Apotheosis episode 39: The muddy diamond. Drawing of a silhouetted person meditating. A line drawing of a diamond is superimposed over the person, with a larger diamond behind and lines radiating outwards from the person.

Episode 39: The muddy diamond

Ryan D Thompson Ancient, Buddhism, Skills, Transformation

Key ideas

A diamond covered in mud doesn’t lose any value. Wash off the layers of mud, and you easily recognize it as a treasure. Likewise, if we purify our mind of delusions, we can see our innate wisdom.

  • One of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is that all beings possess innate wisdom and purity – we all have the seeds of enlightenment. Yeah, this concept is a tough one to wrap our heads around.
  • The Buddha taught that we don’t recognize our inner purity because of the Three Poisons: ignorance, attachment, and aversion.
  • Ignorance leads us to believe external things can bring us happiness or cause our suffering. This delusion leads us to grasp tightly onto things we desire and forcefully push away things we dislike.
  • Like washing mud off of a diamond, we can train the mind to see through these delusions. Doing so can give us a glimpse of our innate wisdom and purity.


Your doorbell rings. When you open the front door, you see an old box on your doorstep. It’s addressed to you, and although you’re not expecting anything, your curiosity wins out. You open the box. Inside the box, you find what looks like a rock or a hardened chunk of mud. Confused, you set down the package and walk away.

You forget about the box and this inexplicable dirty rock and go about your day. You figure someone you know must have sent this to you, maybe as a joke? Surely whoever sent it will get in touch soon to tell you why they sent this strange gift.

The days go by, and no one gets in touch. You almost forgot about the rock. Until one morning, the early morning sun is shining through your window. Suddenly, you glimpse a faint sparkle as you walk past the rock. Picking it up and holding it in the light, you examine it more closely and notice a tiny sliver of a shiny surface under the dirt. Rushing over to the sink, you run it under the water and scrub the rock with a coarse brush. Layers and layers of mud pour down the drain.

And there it is, the largest diamond you’ve ever seen.

You’ve had this item of staggering value right in front of you all this time. But because it was covered in mud, you didn’t recognize its value. 

The muddy diamond is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist teaching story used to illustrate the innate wisdom we all possess – but which is obscured by layers of delusions. By clearing away the “mud” in our minds, we can catch glimpses of our true nature.

This episode is part of a series on personal transformation. I’ll explore some ideas from Buddhism, which at its heart is a path for transforming ourselves, tapping into our innate wisdom.

Let’s start with this basic premise of Buddhism, which many of us might find hard to swallow – that the true nature of all beings is basically good. Buddhism asserts that we all possess Buddha Nature: a primordial clarity that can’t be tarnished, no matter how impure our actions might be. The diamond doesn’t lose its value, despite being covered in mud. Likewise, our true nature remains pure despite our worst behaviors. The problem is that we don’t recognize it, and when we catch a fleeting glimpse, we don’t believe it. When we do believe it, we find it challenging to sustain that recognition.

We all have the seeds of enlightenment within, but we don’t see it because our delusions get in the way. The Buddhist path of transformation is all about recognizing this innate goodness and wisdom.

But yeah, like I said, this is a hard one to wrap our heads around. We see so much violence, corruption, selfishness, and hatred in the world. The idea that all humans – all sentient beings everywhere in the universe, for that matter – are actually good, yeah, not easy to believe.

Because the natural question comes to mind: How could people who do evil things possibly be good in their hearts?

The Buddha taught that the Three Poisons cause us to suffer. These poisons are ignorance, attachment, and aversion. We are ignorant of our basic nature – that we are already good – so we seek happiness in external things. Which then leads to attachment, also described as craving or greed. We latch onto the things we like and desire, and we don’t want those things to ever go away. And ignorance also produces the other poison of aversion, which is the opposite of attachment. We push away the things we don’t like and get angry when people or conditions aren’t the way we want.

These three poisons lead us to suffer. And when we suffer, we don’t always behave all that well. Some people are inclined toward more self-destructive behaviors, their suffering compelling them to inflict even more pain on themselves. And some people are more inclined toward taking out their misery on others. 

I’d imagine that most of us experience one or other of these behaviors at times and in various ways. Sometimes, we do things we know will cause harm, whether drinking too much, eating indulgent foods, or spending more money than we make. Other times, when we’re hurting inside, we lash out at loved ones or the world. We are all capable of unskillful action. 

Sometimes that unskillful action reaches extremes. Anger becomes hatred which leads to violence. Desire turns into greed, which paves the way for exploitation. Layer upon layer of delusion, bad decision after bad decision, we dig a hole. 

However, Buddhists believe even the worst actions don’t tarnish our pure inner nature. Even the worst people you can think of still have the potential to become Buddhas.

Yeah, I understand that’s a tough idea to believe. It’s the kind of thing you have to keep testing out for yourself to see if you can glimpse some truth. 

And one crucial point: asserting that even quote “bad people” are actually good deep down doesn’t mean we condone heinous behavior. And it doesn’t seek to justify that behavior. Rather, this idea of inherent goodness offers a method to transform our relationship with whatever situation we’re in and to reframe our stories. When we consider ourselves and others as having this pure inner nature, we have something to aspire to. We can develop compassion for ourselves and others, knowing how much suffering we create through unskillful actions. We can gain confidence that it’s possible to break free of this compulsive way of being. By recognizing that we are driven by delusions, we can break free of those delusions.

So what is the Buddha’s remedy for the three poisons?

As Tibetan meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche describes, “The essence of [the Buddha’s] teachings can be reduced to a single point: The mind is the source of all experience, and by changing the direction of the mind, we can change the quality of everything we experience. When you transform your mind, everything you experience is transformed.”

The heart of the Buddhist path is transformation: training our minds to see through our delusions. And there are countless practices and contemplations devised by Buddhist practitioners over the millennia that help us to transform our minds. These exercises help us “wash the mud off the diamond” so that we can see our innate wisdom. As Mingyur Rinpoche says, “We purify our mind until we realize that we are already pure.

While there are many approaches, methods, and techniques in the Buddhist tradition, they could generally fit within three categories: calming the mind, cultivating kindness and compassion, and gaining clarity. Buddhist meditations that calm the mind include focusing on sounds, visual objects, the breath, thoughts, emotions, or even simply being aware of awareness itself. By repeatedly training the mind to maintain attention on a particular object – and maintaining awareness of that attention – we can silence some of the noise in our heads. The typical flurry of anxious, needy, fearful, angry, or other unsettling emotions slowly recedes. In its place, we start to notice details in the present moment we habitually miss. We allow life to unfold without resistance and tension. We let go of our grasping so forcefully onto things we desire. In the process, we might even catch momentary glimpses of the diamond, our innate wisdom.

Another set of practices generates feelings of love, kindness, and compassion – not only for other people and creatures but also ourselves. We cultivate a wish for specific people or beings to experience happiness and freedom from suffering. We gain a capacity to feel joy for the well-being of others rather than jealousy or resentment. And we recognize the value of equanimity for ourselves and others, the ability to experience life without attachment or resistance. Cultivating compassion is described as one of the most critical elements of the Buddhist path. Compassion is also a quality that our thinking- and achievement-focused culture can easily undervalue. All the more reason to exercise this part of our minds.

And then, a third set of practices focus on generating insight and clarity. For example, we might contemplate interdependence, looking at the many ways in which we depend on other people, conditions, resources, and so forth. Or we might contemplate impermanence, observing the various moment-to-moment changes that all things undergo. Other practices look at multiplicity, the idea that nothing exists as a single thing – instead, everything consists of multiple parts, which can then be broken down into smaller parts. The interrelationship between these three concepts – interdependence, impermanence, and multiplicity – can shift how we view the world. They can teach us not to grasp too tightly or take things too seriously. But these practices also require a steady mind. As such, it is common to train the mind to remain calm and focused using object-based meditations like watching the breath or sounds for a while before diving into insight meditation practices. 

The Buddhist path offers countless practices like these that help us clean the mud off the diamond. And with each momentary glimpse of that pure, innate wisdom, we move closer to experiencing peace. As Mingyur Rinpoche describes, “To the extent that you can acknowledge the true power of your mind, you can begin to exercise more control over your experience. Pain, sadness, fear, anxiety, and all other forms of suffering no longer disrupt your life as forcefully as they used to.”

The changes might not come immediately. While a glimpse of the diamond might occur at any moment, the benefits of meditation are best measured in years or even decades. We might experience a series of mini-transformations over a period of years, which add up to long-term, large-scale personal transformation. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, “If you want to see the benefits of meditation, look at your life ten years from now, and ask yourself if you have more suffering in your life or less.”

On that note, I hope these insights help you catch a glimpse of the diamond – to help you experience peace and clarity. Join me again next week for another look at personal transformation from the perspective of psychology. Until the next time, be well!

Further reading:

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License