Like a Bubble in a Stream: A Zen Teacher Offers a Paraphrase of the Diamond Sutra

Like a Bubble in a Stream: A Zen Teacher Offers a Paraphrase of the Diamond Sutra March 22, 2018

A Diamond Sutra

A paraphrase by James Myoun Ford

I understand within the great cacophony that would eventually become the Christian church was how among some of those who would later be called gnostics, people were considered simply aspirants on the way until they could compose their own version of the gospel, their own sense of the “good news.”

Inspired by this I have taken up the practice of reading multiple translations of spiritual texts that particularly touch my heart, sitting with them over time, and then when it feels right, attempting a paraphrase. 

Here is one such attempt…


Thus have I heard.

The Buddha was once in Sravasti with a host of disciples. After the noontime meal, the monk Subhuti stood up before the assembly, praised the World honored one, and then reverently asked him for a liberating word.

The Buddha agreed and responded, “We should train our hearts in this manner. All living creatures of whatever birth may attain liberation by listening to my counsel. Of course, if as we listen we hold too tightly to these words, we will miss the liberating wisdom. So, listen open-heartedly.

“This is my counsel. Do not hold anything too tightly. Accept the necessities of life as a gift, as these things are. But even as everything presents as a gift, in time all things passes on. No one owns any of the things that arise and pass away.”

Then the Buddha asked the pointed question, “Subhuti, what do I mean by this? Can the sky be limited?”

Subhuti replied, “No, sir. The sky cannot be contained.”

And with that the World honored one asked, “So, can I be contained by the traditional marks of a Buddha?”

“No, sir. The true teaching and the true teacher cannot be not bound by ‘marks.’ of any sort.”

“That’s correct, Subhuti.” responded the Buddha, “And so, we must find that place beyond marks. But what does this mean? We must find that place where all things are boundless. Still things, and just as they are. But, without constraints, ultimately boundless. Do that and you and I see the same world.”

Subhuti then responded, “World honored one, should we hear these words, and believe?”

The Buddha said, “No. That is a misunderstanding. And. At the same time. In the degenerate age when the influence of my teachings are attenuated, even then, if people keep the precepts and my teachings with trusting hearts, it truly can be enough. That trusting heart is, truly, enough.

“The secret is to not cling to any idea of a permanent self. Why? By not grasping after that which is passing we achieve our liberation. Even my own teachings should be considered as nothing more than a raft to take us to the farther shore. Once we find our way to that other shore, that raft must then be set aside.

“Subhuti, do you understand?”

Subhuti replied, “If I understand you correctly, sir, you have never claimed any thing as an ultimate truth. Because form and emptiness are not two separate things. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. The boundless is known in terms of the specific. But neither form nor formlessness can be clung to.”

“So, Subhuti,” the Buddha replied. “If one gives oneself as an offering to the great way, would that person not achieve great rewards?”

And Subhuti responded, “Yes, sir. Very great merit. But, that’s true only because one has not grasped the true reward.”

“So,” the Buddha replied. “Even if one accepts the four-line verse with which I end this discourse, this teaching that opens the heart beyond those words, that’s true of them, too. Forms, even these words, are marked by boundlessness.”

Subhuti agreed. “If one thinks they have achieved liberation, they have not found it.”

The Buddha and Subhuti saw together that no claim of wisdom can be true if one clings to the experience. Everything is boundless. Things are “suchness,” real within themselves as they are. And. As they are true as themselves, at the very same time everything is boundless. Everything is wildly open. Wildly open.

Pushing hard on this insight, the World honored one asked Subhuti, “Did I gain from my previous teachers, the Buddhas of the past, or not?”

“No, sir. But, that’s because not claiming to live within the Buddha realms, is itself living within them.”

“So,” the Buddha said. “All hoping to win the great way should cultivate this clear mind. Without clinging they find the boundless mind.”

He then pushed farther. “Suppose someone’s body was the body of the king of mountains, how great would that be? Or, suppose there were many Ganges rivers, and with those rivers, all those sands, all those sands. If each grain of sand were a blessing, how great would that be? Suppose someone were as great as the body of the king of mountains or filled with as many blessings as those grains of sands on the shores of those many great rivers, what fortune would they contain?”

“Great fortune, teacher. Great, indeed.”

“Then suppose,” replied the Buddha. “That one expounded upon that four-line verse at the end of this teaching. What great virtue might be achieved? More so, what benefit if one could accept, uphold, read, and recite this sutra? Let me suggest it is simple. More than that of the king of mountains, more than that of all those grains of sand. Blessings without end.”

So, Subhuti asked, “What is the name of this teaching, sir?”

The Buddha replied, the “Let’s call it the Diamond Sutra. As pure and powerful as a diamond. The blessings of this text exceed the number of dust particles of the universe itself.”

With this Subhuti achieved great liberation.

And with that he sang his joys of gratitude. “How rare, and how wonderful! In the degenerate times, anyone who hears these words and opens their hearts, they will achieve the great liberation.

“Thank you. Thank you. Seeing all beings and things in their particularity while also seeing they are boundless; that is in itself our liberation. This in itself is the perfection of wisdom.”

The Buddha responded, “Yes, Subhuti. Throughout my many turning of the wheel my seeing through all things as boundless even as they are things; opened my heart, and pointed to my liberation. Anyone who hears this and understands it has found their liberation.

“All forms are empty. All things are boundless.

“Subhuti, the true dharma is beyond truth and falsehood.

“If people understand this way beyond affirmation and negation they can taste genuine liberation.

“In all earnestness, Subhuti, this is the sutra of endless blessings. Stepping beyond form and emptiness, we find a realm of delight and possibility.

“Should people accept, read, recite, or share this teaching, they will be treated with contempt. But, they will achieve the great liberation.”

Subhuti replied, “Sir, accepting this, how should we live?”

The World honored one responded, “If people cultivate minds of love and concern for others, they will find the way. Do you, dear one, understand that mind of complete awakening?”

Subhuti responded, “Sir, I understand this as a call to step beyond attachment to form or emptiness.”

The Buddha replied, “Just so. Just so. There is no thus come one. There is no supreme and complete awakening. No one could have foretold my appearance, nor my teaching. In the teaching of thus coming, there is no substance. So, of course, there is no such thing as supreme and complete awakening. Know this, and one finds awakening.”

Subhuti responded, “Sir, you are present as you are. And there can be no clinging to the details, large or small.”

The Buddha replied, “That’s correct, Subhuti. No self. No being. No living. No dying. Only this.”

And with that Subhuti questioned the master more deeply about his eye, physical, spiritual, and in every other possible manifestion. To which the Buddha affirmed, “Yes, yes.” Not just negation, but also affirmation.

Everything as it is, is affirmed.

Everything as it is, is boundless.

And with this, the World honored one proclaimed the four-verse teaching:

So you should view this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.


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