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Diamond Sutra. Cave 17, Dunhuang, ink on paper British Library Or.8210/ P.

2 Copyright The British Library Board A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email Hidden for centuries in a sealed-up cave in north-west China, this copy of the Diamond Sutra is the worlds 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.

Whats 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?

Its assumed that Buddhism spread along the network of trade routes between northern India and China, usually known as the Silk Road. Chinas 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.

Whats 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?

Its 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.

More about the Diamond Sutra

See the Diamond Sutra page in our Sacred texts section. * More about the Diamond Sutra

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 nonduality: 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.

Here are a couple of blogposts listing the earliest known printed books in different languages. I found the following entries for the Indian languages.

Tamil. Thampiraan vaNakkam (Goa, India: Henrique Henriques, 1578). Bengali. Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, A Grammar of the Bengal Language (Hugli, India, 1778). Hindi. A Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language (Calcutta, India: Chronicle Press, 1796). Oriya. Mrtyujaya Bidyalankar, trans. [New Testament] (Shrirampur, India: Serampore Mission Press, 1807). Malayalam. [New Testament] (Bombay, India: Courier Press, 1811). Assamese. William Carey, et al., trans. [New Testament] (Shrirampur, India: Serampore Mission Press, 1813). Telugu. Grammar of Telugu (Shrirampur, India: Serampore Mission Press, 1813). As is clear, nearly after a century of the printing of the first English book, we see a Tamil book being printed in Goa (while the other Indian languages were printed nearly two centuries after Tamil). This accidental blessing of the printing press in Goa, and the role of missionaries in setting it up, as well as the Tamil connection is discussed in a recent article by Babu K Verghese in the Hindu: It was Christian missionaries, who wanted to produce the Bible in the several languages of the country, who introduced printing and publishing in India. In fact, we got the first printing press as a happy accident: As early as 1542, Francis Xavier, a Spaniard, was teaching the Bible in Tharangambadi (Tranquebar), Tamil Nadu. Also, when the Viceroy of Goa, on behalf of King Joan III of Portugal, opened schools for Indians, books had to be provided. Thus, pressure was put on Portugal by Francis Xavier to dispatch printing presses to India, Ethiopia and Japan. Meanwhile, the Emperor of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) requested the king of Portugal to send a press along with the missionaries. Thus the first batch of Jesuit missionaries left for Ethiopia on March 29, 1556. En route, they arrived in Goa on September 6, 1556. But, while they were preparing to proceed to Ethiopia, news reached them that the Ethiopian Emperor was not keen to receive the missionaries. Thus, as luck would have it, the press stayed in Goa and was set up at the College of St. Paul in Goa. Today, the huge arch of the St. Pauls College gate, restored by the Archaeological Survey of India, stands as a witness to this pioneering effort. In this regard, I should also mention the Italian priest Veeramamunivar, who compiled several dictionaries and composed literary and grammatical works in Tamil in the early 1700s. PS: Do not take the dates given above to be the final word on the subject; the author of the posts agrees that some of the dates are educated guesses. So, if you know that the

dates are wrong, or if you know of any other Indian language and the year of first printing in the same, leave a note.