The title relies on the power of the vajra (diamond or thunderbolt) to cut things as a metaphor for the type of wisdom that cuts and shatters illusions to get to ultimate reality. The sutra is also called by the name Triśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (300 linesPerfection of Insight sutra).
The Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sutra contains the discourse of the Buddha to a senior monk, Subhuti. Its major themes areanatman (not-self), the emptiness of all phenomena (though the term ‘Shunyata’ itself does not appear in the text), the liberation of all beings without attachment and the importance of spreading and teaching the Diamond sutra itself. In his commentary on the Diamond Sūtra, Hsing Yun describes the four main points from the sūtra as giving without attachment to self, liberating beings without notions of self and other, living without attachment, and cultivating without attainment. According to Shigenori Nagamoto the major goal of the Diamond sutra is: “an existential project aiming at achieving and embodying a non-discriminatory basis for knowledge” or “the emancipation from the fundamental ignorance of not knowing how to experience reality as it is.”
In the sūtra, the Buddha has finished his daily walk to Sravasti with the monks to gather offerings of food, and he sits down to rest. Elder Subhūti comes forth and asks the Buddha a question: “How, Lord, should one who has set out on the bodhisattva path take his stand, how should he proceed, how should he control the mind?“ What follows is a dialogue regarding the nature of the ‘perfection of insight’ (Prajñāpāramitā) and the nature of ultimate reality (which is illusory and empty). The Buddha begins by answering Subhuti by stating that he will bring all living beings to final nirvana – but that after this “no living being whatsoever has been brought to extinction”. This is because a bodhisattva does not see beings through reified concepts such as ‘person’, ‘soul’ or ‘self’, but sees them through the lens of perfect understanding, as empty of inherent, unchanging self.
The Buddha continues his exposition with similar statements which use negation to point out the emptiness of phenomena, merit, theDharma (Buddha’s teaching), the stages of enlightenment and the Buddha himself. Japanese Buddhologist, Hajime Nakamura, calls this negation the ‘logic of not’ (Sanskrit: na prthak). Further examples of the Diamond sutra’s via negativa include statements such as:
- As far as ‘all dharmas’ are concerned, Subhuti, all of them are dharma-less. That is why they are called ‘all dharmas.’
- Those so-called ‘streams of thought,’ Subhuti, have been preached by the Tathagata as streamless. That is why they are called ‘streams of thought.’
- ‘All beings,’ Subhuti, have been preached by the Tathagata as beingless. That is why they are called ‘all beings.’
- “And whenever the Tathagata preaches about a ‘trigalactic megagalactic world-system,’ that has been preached by the Tathagata as systemless. That is why it is called ‘a trigalactic megagalactic world-system.’
The Buddha is generally thought to be trying to help Subhūti unlearn his preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality. Emphasizing that all phenomena are ultimately illusory, he teaches that true enlightenment cannot be grasped until one has set aside attachment to them in any form.
Another reason why the Buddha makes use of negation is because language reifies concepts and this can lead to attachment to those concepts, but true wisdom is seeing that nothing is fixed or stable, hence according to the Diamond sutra thoughts such as “I have obtained the state of an Arhat” or “I will bring living beings to nirvana” does not even occur in an enlightened one’s mind because this would be “seizing upon a self…seizing upon a living being, seizing upon a soul, seizing upon a person.”Indeed, the sutra goes on to state that anyone who says such things should not be called a bodhisattva. According to David Kalupahana the goal of the Diamond sutra is “one colossal attempt to avoid the extremist use of language, that is, to eliminate any ontological commitment to concepts while at the same time retaining their pragmatic value, so as not to render them totally empty of meaning.” Kalupahana explains the negation of the Diamond sutra by seeing an initial statement as an erroneous affirmation of substance or selfhood, which is then critiqued (“‘all dharmas’ are dharmaless”), and then finally reconstructed (“that is why they are called ‘all dharmas'”) as being conventional and dependently originated. Kalupahana explains this final reconstruction as meaning: “that each concept, instead of either representing a unique entity or being an empty term, is a substitute for a human experience which is conditioned by a variety of factors. As such, it has pragmatic meaning and communicative power without being absolute in any way.” According to Paul Harrison the Diamond sutra’s central argument here is that “all dharmas lack a self or essence, or to put it in other words, they have no core ontologically, they only appear to exist separately and independently by the power of conventional language, even though they are in fact dependently originated.”
The mind of someone who practices the Prajñāpāramitā or ‘perfection of insight’ is then a mind free from fixed substantialist or ‘self’ concepts:
“However, Lord, the idea of a self will not occur to them, nor will the idea of a living being, the idea of a soul, or the idea of a person occur. Why is that? Any such idea of a self is indeed idealess, any idea of a living being, idea of a soul, or idea of a person is indeed idealess. Why is that? Because the Buddhas and Lords are free of all ideas.”
Throughout the teaching, the Buddha repeats that successful memorization and elucidation of even a four-line extract of it is of incalculable merit, better than giving an entire world system filled with gifts and can bring about enlightenment. Section 26 also ends with a four-line gatha:
All conditioned phenomena
Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,
Like dew or a flash of lightning;
Thus we shall perceive them.”
Paul Harrison’s translation states: