Diamond Sutra - Commentary Part I


  1. The Translator of the Chinese version of the Sutra - Dharma Master Kumarajiva
  2. The Preface of the Sutra - Chapter 1 "The Reasons for the Dharma Assembly"
  3. The Fundamental Question - Chapter 2 "Subhuti's Request"

The Translator of the Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra

Dharma Master Kumarajiva (343-413)

The text of the Diamond Sutra appearing in the last two issues of the Buddhist Door was based on the famous Chinese version of the Sutra. This famous Chinese version of the Sutra was translated into Chinese around 403 from the original Sanskrit by the great Dharma Master, Kumarajiva. Since then, this Chinese translation had become one of the most popular Buddhist texts, and together with the famous Chinese version of the Lotus Sutra, also translated into Chinese from Sanskrit by Kumarajiva, was considered one of the most authoritative presentations of the Mahayana Buddhism.

Kumarajiva is considered one of the greatest translators of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese. He was from Kucina (Kucha) of Central Asia (today's Kuche of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China) and the Indian-Kuchan parentage. His father, Kumarayapa, born into a Brahman family in India, refused to inherit a high position in the government and left the family to travel as a mendicant. When he was in Kucina, a small country in Central Asia, he was made the National Master by the king there. Kumarayapa was then forced by the king to marry the king's sister, Jiva. Kumarayapa and Jiva had two children, Kumarajiva and his brother.

The word 'kumarajiva' in Sanskrit means 'mature youth'. It was said that Kumarajiva possessed the virtuous conduct of the elder even when he was very young. Kumarajiva was most famed for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Indian and Vedantic learning and the photographic memory of the Buddhist scriptures. The legend said that he was able to recite the complete Lotus Sutra in two days, and one thousand mantras with total of 36,000 words in one day.

Later on, Jiva decided to leave the family, and when Kumarajiva was seven years old, she became a bhiksuni (nun) while her son followed her as a young monk. They travelled to different countries and studied from various famous monks. At the age of twelve, he returned to Kucina together with his mother. During those years, he made thorough studies of various Buddhist scriptures and at such young age, started preaching and became well-known in the Buddhist world. He was most famed for his understanding of Nagarjuna's Buddhist school of the Madhyamika ("Middle Way"). At the age of twenty, he was officially made a bhiksu in the Kucha palace. Shortly afterwards, his mother left for India and she instructed him to go to China and preach Buddhism there. Kumarajiva stayed in Kucina for twenty years and made some very thorough studies in Buddhism.

In the year 379, a few Chinese monks returned to Changan (Xian) from Kucina and told the story about the young bhiksu Kumarajiva. The great Dharma Master Daoan, who was very enthusiastic in translating Buddhist scriptures, recommended to Fujian, the Emperor of Fu-Qin Dynasty to get Kumarajiva to China to carry out the Buddhism sutras translation activities. In the year 382, Fujian sent Luguang to conquer some Central Asian countries, and instructed Luguang to capture Kumarajiva once Kucina could be occupied and to send Kumarajiva to China as soon as possible.

In the year 384, Kucina was occupied. But Luguang, being not a Buddhist himself, found out that Kumarajiva was so young, and had difficulty to recognize the abilities of Kumarajiva. Next year, Fujian was murdered and Luguang made himself Emperor of Liangzhou. Due to all these events, Kumarajiva ended up staying in Liangzhou for seventeen years.

In the year 401, the new Emperor of Fu-Qin, Yaoxing, recaptured Liangzhou and eventually brought Kumarajiva to China. Kumarajiva was 58 years old when he came to Changan. Starting from 402, Kumarajiva began to take on one of the most important Buddhist scriptures translation tasks in history.

His first attempt was in the Amitabha Buddha Sutra and a few other Buddhist scriptures. Then he translated the Maharatnakuta Sutra-Upadesha and the Shatika-Shastra. In the following year, he re-translated the complete Mahaprajnaparamita-Sutra, which includes, among many other scriptures, the Diamond Sutra. The whole translation task actually involved more than 500 monks as his assistants in the verification and editing work. Kumarajiva double-checked all texts in the Mahaprajnaparamita-Sutra. During the following year (404) he translated the majority of the Sarvastivadin-Vinaya and reworked on the Shatika-Shastra.

Starting from 406, Kumarajiva settled in the Grand Temple in Changan and translated the most important sutras in Mahayana Buddhism - the Lotus Sutra and the Vimalakirti-Nivdesa-Sutra. He also finished translation on Dvadashamukha-Shastra. His last translation was the Satyasiddhi-Shastra. He was also involved in preaching during the intensive routines of the translation jobs.

Kumarajiva was a genius in language and literature. For instance, he also wrote the commentary of the Vimalakirti-Nivdesa-Sutra, which has a tremendous impact in the Chinese literature. Among all the translators working in China, he was probably the best in the Chinese language.

In April 413, he died at the age of 71 in the Grand Temple in Changan. His last words were that he remembered he had translated about 300 texts in Buddhism and believed that other than the Sarvastivadin-Vinaya which had not passed review and editing, he could guarantee that all his translations should be correct and could be used for spreading Buddhism. In order to prove such a statement, he claimed that when his body was incinerated after his death, the tongue would remain intact. It turned out that his claim was true. According to Tang-San-Zang, the complete works of Kumarajiva include 35 Sutras/Vinayas/Shastras, covering 294 texts.

Kumarajiva's achievement in Buddhist scriptures translation is tremendous. He was the first one who systematically translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, with emphasis on Nagarjuna's Madhyamika. His translation style is also among the best accepted by the Chinese. He is most famed for those translations which have important literary values (such as Vimalakirti-Nivdesa-Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Maharatnakuta Sutra-Upadesha). In fact, his translation is recognized as having a significant position in the Chinese literature.

The translation organization headed by Kumarajiva in Changan is one of the biggest in Chinese history. It was fully sponsored by the government and the court and marks the beginning of the tradition in establishing a national translation centre. Numerous famous monks and scholars came over to Changan from various parts of China to participate in the translation tasks. In addition, some foreign monks from the Central Asian countries also joined the teams there, working under Kumarajiva. It was said that there were as many as 3000 followers, including assistants and students, of Kumarajiva. All the translation jobs were carried out with the utmost carefulness and seriousness and whenever necessary, with the consultations of specialists from the relevant fields of expertise. No wonder the results of the translations were of such a high standard, which can be well demonstrated by the achievement in the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra.

The Preface of the Diamond Sutra

Commentary on Chapter 1 "The Reasons for the Dharma Assembly"

Thus I have heard. At one time the Buddha was staying in the Jeta Grove of the Garden of the Benefactor of Orphans and the Solitary together with a gathering of great Bhiksus, twelve hundred fifty in all.

At that time, at mealtime, the World Honored One put on his robe, took up his bowl, and entered the great city of Sravasti to beg for food. After he had finished his sequential begging within the city, he returned, ate the food, put away his robe and bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat, and sat down.

"Thus I have heard" is usually the first sentence found in a Buddhist sutra. The chapter with this famous opening is considered the Preface of the whole Sutra.

Before Shakyamuni Buddha entered Nirvana, his disciple Ananda asked the Buddha, "After your Nirvana, there will be people in the future who have doubts if the Sutras were from you, and they will not have a firm belief in your teachings. What words should we use to begin the sutras to show that they are from the Buddha ?"

The Buddha replied,"You can begin the Sutra with the four words, 'Thus I have heard' to indicate that the teachings are from the Buddha and that you have heard the words directly from the Buddha. You should also mention that at what time and in what place you heard the teachings. In addition, you should mention how big is the audience of the gathering. After such elaboration, people will believe in the genuineness of the Sutra."

This is the origin of the so-called Six Fulfillments attached to a sutra to show that the sutra has fulfilled the six requirements, indicating that it is a record of the teachings given by the Buddha and the words were coming out directly from the Buddha:

The first paragraph in Chapter 1 stipulates the Six Fulfillments of this gathering and the Sutra recording such gathering and therefore constitutes the so-called "common preface" of the sutra. One should note that nearly all Sutras start with a similar sentence.

The second paragraph in this Chapter is the "specific preface". In this particular Sutra, it described that the Buddha had just entered the city to beg for food, returned to his dwelling place, finished the meal, washed the feet and sat down. This presented the background for the gathering. One should notice that the backdrop of this famous Sutra was a picture of everyday life of the Buddha and his followers and does not contain any special event as found in most other gatherings and sutras. Among such daily life setting, this famous sutra will be unfolded in the remaining 31 chapters.

The Fundamental Question

Commentary on Chapter 2 "Subhuti's Request"

At that time the elder Subhuti arose from his seat in the assembly, uncovered his right shoulder, placed his right knee on the ground, put his palms together with respect and said to the Buddha,

"How rare, World Honored One, is the Tathagata who remembers and protects all Bodhisattvas and caused them to be well-endowed.

"World Honored One, if a good man, or good woman, resolves his heart on Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, how should he dwell, how should he subdue his heart?"

The Buddha said, "Good indeed, good indeed, Subhuti. It is as you say. The Tathagata remembers and protects all Bodhisattvas and causes them to be well-endowed. Now listen attentively; I shall tell you, a good man, or good woman, who resolves his heart on Anuttarasamyaksambodhi should thus dwell, should thus subdue his heart."

"Yes, certainly, World Honored One. I want to hear. I am delighted to listen."

This chapter covers the fundamental question on Prajnaparamita put forward by Subhuti and Buddha's first reply to such question.

Subhuti, one of the Ten Great Disciples of the Buddha, was most famed for his understanding of 'emptiness', which is one of the most important concepts in Buddhism, revealing the characteristics of the existence and reality of nature. Although the word 'emptiness' is not mentioned, the basic theme of the Sutra is in fact an elaboration on the concept of 'emptiness' - the so-called 'ontological voidness'. Subhuti was most qualified to represent the audiences in asking such a basic question, requesting the Buddha to expound on the basic concept in Prajnaparamita.

Subhuti first mentioned that the Buddha, the Rare World Honored One and the Tathagata, always thinks about and protects all the Bodisattvas and enables them to be well-instructed and well-endowed. Here the term Tathagata refers to the Buddha. Tathagata is a Sanskrit and Pali word and is the title given to a buddha. It usually means 'one who has thus (tatha) gone (gata)' or 'one who has thus (tatha) arrived (agata)'. Tathagata is the 'thusness' and represents the 'hidden buddha nature' in every being, which makes possible the enlightenment. Then Subhuti raised the famous question:

"World Honored One, if a good man, or good woman resolves his/her heart on Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, how should one dwell, and how should one subdue one's heart?"

When someone resolves the heart on Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, it means that he/she has a wish to cultivate in Bodhisattva Vehicle and strives to attain the supreme Buddhahood.

The question is two-fold: how to dwell and how to subdue the heart ?

'How to dwell' refers to 'how can the heart dwell in a serene and eternal state'. In other words, how can the heart become, or reverts to a 'true heart', without any external infleneces or inflictions from inside.

'How to subdue the heart' refers to 'how to subdue the false thoughts, the evil minds and the Three Poisons'. In otherwords, how can someone conquer the rambling and untamed 'heart' which is the source of our inflictions.

To this fundamental question, Buddha gave a very simple answer: one should thus dwell and one should thus subdue one's heart.

The word 'thus' means 'like this', 'as it is'. 'Thus' has two-fold meanings. First, it reveals the 'thusness' or the 'hidden buddha nature' in every being. In fact, the 'hidden buddha nature' exists in everything, whether it is materialistic or psychological. When someone thinks about subduing the wild thoughts, someone should just think 'as it is', focusing and concentrating at such wish to subdue the heart. In this way, someone will reveal the 'true heart' as instructed and endowed by the Buddha, then the heart will be subdued right away. One does not need to seek any other outside force for help as the 'true heart' is already there, 'as it is'.

Secondly, the 'thus' also refers to the elaboration to be given in Chapter 3 about the Orthodox Doctrine of the Great Vehicle, which lays the foundation for dwelling and subduing the heart. In that chapter as well as some other chapters, the Buddha would elaborate on his reply. It is in this context that the Buddha said that one should dwell and subdue the heart 'like this'.

Starting from next issue, we will present further commentaries on the remaining 30 chapters in the elaboration and expounding of this fundamental question.

Previous Next