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#1: Buddhism's Diamond Sutra: The Extraordinary Discovery Of The World's

Posted on 2012-09-12 19:26:42 by Peter

Buddhism's Diamond Sutra: The Extraordinary Discovery Of The World's
Oldest Book

Joyce Morgan

Ask people to name the world's oldest printed book and the common reply
is Gutenberg's Bible. Few venture that the answer is a revered Buddhist
text called the Diamond Sutra, printed in 868 A.D. Or that by the time
Gutenberg got ink on his fingers nearly 600 years later -- and his
revolutionary technology helped usher in the Enlightenment -- this copy
of the Diamond Sutra had been hidden for several centuries in a sacred
cave on the edge of the Gobi Desert and would remain there for several more.

Its discovery is the result of a series of accidents and its
significance realized belatedly. The book unwittingly came to light when
a Chinese monk clearing sand from a Buddhist meditation cave in 1900
noticed a crack in a wall. It suggested the outline of a doorway.
Plastered over and painted, the entrance had been deliberately concealed.

The monk, Abbot Wang Yuanlu, broke in and discovered a small chamber,
about nine feet square and full from floor to ceiling with scrolls. They
had been hidden and perfectly preserved in the dark, dry grotto for
1,000 years. Although he didn't know it, among the nearly 60,000 scrolls
was the Diamond Sutra of 868 A.D., a woodblock printed scroll, more than
16 feet long, complete and dated, with an instruction that it be given
away for free.

Ironically, this enduring scroll, with its illustrated frontispiece
depicting the Buddha teaching his disciples, is about impermanence. The
Diamond Sutra, for centuries a revered and popular scripture, distils
Buddhism's central belief: that all is change.

Unable to interest authorities in his find, Abbot Wang was ordered to
seal the chamber. But rumor of the discovery had reached the nearby
oasis when Hungarian-British explorer Aurel Stein arrived in 1907.

Stein had heard of the Caves of Thousand Buddhas, a network of 500
sacred painted caves hand-carved into a cliff just outside Dunhuang in
remote Gansu province. They were a reason he embarked on a dangerous and
secret expedition that saw him travel overland from India, through
Pakistan and Afghanistan and into western China.

He wanted to follow the route by which Buddhism migrated from its
birthplace in the Himalayan foothills and into China. It traveled along
the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that conveyed not just goods but
ideas. And none was more influential than Buddhism.

Stein wanted to follow the footsteps of his "patron saint," a
seventh-century Buddhist monk named Xuanzang, who made an epic journey
from China to India and back in search of Buddhist scrolls. Over
centuries, his exploits have morphed into myth, including in the cult
television series "Monkey." But Xuanzang penned a true account of his
journey, one scholars still consult, and which Stein carried in his
saddle bags.

When he went in search of the caves' guardian, Stein learned that Wang
too revered the ancient Chinese pilgrim. Nonetheless, the abbot was
reluctant to open the cave to Stein. But he did allow Stein a furtive
look at a few scrolls overnight. Stein's Chinese translator realized
that some were versions of Buddhist texts translated by the
scholar-pilgrim Xuanzang.

It was an astonishing -- and convenient -- coincidence. Surely from
beyond the grave Xuanzang wanted the cave opened to a disciple from
distant India? Stein dropped the "quasi divine hint." Within hours,
Stein stood within the cave in astonishment. "Heaped up in layers, but
without any order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest's
little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of
nearly ten feet," he later wrote.

Most of the scrolls were Chinese Buddhists texts, but there were also
Tibetan Buddhist documents. Others were Nestorian and Manichaean texts,
and there was even a fragment in Hebrew. The range of documents suggest
that this Silk Road oasis was once a great cultural and religious

Stein had little idea of what was in the 5,000 scrolls he bought from
Wang for �130. He had no time to examine the documents properly, nor did
he understand Chinese. And Stein's Chinese translator knew little about
Buddhism. The fact that the Diamond Sutra was somewhere among the many
bundles was simply an accident.

Stein, born 150 years ago this year, took the Diamond Sutra and the
other scrolls to India and on to London, where they are now in the
British Library. But the significance of the Diamond Sutra of 868 A.D.
took years to sink in. When the usually meticulous Stein first referred
to it in his book about his expedition, published 1911, he recorded its
date wrong. Stein's great rival, Frenchman Paul Pelliot, appears to have
spotted its significance when he studied the scroll a few years later.
The Diamond Sutra was displayed in the British Library at one stage near
a Gutenberg Bible -- with the latter labeled as the world's earliest
printed book.

The Diamond Sutra, now recognized as one of the world's great literary
jewels, has recently undergone conservation. Too fragile to go on
permanent display, it can be viewed online in greater detail than
peering through a dark display case would allow. And there it can be
viewed for free -- just as initially intended.

4 Secrets of the Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra distills Buddhism's central message that
everything changes. It describes our fleeting world as a bubble in a stream.
Jack Kerouac was so influenced by the Diamond Sutra that he studied
it daily for years and attempted his own rendition.
Brevity is one reason for the Diamond Sutra's popularity. It can be
recited in 40 minutes.
The Diamond Sutra of 868 A.D. is printed on paper, a material
unknown in the West for another couple centuries.

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