Language, Transformation, and the Bodhisattva

Language, Transformation, & the Bodhisattva

A reflection on the Diamond Sutra and the transformative practice of Zen meditation

Christopher Munson Jr

“And why not? If they create an image of a Dharma, they would still be attached to delusive images about a self, a being, a life, or a consciousness. Likewise, if they create an image of no Dharma they would still be attached to delusive images about a self, a being, or a consciousness.”

-Chapter Six

The Beginning

Setting Sail

Leaving the Ship/Raft

What’s Zen got to do with it?

Sailing in the Wind and Picnicking in the Sun


It is foggy over the sea. The waves rise up and down, the crest of each wave feeding into the trough the subsequent. A boat follows the movement of the waves. On the boat, a figure — a man or a woman. Through the fog, the figure glimpses lights of all types and brightness and sizes. Likely, the light marks the presence of something, but from a distance and through the fog, the sailor cannot tell. The sailor chooses a light to follow and heads in that direction, following the waves as they rise and fall. On the way to the light, the sailor hops from the boat and plunges into the sea. First, the sailor jumps tied to the boat. Eventually, they jump without a line whatsoever. Each time, they return, refreshed from the cleansing plunge into the depths—though sometimes frazzled as well. It is these cleansing depths that reminds the sailor that they do love sailing. 

I took a class on the diamond sutra. If you have ever read the diamond sutra, then you will understand its profound implications–incomprehensibly profound and minutely subtle. In this brief paper, I will understand the Diamond Sutra. And if I wrote that sentence in any seriousness, I would have hoped you to question the credibility of this paper significantly. And since I am glad that you kept reading, I will attempt to interpret and provide some insight on how I think we can understand the language in a poetic manner. I will present an idea and how a bodhisattva might want to situate themselves in the world to bring about Dharma… that is to give space to all things including the space we give the space to… and the essential role zazen plays in forming this approach. 

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, if a bodhisattva should claim, “I will transform a world”, such a claim would not be true. And why? The transformation of a world is said by the Tathagata to be no transformation. Thus it is called the “transformation the world.” Therefore, Subhuti, a bodhisattva should not arise the mind that dwells on sound, scent, flavor, feeling or dharma (phenomenon). The bodhisattva should arouse the mind without dwelling on anything.”

-Chapter Ten

First, I think it will be useful to define some concepts so we are on the same page throughout the subsequent pages. I am not going to say that these are THE definitions of these concepts, but instead represent my best understanding of these concepts. The Diamond Sutra comes from the sect of Mahayana Buddhism which deals with, in my opinion, a more Earth-Human-Being-centered practice. 

Ego: all of you that “you” conceive of as you, your quality of and/or frame of attention

Self: everything else, stupidly infinite: internal processes, sensations, received information

Tathagata: the Buddha addressing himself

Baghavan: a guy

Subhuti: the Buddha when Baghavan addresses him

Bodhisattva: a being who deliberately puts off enlightenment out of compassion to save other beings from suffering  

dharma: phenomena

Dharma: truth

Reading the diamond sutra is like playing darts in a room spinning around like the tea cup spinning rides at a carnival, switching directions on a whim leaving the dart thrower confused, unable to find the board… and a little bit nauseous. To me, it makes sense that attempting to understand Dharma, existing out of the ego, would produce this experience. Throughout the sutra, Baghavan questions Subhuti and the Buddha responds often similar to this

“Subhuti, what do you think? Can the Tathagata be perceived by way of the thirty-two marks (physical attributes)?”

Setting Sail 

Here, we will focus on the egoistic aspect of language. Essence, we can think of reality itself, Dharma. The translation represents sounds we use to mimic this reality, the things we perceive of reality, dharma. For example, since human beings are not a physical manifestation of water or pavement, we cannot make the exact sound of rain hitting the pavement. There is a chance the human vocal chords possess the capacity to approach a representation of the sound of rain hitting pavement, but I think aiming to represent that would be an impractical use of time; at the end of the day, one would also still not represent the sound perfectly. So, in attempting to communicate, either to ourselves or others, we force experiences into a box that works well for conveying the experience across time. Regardless of our mimicry, we fall short of conveying the experience as it is. Since we must pass through our own concepts of ourselves to represent dharma, any representation must originate from an egoic understanding and thus must assign a word to phenomenon.

Within the dialogue, we see the egoic aspect of language represented by the words held in apostrophes. Subhuti shows this language as a placeholder – our limited representation of events to convey ideas between ourselves. 

“Subhuti, what do you think? Does the Tathagata expound any Dharma whatever?”

Subhuti said, “No Bhagavan. The Tathagata does not expound anything.”

“Subhuti, what do you think? Are there many specks of dust (atoms) in the billion-world universe?”

Subhuti said, “No Bhagavan. The Tathagata says they are not specks of dust, thus they are called ‘specks of dust.’ The Tathagata says that the universe is not the universe, thus it is called ‘the universe’ (Ch 13).

The conversation shows how quickly and effectively one can assign meaning into the world. We see the idea of calling something being not called that thing thus it is called that thing repeated throughout the sutra. In the above passage, they are talking about specks of dust. The point that they are trying to make, I think, is that the word or illusion we use to describe a phenomenon is simply the representation we attach to the phenomena and does not actually tell us anything about the phenomena. The specs of dust could be called blagafargaranitas and it would not change the specks of dust from being specks of dust. It may change the representation that the human uses to mimic the phenomena (“blagafargaranitas” and “specks of dust” require different mechanical movements from the human) but there would still exist significant aspects of an experience outside of the human representation of the word. The word that we have assigned to the meaning carries personal and collective egoic attachment—that is seeing the world through the ideas of ourselves and others. 

The teaching teaches us that the Bodhisattva should address things and the understandings of things–created by an egoistic attachment. Necessary, these attachments guide the Bodhisattva like a lighthouse guides a ship. The ship should not go directly toward the lighthouse as the lighthouse marks land. Physical land and sailing ships do not mesh together well! (unless, of course, one desires to destroy a ship). A good sailor uses the lighthouse to guide itself around and near the land. Perhaps some pictures will help.

The mountain is both not a mountain and a mountain. It is a mountain by the way we force it into a label. The dharma of whatever the mountain is can be understood primarily by way of putting it into a mountain. This is the ego that tries to understand the image—sight—sound—smell—touch of the mountain (dharma) by putting it into the box of language—form. Without this understanding, the mountain would be no mountain which is not particularly useful if one was trying to explain to another that crossing large and voluminous landforms during the winter is apt to be very difficult. So, to prevent the potential suffering of crossing a mountainous range in the winter underprepared, the good sailor goes near that lighthouse to convey the dangers and recommendations associated with crossing a wintery mountain landscape. The image of the dharma is not what it is. It is the image in our minds. For the sailor, the dharma represents the lighthouses atop the mass of land hinting to one that there is something there. 

Leaving the Ship/Raft 

I can tell marvelous stories of climbing mountains. One time, in Tenerife, Spain, I set out with some friends to climb the volcano in the middle of the island. We parked our car near the base and ascended toward the top of the volcano. We stayed in a hut (un refugio) near-ish the top, and ascended the following morning to catch a glimpse of the heavens and the Earth. Atop this volcano, the sea clashes with the sky revealing a view of twelve-thousand feet of differential. And as it turns out, heaven smells like rotten eggs–the sulfur leaking through the top of the volcano. Another time, a friend and I biked up Mt. Evans, starting our twenty-eight-mile journey eight-thousand feet below. At the top, the air thinned and we glimpsed Denver, Colorado along with the hundreds of other people who drove up the mighty peak. When it came time, we descended roads, enjoying the thrills and freights inherent in biking down the cracked road of a fourteen-thousand-foot peak. Despite my best efforts, however, my experience remains foreign to me–and certainly the reader. These stories convey dharma, the phenomena of the experience: sight, touch, noise, etc, to the best of my conscious ability to remember them. My words are the boat that navigates me towards the lighthouse—the experiences themselves. Below, a sea of subjective submersion which, like the ocean, I can explore for the rest of my life; despite this best effort, it will always be incommunicable. It is the mountain that is not a mountain. 

It is always incommunicable because the bits of phenomena (represented in the far right of the image below) are unique to each human. The sounds of the rain hitting the pavement is a sound interpreted by the human ear. No two humans share the same ear (I state with to the best of my knowledge). For that, the Dharma that the phenomena brings forth is the left out of reach to each human, especially so if they attempt to put into a form.

So the essence of what the mountain looks like can only be found when we dissolve the ego. The sailor must carefully dock their boat and step forth onto land. Destroying the boat is reckless. Leaving the boat unanchored is also reckless. After carefully docking the boat, the sailor can explore the land for some time. And they should! There is much Dharma to be found on land: through fauna, fruit, and critters! Once time has come to an end, the good sailor knows to get back in the boat and continue on.  

What’s Zen got to do with it?

Zazen, the meditation practice of Zen, means “do nothing”. “Za” meaning do, “Zen” meaning nothing. Do nothing. Well how does one do nothing? This question is a crux on which realization begins so as to not spoil it, I will divert the questioning into the metaphor. 

The sailor dips into the ocean from time to time to freshen up and feel what is below. Being submersed completely underwater puts the sailor in a completely foreign environment. An unsustainable one at that. The laws of life suddenly change. Gravity changes, resistance to movement changes, oxygen deprivation sets in. Underwater living is not suitable for long term human survival, if the human attempts to live in it exclusively in the long-term. But what is the sea good for? Freshening up. Shocking the senses. Challenging the breath. Pitching the sailor into an environment where he or she has no possibility of mastering. And probably many more. Since normal laws of life do not apply to underwater exploration, there is little point in going deeply into them in writing. It is an experience best felt rather than told.

Sailing in Wind and Picnicking when it is Sunny 

There is no one who understands the paradoxes, the anxiety, and the joy of the world better than the bodhisattva. A being who understands the desire to throw oneself into the water, never to surface again, but continually resurfaces to takes good dedication and nobility. When one has an enlightening experience, it is extremely tempting to take that experience and shoot for that only—and certainly we are capable of prostituting ourselves for it. I also do not think anyone is ever a “bodhisattva” as it represents a moving towards rather than a state. It has to. There is no other sustainable reality than the moving towards-ness. This is the good sailor who continually adjusts the sails to catch the wind. Who never treks so far into land as to lose sight of the boat, or swims too deep in the sea as to drown. 

To see this within the Diamond Sutra, it is more beneficial to look to the flow of the dialogue because it represents a more comprehensive comparison to the human experience. That if you are here, now here, now here, here now. You can never constitute yourself in any moment so we must attempt to understand ourselves through a summation of those moments. The back and forth questioning between Subhuti and Baghavan shows a metaphoric exchange that points to an idea rather than expresses an idea–like a lighthouse showing that land exists through the fog. 

The exchanging and confusing of meaning such that meaning is not meaning thus it is ‘meaning’ accepts and expounds our nature as dancers and observers of the dance. It also acts out the dizzying feeling of attaching too strongly in either direction. The dialogue is important because we know that things are not all form and we know that things are not all formless! We must gain a feeling for the experiences of observing, sailing, diving, and walking on land separately, before they can walk in pairs. The mountain that we can see and understand as a mountain represents the form. The mountain that moves the poet to drip onto paper represents the formless. A poem describing the early morning mountain mist suppressing the bird songs represents a happy medium. The famous symbol (yin/yang) represents this dynamic well, as a converging and diverging around a central yet unlabeled point between form and formless. I think the yin—yang represents well symbolically what these ideas contain. 

I think the bodhisattva is a good sailor and does not go toward the mountain solely. He shares his experience so that the other can catch a glimpse. She paints the picture so that the other can feel. He also does not dive too deep into the water or crash his boat into land, though certainly existing easily within grasp. She, likewise, does not bathe in her paints, despite bathing reproducing most literally what the paint colors feel like. The bodhisattva understands the infinitude of themselves and resists greatly drowning in the infinite beauty that their self contains. There are many reasons for this, most of which, I think, boil down to the fact that there is some minutely subtle duty, joy, in sharing. This is however, a sacrifice. This means that the sailor does not embark onto land to leave the ship behind for eternity, nor jump ship to dive to the depths of the surrounding sea. Both setting onto land and jumping into sea represent finite destinies-that is predictable and thus falsely allay a basic anxiety. And this anxiety represents the limitations that pin us to our cycle. 

When is it best to picnic? When it is partly–cloudly–sunny of course. When is the best time to sail? When there exists a slight breeze of course. How do we know what is, ‘sunny’ or ‘a light breeze’? Surely, one will need to attempt to picnic or sail when the conditions are not ideal to learn these lessons. One may get sunburnt or become dehydrated by picnicking when it is too darn hot out. And likely, they have probably forgotten cheese or wine on occasion. Similarly, one may also encounter significant struggle trying to sail in a hurricane and likewise when there is no wind. These struggles are different manifestations of the same issue, that one has missed the mark. But no great sailor became a sailor overnight. Likely, they capsized a boat once or twice, and maybe even crashed into land! I think the bodhisattva is no bodhisattva thus they are called ‘bodhisattva’. This is one who continues to return to practice–sail–picnic because they enjoy It. 

Sailing in rough seas and stopping by the islands to picnic, the bodhisattva is a master of none and learner of all. This is what the Baghavan attempts to teach Subhuti, that they one who unconsciously seeks to identify with form or no form is attaching and runs the risk of drowning, crashing into land, etc… I suggest that the answer we seek lies within the one who understands, practices, and renews again and again as to search towards mastery without deluding themselves with a ship that is too large to navigate effectively, or any blanket that is not lightweight and easy to roll and take with. But why take my words for it?


The Diamond Sutra is one of the most studied and revered scriptures in the sentire Buddhist cannon. And yet it is not the actual words of the Buddha, evin in translation. The Sutra appeared along with other writings about 100-200 years after the Buddha’s bPassing. This group of scriptures is called the Mahaprajnaparamita, the Great Perfection of Wisdom. 

These wriitings for the basis of what came to be known as Mahayana BVuddhism; this in contrast to Theravadan or “Hinayana”. Legend has it that the great teacher Nagarjuna traveled to visit the Naga king, who gave huim the Mahaprajnaparamita. 

More likely, the schism began shortely after the Buddha’s parinirvana. Like many religions, after the founder’s passing, Buddhism began to split up into different groups, The Mahayana (greater vehicle) arose in a reaction to what many saw as excessive scholastisim among prests of the new religion. The Mahayana sect invented the invidious term “Hinayana” (lesser vehical), but the term Theravada, the way of the elders is preferred. 

Where Theravadans emphasized moral behavior, and parsing out the literal meaningns in the Pali Cannon, the Mahayanists relied more on seing into the script of the scriptures. 

There are found main principles put forth in the Diamond Sutra:

First is oneness, unity. There is nothing outside of the One Mind, Buddha Mind. There is no other. In fact even the notion of “one” does not apply, not if it is to distinguish one from two and so forth. It is not a “One” that stands opposed to “two” oir anything else. The Buddha said, “Throughout heaven and earth, I am the only one.” The lion’s roar of the Dharma. 

Second is emptiness. If everyuthing is mind, and mind only, the there is no “other” substance behind it. All Dharmas al the teachings and al phenomena are manifestatios of this one mind. To say somethings is “real” abnd apart, is to again put something outside. Is to elevate thought objectgs to some kind of higher status outside this mind. 

Third is transiency, nothing is fixed; nothing is permanent. The greatest mountains, the deepest oceans, the sun, moon, stars are all flickering candles in the wind of the mind, destined to pass away. And this certainly applies to us. 

Fourth is the ideal of the Bodhisattva as copared to the ARhat. The Arhat is the individually ebnlightened one. The Bodhisattva puts off full enloightenment until all are enlightened. 

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