Secrets of the Diamond Sutra

In an Huffington Post piece (I’ll include the link at the end of the post), Joyce Morgan summarizes the fascinating tale of Aurel Stein and his discovery of an ancient copy of the Diamond Sutra along with 40,000 other scrolls at the “Cave of the Thousand Buddhas” in 1907. It’s a story documented more fully in the book she co-authored with Conrad Walters, Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book.

That the Diamond Sutra (“Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra”) is, as described by the British Library, “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book” is hardly news. However, I don’t think the complete story of this discovery has been told before, and I look forward to reading the book by Morgan and Walters soon. And for anyone interested in this subject, I recommend Kogen Mizuno’s Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission, a comprehensive account of the history of Buddhist texts.

The complete history of the Diamond Sutra (also called the “Diamond Wisdom” and “Diamond Cutter”) is unknown. It appears to be an adaption of the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra, which I wrote about recently. The Diamond Sutra is thought to have been translated into Chinese in 401 CE by Kumarajava, who translated so many of the Buddhist sutras.

At the end of the Huffington Post piece, Morgan presents “4 Secrets of the Diamond Sutra” and I thought it might be interesting to expand upon them a little.

“The Diamond Sutra distills Buddhism’s central message that everything changes. It describes our fleeting world as a bubble in a stream.”

That’s certainly one of the themes of the Diamond Sutra, but there is much more. The Diamond Sutra, like the Heart Sutra, also based on the Maha Prajna-paramita, is an exposition on the Bodhisattva path. The sutra explains that a bodhisattva must abandon all concepts of “self,” “other,” “things,” and so on. When a bodhisattva helps another being, he or she should not have the idea that someone is being helped. In other words, one must rid the mind of all concepts and discrimination.

This is probably more the central theme of the sutra than the subject of impermanence. The Buddha explains that the ultimate truth cannot be expressed in words, and that no one attains Transcendent Wisdom (Prajna-paramita), and that, in fact, the very idea of attainment is a concept to be abandoned.

“Jack Kerouac was so influenced by the Diamond Sutra that he studied it daily for years and attempted his own rendition.”

Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo, circa 1956

The great American novelist said it his favorite sutra. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac makes four specific references to the Diamond Sutra, two of them reiterating the sutra’s theme of “without holding in mind any conceptions” and “ ‘Make no formed conceptions about the realness of existence nor about the unrealness of existence,’ or words like that.” There’s numerous allusions to the sutra with phrases like “shining diamond,” “diamond cutter,” etc. Kerouac’s Some of the Dharma, a book of notes and poems on Buddhism, is filled with references to the Diamond Sutra, as are many of his letters to friends.

References to the sutra can also be found in the opening section of another novel, Desolation Angels, where Kerouac describes his time spent on Desolation Peak in Washington State as a fire lookout. Then in Chapter 84, there appears to be an excerpt of his “rendition” (A Paraphrase of the Diamond Sutra). Raphael, by the way, is Gregory Corso:

Meanwhile Raphael has been reading the Diamondcutter of the Wise Vow (Diamond Sutra) that I paraphrased on Desolation, has it on his lap.

“Do you understand it Raphael? There you’ll find everything there is to know.”

“I know what you mean. Yes I understand it.”

Finally I read sections of it to the party to take their minds off the girl jealousies—:

“Subhuti, living ones who know, in teaching meaning to others, should first be free themselves from all the frustrating desires aroused by beautiful sights, pleasant sounds, sweet tastes, fragrance, soft tangibles, and tempting thoughts. In their practice of generosity, they should not be blindly influenced by any of these intriguing shows. And why? Because, if in their practice of generosity they are not blindly influenced by such things they will pass through a bliss and merit that is beyond calculation and beyond imagining. What think you, Subhuti? Is it possible to calculate the distance of space in the eastern skies? No, blissful awakener! It is impossible to calculate the distance of space in the eastern skies. Subhuti, is it possible to calculate the limits of space in the northern, southern, and western skies? Or to any of the four corners of the universe, or above or below or within? No, honored of the worlds! Subhuti, it is equally impossible to calculate the bliss and merit through which the living ones who know will pass, who practice generosity not blindly influenced by any of these judgments of the realness of the feeling of existence. This truth should be taught in the beginning and to everybody”…

They all listen intently… nevertheless there’s something
in the room I’m not in on… pearls come in clams.
The world will be saved by what I see
Universal perfect courtesy—
Orion in the fresh space of heaven
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—

“Brevity is one reason for the Diamond Sutra’s popularity. It can be recited in 40 minutes.”

Well, it’s not as short of the Heart Sutra, of course. Some nice Chinese chanting of the Diamond Sutra at the end of this post.

“The Diamond Sutra of 868 A.D. is printed on paper, a material unknown in the West for another couple centuries.”

Not only that, but as Kogen Mizuno explains:

The world’s oldest extant examples of printing are dharani, or magical incantations, printed in Japan between 764 and 770 . . . These dharani were printed almost seven hundred years before the European development of movable type, with which the Gutenberg Bible is traditionally credited . . . Although Confucian writings seem to have been printed not long after the Diamond Wisdom Sutra, it was not until the beginning of the Sung dynasty that printing of the massive Tripitaka was undertaken (about one hundred years after the Diamond Wisdom Sutra). Though it would be another seven decades before the Chinese developed practical movable type, the earliest Tripitaka appeared nearly five centuries before Gutenberg Bible.”

Here is the Huffington Post piece on the Diamond Sutra.

This requires some patience, and about 43 minutes and 21 seconds: Diamond Sutra chanting in Chinese. It’s not the most beautiful Chinese chanting of this sutra that I’ve heard, but it’s the only authentic Chinese Buddhist version I could find on YouTube. If you listen carefully, you will hear what appears to be 2 or 3 part harmony.

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5 thoughts on “Secrets of the Diamond Sutra

    1. I can’t view the link Michael provided because it needs some plug-in. But a slide show of the exhibit can be found at the end of the Huff Post post. As for physical viewing at the Museum, I haven’t a clue. Why don’t you give them a call and ask them? 🙂

  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. Glad to see you elaborate on the four “key points” at the bottom of the Huffington Post piece because they seemed important to us. But even the web has practical limits to length.

    Because the Diamond Sutra of 868AD is deemed too fragile, it is no longer on permanent display at the British Library. But as Michael Dorfman notes, it is visible online.

    A compartively low-tech version, accessible to all, is at http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/sutra/accessible/introduction.html.

    Also worth seeing is the version at the International Dunhuang Project, which is associated with the British Library: http://idp.bl.uk/database/oo_loader.a4d?pm=Or.8210/P.2

    all the best,
    Joyce Morgan & Conrad Walters
    Journeys on the Silk Road

    1. Thanks so much for the comment.

      Your points were important, that’s why I wanted to expand on them, and I hope you understand I wasn’t taking exception to them. Yes, the web has its practical limits to length, but I don’t let that bother me, I go on and on anyway.

      I was also contacted by your publicist who offered me a copy of your book. I really do look forward to reading it. Such a fascinating story. And thanks also for clarifying the situation at the British Library, it saves Steve a phone call. 🙂

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