issue 19 winter 02
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Diamond Sutra

The Perfection of Wisdom

Translated by Red Pine

Counterpoint, 2001

$35/£24.95 h/b

It is no small irony that the oldest printed book in the world – a ninth-century block-print of the Diamond Sutra – is a work that seeks systematically to undermine all clinging to words, all reification of conceptual expression, including its own teachings. Indeed the Diamond Sutra is perhaps the most unrelenting example in world literature of what the literary critic Stanley Fish terms 'a self-consuming artefact', a work that succeeds in its purpose only to the extent that it intentionally deconstructs itself. Presenting itself as Shakyamuni's most profound instruction on the Bodhi-sattva path, this brief, 27-page dialogue between the Buddha and Subhuti plumbs the relationship between language and Reality in a manner that, for all of its apparent abstraction, refers back constantly to the Buddhist ethical imperative of altruistic activity.

After the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra is the best-known of the Mahayana 'Perfection of Wisdom' scriptures. Several English versions are available, offering the authority of scholarship in Edward Conze's translation, and tradition in Thich Nhat Hanh's. Even so, this new translation warrants attention and appreciation because it offers much more than simply another translation of the original. Here we find a comprehensive sampling of the commentarial literature associated with the Diamond Sutra, along with a personal account of the translator's own efforts to come to terms with this perplexing work.

Red Pine is the pen name of Bill Porter, an American who left academia in the midst of graduate work in anthropology and Chinese literature at Columbia University, preferring to immerse himself in traditional Chinese culture and Ch'an (Chinese Zen) practice during an extended residence in China. Already well established as a translator of Chinese Buddhist poetry, Red Pine offers in the present volume the fruit of an engagement with Buddhist Mahayana philosophy and meditation spanning some 30 years.

The volume opens with a bare translation of the Diamond Sutra, followed by a section-by-section synoptic commentary comprising almost 400 pages of selections drawn from more than 60 Diamond Sutra commentaries composed over two millennia. There is no index or bibliography, but the translator does provide a preface explaining his approach to the text and also a useful list of names and terms (with Chinese characters) including brief biographical notes on the various historical commentators. This lack of scholarly apparatus and only the briefest introduction are intended, no doubt, to enable the reader to encounter the sutra and its commentarial tradition as directly as possible.

Mountains and rivers, the great earth, where do they come from? Listen to my song:

Far off I see the shape of a mountain
nearby I hear the sound of water
spring passes and flowers remain
people come and birds aren't frightened
one by one everything appears
every creature is basically the same
if you say that you don't know
it's just because it is so clear.

Elsewhere T'ung-li (1701-1782) counsels: 'The Buddha's three bodies are like a reflection on sunlit water. The incarnated body is the reflection. The reward body is the sunlight. And the real body is the water. Here, the Buddha tells Subhuti that if he wants to see the water, he needs to look past the reflection and the sunlight.'

Red Pine's own comments are also frequently helpful: 'Subhuti uses the form of dialectical argument introduced by the Buddha in Chapter Five. This technique of affirming the reality of something by first stripping it of self-nature became the hallmark of the Madhyamaka philosophers, such as Nagarjuna. Essentially, it is the logical equivalent of the concept of shunyata (emptiness)... The advantage of using the dialectic rather than the concept is that every concept, even the concept of emptiness, is likely to become another delusion and an obstacle to Enlightenment, whereas the dialectic tends to remind those who use it of the futility of attachment to anything, including the result of its own application.'


But to object too rigorously to such anachronism is to miss the fact that therein lies the creativity of the later Buddhist commentarial tradition. The interpretive schema documented in the excerpts presented here is one that has its origins in China at least 1,300 years ago, even if it is alien to the earlier Indian tradition. Red Pine gives us a record of how generations of Chinese spiritual experience and insight have been brought to bear on the ambiguity and latent possibilities of the earlier text. We see the living tradition, with each generation building on the previous generations, right down to the synthesising efforts of Chiang Wei-nung (d. 1938), complemented by Red Pine's own skill in making this lineage accessible in English.

It is in this positive sense that Red Pine's approach is not 'scholarly'. What we have is a 'cross-over' work, one using many of the skills and insights of contemporary academic research in the service of spiritual sensitivity and respect. But this type of 'cross-over' is, of course, a practice with a long and venerable history in Buddhism.

Following the distinctively Chinese Trikaya interpretive schema, Red Pine opens the Preface with the provocative assertion that, 'The Diamond Sutra may look like a book, but it's really the body of the Buddha. It's also your body, my body, all possible bodies. But it's a body with nothing inside and nothing outside. It doesn't exist in space or time. Nor is it a construct of the mind. It's no mind. And yet because it's no mind, it has room for compassion.' Thus it is not surprising that he sees the epitome of the text not in the famous four-line verse from the final chapter asserting the illusory nature of all phenomena, but rather in the verse from Chapter 26, in which the Buddha proclaims:

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

Saramati (Prof. Alan Sponberg) writes on early Yogachara and Buddhist ethics