Chances are you know a little something about the Gutenberg Bible, the first book made with moveable type, which came along almost 600 years later. Bibliophiles might also have a working knowledge of other famous manuscripts like the Book of Kells, The Domesday Book, and Shakespeare’s First Folio. Well, The Diamond Sutra should be in that pantheon of revered books, as well. Here’s why:
The text was originally discovered in 1900 by a monk in Dunhuang, China, an old outpost of the Silk Road on the edge of the Gobi Desert. The Diamond Sutra, a Sanskrit text translated into Chinese, was one of 40,000 scrolls and documents hidden in “The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas,” a secret library sealed up around the year 1,000 when the area was threatened by a neighboring kingdom.
In 1907, British-Hungarian archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein was on an expedition mapping the ancient Silk Road when he heard about the secret library. He bribed the abbot of the monastic group in charge of the cave and smuggled away thousands of documents, including The Diamond Sutra. The International Dunhuang Project is now digitizing those documents and 100,000 others found on the eastern Silk Road.
The Diamond Sutra is relatively short, only 6,000 words and is part of a larger canon of “sutras” or sacred texts in Mahayana Buddhism, the branch of Buddhism most common in China, Japan, Korea and southeast Asia. Many practitioners believe that the Mahayana Sutras were dictated directly by the Buddha, and The Diamond Sutra takes the form of a conversation between the Buddha’s pupil Subhati and his master.
Why is it Diamond?
A full translation of the document’s title is The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. As Susan Whitfield, director of the Dunhuang Project explains, the sutra helps cut through our perceptions … We just think we exist as individuals … It’s difficult to translate the sutra word for word and still catch its meaning. But this passage about life … adapted to English, is one of the most popular:
So you should view this fleeting world—
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
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