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Hidden for centuries in a sealed-up cave in north-west China, this copy of the ‘Diamond Sutra’ is the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book. It was made in AD 868. Seven strips of yellow-stained paper were printed from carved wooden blocks and pasted together to form a scroll over 5m long. Though written in Chinese, the text is one of the most important sacred works of the Buddhist faith, which was founded in India.
What’s a sutra?
The word comes from Sanskrit, the ancient and sacred language of India. It means a religious teaching or sermon, and is most often used to describe the teachings of the Buddha. Sutras preached by the Buddha were committed to memory by his disciples and passed down from generation to generation. The illustration at the beginning of this ‘Diamond Sutra’ shows the Buddha expounding the sutra to an elderly disciple called Subhuti.
Who was the Buddha?
The founder of Buddhism began his life in wealth and privilege. Siddhartha Guatama was born the son of an Indian prince in 566 BC. At his birth, a prophet declared he would become either a powerful king or a great spiritual leader. Mindful of this prophecy, his father kept him at court, shielding him from the harsh reality of the world by surrounding him with luxury: silken clothes, precious jewels and beautiful women.
Then one day, when he was 29, Siddhartha was overcome by curiosity. He dressed in disguise and slipped away from the court. Beyond its walls he witnessed four sights that filled him with infinite sorrow: a decrepit old man, a diseased man, a dead man and a monk. Seeing such misery, he renounced his birthright and committed himself to a life of self-denial in order to find a way to end to human suffering. Eventually he moderated his lifestyle of total deprivation and found the ‘Middle Way’.
Sitting beneath a ‘bodhi’ tree, according to tradition, he achieved a profound understanding of the cycle of birth and rebirth by intense meditation. Through this enlightenment, Siddhartha became the Buddha, or ‘Awakened One’. The Buddha preached for almost 50 years, providing his disciples with many sutras. The recitation of sutras is an important part of Buddhist religious observance.
How did Buddhism get to China?
It’s assumed that Buddhism spread along the network of trade routes between northern India and China, usually known as the Silk Road. China’s earliest Buddhists were probably foreigners from Central Asia, but rules for translating sacred texts from Sanskrit to Chinese were already in place by the first century AD.
Most Chinese Buddhists followed the Mahayana tradition, which diverged from earlier Theravada Buddhism. Theravadan emphasis on monastic life and many hours of meditation made it a difficult path for the craftspeople and merchants of the Silk Road. Mahayan Buddhism interpreted the teachings of the Buddha in a wider way that could carry more people along the road to enlightenment, hence the name Mahayana, literally meaning ‘the greater ox-cart’.
How did the Diamond Sutra get its name?
The sutra answers that question for itself. Towards the end of the sermon, Subhuti asks the Buddha how the sutra should be known. He is told to call it ‘The Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom’ because its teaching will cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting.
The original Sanskrit title is ‘Vajracchedika-prajnaparamita-sutra’. Around 400 AD, the sutra was translated into Chinese, by an Indian scholar-monk called Kumarajiva, who named it ‘Jin gang ban ruo luo mi jing’.
Jewel imagery features strongly in Buddhism. At the centre of the faith are the three jewels, or triple-jewel: the Buddha, his teaching (the ‘Dharma’), and the spiritual community (the ’Sangha’). A popular Buddhist parable tells the story of a poor man who travels through life unaware of the precious jewel that has been sewn into the hem of his coat by a well-meaning friend.
What’s it about?
The teachings of Buddhism are subtle and open to more than one interpretation. The ‘Diamond Sutra’ urges devotees to cut through the illusions of reality that surround them. Names and concepts given to both concrete and abstract things are merely mental constructs that mask the true, timeless reality lying behind them.
The relatively short ‘Diamond Sutra’ was popular because it could be memorised more easily than longer sutras and chanted in some 40 minutes. This was important because Buddhism teaches that recitation of sutras ‘gains merit’, that is, helps towards achieving a higher incarnation.
In the ‘Diamond Sutra’, the Buddha says: “if a good son or good daughter dedicates lifetimes as many as the sands in the River Ganges to charitable acts, and there were another person who memorized as much as one four-line verse of this scripture and taught it to others, the merit of the latter would be by far greater."
How do we know how old this copy is?
It’s dated in a colophon – a note printed at the end of the scroll. The note reads “Reverently made for universal distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents” followed by the Chinese calendar date for 11 May 868. Wang Jie did not make the book himself, but enabled its making – a pious act by which he would have gained much merit.
Although not the earliest example of a printed book, it is the oldest we have bearing a date. By the time it was made, block-printing had been practised in the Far East for more than a century. The quality of the illustration at the opening of this ‘Diamond Sutra’ shows the carver of the printing blocks to have been a man of considerable experience and skill.
How was it made?
It was made in seven sections, each printed from a single block. First, the text was painted on thin paper, which was pasted face-down on to a wooden block. Then the block carver followed the reversed shapes of the characters. From the carved block, as many 1,000 sheets a day could be printed.
How did this Diamond Sutra come to the British Library?
The printed scroll was one of 40,000 other books and manuscripts hidden in a cave near the city of Dunhuang. The secret library was sealed up around 1,000 AD, a time when this desert outpost of China was threatened by the ambitions of the Hsi-Hsia kingdom to the north.
The cave is part of a holy site known as the ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’ – a cliff wall honeycombed with 492 grottoes cut from the rock from the 4th century onwards and decorated with religious carvings and paintings. A monk discovered the sealed entrance to the hidden cave in 1900. Inside, the scrolls of paper and silk had been perfectly preserved by the dry desert air.
In 1907, Sir Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-born archaeologist who worked for the British government, acquired the library during his second expedition to Chinese Central Asia. Very little money was paid for the treasure trove of manuscripts. It was brought back to the British Museum Library, which later became the British Library.
Selected links to other relevant websites
If you would like to study the legacy of the Silk Road cultures in greater depth, visit the International Dunhuang Project (IDP). IDP is a ground-breaking collaboration to make more than 100,000 manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from Silk Road sites available on the Internet with top-quality images.