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Stabilization, Insight, and the Four Images of the Diamond Sutra

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By Adam J. Pearson

[Cover Image by Doug Adams, Gungarama temple, 1998]

“Subhuti, if bodhisattvas have images of self, images of person, images of a being, images of a liver of life, they are not bodhisattvas.”

~ From the Diamond Sutra, the oldest printed book in the world (printed via a 9th century block print)

The Sixth Grandmaster of Zen Hui-Neng’s Platform Sutra invites us, in both Chapter 4 of the main text (entitled “Stabilization and Insight”) and in his Commentary on the Diamond Sutra, to inquire into the nature of what he calls the “Four Images.”

The Four Images are four fundamental bases of identification, which the mind can use to generate a dualistic sense of separate identity, although Hui-Neng uses the term “attachment” instead of identification.

The Four Images are:

(1) the image of a self – being an isolated, separate, independent entity, cutoff from the universe and marked by an emphasis on “me” and “my.”

Self-images or are concepts and/or images we hold of ourselves as separate human beings. In his Commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Hui-Neng writes that attaching to self-images generates both arrogance and a tendency to compare ourselves with others and then conclude they are inferior or superior as a result. In this way, clinging to self-images tends to create a feeling of separateness and being cut off from others. Hui-Neng notes that:

“when confused people slight others on account of having wealth, education, and social status, that is called self-image.”

(2) the image of a person – the idea of being a certain kind of “someone,” defined by specific personality traits and personal qualities that define, say, “Adam as a person.”

Images of person refer to our ideas about the “kind of person” we are. The mind interprets our experiences and concludes based on them what kind of a person we are.  If these images are positive, we experience high self-esteem; if they are negative, we experience low self-esteem. The images of person we identify with shape our attitudes; if we identify with an image of being much smarter than those around us, for example, we may develop an attitude of arrogance; if we identify with an image of being unworthy and deficient, we may develop an attitude of submissiveness to others’ wills and ideas.

When we cling to images of person, we may continue to act out the patterns they describe and use them to define ourselves as “certain kinds of people.” The more rigidly we hang on to images of being a certain kind of person, the less open we are to change and growth.

In truth, the body-mind is constantly changing, but when we hold rigidly to images of person, we become confused and see our traits as rigidly entrenched. Initially, we had no traits of any kind; the qualities in the mind change over the years. We may come to believe that only certain kinds of people are worthy of respect and others are not. Hui-Neng refers to the hypocrisy and inconsistency of this belief in his Commentary on the Diamond Sutra, when he writes that:

“Even if [confused people] practice benevolence, duty, courtesy, intelligence, and faith, if they are conceited about it and do not practice universal respect, saying, in effect, “I know how to practice benevolence, duty, courtesy, intelligence, and faith, so I don’t need to respect you,” this is called an image of a person.”

According to Hui-Neng, Buddhas hold no image of themselves as being a certain kind of person and yet their actions naturally express spontaneous wisdom and compassionate direct action towards others. They do not to see themselves as virtuous to act virtuously, Hui-Neng suggests. In fact, it is their lack of self-images and images of person that enables them to flow directly from their essential nature, which is shared by all beings, called “the Ground” (shiy) in Dzogchen and “buddha-nature” in Zen. Its nature is openness, clarity, and compassionate responsiveness. Action that flows out of it unobstructed by identifications as this or that kind of person expresses this nature. As Hui-Neng says,

“we employ the master craftsman of wisdom to drill through the mountain of the personal self and discover the ore of afflictions, smelt it in the fire of awakening, and see our own adamantine buddha-nature, perfectly luminous and clear.”

(3) the image of a being – the idea of being a separate being, a being among many other separate beings, basically, a body or a body-mind.

When we cling to the image of “my” body as separate from “you” and “your” body, Hui-Neng suggests, we lose our natural equanimity and risk becoming biased, self-centered, and partial. It’s like when a little boy is asked to cut a piece of cake for himself and one for his brother. If he’s attached to an image of himself as a being separate from his brother, to whom will he give the bigger piece and to whom the smaller? In all likelihood, his little brother would be the poor recipient of a smaller piece and he’d favour himself with a larger piece with more chocolatey goodness.

It’s a natural inclination that’s hard to resist while we are identified as a separate being; I’ve been guilty of the same mistake expressed by this little boy on more than one occasion (sorry Hui-Neng!). This is  why there’s no escaping, bypassing, or transcending of the cultivation of discernment and diligence; it was ongoing even for Hui-neng after his own awakening. Our essential nature is beyond all effort and practices, but the selfing mental process is very swift; it can carry us off in a story and favour “me” over “you” in a moment if our vigilance slips and we lose touch with discernment. As Hui-Neng says:

“Claiming good things for oneself and passing bad things off onto others is called an image of a being.”

Seeing we can’t be defined by any self-image of any kind makes releasing our identifications with images of being easier. Freedom and our true nature are prior to all of the images, not something ‘attained’ after them; this is why Hui-Neng also calls it our “original nature.” Its constancy is prior to all identifications, which is why Hui-Neng calls it “essential nature;” unbound by forms and movements of the mind, it’s unborn and undying. And yet, out of innocent confusion, the mind tends to totally miss it and cling to the image of being a body, a living being condemned to die. What a trade-off!

Buddhism attempts to reveal the nature of no birth, no death; no coming, no going; and no appearing, no disappearing, not as a belief, but as a living realization here and now. A flash of momentary insight is not sufficient; authentic insight arises with stabilization. Even if we have seen that we cannot be defined by any self-image, old conditioning can still play itself out in karma (action) and samskaras (learned tendencies); we can still hold on to the bigger piece of cake if we aren’t conscious and diligent in our observation of the mind. Insight and stabilization go hand in hand. From the first in our essential nature, there is nothing to do and we must do the work of discernment diligently; these are the two sides of the coin of insight and stabilization.

Temple of Borobudur by Desmond Ong

(4) the image of of a liver of a life – the idea of being defined by “my” life, the lifespan from birth to death of a particular organism. More specifically, it’s the image of being a ‘someone’ who owns this life, who claims it as “mine.” More specifically, in the Diamond Sutra,

Life flows naturally; thought says “hey, this is not simply life in motion; this is my life! I am the liver!” (not the organ, but the sense of being the separate ‘me’ who claims this stream in the river of life as ‘mine’). When we believe this thought, we tend to get swept away by the story of “me” and life becomes disjointed. It is no coincidence that the original meaning of the Pali word “dukkha,” which is often translated in English as “suffering,” was ‘disjointed’; it was used to refer to a wheel that had slipped off its axle.Did you ever try to focus on moving your feet and arms fluidly while walking? What happens? You lose your smoothness; self-consciousness makes fluid motion clunky by introducing a worry about a ‘self’ that isn’t there. Without thinking about walking smoothly, it happens naturally on its own.

When we identify as the liver of a life, we tend to lose ourselves in regrets about yesterday, worries about tomorrow, and dissatisfaction with now as we take ourselves to be the “liver of a life.” Life simply flows; “my life” takes on a seriousness, a heaviness, and can feel like a problem to be solved by “me.”

Is it? Is it life that is heavy? Or is it the “my” that introduces the heaviness? The image of being the liver of a life is the point of bondage according to Paul Hedderman, the Buddha, and Hui-Neng. Thoughts are just thoughts; when they’re seen as “my” thoughts, they become a problem. Actions are just actions; when they’re seen as “my” actions, they become weighty. Feelings are just feelings; when they’re “my” feelings, something seems to need to be done about them. Life without the “my” has a spontaneity, freshness, and responsiveness to it; life claimed as “mine” by an image of being the “liver” of it feels heavy, anxious about the future, deadened by the past, and clunky in expression.

Photography by Christopher Marten

Discerning the Three Marks of Existence in the Four Images 

Thus, the Four Images are: a self (“me”), a personality (“my” traits), a being (“my” body-mind), and a life (“my” life). Hui-Neng recommends cultivating disidentification or the relaxation of clinging (“detachment”) with each. How? In the Pali Canon, Shakyamuni Buddha invites us to consider how each is marked by the Three Marks of Existence:

(1) impermanence (anicca) – limited duration in time, being subject to change.

(2) emptiness of separate existence or self-nature (anatman) – it does not stand alone, but exists only in relationships to other things, causes, and conditions, on which it depends

(3) ultimate unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) – it fails to provide lasting satisfaction and relief, and is prone to giving rise to suffering when identified with via clinging, craving, aversion, and ignorance/forgetting its impermanent, contingent, unsatisfactory nature.

“Zen Garden” by Dirk Ercken

Our essential nature, Hui-Neng says, what we fundamentally are, is not defined by the Four Images of a self, personality, a being, and a liver of a life. By discerning the nature of each, we come to see they are do not essentially define us. As we come to see they are not what we fundamentally are, our clinging–and its most extreme form, identification – taking ourselves to be what we cling to–begins to relax. Discernment deepens. And in the absence of confusion about their nature, the Four Images are seen clearly as they are: empty of self-nature, impermanent, and unsatisfactory.

Without the images, the mind is clear and life flows; with the images and the glueing of the sense of “me” and “my” and “mine” to them, the mind is troubled and life gets disjointed. Discernment cuts through the illusion of “my” and “my life” is liberated into “life;” “my thoughts” are liberated into thoughts; “my feelings” are liberated into feelings; “my experiences” are liberated into experiences. The sense of “me” is the sticking point; without it, life flows more and more obstructed.

Insight and Stabilization 

What Hui-Neng describes here is not a one-shot deal; we can’t see it once and then hang up our hats to go play Nintendo. It’s a moment-to-moment discerning; that’s the key. Insight is sudden; stabilization is gradual. Discernment deepens stabilization; stabilization deepens insight; insight nourishes stabilization.

When the Four Images are seen clearly and clinging is relaxed more and more, stabilization and insight gradually express themselves. The seemingly two are really not two; they are interrelated, interdependent, and mutually-included in one another. As Hui-Neng says,

“stabilization is the substance of insight; insight is the function of stabilization. When it is itself insight, stabilization is in insight. When it is itself stabilization, insight is in stabilization.”

He adds a correction to our usual view of insight and stabilization:

“Students of the Way, do not say that there is a difference between stabilization coming first and then producing insight, and insight coming first and then producing stabilization. Those who entertain this view are dualistic in their doctrine.”

Stabilization is like a lamp; insight is like a light.

“The names may be two, but in essence, they are basically one and the same.”

In other words, discernment deepens insight and insight deepens discernment. The two expressions inter-are. Understanding the impermanent, contingent, changing, empty-of-self-nature of the Four Images, we cultivate discernment. As discernment deepens, our insight into the nature of the Four Images deepens as well.

As insight and discernment deepen, our essential nature reveals itself with fewer mental obstructions. It is always shining, but without discernment and insight, the mind fixates on clouds (the Four Images) and misses the sun (our essential nature); when the clouds are recognized as they are, the light is noticed more easily as what illumines even the clouds.

Insight arises from the light of the sun; as Hui-Neng says,

“going and coming freely, the substance of mind without blockage–this is prajna. Good friends, all prajna insight comes from our essential nature; it does not enter from outside.”


Hui-Neng. (1998). The Platform Sutra (“The Sutra of Hui-Neng: Grand Master of Zen”).
Trans. Thomas Cleary. Shambhala: Boston, MA.

Hui-Neng.(1998) Commentary on the Diamond Sutra. In “The Sutra of Hui-Neng: Grand
Master of Zen.” Trans. Thomas Cleary. Shambhala: Boston, MA.

Part of a series on Buddhism:

Dzogchen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Discerning the Ground (shiy) from the Factors of the Mind (Citta)

The Power of Myth and the Three Daughters of the Lord of Pleasure

The Integral ‘Now’: Towards an Integration Of Einstein’s Relative Simultaneity and Eckhart Tolle’s Eternal Present

Emptiness in Emptiness

The Vibrancy of Life and the Deadness of the “Story of Me”

Read More from Adam Pearson at


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