In 1900 A.D., along the old Silk Road, a Chinese monk found a cave on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Within it was a secret library containing 40,000 scrolls and documents, sealed away almost a thousand years earlier.
Seven years later, Marc Aurel Stein, a British-Hungarian architect heard about the cave on an expedition. He bribed the abbot of the monastic group to let him smuggle thousands of documents back to Britain. Among these documents was the oldest dated printed work in the world – ‘Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra’ from 768 A.D.
Printed via woodcut 600 years before the Gutenberg Bible, the ‘Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra’ is a Chinese translation of a Sanskrit text by Kumārajīva, a half-Indian and
half-Turkish scholar who lived in a part of eastern Turkistan called Kucha but later migrated to China. The words themselves were from the Buddha himself in 400 B.C., preserved by oral tradition.
It was an incredible find. Embedded on its lower right corner was the following:
Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents.
As Harvard Professor Amartya Sen writes in his hugely influential book, “The Argumentative Indian”, these early Buddhist works were instrumental in expanding public communication. Copying Buddhist texts was seen as a merit in East Asian society, as one could help many others by doing so.
In a similar spirit, the British Library has partnered with the International Dunhuang Project to release the scrolls in the public domain – online.
Cutting through life’s illusions
The Sutra begins with a simple description of the Buddha putting on his thatched robe and going about his daily routine.
After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.
What follows is a conversation between the Buddha and his disciple named Subhuti, told through 32 chapters. The Sutra itself is only about 6,000 words, but the commentaries written on it can range into volumes. One such commentary was written by a seventh-century Buddhist monk named Huineng – who is said to have had an awakening after hearing just a single line from the Sutra.
If you want a metaphor for incomplete nirvana, look at the ashes in a stove. If you want a metaphor for complete nirvana, what do you see when the ashes have been blown away?
The Sutra is popularly known as the Diamond Sutra – called so because it pierces through all perceptions and illusions of reality, like a diamond cutter. Themes of disillusion and dissolution dominate the dialogues. As the Buddha puts it,
And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated… A bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’ … no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.
There is also repeated emphasis on not trying to bite off more than you chew. In an analogy, it says that the good one does by understanding and explaining even a single four-line gatha [verse] is infinitely more than that of a universe filled with Buddhas and the best of teachings.
It’s often said that this Sutra is about emptiness. The director of the Dunhuang project links it to the essence of Buddhist teachings – non-duality. But with a good translation, is it a set of ancient poems that we can read and enjoy today? The final verse in the Sutra goes:
All conditioned phenomena
Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,
Like dew or a flash of lightning;
Thus we shall perceive them
Why we turn to the past?
There is obviously a novelty to reading the oldest printed text on earth. And while it can be a challenge to truly understand this Sutra, the simpler one’s understanding of reality, the better the takeaway. There are thousands of Sutras, with the shortest having only a single character, the sound ‘A’ (The Prajnaparamita in a Single Letter).
It’s no coincidence that what we consider the oldest printed texts tend to be of a religious or spiritual nature. Printing is a powerful act. It gives an idea the wings and ability to survive millennia.
When Wang Jie sealed these scrolls in the Dunhuang caves, it was to protect them from a looming invasion. Knowing that so much of the world is impermanent, he chose to keep one aspect of it for future generations. The journey of this scroll, from the mouth of the Buddha to the internet, is a testimony to the power of communication and mankind’s ability to preserve it.
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