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What is the Diamond Sutra?

By Celeste Heiter
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Diamond Sutra is a sacred Buddhist scripture on an ancient Chinese scroll. Written in the Chinese language, the Diamond Sutra chronicles a gathering of disciples to hear the teachings of Buddha and is dated “the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong,” which translates to 11 May 868. Dated 587 years before the Gutenberg Bible, the Diamond Sutra is the oldest surviving printed, dated book. Known also as the Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra, the scroll consists of seven panels of block printed paper, and measures more than 16 feet (5.3 m) in length. The scroll is on display at the British Museum.

A sutra is a transcription of a discourse that typically follows a standard format, and it includes the setting in which the discourse take place, the circumstances of the gathering and a mention of those in attendance. It also features the teachings of the Buddha and the effect of the teachings on the listeners. The text of the Diamond Sutra begins with the words, “Thus, have I heard,” and takes place immediately following Buddha’s morning walk with his disciples to receive the day’s food donations. In response to a question asked by a monk named Subhuti, Buddha goes on to explain the nature of reality and perception, the fallacies of mental attachment, the importance of compassion, and the path to enlightenment.

The scroll itself was hidden for centuries in the Mogao Caves, near the military outpost of Dunhuang in northwestern China. The site, known also as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, served as a hiding place for a vast collection of Buddhist texts during the Hsi-hsia invasion. A monk named Wang Yuan-lu rediscovered the texts behind a sealed chamber camouflaged by a mural approximately 850 years later in 1900. In 1907, British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein purchased 24 cases of the manuscripts, including the Diamond Sutra.

Since its discovery, the Diamond Sutra has been translated by many scholars. The first known Chinese translation, which is also the translation contained in the Dunhuang scroll, was by Kumarajiva in the fifth century. The signature at the end of the block-printed scroll reads, “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents.” The Buddhist Text Translation Society’s translation in English is approximately 6,500 words. As a relatively short text in any language, the Diamond Sutra is a favorite for memorization and recitation among Buddhist monks.

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