The Diamond Sutra’s prominence would be hard to overstate even if it did not possess the unique distinction of being the oldest extant printed book in the world.

The Sutra consists of a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple Subhuti. As a patently Mahayana text, the dialogue begins with Subhuti imploring the Buddha to explain how to become a Bodhisattva and which virtues a Bodhisattva should possess. Throughout the text, the Buddha speaks of the merit of giving without attachment to the self and about the emptiness of all things (although the term typically reserved to denote such emptiness, Shunyata, does not appear in the text).1 In typical fashion for a Prajnaparamita text, the Diamond Sutra spends ample time discussing the illusory nature of conditioned phenomena. In contrast to the longer Parajnaparamita literature, the Diamond Sutra is free of supernatural and mystical imagery.

In clear example after clear example, the Buddha illustrates to Subhuti how a Bodhisattva sees beyond dualistic distinctions and understands the emptiness of all phenomena. Nothing is safe from this penetrating analysis—not gifts, not beings, not transformations, not attributes, not attainment. Each of these things are shown to be empty and illusory. Thus, the ‘diamond’ of the Diamond Sutra cuts through all illusions.

The Diamond Sutra is irreverent and unconventional, like many of its Prajnaparamita companion texts. The true spirit of emptiness is revealed when the Diamond Sutra encourages the reader to not only dispense with the idea of the self and other but with the notions of “Buddha” and “Dharma.” Such ostensibly profane themes are rendered acceptable when considering the supramundane character of the truth spoken in the sutra.

The sutra ends with an appeal to ordinary people. The Buddha’s final words in the sutra pertain to the merit that can be attained by an ordinary person grasping perfect wisdom. For all the talk of superhuman bodhisattvas, celestial Buddhas, and magical Buddha lands in Mahayana Buddhism, it can be easy to forget that the dharma is truly for ordinary people.

Sanskrit:  Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra

1Kalupahana, 1992