by David Reigle
In 1930 a package was sent from Darjeeling to Florence Garrigue in Ojai, containing a Tibetan text for Alice Bailey. This text is the Diamond Sutra. It is now preserved at Meditation Mount. Through the gracious consent of its Board of Directors, the active support of Glenda Christian Young, and the many efforts of Nick Blake, a complete photocopy of this text was made available to my wife Nancy and myself. We compared it word by word with the text of the Diamond Sutra found in the Lhasa edition of the Tibetan Kangyur, the 100-volume Tibetan Buddhist sacred canon, held in our archives. We found that it is indeed the same text, with only the expected variants between different blockprints. We wanted to verify that it was the known Diamond Sutra, and nothing else.
What is the Diamond Sutra? It is part of the “Perfection of Wisdom” literature, texts that make up a major division of the Tibetan Buddhist sacred canon. They were originally written in Sanskrit, and then translated into Tibetan. The Diamond Sutra is one of the briefest of these texts, giving in succinct form the teachings of the Perfection of Wisdom. It has attained great fame in Mahayana Buddhist countries such as China, Japan, and Tibet, where it is one of the most widely read of all Buddhist sutras. Yet, readers of it in English translation are likely to be surprised and disappointed by it.
As put by F. Max Müller, who first translated it from the original Sanskrit in his 1894 Buddhist Mahayana Texts:
“At first sight it may seem as if this metaphysical treatise hardly deserved the world-wide reputation which it has attained. Translated literally into English it must often strike the Western reader as sheer nonsense, and hollow repetition.” (part II, p. xiv)
What is it, then, that makes this book so highly regarded on the one hand, and yet allows it to be perceived as nonsensical on the other? To find out, let us look at its opening teachings.
After setting the stage for the teachings in a manner common to Buddhist sutras, it has the Lord Buddha addressing his disciple Subhuti thus:
“The Lord said: Here, Subhuti, someone who has set out in the vehicle of a Bodhisattva should produce a thought in this manner: As many beings as there are in the universe of beings, comprehended under the term “beings”egg-born, born from a womb, moisture-born, or miraculously born; with or without form; with perception, without perception, and with neither perception nor non-perception,as far as any conceivable form of beings is conceived: all these I must lead to Nirvana, into that Realm of Nirvana which leaves nothing behind.”
Here we see the classic bodhisattva ideal of renouncing one’s own enlightenment or attainment of nirvana in order to lead all living beings to enlightenment or nirvana. This is the distinguishing feature of Mahayana Buddhism, and is no doubt why the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood of Mahatmas has been centered in Tibet, where this teaching has flourished for the last millennium. All religions teach compassion, but only Mahayana Buddhism has made compassion its central platform.
When the Trans-Himalayan teachings first came to the West through Blavatsky’s Theosophy, this teaching was made the first object of the Theosophical Society under the name brotherhood.
When the second phase of the Trans-Himalayan teachings were given through Alice Bailey, this teaching was made central to these writings under the name service. So the first thing we see in the Diamond Sutra is the bodhisattva ideal, the noble ideal of compassion, of brotherhood, or of service. But immediately after that it continues:
“And yet, although innumerable beings have thus been led to Nirvana, no being at all has been led to Nirvana.”
This is the type of statement that is found throughout the sutra, that has caused it to be perceived as nonsensical. Edward Conze, whose 1958 translation I have quoted, Buddhist Wisdom Books, Containing The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra, devoted his life to these Perfection of Wisdom, or Prajna-paramita, texts. In his book, The Prajnaparamita Literature, he says this about the Diamond Sutra:
“The Diamond Sutra,” in spite of its rather chaotic arrangement of great renown in the East, does not pretend to give a systematic survey of the teachings of the Prajnaparamita. It confines itself to a few central topics, and appeals directly to a spiritual intuition which has left the conventions of logic far behind. This Sutra is one of the most profound, sublime and influential of all Mahayana Scriptures. It develops the consequences of seeing all things as void of self.” (2nd ed., 1978, p. 11) That everything is void of self, or empty, i.e., empty of self-existence, is the great doctrine of the Perfection of Wisdom.
This text, then, is addressed to the spiritual intuition, not to the logical mind. It is said to be the work of serpents, or as Blavatsky explains them, initiates. In the preface to her classic of the bodhisattva path, The Voice of the Silence, translated from the “Book of the Golden Precepts,” she writes (p. vi):
“The work from which I here translate forms part of the same series as that from which the Stanzas’ of the Book of Dzyan were taken, on which The Secret Doctrine is based. Together with the great mystic work called Paramartha, which, the legend of Nagarjuna tells us, was delivered to the great Arhat by the Nagas or Serpents (in truth a name given to the ancient Initiates), the Book of the Golden Precepts claims the same origin.”
As we are told by Haraprasada Shastri, who discovered the Sanskrit original of the text by Maitreya that is used in Tibet to study the Perfection of Wisdom:
“In some Prajnaparamita manuscripts it is written at the end ‘nagarjunena patalad uddhrta’ [‘brought up from the nether world by Nagarjuna’], as if they were lost to this world and Nagarjuna recovered them.” (“Discovery of Abhisamayalamkara by Maitreyanatha,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, n.s., vol. 6, no. 8, Aug. 1910, p. 426)
Blavatsky is referring to the legend that the Perfection of Wisdom texts (which she here calls Paramartha, “of ultimate meaning”) were received by the great teacher Nagarjuna from the Nagas, literally meaning “serpents,” and in this manner reached the world of humans. Serpents have long symbolized initiates, the wise, as we see in the statement from the Bible, “be ye therefore wise as serpents” (Matthew 10.16). The Nagas, as serpents, are supposed to live underground, that is, in the nether world. It is from there, called patala in Sanskrit, that Nagarjuna is said to have brought out the Perfection of Wisdom texts.
The nether world or underworld, patala, can refer to the antipodes, which from the standpoint of India is America, and before that, was Atlantis. Blavatsky tells us in The Secret Doctrine:
“Some of the descendants of the primitive Nagas, the Serpents of Wisdom, peopled America, when its continent arose during the palmy days of the great Atlantis (America being the Patala or Antipodes of Jambu-Dvipa [the continent in which India is located]…).” (vol. 2, p. 182)
This would make America or Atlantis the source from which Nagarjuna recovered the Perfection of Wisdom texts that were lost to the world. Indeed, through an unusual series of events, clairvoyance was brought to bear on this question, and that is exactly what it found: that Nagarjuna brought out the original Perfection of Wisdom text from a buried container coming from Atlantis.
Johan van Manen describes in his article, “A Mysterious Manuscript,” published in The Theosophist, vol. 32, no. 4, Jan. 1911, pp. 570-592, how a young Theosophist wandering about in northern India sent an unusual leaf of a Tibetan manuscript to the Adyar Library in 1908. This striking indigo-colored leaf with golden Tibetan letters was on display at Adyar in 1979 when we visited there. Upon examination, it turned out to be from a very old manuscript of a Perfection of Wisdom text. Johan van Manen decided to ask C. W. Leadbeater to look into its history clairvoyantly. Here is an excerpt from what he found, describing first the original Sanskrit manuscript from which the Tibetan text was translated (pp. 585-586):
“He [Nagarjuna] wrote the original Manuscript, but this was itself not an original production, but a translation from an Atlantean Manuscript. There is already a queer and romantic story current about it. This Manuscript was a holy relic when one of the later Atlantean migrations left Poseidonis. They took it with them to India. After a long time of peaceful dwelling in the new land, the Aryan hordes begin to invade the country from the North. The older Atlantean tribe began to be harassed and to be sorely pressed. They fought like lions but without avail…
At last they saw their doom was sealed, and they decided to bury their sacred treasure. They did, and it remained buried in a dry sandy place for thousands of years, quite undisturbed. This Atlantean Manuscript was enclosed in an air-tight case, hermetically sealed and made out of some sort of metal. Its preservation remained perfect.
Nagarjuna got hold of information about it and located it by some magical means, after which he dug it up. The Manuscript was written in colored hieroglyphics on what seem metal plates. It was about two feet long and twelve inches broad. There were twenty-seven lines of script, written on one side of the plates only, which numbered one hundred and fifty-three. In translation the text expanded considerably. It was translated on palm-leaves about sixteen inches long and four high, on which twelve lines were written on both sides. About three of such palm leaves went to one metal sheet…
That the now existing Perfection of Wisdom texts have undergone expansion is also the view of current scholarship, which scholarship, however, did not yet exist when Leadbeater undertook his clairvoyant investigation. Some of the existing texts, such as the Diamond Sutra, are also thought to have been contracted. This expansion and contraction is thought to have all taken place from a medium-length original, the version of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 lines. This original text, scholars believe, was composed after the time of the historical Buddha, while Buddhists believe that it was taught by him. The Buddhist texts speak of many Buddhas preceding the historical Buddha, and one of these would have been the original teacher of the Perfection of Wisdom according to the Atlantean story. In his new translation of the The Diamond Sutra, 2001, Red Pine makes an interesting point in regard to these things:
“…Conze and other scholars think that the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines was the first such scripture to appear and that it was followed by versions of the same basic sutra (same cast, same events, same teaching, often the same words) in 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 lines. Conze also thought that after the expansion of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines into its longer versons, it was then contracted into 4,000 and 2,500 lines, and elements of its teaching further edited into 700 lines, 500 lines, and finally into the Diamond Sutra in 300 lines. But one thing such an interpretation overlooks or fails to explain is that in the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and in all the sutras based on it, Subhuti often takes the Buddha’s place in teaching the perfection of wisdom, whereas in the Diamond Sutra he hears this teaching for the first time and for the first time sets forth on the bodhisattva path. Thus, it makes more sense to view the Diamond Sutra as preceding these other texts, rather than following them.” (pp. 32-33)
There is another strange fact about the Diamond Sutra. As is well known, the philosophical theme of the whole Perfection of Wisdom literature is emptiness, that all things are empty or void of self or self-existence. Yet, as Edward Conze points out in his 1957 Rome Oriental Series edition of the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita, p. 11), the term “empty” is not even once mentioned in the Diamond Sutra, even though this doctrine, given in other words, is its main theme. This is in stark contrast to the Heart Sutra, the other famous concise version of the Perfection of Wisdom, that is even shorter, considerably shorter, than the Diamond Sutra. Yet the term “empty” is used there many times. In other words, the technical term “empty,” that came to characterize the Perfection of Wisdom texts, is not yet found in the Diamond Sutra. Had the Diamond Sutra been a later summary, this term would certainly have been used in it, as it was in the Heart Sutra.
This fact, and the fact noted by Red Pine, could indicate that the Diamond Sutra represents the original core text of the Perfection of Wisdom. It would have been preserved within the Atlantean manuscript, where even there it had already been expanded upon, making a medium-length text. If so, this would explain why the Diamond Sutra, so strange to read, would be considered so holy. It would preserve the powerful vibration of the original, giving the keynote struck by its first teacher, an earlier Buddha. This gives it a tremendous blessing effect, long recognized in the East, and is perhaps the reason why this text, handed down by the Nagas or serpents of wisdom, was sent to Alice Bailey.