This copy of the Diamond Sūtra in Chinese language, complete with a beautifully illustrated frontispiece, is the world's earliest dated, printed book. It was produced on the 11 May 868, according to the Western calendar.
Where did it come from?
It was found in a holy site called the Mogao (or ‘Peerless’) Caves or the ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas,’ which was a major Buddhist centre from the 4th to 14th centuries. This long cliff wall, carved with 492 caves, is located near Dunhuang, an oasis-town at the junction of the northern and southern Silk Roads, in the present-day province of Gansu (Northwest China). In 1900, a monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered the sealed entrance to a hidden cave, where tens of thousands of manuscripts, paintings and other artefacts had been deposited and sealed up sometime around the beginning of the 11th century. This copy of the Diamond Sūtra was one of such items and was brought to England by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein in 1907.
Why is it so important?
The Diamond Sūtra is one of the most influential Mahāyāna scriptures in East Asia. Thanks to the colophon – the short dedication note written at the end, after the sacred Buddhist text – we have quite a lot of information about the context surrounding the commissioning of this particular copy. The few characters translate as follows: ‘On the 15th day of the 4th month of the 9th year of the Xiantong reign period, Wang Jie had this made for universal distribution on behalf of his two parents.’ We therefore know the precise date the scroll was made (11 May 868), who financed it, on behalf of whom and for what purpose.
Each section of the scroll was printed separately, by using a single wood block, and then joined to the others in order to form a 5-metre long horizontal roll. This makes this copy of the Diamond Sūtra not only the earliest surviving dated piece of printing, but also the most substantial one. The intricate frontispiece depicts the historical Buddha addressing his elderly disciple Subhūti, surrounded by an assembly gathered under a grove of trees. The finesse in the details evidences the fact that printing had already grown into a mature technology by the 9th century in China.
The British Library is part of the International Dunhuang Project, a ground-breaking collaboration which aims to make more than 100,000 manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from Silk Road sites available on the internet.
To see more of the Diamond Sutra please go to our award winning Turning the Pages™. To hear a short talk about the Diamond Sutra please see here.