New Diamond Sutra: Utility is the Measure of Beauty

Diamond Sutra: So I tell you – Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world: A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; A flash of lightning in a summer cloud, A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream. When the Buddha finished this Discourse the venerable Subhuti, together with the bhikshus, bhikshunis, lay-brothers and sisters, and the whole realms of Gods, Men and Titans, were filled with joy by His teaching, and, taking it sincerely to heart, they went their ways…

The Diamond Sutra (Sanskrit: वज्रच्छेदिकाप्रज्ञापारमितासूत्र, Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) is the oldest printed and dated book in the world, all of which occurred on the 11th day of May in 868 CE, notwithstanding the fact that the book is certainly older than that. But this is from the first Chinese translation, which occurred c.401CE by the venerable Kumarajiva from Kashmir, one of my Buddhist heroes, while in prison in Xinjiang (sound familiar?), and before he found his place in the capital at Chang’an (now Xi’an). The signed dated copy–for free distribution only–was found in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang a lttle more than a century ago. Nothing rots in the desert.

But the real name of the sutra is not Diamond Sutra, but something like ‘Diamond-Cutter Sutra,’ as you can see from the Sanskrit. And we’re not talking about cut diamonds, either, but diamonds that cut, which was the only known use for those gnarly rocks at the time. And that’s what I want to talk about, the equation of utility and beauty. Because when we modern westerners think of diamonds, we usually think of beauty, and beauty only. Oh sure, we know that diamonds are the hardest substance in our own earthly natural world, but that’s not why we buy them; just ask Marilyn Monroe.

And the Diamond (Cutter) Sutra is foundational to the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which includes the Zen sect so well known in the West, simply because it cuts straight to the core of the problem. And if the theme of the sutra is broadly one of selfless anatta and its florescence into the sublime Emptiness of Shunyata, then the particulars dig into the reification of language into an ad hoc existence defined by definitions and of which nothing, really, can be said, or not much, anyway. Because truth is beyond words, and the best way to prove that is through the negation of the words themselves, all equally true.

This is a situation that Buddhists aided and abetted themselves, though, with their endless lists and matrices of the Abhidharmic era, in which they not only held up words as concrete realities, simply because they exist, but listed them ad infinitum into categories and sub-categories, as if this mirrored reality simply because someone had the Big Idea that it all makes sense. Modern-day bloggers do the same. And now they must deconstruct much of this as part of an ongoing dialectic in search of the truth, in so much as it can be known, and expressed, which is much to the point of the sutra. Reality is simply beyond words to express.

And the role of Buddhist logic factors in here, also, the four-part tetralemma style (as opposed to dilemma, so do not impale yourself upon these many horns). This is perhaps best known in its application to the Mahayana Middle Path as one that steers between existence and non-existence. Because in Buddhist catuskoti, or tetralemma, theoretically we can either 1) exist, or 2) not exist, or 3) both exist or not exist, or 4) neither exist not not-exist.

If that sounds absurd or silly, remember your school-era multiple choice questions before passing judgment. The Aristotelians claim that tetralemma violates the Law of Excluded Middle, as exemplified in their silly syllogisms, e.g.: If A > B, and B > C, then A > C, which is certainly true, but proves little or nothing. Catuskoti adds another dimension, for which the ‘excluded middle’ is now absurd, and existence itself is called into question, or at least its appearance. I won’t use the word ‘quantum,’ but…

The only certainty is negation (or the past, same same but different), because we can never truly know what is, nor what will be, for all our nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs. All we can truly know are our own perceptions, and this cannot be reduced to language, though the better physicists—and metaphysicians—certainly try. And this is the point that the original ‘Diamond Sutra’ amply makes and to which I would like to add the element of transformation, perceptual transformation. For that diamond which once cut so deeply to the point, and to the heart, is not only a transcendental drill, but is now a quintessential thing of beauty.

And there is a direct cause and effect here, that the utility, the rarity, and that ensuing value, defines the beauty, because while a diamond itself may certainly be beautiful, especially with the modern improved cutting and polishing techniques we now have, still a diamond has little to offer in traditional terms of color, line, composition, or contrast, no more than the simplest quartz crystal. But it is worth much more because it is much harder, and much rarer. Thus it simply IS, sui generis, in the same way that truth, beauty, and goodness, simply ARE, with no explanation necessary.

A diamond is beautiful because it is hard, and rare, and only secondarily because it titillates the senses by manipulating those frequencies that constitute the spectrum of light and consciousness. And so our eyes can backfill the logic for us. We literally see beauty where it did not otherwise exist, until very recently, because its value necessitated it. Uniqueness not only implies beauty but necessitates it. “Beauty is in the pocketbook of the beholder,” and that is our social reality, really.

Skeptical? Teak is another example. Any discussion of exotic—and expensive—woods, will quickly prompt a mention of the teak tree. But is it really that beautiful? No, it’s pretty dull and boring, actually. But it’s not only hard and durable: it’s waterproof. And that’s why it’s valuable. The beauty comes later as a mental retrofit. Many cheaper woods, knotty pine notwithstanding, are more pleasing to the eye, but will they resist rot? I doubt it. So teak is not only extremely beautiful as a result, but majestic and noble. There are other examples, e.g. silver and gold. I believe this. Life is not only beyond words, but it is beautiful, despite the suffering, simply because it is rare and difficult.