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Diamond Sutra: transcript of audio

Susan Whitfield, director of the Dunhuang Project at the British Library, talks about the Diamond Sutra in Dec 2007

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More about the Diamond Sutra

Detail of frontispiece of Diamond Sutra, with Susan Whitfield

What is the Diamond Sutra?

The Diamond Sutra is a fantastic artefact. It's a Chinese Buddhist document dating from 868AD; it was when China was the centre of the world.

'Sutra' is an ancient Indian word meaning a sort of classical text, and it was later taken up by the Buddhists when Buddhism came into India after the birth of the Sakyamuni, the Historical Buddha. And it got used in Buddhism to mean the words, the sermons, the lectures of the Historical Buddha himself. So all sutra are supposedly sermons, lectures of the Buddha, so they always start off with a little description of where the Historical Buddha is lecturing, and the sort of crowd that's listening to him. They start with the Buddha's speech.

Quite often sutra are a dialogue between the Buddha and one of his disciples, and the Diamond Sutra itself is a dialogue between the Buddha and his elderly disciple Subhuti. Now this is a way of getting the message of Buddhism across, because Subhuti acts as a sort of foil to the Buddha, so he will ask what are reasonably stupid questions, so to speak, and the Buddha will then explain the meaning of Buddhism.

How to be at one with everything

The Diamond Sutra is about the essential meaning of Buddhism, that of non-duality: the fact that there are no individual existences in this world. That all is an illusion: we 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. So Subhuti asks these questions of the Buddha and the Buddha explains and so the Sutra explains this essential teaching of Buddhism.

Now, the Diamond Sutra is just one of many thousands of sutra. The Buddhist canon is an enormous multi-volume work. First are all the lectures of the Buddha, the sutra, and then there were philosophical treatises, discussions of the lectures, and then there was a third part of the canon which was about how Buddhist monks should live their lives. So this forms the 'three baskets', or tripitaka, of the Buddhist canon.

The Diamond Sutra in the British Library is a very special object because it's the earliest dated printed book in the world. One of the essential tenets of Buddhism is to do good deeds in this world. Because what distinguishes you as an individual is your karmic debt: the bad deeds and the good deeds you've done in the past world. As soon as the good deeds cancel out all the bad deeds, you will cease to exist, because your karmic debt will cease to exist and you'll just become part of the non-duality, which is the reality of the world.

Publish and be saved

So one of the ways of doing a good deed and gaining merit, and also sending out merit into the world for others, is by either copying an image of the Buddha, or by copying his words and transmitting them. So very early on you get in Buddhist cave temples multiple images of Buddhas on the cave walls, and this is an example of that. And you get of course donors paying for the copying of sutra.

The Diamond Sutra is a case in point. This was made as a copy by Wang Jie and at the end of the manuscript if you scroll down and look right at the end there's a little note saying 'Made by Wang Jie in May 868 on behalf of his parents and for the merit of all sentient beings in the world'. Like many manuscript scrolls like this, it might have been used in a temple. And monks or Wang Jie himself might have unrolled it and read it, in time to monks chanting the sutra, and if you listen to the Turning the Pages, there's monks chanting on that. So the monks would chant the whole sutra as another way of disseminating words of the Buddha. So it was very much an object for use rather than an object that just sat somewhere.

Now before printing came in, of course, the only way was to get a scribe to copy by hand an ancient manuscript and so it was difficult, and very expensive, for the scribes and good paper were expensive, and perhaps you could only have one text copied or two copies made of a particular text, so you could only send out a certain amount of merit into the world. But of course printing is like a prayer wheel, if you like: you can print multiple copies, and the more copies you're sending out, the more you're disseminating the word of the Buddha, and so the more merit you are sending out in to the world. And so the Buddhists were very quick to recognise the use of the new technology of printing.

Printing was developed in China by the eighth century and certainly by the ninth century when this sutra was made it was a refined art. But the Buddhists were one of the major groups that propagated and refined and developed printing, because of the reason that they could realise multiple copies of prayers and other texts and that would be good for their religion.

Seeing the Buddha in action

The Diamond Sutra starts off with an illustrated frontispiece. Subhuti the elderly disciple is sitting on the bottom left of the picture on a little prayer mat with his slippers neatly put next to the prayer mat and he's an elderly man and he's in the patched robe of the Buddhist monk. And then you see Buddha in the centre surrounded by his disciples and this landscape showing where he's giving the original lecture, this original sutra.

The frontispiece is one illustration; it would have been printed by woodblock. So what would happen is, an artist would draw this picture on a piece of paper with brush and ink, brush being the main writing implement in use at this time. The ink is carbon ink, beautiful ink, so it's very long lasting. And the Chinese had paper from the second century BC, so again by this time it was very refined, very beautiful paper. An artist would have drawn this scene, with very fine inkstrokes, on a piece of paper which was the same size as a printing block. The piece of paper was then laid over the printing block and a wood carver would have cut out the scene to make the printing block. The ink was put on the woodblock and a piece of paper was put on and it was brushed to transfer the ink on to the piece of paper and then you got the frontispiece.

And that was the way all the other panels of this paper, of this Diamond Sutra, were made. So you see the front panel, the frontispiece, which starts off the Sutra. Originally there would have been a little panel to the right, a sort of half-panel which would acted as a cover when the scroll was rolled. It's a Chinese scroll so the writing starts off on the right, from the top to the bottom, and from right to left. So there would have been another sheet of paper on the end which would have had a little wooden stave right at the end with a silk tie in it so you when you rolled the scroll up you could wrap the silk tie around the scroll and tie it in place.

So when you roll it out the first thing you see is the frontispiece, the picture of Buddha and Subhuti, and then you get panels of paper, each of the same size, as the Sutra goes on.

Colour printing, ninth-century style

The paper is sort of an off-white, brownish-yellowish colour. That's because it's actually dyed and it's dyed with a substance that's made from the bark of a tree, Phellodendron amurense. This substance has a compound in it called berberine, and berberine has insecticidal properties, and it also has water-repellent properties. It makes a sort of yellow colour, more or less yellow depending on the age of the manuscript and the concentration of berberine in the dye and everything. Yellow was a sacred colour in China, well, an imperial colour, and the Buddhists took it up as a sort of Buddhist colour, so many of their manuscripts are dyed.

So the paper would have been made first, and then it would have been dyed, and then it would have been printed, and then stuck together to make this long scroll.