"Suppose someone understood only four lines of our Discourse but nevertheless took it upon himself to explain these lines to someone else; then, Subhuti, his merit would be greater than the alms-giver's. Why? Because this Discourse can produce Buddhas! This Discourse reveals the Perfection of Enlightenment Which Transcends Comparisons! "
From a Buddhist perspective, Stephen's non-realization of emptiness was the primary limitation in the teachings as practiced on the old Farm. The following is an excerpt from a talk given the day after Christmas in 1976 which epitomizes some common hindrances to studying and understanding the Dharma. Traditionally these difficulties have been described by various metaphors, such as 'the three faults of a receptacle' using the image of a pot that is upside down, cracked or coated with poison, to symbolize the mind that is easily distracted, non-retentive or afflicted with the passions. The understanding outlined in the quote below is an example of the fifth of 'the five non-retentions, 'retaining the wrong meaning'.
When I'm reading the Diamond Sutra sometimes, I look at it and I know a lot of people who would get uptight at this line right here: No Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes any idea of a separated individuality whatsoever. Now that's a strong doctrine. But some people are going to look at that and say, 'Oh, they're going to get all our heads; you're after our gourds, that's what you're after' But we have granted to us, by the three-dimensionality of the plane that we live in, a certain amount of separated individuality. We have separate bodies and separate fingerprints: we have a certain amount of individuality. But not only does a Bodhisattva not cherish individuality; it also says that no Bodhisattva that is a real Bodhisattva has any concept or idea of individuality whatsoever--because on the conceptual or idea level, we are not in fact individual. We are individuals with separate fingerprints and separate genes, but on the high planes, the spiritual planes and the mental planes, we are not in fact separate. And no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes any idea or concept of a separated individuality whatsoever, because the very act of cherishing such a concept tends to estrange you from your fellow man, and tends to estrange you from God. So you don't mess around with concepts of individuality; you be who you individually and uniquely are. You can't be anybody else, anyway. It's the only game in town.
To state that 'on the conceptual or idea level we are not in fact individual' is to imply that in truth or reality, we actually are inherently separate, individually circumscribed beings. This view is referred to as maya, illusion or relative truth. Contrary to what is stated above, it is only on the conceptual or idea level that we are in any sense individualized. The absolute truth expounded by the Diamond Sutra highlights the interdependence, non-separation and 'emptiness of all things'. The body is one such conceptually designated thing, as are one's fingerprints and genetic signature. The 'three-dimensionality of the plane we live in' is a slightly more complex conceptual thing, as is the mind and ego-self. By these and many other references and representations, we create phantasmagorical worlds of subjective and objective phenomena.
The sutra states that the bodhisattva does not cherish, in the sense of cling, attach to, hold dear, or foster such concepts . Through intense and effective practice, she is well aware of their relative nature and value and not being caught by fixations, knows how to use them for conventional and transmundane purposes . In a basic sense, an important difference between the true bodhisattva and an ordinary person is that one is aware of thinking as thinking . As a result of this in-seeing, she does not assume a position of inherent difference or real separation from any apparent other. This is a shift from representational thinking to existential awareness.
After a 'book-worthy' attempt to rid us of our theoretical existence, Stephen advocates a supposedly non-conceptual state of being 'who you individually and uniquely are.' Whatever he meant by that, I'm sure it was interpreted in quite a number of ways. So who actually is it that you individually and uniquely are? What is the true identity of the real bodhisattva? This question in the form, 'Who am I?" was at the heart of the teaching method of Ramana Maharshi.
We can refer to what the Buddha himself has to say about all of this in the very stanza from the Diamond Sutra which Stephen is referring to in the above quote:
Therefore, every disciple who is seeking Anuttara-samyak sambodhi should discard, not only conceptions of one's own selfhood, other selves, living beings and a Universal Selfhood, but should discard, also, all ideas about such conceptions and all ideas about the non-existence of such conceptions.
The Diamond Sutra offers a profound view and analysis of ego-clinging to conceptions and notions of individuality, separateness, differentiation, life, goodness, otherness, and diversity as well as unity, God, emptiness, objectivity and subjectivity. This is the way of the Vajra.
Stephen's advice to 'be who you are' in this context puts the emphasis back into the realm of behavior, invoking the existence of individualized, living beings who can opt to do or not do such a thing. The zinger is in the typical 'zen-22': 'You can't be anybody else, anyway.'
Stephen has translated the first part adequately-
...not only does a Bodhisattva not cherish individuality;
but his reading or definition of the second point is grossly inaccurate:
...no Bodhisattva that is a real Bodhisattva has any concept or idea of individuality whatsoever...
In the verses to which Stephen is referring, the Buddha very explicitly states that the disciple should discard attachment to, (in the sense of yield or transcend through insight , rather than coarsely reject) all ideas about -
1) individuality as well as
2) all ideas about the non-existence of individuality,
- which is a very different and ultimately, illuminating idea, aligned with Buddha's refutation of both nihilism and inherent existence by teaching 'a middle way' .
This is a classic Buddhist statement aimed at wiping out even the concept of emptiness or non-existence which has been compared to a special thorn employed in order to remove a painful thorn lodged in one's skin. The Diamond Sutra is profound and cannot be easily understood by casual reasoning. The bodhisattva, like everyone else, he has a self- concept, but on the basis of responding the teaching, his vision and habit energy is refined to the point where it become transparent and non-obstructive . Considering his specious interpretation of this important teaching, no wonder Stephen claims to know many people who would think that somehow this was a ploy designed to 'get your head' as he is plainly instructing people to abandon all concepts or ideas of individuality whatsoever which was never the intention of the Buddha, who taught that the true nature of form is emptiness and that emptiness is no other than form.
The 8th c. Indian Buddhist master Shantideva wrote in the Bodhisattvacharyavatara:
By assimilating the emptiness of reality, one eliminates one's psychic imprints of substantiality. This view of emptiness that one has assimilated will also be nullified.
After the thorn has helped extract the embedded thorn, both are discarded. Without this 'void of voidness,' we are left with the psuedo-emptiness of hip sophistry, a still-born philosophical hybrid of political and spiritual entities and ideals, a liturgy of self-references, and a personal dogma.
Shantideva clarifies this point:
A magician creates the illusion of a woman and then feels desire for her. Because the magician himself has not abandoned his inbred clinging to sensory objects, his inclination toward emptiness is feeble, even though he sees her as unreal.
The Farm was that woman. The world to-be-saved is that woman. The illusion of inherent existence is that woman. The mind and ego implied in experience is that woman.
The relative utility of conceptions and the overall need to develop our intellectual agility prior to transcendence is made quite clear as the Buddha summarizes:
While the Tathagata, in his teaching, constantly makes use of conceptions and ideas about them, disciples should keep in mind the unreality of all such conceptions and ideas. They should recall that the Tathagata, in making use of them in explaining the Dharma always uses them in the resemblance of a raft that is of use only to cross a river. As the raft is of no further use after the river is crossed, it should be discarded. So these arbitrary conceptions of things and about things should be wholly given up as one attains enlightenment.
 Diamond Sutra, v. 5: Whoever perceives that all qualities are not, in fact, determined qualities perceives the Tathagata.
 Diamond Sutra, v. 6: ...in these Bodhisattvas there will be no obstructions, no perception of an individual self, no perception of a separate being, no perception of a soul, and no perception of a person. And these Bodhisattvas will also neither perceive of things as containing intrinsic qualities nor as being devoid of intrinsic qualities. Neither will they discriminate between good and evil. The discrimination of virtuous or non-virtuous conduct must be used as one uses a raft. Once it delivers the stream-crosser to the other side it is abandoned.
 Diamond Sutra, v.9: I know that in truth there is no Subhuti and therefore Subhuti abides nowhere, that he neither knows nor is ignorant of bliss, and that he neither is free nor enslaved by passions.
 Diamond Sutra, v.10: Know then, Subhuti, that all Bodhisattva lesser and greater, should experience the pure mind which follows the extinction of ego. Such a mind does not discriminate and make Judgment upon sound, flavor, touch, odor, or any quality. A Bodhisattva should develop a mind which forms no attachment or aversion to anything.
 Diamond Sutra, v.32: "And so he should regard the ego's temporal world -
'As a falling star, or Venus chastened by the Dawn,
A bubble in a stream, a dream,
A candle-flame that sputters and is gone.'"