Saturday, May 11, 2013

Happy 1,145th birthday to the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra

Wikipedia-hosted image of the frontispiece of Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.
Original source: The International Dunhuang Project

In 1907, Hungarian-British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein purchased an old scroll from a monk at the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang, China. The sprawling network of caves, also known as the Mogao Caves, includes what has been called The Library Cave. That "room" — which had manuscripts stacked 10 feet high in places — was rediscovered in 1900 after having been walled up in the early 11th century.

The scroll is about 16 feet long and was created through woodblock printing.

A translation of the scroll's colophon states: "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."1

Scholars say the date referred to in the colophon is May 11, 868.

That's 1,145 years ago today.

The scroll, now restored and held in the British Library, is the oldest known surviving printed "book" with a publication date.

The scroll is a sūtra — a collection of aphorisms. Its Sanskrit title is Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, which, according to Wikipedia, translates loosely to "Vajra Cutter Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra."

In English, it is commonly and simply referred to as the Diamond Sūtra.

One of the translated aphorisms from the Diamond Sūtra, focusing on the concept of impermanence, states:2

"All composed things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.
That is how to meditate on them,
that is how to observe them."

There is some small irony, of course, in the idea that a scroll containing verses about impermanence has survived for more than 11 centuries. It is nearly 600 years older than the first Gutenberg Bible!

1. Xiantong was the era name for Emperor Yizong of Tang.
2. This translation of the passage is from the Handful of Sand website.

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