Chinese Diamond Sutra

Chinese Diamond Sutra

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Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sūtra (Sanskrit: Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra), is a short and well-known Mahāyāna sūtra from the Prajñāpāramitā, or "Perfection of Wisdom" genre, and emphasizes the practice of non-abiding and non-attachment. Note that the title properly translated is the Diamond Cutter of Perfect Wisdom although it is popular to refer to it as the Diamond Sūtra.

A copy of the Chinese version of Diamond Sūtra, found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in the early 20th century and dated back to 868, is, in the words of the British Library, "the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book." [ 1 ]

Printed copy of the Diamond Sutra

This copy of the Diamond Sūtra in Chinese language, complete with a beautifully illustrated frontispiece, is the world's earliest dated, printed book. It was produced on the 11 May 868, according to the Western calendar.

Where did it come from?

It was found in a holy site called the Mogao (or &lsquoPeerless&rsquo) Caves or the &lsquoCaves of a Thousand Buddhas,&rsquo which was a major Buddhist centre from the 4th to 14th centuries. This long cliff wall, carved with 492 caves, is located near Dunhuang, an oasis-town at the junction of the northern and southern Silk Roads, in the present-day province of Gansu (Northwest China). In 1900, a monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered the sealed entrance to a hidden cave, where tens of thousands of manuscripts, paintings and other artefacts had been deposited and sealed up sometime around the beginning of the 11th century. This copy of the Diamond Sūtra was one of such items and was brought to England by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein in 1907.

Why is it so important?

The Diamond Sūtra is one of the most influential Mahāyāna scriptures in East Asia. Thanks to the colophon &ndash the short dedication note written at the end, after the sacred Buddhist text &ndash we have quite a lot of information about the context surrounding the commissioning of this particular copy. The few characters translate as follows: &lsquoOn the 15th day of the 4th month of the 9th year of the Xiantong reign period, Wang Jie had this made for universal distribution on behalf of his two parents.&rsquo We therefore know the precise date the scroll was made (11 May 868), who financed it, on behalf of whom and for what purpose.

Each section of the scroll was printed separately, by using a single wood block, and then joined to the others in order to form a 5-metre long horizontal roll. This makes this copy of the Diamond Sūtra not only the earliest surviving dated piece of printing, but also the most substantial one. The intricate frontispiece depicts the historical Buddha addressing his elderly disciple Subhūti, surrounded by an assembly gathered under a grove of trees. The finesse in the details evidences the fact that printing had already grown into a mature technology by the 9th century in China.

The British Library is part of the International Dunhuang Project, a ground-breaking collaboration which aims to make more than 100,000 manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from Silk Road sites available on the internet.

To see more of the Diamond Sutra please go to our award winning Turning the Pages&trade. To hear a short talk about the Diamond Sutra please see here.

The Diamond Sutra, the Earliest Surviving Dated Complete Printed Book

Image from the unique copy of the Diamond Sutra preserved in the British Library.

The Diamond Sutra, the earliest dated example of woodblock printing, and the earliest surviving dated complete book, was published in China on May 11, 868. A scroll sixteen feet long by 10.5 inches wide, made up of seven strips of yellow-stained paper printed from carved wooden blocks and pasted together to form a scroll 16 feet by 10. 5 inches wide, its text, printed in Chinese, is one of the most important sacred works of the Buddhist faith.

The Diamond Sutra bears an inscription which may be translated as follows:

"reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Chieh on behalf of his parents on the fifteenth of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xian Long (May 11, 868)."

A woodcut illustration at the beginning of Diamond Sutra shows the Buddha expounding the sutra to an elderly disciple called Subhuti. That is the earliest dated book illustration, and the earliest dated woodcut print.

"How did the Diamond Sutra get its name?

"The sutra answers that question for itself. Towards the end of the sermon, Subhuti asks the Buddha how the sutra should be known. He is told to call it &lsquoThe Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom&rsquo because its teaching will cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting" (, accessed 06-14-2009).

The unique extant copy of the Diamond Sutra was purchased in 1907 by the archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein in the walled-up Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in northwest China from a monk guarding the caves known as the "Caves of a Thousand Buddhas." It is preserved in the British Library.

&diams In May 2013 a digital facsimile of the Diamond Sutra was available from the Virtual Books section of the Online Gallery at the British Library at this link.

In January 2013 the British Library completed a decade-long project to conserve the The Diamond Sutra, and the posted a film produced by the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library about the sutra scroll, its science and its conservation:

Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra (Sanskrit: वज्रच्छेदिकाप्रज्ञापारमितासूत्र , romanized: Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) is a Mahāyāna (Buddhist) sutra from the genre of Prajñāpāramitā ('perfection of wisdom') sutras. Translated into a variety of languages over a broad geographic range, the Diamond Sūtra is one of the most influential Mahayana sutras in East Asia, and it is particularly prominent within the Chan (or Zen) tradition, [1] along with the Heart Sutra.

A copy of the Tang-dynasty Chinese version of the Diamond Sūtra was found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in 1900 by Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu and sold to Aurel Stein in 1907. [2] They are dated back to 11 May 868. [3] It is, in the words of the British Library, "the earliest dated printed book". [4]

It is also the first known creative work with an explicit public-domain dedication, as its colophon at the end states that it was created "for universal free distribution". [5]

The very first Printed Book – The Diamond Sutra

On May 11 , 868 , the earliest dated printed book was issued, a Chinese copy of the so-called Diamond Sutra , one of the most important textbooks of Buddhism , originally written in the 1st c. AD . You might think the it was Johannes Gutenberg who invented modern printing. But, he didn’t. Sure, printing with metal movable types including a printing press and a suitable ink, but mostover a way to produce movable types in sufficient quality and sufficient number with few effort, this was Gutenberg’s most notable invention. Printing itself existed long before Gutenberg . Especially, if you think of woodcuts or so-called woodblock printing.

Why Woodblock Prints Thrived in China

The earliest woodblock printed fragments to survive are from China and are of silk printed with flowers in three colors from the Han Dynasty (before AD 220 ). It is clear that woodblock printing developed in Asia several centuries before Europe . The Chinese were the first to use the process to print solid text, and equally that, much later, in Europe the printing of images on cloth developed into the printing of images on paper (woodcuts). It is also now established that the use in Europe of the same process to print substantial amounts of text together with images in block-books only came after the development of movable type in the 1450s . Because Chinese has a character set running into the thousands, woodblock printing suits it better than movable type to the extent that characters only need to be created as they occur in the text. Although the Chinese had invented a form of movable type with baked clay in the 11th century , and metal movable type was invented in Korea in the 13th century , woodblocks continued to be preferred owing to the formidable challenges of typesetting Chinese text with its 40,000 or more characters.

The Oldest Woodblock Print

The oldest existing print done with wood-blocks is the Mugujeonggwang great Dharani sutra that is dated between AD 704 and 751 . It was found at Bulguksa , South Korea in 1966 . But, the print we focus today is a wood block printed copy in the British Library which, although not the earliest example of block printing, is the earliest example which bears an actual date. The book displays a great maturity of design and layout and speaks of a considerable ancestry for woodblock printing. The extant copy has the form of a scroll, about 5 meters long. The archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein purchased it in 1907 in the walled-up Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in northwest China from a monk guarding the caves – known as the “ Caves of the Thousand Buddhas “.[4] The colophon, at the inner end, reads:

Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [11 May 868].

500 Years before Gutenberg

This is more than 500 years before the Gutenberg Bible was first printed. How did the technique come to Europe and the Western world? Block-books, where both text and images are cut on a single block for a whole page, appeared in Europe in the mid-15th century. As they were almost always undated and without statement of printer or place of printing, determining their dates of printing has been an extremely difficult task. The technique of woodblock printing is found through East and Central Asia , and in the Byzantine world for cloth, and by AD 1000 examples of woodblock printing on paper appeared in Islamic Egypt . Printing onto cloth had already spread much earlier, and was common in Europe by 1300 . Around the 13th century the Chinese technique of blockprinting was transmitted to Europe , soon after paper became available in Europe .[5]

An Important Cultural Tradition

The print in woodcut, later joined by engraving, quickly became an important cultural tradition for popular religious works, as well as playing cards. Although many had believed that (European) block books preceded Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the first part of the 1450s , it now is accepted that most of the surviving block books were printed in the 1460s or later, and that the earliest surviving examples may date to about 1451 . They seem to have functioned as a cheap popular alternative to the typeset book, which was still very expensive at this stage. Block books continued to be printed sporadically up through the end of the 15th century and were then more and more replaced by their movable type alternatives that have become less expensive.

BTW, in the Diamond Sutra can be found the dedication: “for universal free distribution“, so it is also the first creative work with an explicit public domain dedication


Conze, Edward, trans. Buddhist Wisdom Books. London: Allen and Unwin, 1958.

Müller, F. Max, ed. The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 49: Buddhist Mahāyāna Texts, Part 2: xii–xix 110–144. London: Oxford University Press, 1894.

Schopen, Gregory. "The Manuscript of the Vajracchedikā Found at Gilgit: An Annotated Transcription and Translation." In Studies in the Literature of the Great Vehicle, ed. Luis O. Gómez and Jonathan A. Silk. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.

The well-known Lankavatara Sutra, probably composed in the 4th century, is sometimes linked to the Tathagatagarbha sutras and sometimes to another group of sutras called the Third Turning Sutras. These are associated with Yogacara philosophy.

Also called the Flower Garland or Flower Ornament Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra is a huge collection of texts that probably were written over a long period of time, beginning in the 1st century CE and ending in the 4th century. The Avatamsaka is best known for its sumptuous descriptions of the inter-existence of all phenomena.

Chinese Diamond Sutra - History

The Translator of the Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra

Dharma Master Kumarajiva (343-413)

The text of the Diamond Sutra appearing in the last two issues of the Buddhist Door was based on the famous Chinese version of the Sutra. This famous Chinese version of the Sutra was translated into Chinese around 403 from the original Sanskrit by the great Dharma Master, Kumarajiva. Since then, this Chinese translation had become one of the most popular Buddhist texts, and together with the famous Chinese version of the Lotus Sutra, also translated into Chinese from Sanskrit by Kumarajiva, was considered one of the most authoritative presentations of the Mahayana Buddhism.

Kumarajiva is considered one of the greatest translators of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese. He was from Kucina (Kucha) of Central Asia (today's Kuche of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China) and the Indian-Kuchan parentage. His father, Kumarayapa, born into a Brahman family in India, refused to inherit a high position in the government and left the family to travel as a mendicant. When he was in Kucina, a small country in Central Asia, he was made the National Master by the king there. Kumarayapa was then forced by the king to marry the king's sister, Jiva. Kumarayapa and Jiva had two children, Kumarajiva and his brother.

The word 'kumarajiva' in Sanskrit means 'mature youth'. It was said that Kumarajiva possessed the virtuous conduct of the elder even when he was very young. Kumarajiva was most famed for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Indian and Vedantic learning and the photographic memory of the Buddhist scriptures. The legend said that he was able to recite the complete Lotus Sutra in two days, and one thousand mantras with total of 36,000 words in one day.

Later on, Jiva decided to leave the family, and when Kumarajiva was seven years old, she became a bhiksuni (nun) while her son followed her as a young monk. They travelled to different countries and studied from various famous monks. At the age of twelve, he returned to Kucina together with his mother. During those years, he made thorough studies of various Buddhist scriptures and at such young age, started preaching and became well-known in the Buddhist world. He was most famed for his understanding of Nagarjuna's Buddhist school of the Madhyamika ("Middle Way"). At the age of twenty, he was officially made a bhiksu in the Kucha palace. Shortly afterwards, his mother left for India and she instructed him to go to China and preach Buddhism there. Kumarajiva stayed in Kucina for twenty years and made some very thorough studies in Buddhism.

In the year 379, a few Chinese monks returned to Changan (Xian) from Kucina and told the story about the young bhiksu Kumarajiva. The great Dharma Master Daoan, who was very enthusiastic in translating Buddhist scriptures, recommended to Fujian, the Emperor of Fu-Qin Dynasty to get Kumarajiva to China to carry out the Buddhism sutras translation activities. In the year 382, Fujian sent Luguang to conquer some Central Asian countries, and instructed Luguang to capture Kumarajiva once Kucina could be occupied and to send Kumarajiva to China as soon as possible.

In the year 384, Kucina was occupied. But Luguang, being not a Buddhist himself, found out that Kumarajiva was so young, and had difficulty to recognize the abilities of Kumarajiva. Next year, Fujian was murdered and Luguang made himself Emperor of Liangzhou. Due to all these events, Kumarajiva ended up staying in Liangzhou for seventeen years.

In the year 401, the new Emperor of Fu-Qin, Yaoxing, recaptured Liangzhou and eventually brought Kumarajiva to China. Kumarajiva was 58 years old when he came to Changan. Starting from 402, Kumarajiva began to take on one of the most important Buddhist scriptures translation tasks in history.

His first attempt was in the Amitabha Buddha Sutra and a few other Buddhist scriptures. Then he translated the Maharatnakuta Sutra-Upadesha and the Shatika-Shastra. In the following year, he re-translated the complete Mahaprajnaparamita-Sutra, which includes, among many other scriptures, the Diamond Sutra. The whole translation task actually involved more than 500 monks as his assistants in the verification and editing work. Kumarajiva double-checked all texts in the Mahaprajnaparamita-Sutra. During the following year (404) he translated the majority of the Sarvastivadin-Vinaya and reworked on the Shatika-Shastra.

Starting from 406, Kumarajiva settled in the Grand Temple in Changan and translated the most important sutras in Mahayana Buddhism - the Lotus Sutra and the Vimalakirti-Nivdesa-Sutra. He also finished translation on Dvadashamukha-Shastra. His last translation was the Satyasiddhi-Shastra. He was also involved in preaching during the intensive routines of the translation jobs.

Kumarajiva was a genius in language and literature. For instance, he also wrote the commentary of the Vimalakirti-Nivdesa-Sutra, which has a tremendous impact in the Chinese literature. Among all the translators working in China, he was probably the best in the Chinese language.

In April 413, he died at the age of 71 in the Grand Temple in Changan. His last words were that he remembered he had translated about 300 texts in Buddhism and believed that other than the Sarvastivadin-Vinaya which had not passed review and editing, he could guarantee that all his translations should be correct and could be used for spreading Buddhism. In order to prove such a statement, he claimed that when his body was incinerated after his death, the tongue would remain intact. It turned out that his claim was true. According to Tang-San-Zang, the complete works of Kumarajiva include 35 Sutras/Vinayas/Shastras, covering 294 texts.

Kumarajiva's achievement in Buddhist scriptures translation is tremendous. He was the first one who systematically translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, with emphasis on Nagarjuna's Madhyamika. His translation style is also among the best accepted by the Chinese. He is most famed for those translations which have important literary values (such as Vimalakirti-Nivdesa-Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Maharatnakuta Sutra-Upadesha). In fact, his translation is recognized as having a significant position in the Chinese literature.

The translation organization headed by Kumarajiva in Changan is one of the biggest in Chinese history. It was fully sponsored by the government and the court and marks the beginning of the tradition in establishing a national translation centre. Numerous famous monks and scholars came over to Changan from various parts of China to participate in the translation tasks. In addition, some foreign monks from the Central Asian countries also joined the teams there, working under Kumarajiva. It was said that there were as many as 3000 followers, including assistants and students, of Kumarajiva. All the translation jobs were carried out with the utmost carefulness and seriousness and whenever necessary, with the consultations of specialists from the relevant fields of expertise. No wonder the results of the translations were of such a high standard, which can be well demonstrated by the achievement in the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra.

The Preface of the Diamond Sutra

Commentary on Chapter 1 "The Reasons for the Dharma Assembly"

Thus I have heard. At one time the Buddha was staying in the Jeta Grove of the Garden of the Benefactor of Orphans and the Solitary together with a gathering of great Bhiksus, twelve hundred fifty in all.

At that time, at mealtime, the World Honored One put on his robe, took up his bowl, and entered the great city of Sravasti to beg for food. After he had finished his sequential begging within the city, he returned, ate the food, put away his robe and bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat, and sat down.

"Thus I have heard" is usually the first sentence found in a Buddhist sutra. The chapter with this famous opening is considered the Preface of the whole Sutra.

Before Shakyamuni Buddha entered Nirvana, his disciple Ananda asked the Buddha, "After your Nirvana, there will be people in the future who have doubts if the Sutras were from you, and they will not have a firm belief in your teachings. What words should we use to begin the sutras to show that they are from the Buddha ?"

The Buddha replied,"You can begin the Sutra with the four words, 'Thus I have heard' to indicate that the teachings are from the Buddha and that you have heard the words directly from the Buddha. You should also mention that at what time and in what place you heard the teachings. In addition, you should mention how big is the audience of the gathering. After such elaboration, people will believe in the genuineness of the Sutra."

This is the origin of the so-called Six Fulfillments attached to a sutra to show that the sutra has fulfilled the six requirements, indicating that it is a record of the teachings given by the Buddha and the words were coming out directly from the Buddha:

  • Thus -- the fulfillment of meeting the requirement on belief
  • I have heard -- the fulfillment of meeting the requirement on hearing
  • At one time -- the fulfillment of meeting the requirement on time
  • The Buddha -- the fulfillment meeting the requirement on of host (i.e. speaker)
  • In Sravasti in the Jeta Grove of the Garden of the Benefactor of Orphans and the Solitary -- the fulfillment of meeting the requirement on place
  • Together with a gathering of great bhiksus, twelve hundred fifty in all -- the fulfillment of meeting the requirement on audiences.

The first paragraph in Chapter 1 stipulates the Six Fulfillments of this gathering and the Sutra recording such gathering and therefore constitutes the so-called "common preface" of the sutra. One should note that nearly all Sutras start with a similar sentence.

The second paragraph in this Chapter is the "specific preface". In this particular Sutra, it described that the Buddha had just entered the city to beg for food, returned to his dwelling place, finished the meal, washed the feet and sat down. This presented the background for the gathering. One should notice that the backdrop of this famous Sutra was a picture of everyday life of the Buddha and his followers and does not contain any special event as found in most other gatherings and sutras. Among such daily life setting, this famous sutra will be unfolded in the remaining 31 chapters.

Commentary on Chapter 2 "Subhuti's Request"

At that time the elder Subhuti arose from his seat in the assembly, uncovered his right shoulder, placed his right knee on the ground, put his palms together with respect and said to the Buddha,

"How rare, World Honored One, is the Tathagata who remembers and protects all Bodhisattvas and caused them to be well-endowed.

"World Honored One, if a good man, or good woman, resolves his heart on Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, how should he dwell, how should he subdue his heart?"

The Buddha said, "Good indeed, good indeed, Subhuti. It is as you say. The Tathagata remembers and protects all Bodhisattvas and causes them to be well-endowed. Now listen attentively I shall tell you, a good man, or good woman, who resolves his heart on Anuttarasamyaksambodhi should thus dwell, should thus subdue his heart."

"Yes, certainly, World Honored One. I want to hear. I am delighted to listen."

This chapter covers the fundamental question on Prajnaparamita put forward by Subhuti and Buddha's first reply to such question.

Subhuti, one of the Ten Great Disciples of the Buddha, was most famed for his understanding of 'emptiness', which is one of the most important concepts in Buddhism, revealing the characteristics of the existence and reality of nature. Although the word 'emptiness' is not mentioned, the basic theme of the Sutra is in fact an elaboration on the concept of 'emptiness' - the so-called 'ontological voidness'. Subhuti was most qualified to represent the audiences in asking such a basic question, requesting the Buddha to expound on the basic concept in Prajnaparamita.

Subhuti first mentioned that the Buddha, the Rare World Honored One and the Tathagata, always thinks about and protects all the Bodisattvas and enables them to be well-instructed and well-endowed. Here the term Tathagata refers to the Buddha. Tathagata is a Sanskrit and Pali word and is the title given to a buddha. It usually means 'one who has thus (tatha) gone (gata)' or 'one who has thus (tatha) arrived (agata)'. Tathagata is the 'thusness' and represents the 'hidden buddha nature' in every being, which makes possible the enlightenment. Then Subhuti raised the famous question:

"World Honored One, if a good man, or good woman resolves his/her heart on Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, how should one dwell, and how should one subdue one's heart?"

When someone resolves the heart on Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, it means that he/she has a wish to cultivate in Bodhisattva Vehicle and strives to attain the supreme Buddhahood.

The question is two-fold: how to dwell and how to subdue the heart ?

'How to dwell' refers to 'how can the heart dwell in a serene and eternal state'. In other words, how can the heart become, or reverts to a 'true heart', without any external infleneces or inflictions from inside.

'How to subdue the heart' refers to 'how to subdue the false thoughts, the evil minds and the Three Poisons'. In otherwords, how can someone conquer the rambling and untamed 'heart' which is the source of our inflictions.

To this fundamental question, Buddha gave a very simple answer: one should thus dwell and one should thus subdue one's heart.

The word 'thus' means 'like this', 'as it is'. 'Thus' has two-fold meanings. First, it reveals the 'thusness' or the 'hidden buddha nature' in every being. In fact, the 'hidden buddha nature' exists in everything, whether it is materialistic or psychological. When someone thinks about subduing the wild thoughts, someone should just think 'as it is', focusing and concentrating at such wish to subdue the heart. In this way, someone will reveal the 'true heart' as instructed and endowed by the Buddha, then the heart will be subdued right away. One does not need to seek any other outside force for help as the 'true heart' is already there, 'as it is'.

Secondly, the 'thus' also refers to the elaboration to be given in Chapter 3 about the Orthodox Doctrine of the Great Vehicle, which lays the foundation for dwelling and subduing the heart. In that chapter as well as some other chapters, the Buddha would elaborate on his reply. It is in this context that the Buddha said that one should dwell and subdue the heart 'like this'.

Starting from next issue, we will present further commentaries on the remaining 30 chapters in the elaboration and expounding of this fundamental question.

See also


  1. ↑
  2. ↑
  3. ↑ Diamond Sutra, Sec. 8, Subsec. 5 金剛經,依法出生分第八,五:結歸離相
  4. ↑
  5. ↑The Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, see 18 taken from the site of Plumvillage
  6. ↑ Saunders, R. (1924) Epochs in Buddhist History: The Haskell Lectures, 1921.University of Chicago Press. ISBN 1-4325-6989-9


  • Thich Nhat Hanh: The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion: Commentaries on the Prajñaparamita Diamond Sutra. Berkeley, CA, USA: Parallax Press, 1992 ISBN 0-938077-51-1
  • Mu Soeng: The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000 ISBN 0-86171-160-2

Watch the video: Kinesisk kalligrafi


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