Vajra: Destroyer of Affliction

Allow me to begin with a story: once upon a time there lived an old woman who would chant the name of Amitabha Buddha from morning to night, so much so that people called her “Old Amitofo Chanter.” After her death, she appeared before Yama, the lord of death and judge of the hell realm.

Yama took one look at the old woman and said, “Send her to the hell realm!”

The old woman protested, “In life I was called ‘Old Amitofo Chanter’ and you’re sending me off to hell? Surely you have made a mistake!”

“My judgments are never wrong, but I’ll prove it to you. Demons, go check again.”

Yama’s demons wheeled out eight large wagons full of all the merit from the old woman’s recitations of Amitabha Buddha’s name, dumped them into a wicker scoop, and gave them a shake. As the demons shook them, all the old woman could hear was a series of cracks as all her merit broke into pieces. All of her recitations were now a jumble of scraps, for there was no merit in them.

“You see?” Yama said. “There are no solid karmic rewards among the Amitabha Buddha recitations you did in life.”

At that moment, a red demon exclaimed, “Lord Yama, there is one left!”

Only one unbroken bit of merit remained, and it had come about in the following way: on one occasion the old woman was on her way to the temple to bow to the Buddha when she was overtaken by a rainstorm and a bolt of lightning that struck a fir tree standing right in front of her. In that instant the old woman’s mind was free of distraction and did not abide in anything, at which point she recited “Namo Amitofo” (Taking refuge in Amitabha Buddha). It was only this particular recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name that remained as merit after she passed away, allowing her to escape the suffering of hell.

There is a similar story about a man named “Stone Hui.” Stone Hui’s family had been stonemasons for generations, which is why people called him “Stone Hui.” Stone Hui was illiterate, but he would still ask the Buddhist monks to recite the sutras for him. Having listened to them so many times, he was also able to recite some from memory as well.

Later on, Stone Hui left his family and went to Chan Master Dasui’s temple to work as a manual laborer, where he was assigned the task of chiseling stone. His iron hammer never left his hand, and his lips never stopped reciting the Buddhist sutras.

Chan Master Dasui would see him work like this every day, and finally asked, “You’re tap tapping today, and you’ll be tap tapping tomorrow; what will you do when you are at death’s door?”

Stone Hui cast aside his iron hammer and followed Dasui into the abbot’s chambers. Dasui wanted him to stop memorizing Buddhist sutras and give up his attachment to the written word.

One day, Stone Hui was chiseling stone once more, and the stone he was working on was exceedingly hard. He struck forcefully at the stone with all his might. Sparks flew everywhere, and there amid all the sparks, Stone Hui suddenly attained enlightenment.

Afterwards he entered the abbot’s chambers, paid homage to Chan Master Dasui, and spoke the following verse:

Exhausting all my effort,

Completely forgetting myself,

In a burst of flying sparks,

Here it is all along.

Dasui realized that Stone Hui was now enlightened, and consequently bestowed upon him a set of monastic robes.

Stone Hui then entered the Dharma hall to teach, and said: “If you are unclear about your own mind while practicing meditation and learning the Way, then you are like a person crying out in thirst while being inside a well. Within a day we walk, stand, sit, and lie down; we are always moving and doing, is there anything that is not changing? The eyes see and the ears hear, so where is the path not present? If you can recognize the path, that is the path of great liberation. Look at me. I’m an old man: am I better than you in any way? Is there any way you are inferior? Understand? The moon is reflected within the waves across the 36,000 acres of Lake Tai. To whom is it speaking?”

After he finished speaking, Stone Hui got up and left.

To go through the motions of reciting sutras and bowing to the Buddha without putting your heart into it is a total waste of time, no matter how much effort is involved. Such unmindful practices will not help your life in any way. After listening to the Dharma we must think about, practice, and realize the teachings to attain enlightenment. We must rediscover our minds. The mind is prajna, also called vajra. Vajra is a Sanskrit word, translated as jingang (金剛) in Chinese, which describes a material that is sharp and powerful, often translated as “diamond.” The mind itself is very powerful and has limitless potential. When we rediscover the mind, it becomes like a diamond, sharp and powerful, and absolutely true without illusions. Such a mind grants right understanding and allows us to see the truth.

The Diamond Is Prajna

People have as many distracting thoughts as there are specks of dust in the universe. The Buddha understands the character and habits of living beings, and like a sharp, diamond blade cuts away at the distracting, delusional thoughts that bind our minds. This allows us to go directly to our inherent mind and no longer be dazzled and confused by worldly phenomena.

In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha teaches the wondrous Dharma that can grind away at our ignorance and delusion within and without. The diamond is used as a symbol for prajna, infinitely durable and sharp. The Buddha teaches us that we have always possessed this treasure within ourselves, and that we can use it to cut away our affliction and ignorance and attain the wisdom of the Dharmakaya within our intrinsic nature.

The diamond represents the prajna of our intrinsic nature and the Chan mind. In Buddhism, it is said that “all Buddhas are always liberating the sentient beings within our minds,” referring to the thoughts and afflictions we all carry. However, the wondrous thing that prajna can do is to allow sentient beings to always partake of the intrinsic nature of all Buddhas. Prajna is everyone’s inherent, limitless potential.

All Forms Are Illusory

At that time, Subhuti asked the Buddha, “World-honored One, what should this sutra be called, and how should we receive it and uphold it?”

The Buddha said to Subhuti, “This sutra is called the Diamond Prajnaparamita, and by this name you should receive it and uphold it. And why is this? Subhuti, the Buddha has said that prajnaparamita is not prajnaparamita and that that is what is called prajnaparamita. Subhuti, what do you think? Does the Tathagata speak the Dharma?”

Subhuti said to the Buddha, “World-honored One, the Tathagata has not said anything.”

“Subhuti, what do you think? Is all the fine dust throughout the three thousand-fold world system a lot of dust or not?”

Subhuti said, “It is a lot, World-honored One.”

“Subhuti, the Tathagata says that all of that fine dust is not fine dust, and that that is what is called fine dust. The Tathagata says that the world is not the world, and that is what is called the world.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 13

As mentioned in the above passage from the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha uses the expression “three thousand-fold world system,” which is a concept in Buddhist cosmology that refers to the entirety of the universe. The Buddha uses the example of the three thousand-fold world system being composed of so many particles of dust to show that neither the dust, nor the amalgamation of dust, are anything but illusory phenomena. They lack any intrinsic nature, and are merely a combination of causes and conditions. The Buddha speaks of prajnaparamita, so that living beings can realize the error of their ways and free themselves from suffering and obtain happiness. This is why the Buddha uses labels like “dust” and “world system” in the first place, so that he can employ skillful means to teach the Dharma to living beings at the right moment. All the worldly names and terms are used to skillfully lead people and communicate. With this in mind we should not abide in such names, for as soon as we become attached to them we can fall into the trap of delusion.

All things exist as a temporary combination of causes and conditions. All of our names and labels are temporary, as are all the sensations and experiences of the body and mind. People who practice meditation use expressions like “understand the mind and see intrinsic nature,” “give rise to a mind that does not abide in anything,” and “go directly to the inherent mind,” but these are all describing the same thing: the inherent mind. The Suramgama Sutra describes the inherent mind as “always abiding in the true mind, the naturally pure and bright essence.” The inherent mind has many other names as well: it is called the mind that always abides in truth, the bright mind, and the mind free from defilements. It is called naturally pure and essentially bright. It goes by the name prajna and tathagatagarbha,1 and is described as a pure, bright light, but we can only see this pure, bright light when we are free of defilements. To “understand the mind and see intrinsic nature” means to understand one’s inherent prajna, the tahtagatagarbha. This is precisely the meaning of the Buddhist verse by Sixth Patriarch Huineng:

Essentially, bodhi is not a tree.

The bright mirror is also not standing;

Inherently, there is no thing,

Where can it attract dust?

One day Bailing encountered Pang Yun on the road. Bailing asked, “Have you ever told anyone about the one verse you learned at Mazu Daoyi’s place?”

Pang Yun said, “Sure, I have told it to someone.”

Bailing did not understand. The one verse in question could not be told with language, nor could it be conceived of through thinking. No explanation of it would be right. So he asked Pang Yun again, “Who did you tell it to?”

Pang Yun pointed to himself and said, “I only told it to myself!”

Bailing said admiringly, “Even the Buddha’s great disciple Subhuti, the foremost in understanding emptiness, would be no match for you.”

In pointing at himself, Pang Yun was saying that the “one verse” was his own Buddha nature, of which everyone is endowed. Experiencing it is an internal affair, as in how one can know if some water is warm or cool only by drinking it. A direct experience cannot be communicated to others.

Pang Yun then asked Bailing, “Who have you told your one verse to?”

Bailing then put on his hat and left.

While it is true that the true reality of Buddha nature cannot be communicated in words, if one does not make use of the skillful means of spoken and written language, living beings will never learn the errors of their ways. That is why the Buddha joined the symbol of the diamond with the wondrous teachings on prajna. This symbol and the teachings share the same essence. They remove the afflictions that obscure the mind’s vision, and point to our intrinsic nature, allowing us to attain paramita and “cross over.” This is why the complete, Sanskrit title of the sutra is the Vajra Prajnaparamita Sutra.

All Phenomena Are Empty

“The Dharma of which the Tathagata speaks cannot be held on to, it cannot be spoken, it is not a phenomenon, and it is not a non-phenomenon.”

Diamond Sutra Chapter 7

The word “phenomena” used above is a translation of the Chinese word fa (法). There are many ways to translate fa, but in this instance it means some element that enables us to understand things. Phenomena are the standards by which we can relate to each other and come to understand the principles of reality. In a Buddhist context, the term can be used to describe the names we give all things, and even concepts and ideas within the mind. “Phenomena” can express both the tangible and intangible. For example, we give names to phenomena like “flower,” “house,” “table,” and so on so that we can talk about them and be comprehensible to others.

There is a verse which expresses the Buddhist understanding of “phenomena” well:

Phenomena are non-phenomena:

Open a fist and it’s the palm of the hand once more;

Floating clouds drift across the azure sky:

For ten thousand miles it’s all the same.

Consider a closed fist. If we were to call a fist a phenomenon, it is but an “unfixed phenomenon,” for if someone with a closed fist opens his hand it becomes an open palm. All phenomena are like this: they can be good or bad, wholesome or unwholesome. They are not fixed or standardized. Considering the example of a fist again: if we hit someone with the fist, we see the fist as something “bad.” But if a fist is used to massage someone’s back and give them pleasure, then the fist is a good thing. This is why all phenomena are “unfixed phenomena.” This is what the Buddha means when he says in the Diamond Sutra that phenomena cannot be held on to, for they are neither phenomena nor non-phenomena. Even the teaching of prajna cannot be considered wholesome, nor can it be considered unwholesome, for it is a truth that transcends the distinction of wholesome or unwholesome.

In Buddhism there is a bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara, who has a reputation for being able to liberate living beings far and wide. In fact, in the daily Chinese liturgy there is a chant about Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva:

The thirty-two manifestations respond to calls in all the numerous worlds;

Teaching and liberating Jambudvipa over a billion kalpas.

“Jambudvipa” is a name for our universe in Indian cosmology, and the expression “billion kalpas” is an Indic reckoning of an immensely long period of time. The “thirty-two manifestations” is a reference to the thirty-two different forms of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva described in the Universal Gate chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The sutra lists these thirty-two manifestations to show that Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva has the ability to adapt to the needs of the various kinds of living beings, with their differing capacities, to teach the Dharma to them. The thirty-two manifestations listed are: a Buddha, a pratyekabuddha, a sravaka, King Brahma, Lord Sakra, Isvara, Mahesvara, a great heavenly general, Vaisravara, a lesser king, an elder, a layperson, a minister, a Brahmin, a bhiksu, a bhiksuni, an upasaka, an upasika, a female elder, a female layperson, a female minister, a young boy or girl, a deva, a naga, a yaksha, a gandharva, an asura, a garuda, a kimnara, a mahoraga, and a vajrapani.2

Which one of these thirty-two manifestations is the true Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva? Each one of these thirty-two manifestations shows the bodhisattva employing skillful means to bring liberation to living beings. The Dharma cannot be held on to, nor can it be spoken. The Dharma as expressed in language is nothing more than the Buddha and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva teaching the Dharma through skillful means in order to liberate living beings. Words like “prajna,” “paramita,” and “vajra,” are all given so that living beings can attain enlightenment and live a life that is carefree.

Recall the metaphor of the three birds in the sky mentioned previously: a little sparrow might flap its wings with all its might, but it can only fly a distance of two or three yards. A pigeon on the other hand can flap its wings and vault over the tops of trees three to five yards tall. Yet an eagle can spread its wings and fly high into the blue sky.

Likewise, if a rabbit is trying to cross a river it has to frantically paddle with its little feet and will be fearful while crossing. A horse can cross a river paddling and swimming with its four feet with some difficulty. An elephant, however, will likely be able to reach the bottom of the river, and can cross the river with a relaxed gait until it reaches the other shore.

The sky is the same, though the three birds fly through it differently. The river is the same, though the three animals cross it differently. In the same way, the essence of human hardship is the same, though different people experience different levels of trouble in their life. If we can accomplish what is difficult to do and bear what is difficult to bear, then we will come to thoroughly realize the emptiness of prajna. It is only then that we can gradually come to cross the river of life to enlightenment like an elephant does: relaxed and at ease.

One day the Buddha was outside the gate to the Jeta Grove Monastery when he saw Ksudrapanthaka, one of his disciples, weeping and wailing. The Buddha asked, “Why are you standing here so sad and heartbroken?”

“Lord Buddha, my older brother finally got fed up with my stupidity. Because I can’t seem to learn or memorize any of the teachings, he has driven me away and demanded that I return to lay life and go home. That is why I was crying.”

The Buddha comforted him, and took him back to the monastery. The Buddha then handed Ksudrapanthaka a broom and told him to repeat the word “broom” again and again as he cleaned the monastery. Ksudrapanthaka felt grateful that not only did the Buddha take him in but also was kind enough to give him personal instruction. Afterwards, Ksudrapanthaka spent every day concentrating on the Buddha’s instructions, and even though he was a slow learner, he was finally able to learn and memorize “broom” within a month’s time.

Ksudrapanthaka concentrated on reciting “broom” with complete dedication, when one day he thought, “What is a broom? Something that sweeps and cleans the dirt and dust on the ground. So as I clean the monastery with the broom, I sweep and clean.”

A few more days passed and Ksudrapanthaka began to think, “My body and mind have dust and grime, too. My afflictions are like dust and grime, while wisdom is like this broom which can sweep them clean.”

This was how Ksudrapanthaka attained liberation and became an arhat.

The word “broom” is not a sacred foundation of the Dharma, so how was it able to bring someone to enlightenment and wisdom? The Diamond Sutra says:

That which is called the Buddhadharma is not the Buddhadharma.

Diamond Sutra Chapter 8

Saying the word “broom” aloud is not the Dharma, but when the mind deeply contemplates something it does not hold only what is or is not the Dharma, but instead simply aligns itself with the principles of Buddhism.

Let Go, Transcend, Abide in Nothing

What is real freedom? To find the answer, we must examine the mind, which is so prone to restlessness and distraction. When faced with impermanence, can the mind adapt to whatever circumstance without troubling you or annoying others? When faced with disputes, can the mind remain calm and composed and let things happen naturally? When faced with fame and fortune, can the mind transcend them serenely without getting caught up and imprisoned? When faced with separation, in life or in death, can the mind maintain right mindfulness and clarity? As long as we are able to handle the mind, we can live carefree without abiding in anything and be people who are truly virtuous and free.

Jinbifeng was an enlightened Chan master who had let go of desiring anything, save for a jade bowl that never left his side. Each time he sat down to meditate, he would first make sure to put his jade bowl away in a safe place. Only after he was sure it was safe could he meditate.

Then one day Yama, the lord of death, sent a few of his demons after Jinbifeng because his life had run out and he was fated to die. But because Jinbifeng was in a deep meditative state the demons were unable to seize his spirit. After a few days, the demons became quite worried, for they dared not return to Yama without Jinbifeng in tow.

Finally the demons went to petition a local earth deity and to ask him how they could get Jinbifeng to leave his meditative state. The earth deity gave them the following advice: “Jinbifeng is enlightened and has already let go of many of this world’s attachments, but he still loves his jade bowl. Perhaps if you were to tamper with his jade bowl, a thought of the bowl would arise in his mind and he would leave his meditative state.”

The little demons did as the earth deity had instructed: they found Jinbifeng’s jade bowl and mischievously gave it a nudge. Sensing the bowl was not safe, Jinbifeng quickly emerged from his meditation and snatched the bowl away.

Now that Jinbifeng’s spirit was before them, the demons clapped their hands and laughed, “Come along now, you’re coming with us to see the lord of death!”

Jinbifeng realized that this single thought of desire was about to end his life, so he immediately smashed the jade bowl and returned to his meditative state. Within the emptiness of his meditation echoed the following verse:

If you wish to seize Jinbifeng,

Then you must lock up space with iron chains;

And if empty space can indeed be locked up,

Then you can come again and seize Jinbifeng.

Everyone has some kind of “jade bowl” within their heart: something they are unwilling to let go of. The “jade bowl” could be wealth, fame, love, power, or any of a variety of other things. If we are unwilling to smash the jade bowl that shackles our thoughts, then how are we to live without abiding in anything? No matter what it is that we become attached to, the mind can become affixed to it, making it impossible for us to realize what is truly most important in life. We can be free only when we let go of and transcend our attachments.

True Emptiness and Wondrous Existence

The Chan master Nan’in lived during Japan’s Meiji era. In Japan, Chan is known as Zen, and one day a research professor came to Nan’in to ask about Zen. Nan’in received him and offered him a cup of tea.

Chan Master Nan’in poured tea into his guest’s cup until it was full, and then continued to pour. The professor watched as the tea spilled out all over the table. After a moment, the professor spoke up:

“Master, the cup is already full and the tea is spilling out. You don’t need to pour any more!”

“You are just like this cup, for inside you are full of your own views. You must first empty your mind of attachments before it is possible for our Zen tea to flow into your mind.”

In Buddhist circles we commonly hear expressions like “empty the self” or “eliminate the self,” but the true emptiness of the Dharma is not staring mindlessly into space or giving up in a negative way. Rather, it means not having “a notion of self, a notion of others, a notion of sentient beings, or a notion of longevity.” To not possess these notions does not mean that we must abandon the notions of self, others, sentient beings, and longevity, but rather that we simply do not cling to the notion of self, the notion of others, the notion of sentient beings, and the notion of longevity. Even though we abide within notions, we should learn to turn away from them.

There is an old Buddhist verse that says, “True emptiness does not interfere with wondrous existence, for there cannot be wondrous existence without true emptiness.” Emptiness is quite difficult to understand, for it is a truth not easily mastered. What exactly then does “emptiness” mean?

For most people there is a clear distinction between “emptiness” and “existence.” Such people might think that anything that exists can’t possibly be “empty,” and anything that is empty can’t possibly exist. But this is not emptiness as it is described in the Diamond Sutra. The emptiness of the Diamond Sutra is not absolute nothingness, but rather is something that can contain both existence and non-existence.

Consider again the metaphor of the fist: When one’s fingers are clenched, the fist is clearly there. But when the five fingers are spread out, where did the fist go? The fist that was so clearly apparent has now disappeared. And if one were to say there is no fist, simply clenching one’s fingers together and the fist appears once more. The Diamond Sutra uses its discussion of emptiness to show that nothing in the world remains constant and unchanging. There is nothing that exists independent of cause and effect. Existence is thus non-existence, and non-existence is also existence.

The idea that emptiness can contain both existence and non-existence is the very meaning of causes and conditions. What then are causes and conditions? Consider two people meeting: When two people meet and then separate, it is only after such a separation that they may meet again. The causal relationship between two people involves meeting, as well as separation. Where there was once flat ground, depending upon many causal factors, we can build a lofty skyscraper. But eventually, as we saw with the Twin Towers in New York, even a tall skyscraper can be made to fall to the ground. A skyscraper contains emptiness both in its construction and its collapse.

A plant slowly grows from a seed until it can sprout flowers, and then after those flowers bloom they will later fall to the ground, and become part of the soil that will allow other seeds to grow. After the flowers fall away, the plant may produce fruit, which becomes food for animals, or it may fall to the ground and rot. In this way the plant’s seeds are spread around to begin new life. “Existence” and “non-existence” are points on the same circle where the starting point is also the ending point. By allowing the presence of both existence and non-existence, emptiness is the essence of the universe and the foundation of human life.

Buddhists commonly use the phrase “Amitofo,” which is nominally the name of Amitabha Buddha, but actually encompasses many, many meanings. For example, when Buddhists first see each other, they may say “Amitofo,” as a greeting, and then it means “Ah, you are here.” When we see each other for the first time, “Amitofo” can be our “good morning.” Before we are about to leave some place, we might say “Amitofo,” and then it becomes “goodbye.” If we see someone fall and hurt themselves, we may say “Amitofo,” and then it becomes a way to express our caring for others. If we see a mother strike her child, we may say, “Ouch, Amitofo,” as a way to express our sympathy and sadness. If we receive a gift, we may say “Amitofo” to express our gratitude.

“Amitofo” indeed can have many meanings, and it takes on each of these meanings depending upon the context of the conversation. Emptiness is just like “Amitofo” in that it is free of temporal, spatial, and contextual restrictions. It is merely a temporary label used for convenience to establish and communicate the Dharma.

Some people become afraid when talking about emptiness: If the sky, the earth, and everything in the world is empty, with even all our sons and daughters being empty, isn’t this terrible? If everything is empty, doesn’t that mean that we have nothing at all?

But that is not the case. The way that emptiness works is not too different from being a Buddhist monastic. A Buddhist monastic has left home to join the monastic order, but in doing so, everywhere can now be his home. Likewise we should not be afraid of not having any children, for as long as you possess the heart of a mother or father, then all the people in the world will be your children. We need not be afraid of living with no wealth, for as long as we can make a spiritual commitment, everything in the world is ours.

Remember Chan Master Nan’in: before inquiring about Zen, he wanted the professor to empty his mind of attachments. Only an empty briefcase can be packed with things, only an empty railroad car can carry passengers, only empty nostrils can breathe air, and only an empty mouth can eat food. Only when there is enough space can people live and move about.

The Diamond Sutra shows us how to live peaceably within emptiness, showing us how to live within the wondrous existence of true emptiness without clinging to the rise and fall of causes and conditions. We cannot enjoy this freedom until we no longer abide anywhere.

The Mind That Does Not Abide

In 1949, amidst the turmoil of the Chinese civil war, I joined many others who hastily left Mainland China for Taiwan, bringing nothing with me at all. After arriving in Taiwan, I wore a pair of wooden sandals for two years until the soles were worn through to the ground, and I only had one shirt that I wore for two or three years. I didn’t even have a piece of paper or a pen to write with. There were people who felt sorry for me, but I did not feel lonely or destitute at all.

During that time, in my heart I felt a sense of fulfillment and abundance. The world was there for me as I roamed between heaven and earth, and all living beings were my friends. If I had felt any sense of hardship and saw myself as destitute, I would have felt sorry for myself; how then could I have stayed firm to the Buddhist life?

How could I feel fulfillment and happiness, even though I was faced with difficult circumstances? I owe it to the Dharma and the emptiness of prajna. They were why I could consider the benefits of being a monastic extraordinary and special. Everything that I am is a result of the Dharma’s nurturing influence. Because of it I could feel one with the earth, its mountains and rivers, and feel a connection with all Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Within the emptiness of prajna, I could have the entirety of the universe. None of us is ever truly alone or destitute. Material things and our relationships with others will come and go, but for life to be truly fulfilling, we need spiritual fulfillment, the kind of fulfillment that lies within. This is neither something that money can buy, nor is it something that anyone else can create for us on our behalf. We must rely on ourselves to understand the Dharma and the emptiness of prajna, and then we must confirm that understanding by practicing it in our own lives.

The diamond-like mind—firm and solid—is the emptiness of prajna and the inherent mind of enlightenment. In order to generate the aspiration for enlightenment and see that aspiration through in the real world means understanding the four key insights of the Diamond Sutra: giving without notions, liberating with no notion of self, living without abiding, and cultivation without attainment. Understanding these are the key lessons of the entire Diamond Sutra.

1. Sanskrit term meaning “womb of the Buddha,” indicating where Buddhahood is born. Synonymous with Buddha nature. Ed.

2. The manifestations are specific Buddhist deities or classes of heavenly beings. For more information on some of these manifestations, see the glossary. Ed.