Chapter 3 is short and focuses on categorical thinking, perhaps as a way to explain for just who or what the Diamond Sutra is intended. Which would, if we take the Buddha at his words here, seem to be pretty much everything:
“However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception or neither perception nor no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.”
In a heavily divided nation such as the one I live in now, where the categories seem endless, often born from ideological hostility and potentially fatal, categorical thinking itself seems like the real pandemic. But sick/well is certainly a paired category on the mind of many right now. In our family alone we’re experiencing cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, sarcoidosis, severely herniated disks, an inoperable brain tumor. And the ever-present threat of COVID-19, which has exposed broader national and political illnesses and categories. Often “sick/well” in this country these days seems as much a political category as a physical one. Even our health is being politicized as “liberal” or “conservative,” and in that kind of hostile environment the truly sick are the ones who suffer.
When everything seems “sick,” what does well look like? Fortunately I live with someone who is “sick” but has connected with others in her category (lung cancer patients with the rare ROS1 gene mutation) to share valuable information and support.
Plus, she’s reached out to others in categories I would instinctively shun – our “red state” senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn – and, working with incredibly helpful staffers in their offices, has managed to help secure more money for lung cancer research next year.
It’s been an object lesson for me in how we can view categories as opportunities to connect with and help others, rather than fences to divide – perhaps a way, as the Buddha says in Chapter 3, to “liberate them all.” Maybe liberation is not about freeing something from something else. Maybe it’s about freeing ourselves from the idea of ourselves, when the categories we’ve invested in to help sharpen our self-definition are allowed to disappear. After all, they weren’t real to begin with, right? And if “liberating them all” simply means liberating the self, that sounds much more possible. Not easy, but possible.