The Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra

Written by Alfonso Elizondo


A few days ago, a generous and very recent friend gave me a deluxe edition of the Christian Bible printed on fine paper, very light in beautiful characters. He told me that this bible, printed in the sixteenth century by John Gutenberg, was the oldest printed book in the world and asked me to please read it in great detail. I accepted it with love and respect, but I told him that I would soon give him the details of the really oldest printed book in the world produced in China in 868 BC.


In 1907 British Hungarian archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein was in the middle of an expedition to China and after hearing rumors about a huge hidden library in that region decided to search on his own for the location which he soon found. After bribing the abbot of the monastic group guarding the site, he stole thousands of documents that included the ‘Diamond Sutra’.


According to Stein, in May 848 BC an individual named Wang Jie had a translation of a sacred Buddhist text from Sanskrit to Chinese printed on a parchment. The roll is printed in seven sections with one block for each of them which were then joined together adding up to a length of five meters.


In one of the corners of the document are these words: “Made with reverence for universal free distribution by Wong Jie on behalf of both his parents.” It is known that according to the Buddhist tradition copying and disseminating the word of Buddha was the best way to earn respect in Chinese culture and therefore printing evolved rapidly in that country.


The Diamond Sutra can be read in its entirety in about 40 minutes and is often memorized and cited in Buddhist monasteries. It has retained a high degree of popularity in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition for more than a thousand years, especially in East Asia. So it is the most important book within the school of meditation (Zen / Chan / Seon / Thien) in East Asia where it is taught and discussed extensively up to the present time.


Sutra is the Sanskrit name for ‘religious teaching or wisdom’ and is often the word that refers to a teaching of Buddha. Budha is said to have given it this name to this teaching because it would “cut like a diamond through illusions made of words and would nurture what is real and permanent.”


The book belongs to the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism which, unlike other schools, teaches that anyone can achieve enlightenment, whether or not the individual lives a monastic life. This current came from India to China through the old ‘silk route’. The text of only six thousand words is the oldest printed book known. It is currently housed in the British Library and is part of the impressive Dunhuang Project which can be easily accessed on the Internet.


The British independent researcher Bill Porter took the following excerpt translated from Chinese into English of a very poetic idea that is in ‘The Diamond Sutra’:


‘So you can see the transience of the world, a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of light on a summer cloud or a flickering lantern, a ghost, a dream.’


Addendum: For those of us who are completely subject to the culture and mentality of the West, it is very difficult to understand that there are other paradigms different from ours, and even more so when they completely differ from our vision of ethics, politics and religion. This is so because for all human beings, the teaching they receive in their first ten years of life remains with them for the rest of their lives.