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What does the Buddha mean by arbitrary conception in the Diamond Sutra?

Then the lord Buddha made his meaning even more emphatic by saying: "Subhuti, when people begin their practice of seeking to attaining total Enlightenment, they ought to see, to perceive, to know, to understand, and to realize that all things and all spiritual truths are no-things, and, therefore, they ought not to conceive within their minds any arbitrary conceptions whatsoever."

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All things we see are labeled by us human beings but are not the label, they are just what they are. So when practicing mindfulness(involving seeing, perceiving, knowing and understanding for the purpose of transcending suffering), one experiences things directly as they are with no assumptions, labels, stories or judgements. In other words no "arbitrary conceptions".

If there is verbal thinking happening in one's mind, it is experienced as just a formation and the meaning of the words are conceptual so one doesn't need to process the content, meaning or "story" of the thinking even though we are so used to a kind of instant understanding of the conceptual meaning.

If there is pain or pleasure it is a kind of assumption, judgment or arbitrary conception when we react to it with aversion or clinging. When we are not seeing like this we are in a way just sleeping through life on autopilot in an impulse and arbitrary way.

Even if one could see like this at all times it doesn't mean they must stop understanding all concepts all the time of course.

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Strictly speaking, this quotation is not from the Diamond Sutra and is somewhat misleading when taken literally. Nonetheless, an explanation is appropriate.

The Diamond Sutra is about sunyata, the central teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. This teaching is about the twofold nature of consciousness itself. On the one hand, the Buddha spoke at great length about sankhara, those unconscious mental processes by which means we make sense of things and conceive of actions that make sense to us. It is by means of sankhara that it is possible for us to behave intelligently and compassionately. It is by correcting false or misleading sankhara that we make progress on the path to Enlightenment (Nirvana). It is by means of wholesome and true sankhara that we understand and care for our children. Such wisdom and compassion is in the realm of relative truth in the Mahayana teachings. The profound insights of the Theravadin Abhidhamma, including Nirvana itself, are all within the realm of relative truth. The Mahayana teachings do not negate the great value of the Buddhadharma. Instead, the Mahayana teachings make an additional and important distinction between sensation and perception. Sensation is present and very real without sankhara. Sankhara has the psychological function of making sense of sensation. Yet sankhara is arbitrary in the sense that it can cause true or false belief. We can perceive or misperceive a sensation. In contrast, the sensation is neither true nor false, it simply “is.”

On the other hand, there is the experience of sunyata. The experience of sunyata is a meditative state in which all sankhara are suppressed. Neither true nor false relative belief arise. As a result, the meditator gets to experience the universe as it really is without arbitrary conception (the products of sankhara). Then and only then, according to the Mahayana teachings, does a person get to experience absolute truth or sunyata. Only in this state does the meditator get to experience his true relationship with the universe. While in this state of awareness, all things are sunyata (empty). There is nothing to understand. There is nothing to be done. Yet everything is real.

In order to understand the Mahayana teachings, it is essential to not get confused as to what relative truth and absolute truth mean, especially when a person has not experienced sunyata. Let us return to the quotation provided. First of all, practice is based on relative truth. One does not “practice” sunyata. The term “no-things” is a somewhat misleading translation of the Sanskrit term “sunyata.” Strictly speaking, in order “to see, to perceive, to know, to understand, and to realize” anything, one must engage some form of sankhara. Finally, strictly speaking, it is misleading to say, “they ought not to conceive within their minds any arbitrary conceptions whatsoever,” because there is neither “ought” nor “ought not” in sunyata. In order to do something that we “ought” or “ought not” do, we must make a choice. And, in order to make a choice, we must engage some form of sankhara. Most important of all, while it is true that while in the state of sunyata, “all spiritual truths are no-things [sunyata],” all spiritual truths are true while not the meditative state of sunyata. Never, never, never use the great Mahayana teachings to claim that any relative truth is false. My suggestion is to get on with your practice and stop trying to speculate about what sunyata might mean.

  • And Mahayanas "sunyata"? Is it a "no-thing", eg anicca? – Samana Johann Dec 9 '17 at 16:24
  • Actually, the concept of sunyata is more related to anatta (no self) than to anicca (impermanence). From a Mahayana point of view, anatta can be understood only through an experience of sunyata, whereas from a Theravadin point of view, anatta can be understood as a relative truth. – Ronald Cowen Dec 11 '17 at 0:32
  • Good point, Nyom @Ronald Cowen . My person does not see distinction between wise Mahayana and wise Theravada. There is just right and wrong Dhamma. Just if not understanding and work on defiled level disputes may arise. Traditionally introduction into sunnata (anatta, anicca) would be after a good time of training and having solide virtue as a monk. As a bodhusatta rule gives as well, to teach that to somebody not mature is a fault as one gets totally confused. – Samana Johann Dec 11 '17 at 3:06
  • The reality is that every student is different and the Buddhist teachings are diverse. What is clarifying to one student can be confusing to another. I have practiced and studied Buddhism for 50 years. I have done my homework in a manner of speaking. On the Buddhism Stack Exchange, I try my best to meet the needs of the person asking the question. My answer may not be the best for everyone. I must choose between saying what I have discovered to be true and helping some people and not saying anything at all. This is a choice that every knowledgeable teacher of Dharma must make. – Ronald Cowen Dec 12 '17 at 4:52

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