a dew drop, a bubble, a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning; view all created things like this.

(diamond sutra)

The Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra are members of the Prajnaparamita group of sutras that were written down sometime between 100 BCE and 400 CE. The Heart Sutra comprises 25 and the Diamond Sutra 300 lines of Sanskrit. Other sutras in the Prajnaparamita group include a 125,000-line sutra and even a sutra of about one million lines, though legend has it that the latter was hidden in the oceans by the Nagas (Sea Serpents) and has not yet been released to humanity.

Prajna means wisdom of emptiness and paramita means perfection. So, Prajnaparamita is the perfection of the wisdom of emptiness, which might be taken to mean the perfection of the natural wisdom that manifests when the human heart/mind is no longer constrained by confusion and attachment. Perfection of wisdom is not something that can be practiced or learned, it has to be realized. The wisdom of emptiness is

possible, because nature is not confined to the logic of dualism, though this is not to deny the value of logic. Dualism in this context means emphasizing the separation between you and me, or it and you, or them and us. Because wisdom is not confined to this logic, it is possible to bring to bear what might be called counter-logic or encounter-logic, an approach that is often used in the paradoxical teachings and methods of Buddhism.

The Heart Sutra is elegant in its structure and is recited daily by Buddhists across the world. The Diamond Sutra is less well structured. There have been numerous commentaries on the Diamond Sutra and many attempts to make sense of the repetition within it, one theory being that it comprises two versions of the Sutra, back to back. The Heart Sutra is the sutra of going beyond: its mantra ‘Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha’ is translated as ‘Going, going, going beyond, going altogether beyond, wisdom all hail!’

The sutra describes the experience of the Bodhisattva (wisdom being) Avalokiteshvara, whose mission is to help all beings to be liberated. Within the Heart Sutra’s mantra, ‘Parasamgate’ is usually translated as ‘altogether beyond’, but can also be translated as ‘all together beyond’, i.e. all sentient beings being liberated together. However, the central theme of the Heart Sutra is personal emancipation; it is in the Diamond Sutra that universal emancipation is more fully explored and therefore considering these sutras together is valuable.

If the Heart Sutra is the sutra of ‘going’, the Diamond Sutra is the sutra of returning, the direction taken by the Buddha after his enlightenment when he returned to the world in order to help all beings. In the Diamond Sutra or Vajracchedika Sutra, where vajra is the diamond that cuts through, the Buddha teaches his followers how to be Bodhisattvas.

The Heart Sutra – The Path of Emancipation

Let us examine the Heart Sutra in more detail. The Sutra sets out the true nature of a human being, essentially affirming the message of the first turning of the Dharma Wheel (the earliest teachings of the Buddha), that liberation or emancipation is possible. However, it removes dependence on all categories, including the categories of samsara (bondage) and nirvana (release), by introducing the Prajnaparamita

teachings, which are a feature of the second turning of the Dharma Wheel. From the perspective of Prajnaparamita there is no such thing as emancipation. Only from the perspective of one who is trapped in the world of human categories and attachments is there a place of bondage and a place of freedom, but this perspective, whilst useful for teaching purposes, can be transcended.

In the sutra, Shariputra receives a teaching from Avalokitesvara that is approved by the Buddha. Shariputra and Avalokitesvara start from the understanding that self is dependent on parts, known as dharmas, and therefore it is not self-existent in its own right. The parts that the self depends on are listed in the Heart Sutra. These are the five skandhas that comprise the body or form, and the four mental

components of mind; feeling, perception, volition and consciousness. The sutra also lists other categories that are pertinent to the potentialities of sentient beings; the sense realms, the Four Noble Truths, the chain of causation that underpins the wheel of life and death and its reversal, the distinction between samsara and nirvana, wisdom, and the attainment of enlightenment.

The Heart Sutra lists Buddhist analytical concepts but, although these concepts are useful for teaching 'right view', the sutra negates them all because realisation goes beyond the narrow boundaries of conceptual categorisation. It is through this negation that the Heart Sutra becomes a corrective to, but not a dismissal of, the early teachings of the Buddha. The negation comes about through Avalokitesvara’s experience in which he sees that all five skandhas, and indeed all dharmas, are empty. He does not use his analytical mind to see this, he

simply sees it as a result of coursing in the deep Prajnaparamita, and, in seeing it, he sees the emptiness that underlies all forms and constructions. However, in case Shariputra would be tempted to fall into error, Avalokiteshvara adds that whilst form is emptiness, emptiness is also form, and that emptiness manifests exactly as form with nothing left over; this is a corrective to the possibilities of

nihilism or escapism. The same formula applies to the other dharmas. The Heart Sutra might be termed a sutra of enlightenment; it states that enlightenment is an insight into one’s true nature, one that is normally obscured by false understanding or ignorance. Remove ignorance and enlightenment is discovered to be the natural order of things and therefore it cannot be “attained”.

When I began practicing Zen in the 1980s, the attainment of wisdom and enlightenment as described in the Heart Sutra was emphasized much more than Buddhist ethics and the expression of compassion. This was partly due to the influence of authors such as D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts who, in their writings on Zen, emphasised kensho and spontaneity in everyday life. These authors inspired many Westerners to investigate Zen. Western education, especially at that time, offered a vision of life that was divided on political lines between capitalist

and socialist values, but underpinning both was a materialistic, philosophical outlook that was ultimately nihilistic. Zen as written about by Suzuki, Watts, and others seemed to offer an alternative in principle but, to open yet skeptical minds, until tested in experience this was essentially just another viewpoint. Even if wonderful experiences occurred in meditation, still the logic of a materialistic world view

went unchallenged. But a materialistic vision is at heart painful, because deep down it makes life appear to be meaningless, however kindly or dramatically lived. This pain drove many deeper into Zen. Going beyond materialism is a matter of the heart and of insight. It is a matter of the heart because the pain of oneself and of others must be faced, and a matter of insight because something paradoxical needs to be seen through. Both are needed in order to leap free of the chains of a limiting world view.

As described above, Zen was a solution to a personal problem of alienation that had its root in a culturally determined world view, which itself was founded on a mistaken understanding of the nature of self. Just as the Buddha solved the universal problem of suffering in his quest, so Westerners could find a pathway out of the alienation resulting from an incomplete, and yet seemingly unchallengeable,

understanding of life. The solution has universal implications and can only be unearthed through facing suffering and through the heart being touched. However, essentially it was a personal quest. It was some time before I started to appreciate more fully that, as a Mahayana Path, Zen goes much deeper. My early practice and perhaps that of many of my contemporaries was tilted towards the painful need for a

breakthrough, but if Zen practice stays at that level it becomes questionable as to whether such breakthroughs are of much lasting value. On the other hand, to deny the value of insight and only emphasise an instrumental approach to Buddhism that focuses exclusively on ethics,

mindfulness and social engagement, is also an error, that denies or ignores the Buddha’s enlightenment, and ultimately may not have much power. It is the combination of insight in the context of a growing wish to make a contribution that defines the Mahayana Path that is to be lived out in the spirit of a bodhisattva.

The Diamond Sutra – The Path of The Bodhisattva

Just as in the Heart Sutra the wisdom of emptiness (Prajnaparamita) shines like a light to illuminate the teachings of the first turning of the Dharma Wheel, so in the Diamond Sutra the same light illuminates the Mahayana teachings, the central theme of which is universal, not just personal, emancipation. Together with the Prajnaparamita teachings, the Mahayana teachings constitute the second turning of the Dharma Wheel. The Diamond Sutra relates a dialogue between the Buddha and Subhuti, one of his senior disciples. In the opening exchange, Subhuti asks the Buddha the following question:

"It is rare, Bhagavan, most rare, how the Tathagata, the fully enlightened one, blesses fearless bodhisattvas with the best of blessings and how the fully enlightened one entrusts fearless Bodhisattvas with the greatest of trusts. How should a person set forth on the bodhisattva path, how should they stand, how should they walk and how should they control their thoughts?"

In his answers, the Buddha applies the wisdom of emptiness to all the aspects of the bodhisattva path. Two themes that are given high priority in the Sutra are liberating others and the perfection of giving. The Buddha replies:

"Subhuti those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should give rise to this thought: however many beings there are, in whatever realms they might exist, in the realm of complete Nirvana I should liberate them all…"

That's some project, little wonder that the Dalai Lama once, when speaking about practice, said there is no rush! But why would we want to liberate anyone and why take such a vow? Well, we might ask the opposite, why would we not want to liberate anyone? When we meet someone who is in trouble why would we not want to help them? Unless something else intervenes, our spontaneous reaction is to help, but our feeling of

goodwill and the desire to help comes and goes, it is unreliable, so we take a vow. The purpose of a vow is to compensate for the unreliability of feeling. But – why the apparently impossible vow to liberate all sentient beings? At an ordinary level, it's so that our vow is unbounded, so that we don't set limits to what we decide to do, yet at the same time, we are only able to work within our capacity; the vow is not an admonition to stretch ourselves so thin that we become ineffective. The Buddha goes on to say,

...and though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated, and why not Subhuti? A bodhisattva who creates a perception of a being cannot be called a bodhisattva, and why, no-one can be called a bodhisattva who creates a perception of the self, who creates a perception of a being, a life or a soul.

Here the Buddha shines the light of prajna on this great thought of liberating all sentient beings. Prajna is an antidote to egotism. In discussing the Heart Sutra we have already touched on the problem of ego involvement in seeking self-enlightenment, and the need for the illuminating light of prajna to transcend the ego. In the Diamond Sutra the issue is ego involvement in the bodhisattva’s wish to save others.

The wisdom of emptiness is an antidote to the trap of becoming a ‘rescuer’. A rescuer is someone who blurs responsibility by taking responsibility for another person in some inappropriately zealous way, and this often involves competing with other 'rescuers' to be the special helper in the lives of others. When such rescuing is scaled up to being a mission to save everyone it becomes a Saviour complex. People with a Saviour complex are often profoundly resented, they may also harbor a grudge about the ingratitude of others, and since they are inevitably disappointed in their mission, they can become paralysed by guilt, or caught up in delusions of control.

To effect this seemingly impossible vow, wisdom or prajna is required. Some years ago I was in Kolkata, a city in which there is a huge gap between rich and poor, with many people living in abject poverty. To avoid the problems involved in giving to people begging on the street, we donated to a charity with a good reputation in Kolkata. But one situation arose that I felt I could not walk away from. A woman

begging on a busy street corner was holding in her arms a baby that was extremely poorly. The baby was limp and almost lifeless. I wanted to give the woman money on the spot. However, my medically qualified companion had a completely opposite reaction; she insisted that the woman go with her to a hospital nearby so that the baby could be treated, but the woman refused. My companion told the woman that her baby

urgently needed to be in hospital and offered to pay, but the woman paid no attention. This was a racket; the baby was either drugged or extremely ill and was being used to elicit sympathy. Whatever was going on, the woman was not free to be mainly concerned for the baby. Kindness without wisdom is at best misguided and at worst harmful. Mother Theresa, whose moving and impressive tomb we visited in Kolkata, had a practical policy for dealing with situations like this: when you go among the poor, go with food not money.

The Buddha said there is no self, no being, no life and no soul. That also implies that there is no self who is giving rise to the thought of liberating all beings. In every day life, we ordinarily feel that we are a self, but in practicing according to the Diamond Sutra, we repeatedly set the self to one side, knowing that there is no self to help and no being to be helped, no life to be saved, no soul to be rescued and therefore no function for a saviour.

The meaning of what it is to be a bodhisattva changed over time. In early Buddhism, a bodhisattva was a great human being, who after countless lives was close to Buddhahood. According to the early Buddhist cosmological system, most of us are aeons away from this, so the bodhisattva ideal is unreachable for most of us. Bodhisattvas were special, exceptional people, not ordinary people like you and me. As

Mahayana Buddhism became more widespread, a transformation occurred leading to a second way of understanding the bodhisattva ideal that opened the bodhisattva path to almost anyone (anyone that is who has not killed a Buddha in this lifetime). From the Mahayana perspective, anyone could be a bodhisattva so long as they took refuge in the Buddha, and took the bodhisattva vows and did their best to live by them.

In addition to vowing to live by certain ethical standards, the bodhisattva makes a vow to liberate sentient beings and to attain supreme Buddhahood. They make progress towards this by various means, one of which is to accumulate merit, since merit increases their potential for liberating others and attaining enlightenment. In ancient China, the most powerful way

to accumulate merit was to give to the monastic Sangha, a mutually reinforcing system that might be said to have allowed the Sangha to become wealthy in practice, whilst the lay people became wealthy in spirit by reducing their own wealth in practice! The Dana paramita, or perfection of giving, is the first of the six paramitas, or the six perfections, that

bodhisattvas practice. The others are morality, patience, energy, concentration and wisdom. Generosity is the foundation for all of the other paramitas, and the sixth paramita, Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom), informs them all. The greater a person’s generosity, judged not by how much a person gives but what it costs them to give, the greater are their chances of a favorable rebirth.

Ego is founded on the fires of greed, hatred and ignorance. In the Diamond Sutra, three types of generosity are outlined that are intended to be antidotes to these fires: the antidote to greed is material generosity, food, medicine and so on; the antidote to hatred is kindness, protection, and listening; and the antidote to delusion is spiritual guidance and instruction. Applying the wisdom of emptiness to the paramita of generosity results in giving without attachment.

"Moreover Subhuti, when bodhisattvas give a gift they should not be attached to a thing, when they give a gift they should not be attached to anything at all, they should not be attached to a sight, nor should they be attached to a sound a smell a taste a touch or a dharma when they give a gift. But Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas should give a gift without being attached to the perception of an object. And why, Subhuti, the body of merit of those Bodhisattvas who give a gift without being attached is not easy to measure. Thus, Subhuti, those who set forth on the bodhisattva path should give a gift without being attached to the perception of an object."

The Diamond Sutra was without doubt instrumental in motivating people to donate immense wealth, to Buddhist Monasteries especially, at various periods in Chinese history. Perhaps the Sutra served as an antidote to a possible problem in the position taken by Bodhidharma, the first Chinese Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, in his meeting with the Emperor Wu.

The Emperor said “I have donated so much, I've created so many monasteries I've helped so many Buddhists, and I've given so much to the Dharma, what merit have I gained?” And Bodhidharma replied, “No merit your Majesty”.

A good Zen answer, but not one likely to promote the giving of wealth to monasteries! A third way to understand the bodhisattva ideal is to consider that the great bodhisattvas are not in any sense real, but that they represent archetypes. Archetypes are human ideals or dispositions that are present innately in all human beings. So for example, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara represents the archetype of

compassion or kindly action and the Bodhisattva Manjushri represents the archetype of wisdom. This understanding makes the Mahayana path much more accessible, since everyone has the capacity to be compassionate and wise at least some of the time, and we can develop or realize these capacities. This way of understanding allows us to internalise the meaning of the Mahayana path, and does away with the need to think in terms of the accumulation of merit in exchange for some future spiritual benefit or higher rebirth.

'Logic' in the Diamond Sutra

Buddhism teaches the Middle Way, or the third place between being and not being, but from a logical point of view there is no third place. The law of the excluded middle states that everything must either be or not be, it is not possible for something to be and not be, or neither be nor not be. However, this middle way perspective is central to the encounter-logic of Madhyamaka reasoning, the function of which

is to challenge the idea that entities with permanent and independent self-nature can be found. The Diamond Sutra also uses the encounter logic of the middle way, but it goes one step further by contradicting an even more fundamental law of logic, the law of identity. The law of identity states that an object is the same as itself, so a fish is a fish but is not a fisherman. In the Sutra, this logic is repeatedly

flouted, for example, the Buddha says that sentient beings are not sentient beings, which is a fundamental enough denial of the law of identity, but then even more radically he goes on to say that therefore they are sentient beings. Repeatedly statements appear in the form “A is not A, therefore it is A”, including statements that take away the reliance on the Diamond Sutra teachings themselves. Other examples are

prajna (Prajna is not Prajna, therefore it is Prajna), the Dharma, enlightenment, transformation, merit and of course the same would apply to the concept of 'the wisdom of emptiness' introduced earlier. So far as I am aware no explanation for the use of this unusual formula survives antiquity, though some Buddhist philosophers have attempted to explain it in modern times.1 The formula was also adopted by Zen Master Dogen, always with an imaginative twist. For example, quoting an old master, Dogen wrote:

Mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.’ The meaning of these words is not that mountains are mountains, but that mountains are mountains.

This defies ordinary logic and indicates the need for a different kind of investigation into what is intended by this formula. The first point to consider is whether the translations of the Diamond Sutra from Sanskrit into other languages are correct. Paul Harrison argues that they are not quite correct. When the Diamond Sutra was first translated into Chinese, the translator Kumarajiva made one of two

possible choices about how to translate a particular term and all subsequent translators (except for Tibetans) have repeated the choice, resulting in the non-logical formula A is not A, therefore it is A. He argues that an equally valid choice would have been better and would not have resulted in this formula. However, I believe that one can get to an understanding that is very similar to Harrison's (judging from preview material), using the formula A is not A, therefore it is A, and since Harrison’s translation is not published I shall try to do this.

Think of a friend (I shall use ‘Chris’ for convenience) whom you know very well. Very likely, your mental image of that person is a composite of your memories and mental images of them, colored by your impressions, prejudices, preferences, opinions, and perhaps your wishes for them to change in some way, or to stay the way they are (e.g. not grow old and die). In other words, your thought of them is a

representation that is partially tailored to your self-concern and this representation is what you refer to when you think of ‘Chris’. Another person would have a different (perhaps very different) impression of ‘Chris’. Now try to think of ‘Chris’ at the same time as attempting to set aside as much as you can your own attitude towards them, try to get to a more direct impression that has less of you involved in it and that allows them to be as they are. At this point, we are considering the possibility that ‘Chris is not Chris’, in other

words a direct, fresh appreciation of them is not the same as the habitual impression we form of our friend. The Diamond Sutra goes on to say, ‘therefore he/she is Chris’. I take this to mean that the act of removing our habitual impression of ‘Chris’ is what is necessary, in

order to reveal a more direct appreciation of ‘Chris’. This is not to suggest that there is an objectively real ‘Chris’, but rather that open or intimate communication with ‘Chris’ depends on removing something that is in the way. Open communication is possible when we accept that self and others are always changing and shifting, rather than falling into the habit of seeing people as fixed unchanging ‘selves’.

What about Dogen’s mountains? The message might be that our perceptions of the world are limited by language. Once we give something a name, we are likely to stop noticing its true ever-changing nature. Mountains, which flow at a geological pace, seem the most unchanging of all things, but this is an illusion. Mountains may hold their general form during human time, but they change with the seasons and the weather.

When viewed from afar they are beautiful, but when we are on a mountain in a storm, beauty goes and the mountain can become frightening or dangerous. As we trek through mountains, so they are moving all the time. The wordmountains’ is a symbol that cannot in any way capture

the vastness of mountains. When we are no longer dominated by such symbols, then mountains are mountains! But this can only be seen if our attachment to words drops away (therefore they are mountains). One can go more and more deeply into mountains, it is not possible to exhaust them unless we reduce them to the status of a word and stop noticing.

The sutra seems to be saying that the way we see A is bounded by our concepts of A, but this is not really what A is. When we truly see A for what it is, it is because we have let go of our concepts, or preconceptions about it. This is a rather precise way of speaking about

Sunyata, voidness, emptiness, direct experience unmediated by concepts and opinions. The law of identity is not contradicted; it is just that we have a habit of taking the false for the real. However, whilst this might seem to resolve an apparent logical dilemma, we should not overlook the power of the word therefore. What is being pointed to is a moment of fresh understanding, a kind of sudden eureka moment that involves seeing something in a different way from usual.

It is easy to experiment with examples where the costs of releasing a fixed idea are little in relation to the resulting reward. Investigating more challenging examples can indicate just how difficult it is to realise the truth of what the Diamond Sutra is pointing to. For example, in a relationship dominated by fear, competition, cruelty or hatred, the idea that A is not A (e.g. this evil

person or country is not fundamentally evil) can seem trite at best and may be very difficult to realise in practice. Consider how difficult it was for people in South Africa to heal the wounds of hatred during the truth and reconciliation process. Likewise, returning to the paramita of generosity, it is not difficult to be generous when the cost to us is low, but what if the opportunity for generosity involves

considerable expense of time, money or energy? How does the formula “A gift is not a gift, therefore it is gift” work then? These are examples where attachment is strong because the costs are high and yet on the journey of truly understanding what the Diamond Sutra points to, these kinds of chasms have to be crossed. Such examples point to why practice is so difficult, but also to why we are often impressed on encountering someone who is sincerely engaged on this journey.

The Essential Message of the Diamond Sutra

Huineng, when a young man before he became the sixth Patriarch, heard one line of the Diamond Sutra: “fearless Bodhisattvas should give birth to a mind that is not attached to anything” and on hearing this he was awakened. The person who was reciting the Sutra had learned it by heart in the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch Hongren. Huineng set his affairs in order and went to the monastery to meet Hongren with the aim of becoming a novice monk. Hongren asked Huineng why he had come. Huineng replied, “I have come, because I want to be a Buddha.”

A Buddha is wise and compassionate, but wisdom and compassion are big, potentially self-important words. Was Huineng’s aspiration based on self-importance? The Chinese characters translated as ‘a true person of no rank’ are code words for Buddha. We are all a long way from Buddhahood, but these words give us a clue as to the nature of Huineng’s fearless aspiration. When a person is being themselves without any artifice or self-centred agenda, they have no consciousness of being wise, compassionate, or heroic; unselfconsciously, they act according to the circumstances they encounter. The Diamond Sutra addresses this in a typically enigmatic fashion:

Subhuti asks, “Bhagavan, what is the name of this dharma teaching.....?” The Buddha replies, “The name of this dharma teaching, Subhuti, is the perfection of wisdom... What the Tathagata says is perfection of no perfection of wisdom. Thus it is called the Perfection of Wisdom.”


The Heart Sutra sets out a vision of liberation, of emancipation, the path of going. The Diamond Sutra sets out the unbounded vision of the Mahayana, the path of returning. To both visions the sutras apply the wisdom of emptiness. The sutras cut through the illusions that can be generated when we bring our egos into contact with the [[Buddha’s

teachings]]. When we meditate, we go back to basics and we apply the wisdom of emptiness in our practice. We try not to get caught in thinking, or trying to work things out logically, knowing that we have had a lifetime of that approach and knowing the limitations of reasoning. Instead, we sit on the cushion and meditate and eventually we find pain, the pain

in our lives and the pain in our bodies: we face that pain and do our best to release it. In the silence of meditation, we acknowledge mistakes that we have made, and in a spirit of contrition we let them go. We become aware of the processes of privileging and punishing ourselves and we let those go too. Meditation practice creates a space for prajna to arise and as we see from these two great sutras, prajna is fundamental to the path of the Bodhisattva, which is the path of compassionate action.

According to the translator Red Pine, the whole message of the Diamond Sutra is summed up by a single gatha that the Buddha recites in the Sutra:

Who looks for me in form who seeks me in voice indulges in wasted effort such people see me not

So we need not look for the Buddha in some other time or place. This teaching is not dissimilar to another teaching from the Christian tradition. As a young man, St. Molaise spent some years living as a hermit in his cave on this beautiful island, but eventually went on a pilgrimage to Rome to further his studies and visit shrines. An ancient Christian verse pertaining to such a mission is as follows:

To go to Rome much labour little profit the King you go to seek there unless you bring him with you you find him not


1. Shigenori Nagatomo Asian Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2000 The Logic of the Diamond Sutra: A is not A, therefore it is A.


Author: Jake Lyne Publication date: 2011-12-15 Modified date: 2018-01-27 Categories: 2011 Jake Lyne