Three Zen Sutras: The Heart, The Diamond, and The Platform Sutras by Red Pine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a lamp, a cataract, a shooting star
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.

This is a fascinating group of texts. The first in the book is the very brief Heart Sutra. It is short enough to be memorized and recited, like the Lord’s Prayer; and true to its name, it contains the “heart” of much Buddhist teaching, specifically with the famous lines “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” The sutra is, in essence, a giant negation of conventional reality—all that can be perceived and conceived. The reality of the senses is superficial, transitory, and illusory; and recognizing the emptiness of this reality is fundamental to achieving enlightenment.

The Diamond Sutra is somewhat longer, though still short enough to be easily read in one sitting. Exactly when it was written down is unclear, though it has the distinction of being the printed book with the earliest known date.

This manuscript (now in the British Library) was printed on May 11, 868, about 600 years before Gutenberg’s bible, at the expense of one Wang Jie. Indeed, this good man even specified that it was “made for free universal distribution,” thus putting it into the public domain. The frontispiece—a line drawing of the Buddha surrounded by his disciples—is a lovely work of art in itself. Even the story of the book’s discovery is interesting. The manuscript, along with many others, had been preserved in a section of the Mogao Caves which had been sealed off since the 11th century—perhaps to protect them from plunderers—only to be opened in the early 1900s.

The text consists of a conversation between the Buddha and his disciple, Subhuti. The upshot of this conversation is very much the same as the message of the Heart Sutra: that everything is fundamentally unreal. Thus, beings are beingless, and the dharma is without dharma. (The word “dharma” can apparently mean a great many things, from “the nature of reality,” to “the right way of acting,” to “phenomena.”) Even the Buddha’s own teachings are unreal. But, paradoxically, though all beings are beingless, for this very reason they should be referred to as “beings.” Apparently, this is an attempt to maintain the practical use of language without attributing reality to what our words refer to. In other words, we must use words to communicate, but we should not mistake our statements about the phenomenal world as having any absolute validity.

The Diamond Sutra is praised and referred to in the last text in this volume, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Written around 1,000 years ago (it doesn’t seem clear when), it is attributed to the sixth Chan patriarch, Huineng, who preached to and instructed his disciples from a raised platform (thus the name). Unlike the other two works, then, which may have been written in India, this one is certainly Chinese in origin. The book is divided into ten sections and, rather like the Bible, is rather miscellaneous in content, containing stories, poems, parables, preaching, and philosophical discussion.

Despite this variety, I thought that the basic message of the sutra was fairly clear. It expounds a form of Buddhism based on introspection. Well, perhaps “introspection” is the wrong word, since it is a basic tenet of this doctrine that everyone’s fundamental nature is the same, and it is only delusions and confusions that make us lose sight of this. As a kind of substrate of the mind, below our attachments to the external world, we all share the same Buddha-nature. Indeed, in this sutra, Buddha is not so much a man as a state of being, and anyone who attains it is fully the equal of Siddhartha Gautama.

The story of Huineng’s ascension to the patriarchate is deservedly famous. The fifth patriarch decided to have a kind of poetry competition, to see which of his disciples could create the most instructive verse. Shenxiu, the leading disciple, came up with this: “The body is the bodhi tree. / The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand. / At all times we must strive to polish it / and must not let dust collect.” Yet the illiterate “barbarian” from the south, Huineng, upon hearing this verse, came up with a response: “Bodhi originally has no tree. / The mirror has no stand. / The Buddha-nature is always clear and pure. / Where is there room for dust?” (Once again, note the emphasis on negation, the message that reality is insubstantial.) This was enough to secure him the position.

As you can see, it is a curious feature of Buddhism that it requires the paradoxical use of language to express its tenets. For example, as the sutras repeat, enlightenment consists of seeing the world as “empty” of form—that is, of seeing past the superficial differences that separate one thing from another, one person from another. It means seeing beyond dualities such as bad and good, beautiful and ugly, as these are only expressions of our own egotistical desires, and the enlightened one is theoretically free from any selfish desire. It is, in short, a kind of ego-death, the conquering of all attachment to external goods, in which only the purest form of consciousness remains, seeing the world exactly as it is.

Indeed, there is an interesting metaphysical view inherent in these statements, though as far as I know it is not made explicit. It is that the apparent reality of people and things is due to our inability to come to grips with the passage of time. Everything that exists once did not exist previously and will someday cease to exist. Furthermore, all of the matter and energy in the universe swirls in an enormous cycle, generating and destroying all phenomena. In this sense, a mountain, say, is “unreal” since it is only a mountain at this moment, and its existence depends on a host of other factors. Its existence is conditioned and impermanent, and thus superficial.

There is also, arguably, a philosophy of the mind inherent in this doctrine. It is that our conceptualization of reality ultimately warps it to such an extent that we merely delude ourselves. In this sense, Buddhism has something in common with Kant’s system (which Schopenhauer would be the first to point out, of course). Thus, when we call a big pile of rocks a “mountain” we are often attributing certain other qualities to it: natural, big, beautiful, and so on. But what is considered “natural,” or “big,” or “beautiful” are highly subjective qualities, which say more about our own perception than the thing being perceived.

In sum, then, conventional reality is “empty” for two reasons. First, because our minds attribute permanence and self-subsistence to things which are, in actuality, impermanent and conditioned. Second, because our desires and opinions do not allow us to perceive things as they really are.

For this reason, language is a source of delusion, since words create a sense of fixity in the mind—a word picks out an object and treats it as if it were stable. Further, the definitions of words often rely on contrasts (hot and cold, old and young), which are expressions of our subjectivity. However, the Buddhist preacher is forced, by the nature of communication, to say that enlightenment is better than delusion, that meditation is good while attachment is bad, that trying to achieve enlightenment through meditation is correct while doing so by reciting sacred texts is wrong. In short, the doctrine can only be expressed using the very dualities that it purports to move beyond. As a result, the sutras are full of seemingly nonsensical statements, such as that an enlightened one both feels and doesn’t feel pain.

The logically-minded reader thus may be repelled by much of this. After all, the content of a self-contraditory statement is precisely zero. And one could easily make the opposite of the above arguments. For example, just because something is conditioned or impermanent doesn’t make it unreal—indeed, that is arguably the very definition of what is real. The fact that our perception of the world is warped by our subjectivity does not make it unreal—indeed, arguably our subjective reality is the only one we can be sure of. And anybody who has read a scientific text knows that language can be a very useful tool for understanding the world.

But this is all probably beside the point. To begin with, I think a Buddhist would likely object to my attempt to formulate this doctrine as a metaphysical system. To the contrary, such a system would be antithetical to the entire spirit of the enterprise, which is precisely the attempt to move beyond intellectual attempts to understand and rationalize reality. Rather, I think these paradoxes and negations should be read as attempts to inculcate an attitude, or to induce a mental state.

If I have any criticism of this doctrine, it is that it seems—to put it bluntly—rather defeatist. All human striving is vain; all attempts at satisfying our desires are vain; every effort to understand reality is vain. A Buddhist may disagree with this assessment—and, in truth, my understanding of these sutras is undoubtedly superficial—but seeing the world as unreal and freeing myself of all desire seem rather like death than something to pursue. That being said, like most people, I certainly err in the opposite direction: getting too swept up in trivialities, getting upset over things beyond my control, seeing my world from the narrow perspective of my short-term desires. As a corrective to this unhappy state of affairs, I think there is a great deal of value in this school of Buddhism. I look forward to continually failing to apply it to my life.

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