The Diamond Sutra (short version) — argument & introduction

It appears that the Diamond Sutra, as expressed in the received text, is composed of several verbal reports of the original dialog that presumably took place between the Buddha and Subhuti. These verbal reports were written down one after another, stitched together end to end, rather than compared and interleaved. It is possible that at some point markers separating the reports were somehow omitted in transcription, as might easily happen with (for example) a blank line or extra space, but it is equally possible that merging them in this way was a deliberate decision to provide the reader of the Sutra with a kind of community’s-eye-view of the interaction.

This text represents your author’s attempt to “correct for” this early scribal decision. This decision may not be an error, but it certainly makes the text far more difficult to understand.

In fact, working through the text in this way has greatly deepened my appreciation for the received text. The differences in the tellings seem, as one studies them, to reflect the cares and concerns, to take on the personalities, of the tellers. Here we hear the voice of the student, speaking of the experience of trying to uphold the Sutra to others, and being mocked. Here we hear the voice of an old master, telling it as he remembered witnessing it.

Master and student both have vital lessons for ourselves, as we search for footing in our next steps along our own paths. I urge you therefore to consider this reconstruction an introduction to the received text, which is easily found online.

Having said that, I will now argue for this reconstruction.

There are oddities in the received text which bear explanation. The dialog begins, after some brief exposition, with Subhuti asking the Buddha how one who has set one’s mind on Annutarasamyaksambodhi, on Awakening, should subdue the mind. The Buddha answers him clearly and succinctly, and goes on to elaborate and give details. Then, in section 17 of the received text, Subhuti asks again how one who has set one’s mind on Awakening should subdue the mind, in almost identical wording. The Buddha begins to answer with identical wording, but soon veers to another topic; and this time raises new topics that were not mentioned previously. This seems to indicate separate tellings.

Then there are all the times the Buddha asks Subhuti if the Buddha should be contemplated in his thirty-two physical appearances. Every time, Subhuti says no, and correctly explains why — except in section 26. In section 26, Subhuti seems to forget all the correct answers he himself gave. Here he says yes, the Buddha should be contemplated in his thirty-two physical appearances, and the Buddha corrects him. It is as if all tellers wanted to help the Elder Subhuti save face, except for one teller, who — who knows? — might even have been Subhuti himself.

A reconstructed text which attempts to get at the original dialog more accurately presents the interaction which lead, apparently, to Subhuti’s enlightenment. The received text, by virtue of its great repetition, fractures the line of thought. It rambles. When the reader’s mind is not yet sharpened by familiarity of the the topics discussed, the constant re-presentation of slightly different forms of the same topics and analogies, of the same argument presented in constantly differing ways, gives a slippery, shifting and ultimately confusing result which the new student might be unprepared for and lack the determination to steam through.

In reconstruction, we make use of the fact that, across tellings, topics tend to follow each other in set ways. Within any one telling, topics will tend to be abbreviated, omitted, or to interfere with one another through a kind of cross-pollination. But when the tellings are compared with each other, educated guesses can be made about the likely original topic sequences, and the the fullest expressions of each topic can be extracted from the received text.

In this reconstruction, only a moderate attempt has been made to even out the voice. Sometimes we hear from the student, sometimes the master. In every case, the goal has been to select the most complete presentation of the topic, and the presentation that is most compatible with other presentations. The guiding principle has been to create a coherent and focused text.

I am not a textual scholar, and I do not know Pali. I have worked strictly within one translation, a free online product of the Buddhist Text Translation Society, without comparing it to others simply because other translations were not readily available to me at the time I took on this project. I was on the road and had only the one print-out. Indeed, if a textual scholar, or someone well-versed in Pali, or someone equipped with a computer analysis of the original text, cares to take on this project, I will be delighted to have the chance to read of their results.

My only qualifications for this job were that I noticed that it seems no one else (so far as I know) has addressed this; and that, about a year before giving this Sutra my attention, in August of 2010, after years of meditation and practice, I realized emptiness.

This realization was more a gift than an accomplishment. It made Buddhist writings more comprehensible to me, particularly in the peculiar contradictions they pose. ‘The Buddha does not deceive nor are his words peculiar.’ The territory does not lend itself to language.

Because of this direct experience, I felt I understood the message of the Sutra well enough to be helpful. Indeed, I found the its direction invaluable.

I place the text and these accompanying notes in the public domain. Permission is hereby given to distribute them, together or individually, for free, for profit, to edit or translate them, or to create derivative works from them, and to copyright the result, with no further permission required from me. In short, I place no restrictions whatsoever on usage.

Conrad Cook

August, 2011


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Overview « TiltedCandle

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