Diamond Sutra Metaphors

The Diamond Sutra has various metaphors at the end, that describe how we can train ourselves to see things as they are…


One translation from the Tibetan Tradition that has been taught and commented on by Lama Zopa says:

Like a star (seen in the daytime),
a defective view,
or the flame of a lamp,
depending on many causes and conditions…

Like an illusory display,
(such as a mirage, or a reflection)
a drop of dew, or frost,
or a bubble that can cease at any time…

Like a dream appearance seen after waking…
a flash of lightning…
or a cloud continually changing…

– whatever arises, abides, and ceases is just like this.

The meaning in the case of each of these metaphors is the same – that while there is an appearance, we can understand its nature, and not be caught at all by it. Undeceived, there is the freedom taught by the Buddha and Ancestral Teachers, right down to today.

Traditionally, it’s taught that these appearances continue, with some element of their feeling deceptive, even with practitioners up to a very high level of accomplishment. I find this reassuring, and encouraging.

If we don’t understand the reference of the metaphors in the Diamond Sutra, it’s easy to gloss over the examples given in such a simple verse as this.

Like a star (seen in the daytime)

only makes sense post-insight, which is why investigation is essential in Buddhism. Once we see clearly what we have been looking into, the false, the mistaken, the non-existent we previously imagined to be there is known, and can be described in various ways, to make that insight understanding more powerful and effective, so that suffering is transcended.

The self we imagined before, disappears on investigation, like a rope or garden hose we took to be a snake in the half-light, that completely disappears when the sun comes up. We may even laugh at our previous misconception, and it may take some time for the sensations related to fear to subside, but the root of that particular suffering has been cut, by thoroughly seeing what is actually there. The previous image vanishes without a trace. It becomes like a star in the daytime, non existent.

Other analogies for the non existence of mistaken appearances when seen through have been collected and passed down. Here are some examples. They are like:

rabbit’s horns,
tortoise hair,
sky flowers,
the tracks of a bird in the sky,
or like a dream appearance after waking-

and so on. Each of these, we may have imagined, but they are not there.

This is exactly like the self that previously appeared where there was no self to be found, disappearing, without leaving a trace.

a defective view (or ‘a fault of vision’)

is another way of saying that things exist differently than the way they appear to ordinary, uninformed and untrained awareness.

People hallucinate in all kinds of ways, and believe what appears to their mind, but when the organ of vision itself is at fault (in this case the mind itself), then everything that is perceived through it is also mistaken. This is why Eastern Traditions have always emphasized learning to understand and cultivating our own mind.

We don’t see the world as it is,
we see it as we are

comes from the Talmudic tradition.

and this is what is taught in Buddhism, to completely understand our own mind, and its role in determining what we experience.

Sometimes a defective view, or a fault of vision is called a visual aberration. When an eye doctor puts drops in a person’s eyes, and their vision becomes blurry, and  everything they see is effected.

Worse than this is when someone is drunk, and their whole world, and everything they see and think is distorted. Ordinary unenlightened consciousness is like this – everything it sees and experiences is conditioned by its delusions, its veils, its conditioning.

By contrast, and especially after gaining some insight and freedom, we see just what was mistaken before about our perceptions. This is almost only seen looking back, and not while we’re in the midst of it, except perhaps as just an intimation, or an intuition.

Other ways to show us the mistaken functioning of our mind are listed:

the flame of a lamp, depending on many causes and conditions…

points out how we usually perceive the exact opposite of a collection of causes cooperating together to produce a result. Anything at all that shows us clearly the way that the conceptual mind works has the potential to be liberating.

The nature of the conceptual mind is always one of fixation, also called reification, even if we change our thoughts rapidly.

Concepts also seem to divide what is in actuality indivisible. If we see through them, that is fine, and not a problem, but if not, and if we mistake concepts for what is here, in truth, then we create all kinds of difficulties for ourselves and for others and for the earth.

For examples of the fragmentary nature of concepts, we need only look at how we name different parts of the body, which are in fact not separate from each other, and then hold them in a way to be independent, unitary – being of one nature- simplified, or simplistic self-entities. We see ourselves also to be apart from our ancestors and all of our environment for the same reason – grasping too tightly at these concepts of ours as being what is actually here.  Lama Yeshe refers to these as solid, concrete concepts, and it’s for us to cut through all of these.

like an illusory display
(such as a mirage or a reflection)

has a number of telling examples that describe the nature of appearances.

They are like a mirage – we may see water shimmering on a plain, for example, and know full well that it is not there, because we have just crossed that territory in full awareness;

We hear in the teachings of reflections in water, or in a mirror, and these are to point out to us how what is seen is not actually there. When we know this, we don’t respond to reflections that are mere appearances in the same way as something real and directly in front of us.

What permits us to see through appearances is the insight the Buddha and the teachers who followed him have taught.

A conjurer’s trick can also create an appearance that fools the audience, and sometimes in teaching stories, even himself;

It’s also like an artist painting a picture, or sculpting a statue and then falling in love with it, or feeling attachment, or fear, or aggression towards his own creation. That is delusion – being deceived by self-created appearances.

Such are some of the common examples of illusions.

The one word like, in the line like an illusion is also very important here, as Lama Zopa taught, because its not saying that these things don’t exist, but that they don’t exist as they appear.

All the terrible consequences of misperception are included in this, as is the possibility of ending the six realms suffering for ourselves and for all others. These illusions are not simply to be discarded, or dismissed and then forgotten about. They are to be seen for what they are, and seen through. Then we can teach others the way to freedom from suffering.

a drop of dew, or frost,
or a bubble –

all go to counter the first characteristic of all concepts I mentioned – that they are fixed. To say to ourselves that all these phenomena we perceive externally, and internally are impermanent is saying the exact opposite of this. We are highlighting this component of how conceptual mind works, so that we can recognize that truth, and learn to see through our concepts, throughly, and comprehensively; so that we are not mistaken or deceived by them in the least, and can live in freedom.

To say that these appearances to our mind are

like a dream (seen after waking)

is again to state that the previous mistaken appearance, with all the effects of the afflicted emotions is gone, without a trace, or, is rapidly fading from view and experience. This happens only on account of insight, as earlier stated.

a flash of lightning,
or a cloud –

also are given to counter the fixed nature of concepts and appearances. In truth, what we experience is impermanent, evanescent, and this is exactly the opposite of what is held in the mind of someone untaught, and without training in liberating wisdom.

The teachings of the historical Buddha, as passed down in the Pali Tradition use contemplating phenomena’s impermanence primarily as the door to freedom from wrong concepts. All the other insights connected to seeing through appearances are contained in this teaching as well.

In The Diamond Sutra Explained, Master Nan Huai-Chin says:

‘I’m telling you that phenomena exist, but

like a dream, an illusion, a bubble…
a drop of dew, and a flash of lightning.

Thus you should view them.

‘This is a method. You should use it to recognize clearly and understand clearly. And then, after you recognize clearly, what then? Don’t attach to form, and be one with Suchness. This is really practicing Buddhism.’

May we all accomplish such wisdom,
and lead all others to this same state.