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The Diamond Sutra
What the Diamond Sutra Means to Me
Beob Su Haeng

“When you are in trouble, do you have a good friend you can call?”

To this question, asked by my academic supervisor some time ago, I replied: “When I am in real trouble, I read the Diamond Sutra.”

This answer came spontaneously and immediately, without hesitation; and it was at that occasion when I realized just how important the Diamond Sutra had become for me by then.

When I came to Berlin in October 2003 in order to pursue my studies at Free University, I started participating regularly in the weekly Dharma ceremonies of International Zen-Temple gem. e.V. I joined the lecture series on Thursdays for the first time when the Ven. Zen master Young San Seong Do talked about chapter 11 of the Diamond Sutra. I still remember the strangely pleasant sensation I had that evening: I became very excited, like being electrified, and on my way back home I eagerly wished to read the entire sutra out loud – which I did, from that day on, normally three times in a row, one time a week, as well as additionally on special occasions: in times of distress, anger, and desperation. Some years later I started to read the sutra every day and at some point I began to accompany the text with a melody I had developed myself. The move from reading to reciting was quite impressive. It intensified my relation to the sutra and things changed a lot for me ever since.

Yet, even though I have read the sutra so many times and know it even by heart, I have to confess that I do not really understand it. Therefore I still stick strongly to what the sixth Patriarch Hui-neng said about this sutra: “One who doesn’t see it for himself should, only depending on the words and terms, read and recite it.” (The Diamond Sutra, translated by Y. S. Seong Do. Angkor Verlag 2010, p. 9)

It feels sometimes like being a new-born child, who simply imitates the sounds of the adults surrounding it, and still it certainly makes a huge difference whether I was to read and recite Chinese words and terms (which I do not understand at all) or whether I was to read and recite words that are translated into a language I am familiar with. This is one reason why I am very grateful to the Ven. Zen master for translating the Chinese text, translated by Kumarajiva from Sanskrit into Chinese at the beginning of the 5th century, into English.

And yet, not every translation is a good translation. Translating a text does not involve a simple substitution of words in one language by words in another language. Translating a text is about conveying the content of a text in a way that enables the reader to grasp the meaning of the original and in order to do so it might sometimes even be necessary not to use exactly the same words. In a similar vein, since one word in one language can have several counterparts in another, to choose the right counterpart is only possible if you understand the meaning of the whole sentence or the entire text respectively.

Therefore, one who doesn’t thoroughly understand the meaning of the original can hardly be able to translate a text – even if he was to be familiar with the language of origin and the language into which the translation is meant to take place.

If you then take, for example, one of the most renowned translations of the Diamond Sutra into English and read the confession of the translator, whose name I cannot mention here, that after less than half of the text he was unable to grasp the meaning of the text – how strongly can you rely on his choice of words and terms for the translation as such? Can it be called a translation at all if the translator doesn’t actually know what he is talking about?

Whereas whenever the Ven. Zen master speaks about the Diamond Sutra, things are simple and clear; his explanations never fail to point directly to the heart of the text; his words, at every occasion, uncover for me a meaning that seems to be hidden deeply within the text and that is, at the same time, so obvious and overtly visible that I am often surprised that I was unable to see it on my own.

Therefore, the extraordinary work of translation that the Ven. Zen master underwent does not only comprise a word by word translation of one text into another – even though one must admit that it is a particularly beautiful and poetic choice of English words and terms that resulted from that effort, a lifelong effort to make the Diamond Sutra and Zen Buddhism accessible, first to laypersons in Korea, and, later on, to a Western audience – but, more than anything else, his extraordinary work of translation comprises the conveying of meaning, not just through the text itself but also through his talks on the text and through his continuous effort to guide us in our practice.

Without practicing Zen reading and reciting the Diamond Sutra is useless, i.e. if I do so with a confused mind, the words and terms make me even more confused. But if I recite the Sutra while keeping my mind clear, the text evolves naturally and then every part is perfectly in place. Every chapter, every sentence is just the way it is meant to be. Then, for example, the more often “the four notions” are listed, I can feel that every time I speak them out loud, they keep melting away a little bit more; whereas with a confused mind I get angry and annoyed over the endless and seemingly useless repetitions.

Yet, even with a confused mind, reading the Diamond Sutra always helped me to open my heart and to regain some distance from the chaos of my entangled thoughts, although, while reading it, all kinds of bad feelings and thoughts first seem to intensify and then I have to make a huge effort and discipline myself strongly to keep reading until the very end before some kind of relief sets in; before the air around me is serene and calm and when there is some hope that maybe, one day, I might really be able “to enlighten [my] true nature and (...) realize for the first time that this Sutra would not consist of the words and terms“ (ibid., emphasis added) – just as the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng commented.

Since the publication of the Ven. Zen master’s translation in the form of a hardcover book in 2010 with an immensely beautiful cover and design it has become even easier to keep this sutra in high esteem. Holding the book as such in my hands and looking at it is already of enormous comfort due to the gentle surface of its cover, the sophisticated choice of colours, the careful arrangement of words and pictures.

The Diamond Sutra and I have become good and old friends by now. It is a very patient friend, a good listener, and yet, without saying a word, it is telling me a lot – even though I am, most of the time, unable to hear it. But then I can always turn to the Ven. Zen master for a translation, for translating the unspeakable into words and terms that speak to me.

You can easily send a book across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but every time I make prostrations in front of the Buddha I thank him for sending the Ven. Zen master to Germany, for giving him patience to endure the harsh and strange life abroad, in order to make us cross the Ocean of Suffering.

The Diamond Sutra means everything to me.

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