Tuesday, January 20, 2009


From “Setting forth pure lands,” The Diamond Sutra, in The Diamond Sutra & the Sutra of Hui-Neng, Shambala Press, 1990, A.F. Price and Wong Mou-lam translators:

...[Then Buddha continued:] Therefore, Subhuti, all bodhisattvas, lesser and great, should develop a pure, lucid mind, not depending upon sound, flavor, touch, odor, or any quality. A bodhisattva should develop a mind that alights (dwells) upon nothing whatsoever; and so should he establish it.

Subhuti, this may be likened to a human frame as large as the mighty Mount Sumeru. What do you think? Would such a body be great?

Subhuti replied: Great indeed, World-Honored One. This is because Buddha has explained that no body is called a great body

The exchange invites us to think of both self and other differently. The premise is non-attachment, cultivating a mind free of grasping for external and internal things, including the idea of a separate and distinct self. The self, in this view, is no-self; the mind, no-mind; the body, no-body.

This sort of language is meant, I think, to twist our heads. I do not think it means void, vacuum, nothing. Rather “no-thing” suggests no particular thing, no abiding particle, and thus that everything is connected.

So the bodhisattva, attached neither to self nor other things, is in that way all things, all being.

I tripped on “...this may be likened to a human frame as large as the mighty Mount Sumeru.” Sumeru is the central and largest mountain in the Buddhist cosmos. It is, in a sense, everything. I tripped because the idea of a no-self self being as large as Sumeru seemed to contradict the idea of the bodhisattva as no-thing at all.

“Would such a body be great?” Buddha asks. Subhuti answers yes, and then explains that “no body is called a great body.”

In light of what came before, no body is a great body because no body – no particular, distinct, separate body – is the body of all being. By setting aside attachment to the self we join with the rest, the world around us, the entire universe.

I suppose an implication of all this is that I am the place where I am, that there is no self “in” the place because the self is the place and the place is the self. Again, this language is confusing. But stop and consider.

When I consider how much I, what I regard as my self, am a product not of some sort of abiding inner core but rather of the flow of relations, then it seems to me to be less gibberish and more a liberating fact: I am that, not apart from that. Take me out of my place and I am nothing. I cannot be taken out because I am the place. I am no-thing [in particular] because I am.

This part of the Diamond Sutra turned me back to my musings on place. If nothing else, it reminded me of the importance of place, context, space, location, and all the words that might be used simply to mean “here.” It suggests the value of a “field theory” in anthropology, a way of seeing actors through the field they occupy (because they are the field) rather than as coherent separate entities on (and therefore separate from) the field.

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