In ancient Indian literature, the verse form was often used to offer praise or tribute, and the most common type of verse was the four-line stanza. The four-line verse has since become one of the standard Buddhist poetic forms.
In the Diamond Sutra the four-line verse is mentioned several times as a small unit of the Diamond Sutra to compare practicing even a small part of the sutra as exceeding other grandiose acts of merit. This shows the importance of the four-line verse in the sutra, such that some of its most impactful moments are presented in this form. For example, one particularly notable verse is found in chapter thirty-two:
All conditioned phenomena
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, and shadows,
Like dew and like lightning;
One should contemplate them in this way.
The essence of the Buddha’s forty-nine years of teaching are contained within these four lines. All phenomena appear in the world as a combination of causes and conditions that is temporary by nature. When faced with any given phenomena, a moment of social interaction between oneself and others, or any current praise or blame, success or failure; if any of these abide in the mind then one can easily develop painful affliction and create all manner of distinctions and comparisons. Unhappiness in the past can plant the seed for scheming and prejudice, while even having positive or successful conditions in the present can set the stage for future worries and complaints when things do not work out as we hoped. How can the mind be purified?
The Buddha said that we should give rise to a mind that does not abide in anything. Similarly he says in the Diamond Sutra that, “The mind of the past cannot be obtained; the mind of the present cannot be obtained; and the mind of the future cannot be obtained.” In the Platform Sutra, Huineng says, “Within each thought, do not revisit past states. If past, present, and future thoughts are linked together thought by thought as a continuum, this is called being bound. When thought after thought does not abide in any phenomena, that is called being unbound.”
We must do our best in the moment, yet what is past is past. No matter thought we abide in, we become bound by affliction and a continuity of thought is formed. Only when the mind does not abide in anything can we be truly pure and free.
The “four notions” mentioned throughout the sutra, the notion of self, the notion of others, the notion of sentient beings, and the notion of longevity all arise from the notion of self. When we cling to our various desires we create a distinction between ourselves and others which gives rise to such notions. The notion of self arises as a result of the inability to control the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness due to their conditional, illusory existence. Once we let go of the attachment to the notion of self, the three other notions will become undone accordingly. “Non-self” is prajna. In this instance too we must use the transcendental to practice what is worldly, and borrow from our worldly sense of self to practice towards non-self. Only when there is no self, no distinction, no true or false, no suffering, and no obstructions can the self manifest as true prajna.
Seeing the Buddha
If anyone should think that I can be seen among forms,
Or that I can be sought among sounds,
Then that person is on the wrong path
And he will not see the Tathagata.
This four-line verse from chapter twenty-six shows how the pure Dharmakaya of the Buddha does not have an appearance. When we look for the Buddha, we should look for the true Dharmakaya, rather than becoming attached to the form or sound of the Buddha.
Once there was a Korean monk named Gyeongman who was known for his high moral principles. One night, he brought back to his room a woman with shoulder-length hair, and the two did not come out for several days. His disciples were baffled and, after a few more days, they could not bear it any longer and burst into their teacher’s chamber. What they saw was their teacher sitting on the side of the bed, giving the woman a massage.
One of the disciples spoke up and said, “Master, how can behavior like this serve as an example for us?”
“Why can’t it serve as an example for you?” the teacher replied.
The disciple pointed at the woman and stammered, “Don’t you see? Don’t you see?”
Gyeongman replied, “Come and look. Come and look.”
The group of disciples drew in to take a closer look and saw that the woman had no nose, and her ears were gone as well, while her eyes were sunken in. She was a leper, and their teacher was in the process of giving her a special treatment. Gyeongman had kept her from everyone else because her illness was contagious. At that moment the disciple who had questioned his teacher knelt down in shame and said, “Master, only you are capable of such kindness.”
What we see with our own eyes is never completely true, nor is what we hear with our ears. We must learn to do without our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. We must dispense with distinctions in order to realize in our own lives the real reason we are here, and the true mind, for only then can there be prajna. As the Buddha said, “If anyone should think that I can be seen among forms, or that I can be sought among sounds,” then that is not the Buddha.
How then can we see the Buddha? When we see the workings of dependent origination, we see the Dharma, and so too do we see the Buddha. When we see prajna we see the Buddha. When we witness unconditional loving-kindness and compassion, we see the Buddha. Have a universal and all-encompassing mind, and you too will see the Buddha.