Back to collection

Diamond Sūtra Discussion

The true way of the Great Vehicle 大乘正宗

Click on any word to see more details.

The true way of the Great Vehicle 大乘正宗


須菩提: 「諸菩薩摩訶薩如是降伏其心:『所有一切眾生之類卵生胎生濕生化生有色無色無想若非無想我皆令入無餘涅槃滅度。』

Yifa: The Buddha told Subhuti, “All bodhisattva mahasattvas should master their minds [citta] like this:
‘Of all kinds of sentient beings [sattva]; whether born from an egg [aṇḍajā], womb [jarāyujā], moisture [saṃsvedajā] or metamorphosis [upapādukā]; whether with form [rūpa] or without form [arūpa]; whether with perception [saṃjñā], or without perception [asaṃjñā], or neither with perception nor without perception. I cause them all to enter the nirvana without remainder, liberating them. ...

Sanskrit: bhagavānasyaitadavocat-iha subhūte bodhisattvayānasaṃprasthitenaiva cittamutpādayitavyam-yāvantaḥ subhūte sattvāḥ sattvadhātau sattvasaṃgraheṇa saṃgṛhītā aṇḍajā vā jarāyujā vā saṃsvedajā vā aupapādukā vā rūpiṇo vā arūpiṇo vā saṃjñino vā asaṃjñino vā naivasaṃjñino nāsaṃjñino vā, yāvān kaścitsattvadhātuḥ prajñapyamānaḥ prajñapyate, te ca mayā sarve'nupadhiśeṣe nirvāṇadhātau parinirvāpayitavyāḥ|


This section summarizes the key points of the sūtra. In this first sentence the Buddha explains that a great bodhisattva will save all beings, no matter whether they are person, animal, or spirit, no matter what kind of birth they come from.

The English word sentient being is a translation of the Chinese 眾生, Sanskrit sattva. It is interesting that great care is taken to enumerate many different kinds of sentient beings. The reason for enumating many different kinds seems to be to make us to think of the great variety of life and our responsibility in caring for it. The concrete categories listed makes it seem more real to us. The technique of using the concrete over the abstract is used by modern writers and speakers to help audiences identify with and remember messages. Thus, the Buddha lists the different kinds of beings, rather than just saying "sentient beings."

Where beings born from eggs (Chinese 卵生, Sanskrit āṇḍaja) is mentioned this corresponds to oviparous animals, those that lay eggs. The modern Chinese term for oviparous animals 卵生動物 is surprisingly similar to the term used in the text. Most fish, amphibians, reptiles, all birds, the monotremes (mamals that lay eggs), most insects, some molluscs, and spiders are oviparous animals. Animals born from wombs (Chinese 胎生, Sanksrit jarāyujā) are viviparous animals, mostly mammals.

Beings having form (Sanskrit: rūpa, Chinese: ) and no form (Sanskrit: arūpa, Chinese: 無色) are mentioned. In his analysis of dependent co-arising the Buddha explains that there are three kinds of existence: sense-sphere existence, form-sphere existence, and formless-sphere existence [SN 12.3]. We can think of beings with no form as spirits or some kind of sentient being that does not exist in the physical world.

The English word oviparous is derived from the Latin word oviparus. The English word viviparous is derived from the Latin word vīviparus. The Sanskrit word for form is rūpa and for no form is arūpa. The pattern of negation with o in Latin and a in Sanskrit has a common origin. The a (Devanagari अ) in Sanskrit is pronounced /ə/ (International Phonetic Alphabet symbol).

The English phrase 'having thought' translates the Sanskrit saṃjñā, Chinese and no thought is asaṃjñā. What does "having thought" (Sanskrit: saṃjñā, Chinese: ) mean? Saṃjñā (Pali sañña) is usually understood as perception and is one of the five aggregates (Chinese 色受想行识). Describing the five aggregates, the Khajjaniya Sutta says, "It perceives blue, it perceives yellow, it perceives red, it perceives white" [SN 22.79].

What are bodhisattvas liberating sentient beings from? In his first sūtra, the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma, the Buddha explains the Four Noble Truths [SN 5.420]. The First Noble Truth is the existence of suffering. The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering, which is Nirvāṇa (Chinese: 涅槃). It is beyond all limited concepts and ordinary patterns of thought (Harvey, 1990). Remainderless Nirvāṇa (Chinese: 無餘涅槃) not only implies the cessation of suffering but also there is no future suffering because of karma from past lives. Nirvāṇa with Remainder (Chinese: 有餘涅槃) allows for suffering due to karma generated in past lives.

The phrase 'pacify their minds' translates the Sanskrit cittamutpādayitavyam (Chinese: 降伏其心).

Question: How can a being have neither thought nor no thought? This seems to exclude any logical category. However, are our ideas of logical reasoning really so solid? Modern Deconstruction criticism points out problems in conventional logic, in particular with binary oppositions, such as rational / irrational and progressive / backwards [McQuillan 2000, p 9]. According to McQuillan, it is impossible to accurately conceptualize reality because of the constantly shifting meaning of words and because of the self-referential nature of language [McQuillan 2000, p 20]. That is, words are defined in terms of other words, and they do not necessarily correspond to reality. Quoting Bhabha, McQuillan gives an example of Indian immigrants to England. After sufficient time in England they become Anglicized and so become different from the rest of the population in India. So, these immigrants are Indian and, at the same time, they are not Indian [McQuillan 2000, p 14]. The word "Indian" does not have a fixed meaning. Bias created by the misunderstanding of the fixed nature of words is one of the central concepts of Deconstruction. Similarly, it is possible to "neither thought nor no thought" because of the shifting and imprecise nature of the word "thought."

This constantly shifting and imprecise nature of words is also one of the main themes in the Diamond Sūtra. It is a consequence of impermanence, one of the Three Marks of Existence, also known as the Three Dhárma Seals. The principle of impermanence states that all phenomena, except Nirvāṇa, are transitory. [Wijesekera and MN 35].



Yifa: ... Thus by liberating immeasurable, incalculable, illimitable sentient beings, in reality, there are no sentient beings who attain liberation.’

Why is this, Subhuti? If bodhisattvas have the conception [saṃjñā] of a self, an individual [pudgala], sentient beings [sattva], or lifespan [jīva], then they are not bodhisattvas.”

Sanskrit: evamaparimāṇānapi sattvān parinirvāpya na kaścitsattvaḥ parinirvāpito bhavati| tatkasya hetoḥ ? sacetsubhūte bodhisattvasya sattvasaṃjñā pravarteta, na sa bodhisattva iti vaktavyaḥ| tatkasya hetoḥ ? na sa subhūte bodhisattvo vaktavyo yasya sattvasaṃjñā pravarteta, jīvasaṃjñā vā pudgalasaṃjñā va pravarteta||3||


The Buddha explains that if a bodhisattva were to help other beings for selfish reasons then they would not be a bodhisattva. More than just simply selfish as we understand it today's society, Buddhism teaches that all beings and objects are truly without an independent and enduring self. The Buddha taught this in his second discourse, the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta. The Mahāyāna version of this sutra is the Saṃyukta Āgama (Guṇabhadra).

In this text the word "notion" translates the Chinese , Sanskrit saṃjñā (saṃjñā in the UWest text). Yifa, Owens, and Romaskiewicz (2006) use the term "conception" instead of notion. The notions of self (Sanskrit: ātmasaṃjñā, Chinese: 我相), person (Sanskrit: pudgalasaṃjñā, Chinese: 人相), being (Sanskrit: sattvasaṃjñā, Chinese: 眾生相), and lifespan (Sanskrit: jīvasaṃjñā, Chinese: 壽者相) are known as the four notions (四相). The four notions are central to the Diamond Sutra. They are discussed again in Sections 6, 14, 17, and 31. Notion of a self (Sanksrit: ātmasaṃjñā) is missing in the Sanskrit text here but it is present in other sections.

Question: What is the difference between "notion of a self" and "notion of a person"?

In the Commentary on the Diamond Sūtra (金剛般若波羅蜜經論), the fourth century CE Indian monks Asaṅga (無著) and Vasubandu (天親) discuss these concepts. The commentary, in Sanskrit, was translated into Chinese by Bodhiruci in 509 with Bodhiruci's own Chinese translation of the Sūtra itself, so it does not match Kumārajīva's words exactly. Bodhiruci translated the four notions as 我相 (notions of self), 眾生相 (notion of a being), 命相 (notion of life), 壽者相 (notion of a lifespan). The commentary says (T1511, No. 225, Scroll 1, p 0783b29),


"The notion of a self is the view that the self is different from the five aggregates. Something that cannot be found is thought of as the self. This deluded grasping is called notion of a self. The notion of a being is the view that the body is real and permanent. The notion of a life is that the life force is permanent. The notion of a lifespan is the view that, if life is extinguished then one will be reborn again in one of the Six Realms."
(Original translation)

This description is missing in the English translation by Tucci (1978), which is based on the Tibetan.

Jiang Wei Nong (1941) writes,


"Having the notion of a self leads to the notion of a person. This, in turn, leads to the notion of a sentient being. The notion of a self also leads to the notion of a lifespan. The four notions actually not separate. They are all manifestations of the notion of a self."
(Original translation)

In his commentary on the Diamond Sūtra Zi Xuan 子璿 writes,

"Belief in a self is the most basic of all beliefs. All other perceptions arise from this. Once there is no perception of a self, there is no perception of other beings. When there is no perception of other beings, self and other beings become the same."
(Quote translated by Red Pine 2009, p 81 from Zi Xuan 子璿 Jingang Jing Zuan Yao Kan Ding Ji 金剛經纂要刊定記, T 1702.)

Given that these mistaken beliefs all arise from a mistaken belief in an absolute self, why repeat the words in the phrase "notions of self, notions of a person, notions of a being, and notions of lifespan?" In fact, there is more repetition of the words in the Chinese (我相人相眾生相壽者相) and Sanskrit (sattvasaṃjñā, jīvasaṃjñā vā pudgalasaṃjñā) than the English translations of Yifa, Owens, and Romaskiewicz (2006) and Lapus Lazuli Texts. Perhaps for the literary emphasis and, in particular, on the different kinds of mistaken beliefs that people hold and base their lives on.

Dictionary loading status: not loaded

Glossary and Other Vocabulary