Sutras (religious teaching or sermon) preached by the Buddha were committed to memory by his disciples and passed down from generation to generation. The illustration at the beginning of these sutras shows the Buddha expounding the sutra to an elderly disciple called Subhuti. Towards the end of the sermon, Subhuti asks the Buddha how the sutra should be known. Buddha called it ‘The Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom’ because its teaching will cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting. The original Sanskrit title of Diamond Sutra is ‘Vajracchedika-prajnaparamita-sutra’.
Buddhism spread along the network of trade routes between northern India and China, usually known as the Silk Road. Around 400 AD, the sutra was translated into Chinese, by an Indian scholar-monk called Kumarajiva, who named it ‘Jin gang ban ruo luo mi jing’. A copy of the Chinese version of Diamond Sūtra, dated back to May 11, 868, was found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in 1907 by Aurel Stein, in a walled-up cave at the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’, near Dunhuang, in North-West China. It is, in the words of the British Library, “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.”
Hidden for centuries in a sealed-up cave in north-west China, this copy of the ‘Diamond Sutra’ is the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book. It was made in AD 868. A note printed at the end of the scroll reads “Reverently made for universal distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents” followed by the Chinese calendar date for 11 May 868. Wang Jie did not make the book himself, but enabled its making – a pious act by which he would have gained much merit. Seven strips of yellow-stained paper were printed from carved wooden blocks and pasted together to form a scroll over 5m long. Though written in Chinese, the text is one of the most important sacred works of the Buddhist faith. Although not the earliest example of a printed book, it is the oldest we have bearing a date. By the time it was made, block-printing had been practised in the Far East for more than a century.