The Diamond Sutra in La-La-Land

“In La-La Land We Trust.”
– Robert Campbell

There’s a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Cave Temples Of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art On China’s Silk Road:

library-cave-2On the western edge of the Gobi Desert, near the ancient oasis town of Dunhuang, China, hundreds of cave temples were carved into a cliff face and decorated with Buddhist wall paintings and sculptures. [“Library” cave shown right.] The caves are known as the Mogao (peerless) Grottoes. From the 4th to the 14th century, Dunhuang bore witness to intense religious, commercial, and cultural exchange along the trade routes linking the East and West, known collectively as the Silk Road. The documents and artifacts discovered in the site’s famed Library Cave, along with the paintings and sculptures found in almost 500 other caves, focus primarily on Buddhism. They also tell tales of the merchants, monks, and ruling families who lived, worked, and worshipped in the Dunhuang region.”

The exhibition is collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy and the Dunhuang Foundation and will feature rare objects from the caves, cave replicas, along with Cave 45 described as a “virtual immersive experience.”  One of the 43 manuscripts included is The Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest complete printed book, currently on loan from the British Library.

I’ve written a number of posts that deal with this indispensible Mahayana Buddhist teaching that you can find here.

But an even better resource is a book by Joyce Morgan and 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 tells the fascinating story of Aurel Stein (and his dog, Dash), an archaeologist, who traveled along the Silk Road through India, Tibet, and China in search of relics for the British Museum. It details his various expeditions, the friendships made, the politics and intrigue encountered, and the artifacts he discovered, one being the oldest printed copy of the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra.

On the surface, The Diamond Sutra seems difficult to understand, but when we read between the lines we find that, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes in The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, “The sutra is so deep and wonderful.  It has its own language.  The first Western scholars who obtained the text thought it was talking nonsense.  It’s language seems mysterious, but when you look deeply, you can understand.”

In the Morgan and Walters book, Paul Harrison, Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, compares the sutra to a “piece of music that must be heard to be appreciated or a play that needs to be witnessed”  but if you approach the text as you would a novel “with a logical mind expecting things to be done in sequence and no repetitions to occur, it seems very weird.”

Subhuti, what do you think?  Has the Buddha attained the supreme awakening? Has he something he can teach?”

Subhuti said, “World Honored One, as I understand the dharma of the Buddha, the Buddha has no doctrine to covey.  The truth is ungraspable and inexpressible.  It neither is nor is not.  How is it so?  Because all noble teachers are exalted by the unconditioned.”

[Based on the Mu Soeng translation]

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