Diamond Sutra Fall 2020 practice period: early thoughts

Our online Zen community is studying the Diamond Sutra together this fall, and I thought I’d ease myself back into writing by posting my own reflections and see where it goes.

While I’ve been involved in several online studies involving the writings of the later Japanese Zen masters, particularly Eihei Dogen, this is the first time I’ve studied a sutra in-depth with a group.

From the back cover of my copy, translated with commentary by noted Buddhist and translator Red Pine (Bill Porter) and published by Counterpoint Press:

“Two works lie at the center of Zen: The Heart Sutra, which monks recite all over the world, and The Diamond Sutra, said to contain answers to all questions of delusion and dualism … the diamond of its title is said to cut through everything on its way to enlightenment. It is perhaps the most studied of the sutras, and by one count more than twenty thousand commentaries are noted.”

Early general impressions 1: chanting the sutra

Part of our study is to engage the sutra by reading it out loud or chanting it at least once weekly. It’s not long by sutra standards but the recitation takes me a bit over an hour. I prefer chanting, because I feel I’m not adding imagined accents or inflections to the text.

As with most sutras I’ve read and studied previously on my own, it’s quite repetitive in much of its phrasing, and my tendency when reading silently is to want to bleep over those repetitions. If I’m not paying attention, large sections can seem a bit samey and boring. But when chanting out loud, I begin to sense differences and subtleties that my rushed silent reading doesn’t imply. Chanting enforces a level of attentiveness that seems more elusive in the silent reading, and brings out more of the sutra’s depth.

(The repetitiveness is also probably part of the sutra being from pre-print times, around 400 BCE according to the translator Red Pine. Repetitiveness and the looping nature of the dialogue may have made the sutra easier to memorize in a largely oral tradition?)

Another interesting experience for me is that chanting out loud lends a more physical quality to the sutra. Feeling the vibrations in my throat and chest as I chant and hearing my voice connect me to my body during the chanting, a reminder for me that Zen is very much a physical practice. As I misread or slur over certain words, or cough, or stop to sneeze, I’m reminded of the imperfections of my body, a semi-permeable bag of skin filled with fluids that, if it were a circuit board, would constantly crack and snap with sharp flashes of light, myriad tiny imperfections flowing through and on. Chanting reminds me of my own fragile humanity.

Early general impressions 2: early and later masters

The Diamond Sutra is a conversation between a roughly 65 year-old Shakyamuni (the Buddha, or Enlightened One) and one of his foremost followers, Subhuti. It arises from a question Subhuti asks the Buddha near the beginning of Chapter 2: “If a noble son or daughter should set forth on the bodhisattva path, how should they stand, how should they walk, and how should they control their thoughts?”

Much of the ensuing conversation relies on elements of negation, deliberate self-contradiction, and reverse logic. But it doesn’t feel nihilistic at all. What it seems to do, by use of these unusual teaching tools, is to exhaust thinking and categorical analysis, to show the impossibility of intellectually “figuring it all out.” Chanting it out loud is physically tiring, and I wonder if that is partially by design. The most fruitful times during a long sesshin seem to be when I’m too tired to think anymore!

Another interesting early impression of this sutra for me is how much the negations, contradictions and reverse logic remind me of some of the later Japanese masters, particularly Dogen’s poetic flights. His style feels like something of a refinement of what I’m experiencing in the Diamond Sutra, but the connection is palpable to me. And that’s exciting, because I’ve tended in cursory readings to find the link between early Buddhism and Zen Buddhism somewhat obscure. Moving forward I will experience them much more as intimately related, or “eyebrows entangled,” as Dogen might say. An important personal find, it seems.

I’ll try and post my impressions of Chapter 1 tomorrow. As Ed Gōshin, one of the online teachers said, “After Chapter 1, the rest is commentary.”