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Five Things to Know About the Diamond Sutra, the World’s Oldest Dated Printed Book

Printed over 1,100 years ago, a Chinese copy of the Diamond Sutra at the British Library is one of the most intriguing documents in the world

(British Library)
smithsonian.com

No one is sure who Wang Jie was or why he had The Diamond Sutra printed. But we do know that on this day in 868 A.D.—or the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong in Jie’s time—he commissioned a block printer to create a 17-and-a-half-foot-long scroll of the sacred Buddhist text, including an inscription on the lower right hand side reading, “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents.” Today, that scroll is housed at the British Library and is acknowledged as the oldest dated printed book in existence.

Chances are you know a little something about the Gutenberg Bible, the first book made with moveable type, which came along almost 600 years later. Bibliophiles might also have a working knowledge of other famous manuscripts like the Book of Kells, The Domesday Book, and Shakespeare’s First Folio. Well, The Diamond Sutra should be in that pantheon of revered books, as well. Here’s why:

Origins

The text was originally discovered in 1900 by a monk in Dunhuang, China, an old outpost of the Silk Road on the edge of the Gobi Desert. The Diamond Sutra, a Sanskrit text translated into Chinese, was one of 40,000 scrolls and documents hidden in “The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas,” a secret library sealed up around the year 1,000 when the area was threatened by a neighboring kingdom.

In 1907, British-Hungarian archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein was on an expedition mapping the ancient Silk Road when he heard about the secret library. He bribed the abbot of the monastic group in charge of the cave and smuggled away thousands of documents, including The Diamond Sutra. The International Dunhuang Project is now digitizing those documents and 100,000 others found on the eastern Silk Road.

Content

The Diamond Sutra is relatively short, only 6,000 words and is part of a larger canon of “sutras” or sacred texts in Mahayana Buddhism, the branch of Buddhism most common in China, Japan, Korea and southeast Asia. Many practitioners believe that the Mahayana Sutras were dictated directly by the Buddha, and The Diamond Sutra takes the form of a conversation between the Buddha’s pupil Subhati and his master.

Why is it Diamond?

A full translation of the document's title is The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. As Susan Whitfield, director of the Dunhuang Project explains, the sutra helps cut through our perceptions of the world and its illusion. "[W]e just think we exist as individuals but we don’t, in fact, we’re in a state of complete non-duality: there are no individuals, no sentient beings,” Whitfield writes. 

Why did Wang Jie commission it?

According to Whitfield, in Buddhist belief, copying images or the words of the Buddha was a good deed and way of gaining merit in Jie’s culture. It’s likely that monks would have unrolled the scroll and chanted the sutra out loud on a regular basis. That’s one reason printing developed early on in China, Whitfield explains. “[If] you can print multiple copies, and the more copies you’re sending out, the more you’re disseminating the word of Buddha, and so the more merit you are sending out into the world,” she writes. “And so the Buddhists were very quick to recognize the use of the new technology of printing.”

What is one quote I should know from The Diamond Sutra?

It’s difficult to translate the sutra word for word and still catch its meaning. But this passage about life, which Bill Porter, who goes by the alias "Red Pine," adapted to English, is one of the most popular:

So you should view this fleeting world—
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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