Sep 27, 2019 - 8 minute read

The Good and the Self: The Diamond Sutra, Pt 2

The Buddha said to Subhuti, “This is how [they] master their thinking: ‘However many species of living beings there are…we must lead all these beings to nirvana so that they can be liberated. Yet when [they have] become liberated, we do not, in truth, think that a single being has been liberated.’

“Why is this so? If, Subhuti, a bodhisattva holds on to the idea that a self, a person, a living being, or a life span exists, that person is not a true bodhisattva.”

Thus begins Gautama Buddha’s response to the opening question posed in the Diamond Sutra, on how spiritual aspirants are to master their thinking0. He first addresses the purpose towards which thinking is to be mastered—as the liberation of all beings (from what?)—to settle the premise behind the question. Then he commences his lengthy (as we shall see) attack on conceptual thinking, beginning with the belief in the concept of an individual. While he does not bring up the former again, i.e. the premise behind spiritual practice, let’s first give it a more thorough examination. We will then discuss where the renunciation of (or more precisely, the detachment from) the self fits in with the mastery of thinking.

Do we really want the end of suffering? As that is what Buddhism is usually associated with, along with the related concept of Nirvana (a.k.a. enlightenment, moksha, self-realization)1, the state where there is no personal suffering. Reading the Sutra in the context of Buddhism, we infer that the mastery of thinking asked about is towards the end of suffering, and similarly, the liberation spoken of is also from suffering. In his answer, the Buddha extends the scope considered by including “all beings”, perhaps to make spiritual pursuit less self-centered. In any case, whether personal or universal, the end of suffering does have an axiomatic self-evident worthiness to it. But let’s stop for a moment and reason it out critically. Is the end of suffering (henceforth, EoS) really the end-all, be-all ultimate value which we can morally justify time as best spent? Are there other candidates?

There is the “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” from the Bill of Rights. But squinting from a certain angle we can view that as somewhat analogous to EoS (the end of suffering), or at least some subset of it—so it’s not really that different of a candidate for an ultimate value. How about the scientific pursuit of knowledge? Or physical excellence such as best times and distances at athletic meets? And engineering feats such as tall buildings, fast cars, and moon landings? Or innovations in societal organization, such as rule of law and democracy? We might rubricate these under the term progress, for they do share a common forward-looking improvement-seeking character. Progress does feel like a sufficiently different formulation from EoS as an ultimate value.

Knowing more science, we can improve the quality and longevity of life. Having better facility with building machines, we can mitigate and recover faster and natural disasters. Instituting harmonious social structures we succor the talents of citizens and unleash impeded their enthusiasms into the economy, which becomes more robust. So we can view progress as increased competence, like we can view EoS as improved psychology. If we add progress to our list of ultimate values, which previously just had EoS as its sole item, we benefit from a diversification effect: we avoid degenerate scenarios that ‘solve’ for EoS by using drugs or suicide. A list that contained just progress as its one item also has faultlines—practices such as forced labor can then be justified as a means for the quickest progress. So the two together—progress and EoS—provide balance, vetoing extreme outcomes.

Psychology and competence are related: if we aren’t in good psychological health, we are unlikely to manifest excellence in the various aforementioned fields. And there’s the link: for both EoS and progress, we need mastery of thinking, and the Buddha’s subsequent prescription for it remains pertinent to either value. Given how shooting for both rather than the one or the other is a more balanced and functional approach, and that the spiritual dimension of the means to get there is the same (i.e., mastering thinking), we might agglomerate the two ultimate values—the end of suffering and progress—as the Good2. Now, let’s turn back to the Buddha’s answer on mastering thinking.

We must let go of our (implicit) belief in the absolute reality of a person—or an individual, a being—for while it is convenient to speak in such terms, it is a model with limitations (“we do not, in truth”) that is inconsistent with mastering thinking. This is what the Buddha is saying in the second half of his opening statement, as quoted at the start of this article. What might he mean by this? If we pay attention to our thoughts—cataloging them over a month, say—we might find that a lot of the unproductive ones (towards no good) stem from taking ourselves too seriously. The eight worldly winds which we touched upon earlier in Part 1—worry over the potential for pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, authority and fame—buffet us with force proportional to how fully the sails of our personhood are unfurled. Instead of tackling every which way of thinking that can be pulled from the Good, all the different types of inadequacy and insecurity3 we are wont to suffer from, why not address that which stands moored in the midst of it all? Namely, the identification as a self that is separate and distinct, bordered and localized, qualitative and relatable? That is the strategy here. Because with this identity gone, afflicted patterns of thinking that used to develop into Cat 3 hurricanes become small-scale storms-in-a-teacup—partitioned away in a small part of our psyche, and quickly dissipating.

It is easy to say “let go of identification,” and even to nod to it. But then we go about our day, constantly modeling the world as one made of distinct things—a feature of our perceptual system which filters our sensory inputs to showcase that which is meaningful toward our goals4. And this misleads us into the belief that our consciousness is also one such perceivable object, e.g. one residing in the object of our brains—though no one has actually perceived consciousness. Even identifying as spiritual aspirants contributes to this problem, as we are now individuals working on improving themselves, to help end suffering for themselves and everyone else. Hence another stern warning from the Buddha towards the end of the Sutra:

“Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata has the idea, ‘I will bring living beings to the shore of liberation.’ Do not think that way, Subhuti. Why? In truth there is not one single being for the Tathagata to bring to the other shore. If the Tathagata were to think there was, he would be caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span. Subhuti, what the Tathagata calls a self essentially has no self in the way that ordinary persons think there is a self. Subhuti, the Tathagata does not regard anyone as an ordinary person. That is why he can call them ordinary persons.


People are presentations of consciousness (as is everything else)5, and we interact with each other, exchange words to share with each other, growing together like a forest with its interconnected ecology. Operating with the right philosophy is like a forest thriving under an optimal climate, atop febrile soil. With a compromised philosophy, it’s like the forest is being haphazardly sprayed with pesticide—ostensibly good for some part of the forest, but ultimately corrupting the ecology and a brake on its evolution, a brake on its progress.

Belief in a separate self is like the belief in the Earth being flat, but in reverse. Modeling the Earth as flat is fine and a useful simplification when we go for a drive. But believing it to be actually true can get us thinking that the Earth is an infinite plain, and that we can simply move to some other part of it if we spoil the part we inhabit. Identifying our consciousness with a limited self, an entity housed in our body or conceptualized in our mind, is like believing in the finite, atomic model of the Earth—precariously precious needing vigilant guarding—when in fact our consciousness is more like the boundless plain of the flat Earth. A Self not in space, though perhaps in time; and if in time, I submit, one that evolves towards the Good.


0 As translated by Thich Naht Hanh, 2006:

1 cf. The Buddha’s enlightenment story:
On a full-moon day in May, he sat under the Bodhi tree in deep meditation and said. “I will not leave this spot until I find an end to suffering.” During the night, he was visited by Mara, the evil one, who tried to tempt him away from his virtuous path. First he sent his beautiful daughters to lure Gautama into pleasure. Next he sent bolts of lightning, wind and heavy rain. Last he sent his demonic armies with weapons and flaming rocks. One by one, Gautama met the armies and defeated them with his virtue.

As the struggle ended, he realized the cause of suffering and how to remove it. He had gained the most supreme wisdom and understood things as they truly are. He became the Buddha, ‘The Awakened One’. From then on, he was called Shakyamuni Buddha.


2 cf. The three virtues in Platonic philosophy: the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

3 As my second meditation teacher Francis Lucille would say, these different variations of a sense of lack (inadequacy) and the fear of death (insecurity) when present indicate that we have identified ourself as a limited entity.

4 The psychology of perception includes the idea by James J. Gibson that we perceive an object more readily along the lines of what opportunity for action it affords us, i.e. its affordance:

5 This is according to non-dual philosophy, which Hinduism and Buddhism, among other philosphies, partake from. See my other essay, Non-Dual Philosophy: A First Taste: