Book Review: The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion (Thich Nhat Hanh)

The Di41cWrOXWMxL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_amond that Cuts through Illusion is Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation and commentary on the Diamond-Cutting Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, which was first published by Parallax Press in 1992. The English translation from Kumarajiva’s Chinese was led by Hahn with the help of Annabel Laity and Anh Huong Nguyen. Hahn’s commentary on the Sutra was translated to English by Nguyen from Vietnamese.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s style of presenting the philosophical underpinnings of Mahayana Buddhist thought in a way that’s accessible to our modern lives is on full display in his commentary. As a fellow translator, I can naturally find quibbles about word choices in a few places of his translation (like the rendering of Subhuti’s title as “Insight-Life”), but there’s nothing that is truly misleading in the text. Hahn’s translation is done with lay English-speaking beginner in mind, and this informs the choices that are made when translating a text like the Diamond Sutra, which can be cryptic when rendered more literally. Where the translation includes Sanskrit terms, they are taken up in the commentary, which makes footnotes unnecessary.

The commentary is written as a meditation on practice as a Buddhist on the bodhisattva path, not as a study of the Sutra itself, such as its history or place in the larger Buddhist canon. If you’re looking for a scholastic presentation, this is not the commentary to read. That said, Hahn employs the same plain-spoken voice to explain the Diamond Sutra’s concepts and relates them to everyday life. For example, his explanation of the four notions begins like this:

A person has to get rid of the four notions of self, a person, a living being, and a life span in order to have the wisdom of non-discrimination. “Self” refers to a permanent, changeless identity, but since, according to Buddhism, nothing is permanent and what we normally call a self is made entirely of non-self elements, there is really no such entity as a self. Our concept of self arises when we have concepts about things that are not self. Using the sword of conceptualization to cut reality into pieces, we call one part “I” and the rest “not I.”

This type of meditation continues through to his analysis of life span, which reads:

We usually think of “life span” as the length of our life, beginning the moment we are born and ending when we die. We believe that we are alive during that period, not before or after. And while we are alive, we think that everything in us is life, not death … According to prajnaparamita, life and death are one. We are born and die during every second of our life. During one so-called “life span,” there are millions of births and millions of deaths. Cells in our body cease to be every day–brain cells, skin cells, blood cells, and many, many others. Our planet is also a body, and we are each a cell in that body. Must we cry and organize a funeral every time one cell of our body or one cell of the Earth’s body dies? Death is necessary for life to be.

Hahn’s commentary continues in this voice: Practical and modern, but not shying away from the traditional ways of presenting Buddhist concepts like emptiness or detachment. As the commentary continues, it becomes even less intellectual. He uses examples from home life and meditation centers to discuss the concept of formless generosity. His direct way of explaining how to regulate emotion and cultivate virtue is likewise well attuned to a modern reader.

Beginners looking for a guided meditation that places the Diamond Sutra in a modern context will find this book a valuable addition to their library. Hahn’s modern Zen teaching is an excellent way to internalize the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings with a minimum of academic vocabulary.

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