It has taken me awhile but I’ve finally finished reading Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters. I received a free review copy from the publisher some months ago. The only reason it took me so long to read it is that I had a some other books to read first, and for once, I stuck to my plan, although I must say that I was constantly tempted to jump ahead to this one because I knew it would a ripping good yarn, as they used to say. And it is.
Journeys on the Silk Road tells the fascinating story of Aurel Stein, 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 discoveried.
At the heart of the book is the account of Stein’s trek across the desert, accompanied by his faithful “sidekick” Chiang, a Chinese scholar, and a fox terrier named Dash, to the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas”, near Dunhuang, Western China in 1907. The cave contained nearly 40,000 scrolls. Stein purchased several thousand from the monk who opened the cave, for the middling sum of £130. Among these was a copy of the Diamond Sutra that turned out to be the world’s oldest printed book.
Stein took the scrolls back to England, but it was some years before anyone realized the significance of this particular copy of the Diamond Sutra, which is now on display at the British Museum.
Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters also relate the story of how the Diamond Sutra was printed, which is an incredible story in itself. Not only is the cave scroll of the Diamond Sutra the world’s oldest printed text, but
The Diamond Sutra’s frontispiece is also the earliest known woodcut illustration in the world. The illustration is rich in detail and symbolism. The faces of the shaven-headed monks who surround the Buddha are drawn with such skill as to create individual portraits . . .
The Diamond Sutra of 868 was the product of a mature, sophisticated printing industry. Nothing like it existed in Europe.”
I have only one complaint about the book, and it’s a small one. The authors say that “Buddha Shakyamuni delivered the teaching known as the Diamond Sutra in a garden near the ancient Indian city of Sravasti.” The reality is that the Diamond Sutra was adapted from one of the larger Prajnaparamita sutras, which the Buddha had nothing to do with, as they were composed/compiled centuries after his passing.
That aside, you don’t have to be a Buddhist, interested in archeology or exploring, to enjoy this book. The authors are excellent story-tellers, and the story is so engrossing, that once started, I think anyone would have a tough time putting it down.
As a text, the Diamond Sutra is another kind of journey – a sometimes-confounding, paradoxical trip through the themes of change, emptiness, and the Bodhisattva path, an expedition that challenges our notions of self, others, our journey, and even, enlightenment – Diamond Wisdom, that cuts through ignorance, delusion, and attachment.
In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha advises us to realize that our wayfaring has no real destination, that there is only the journey itself. As we set out on the path, we might think that we will eventually arrive at some destination, see a horizon called enlightenment. However, that horizon is just an illusion, a bubble in our minds, a dream.
This teaching has been taught with a hidden meaning: This dharma is like a boat, once it carries a wayfarer across the sea of suffering to the other shore, it can be abandoned. So much more for that which is non-dharma.
– Diamond Sutra
The hidden part of the sutra, and really, the hidden teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, is that ultimately there is no other shore. There is only this shore, where we are right now, this very moment, which can be a shore at the edge of the sea of suffering, or can be the shore of nirvana, depending on how far our Diamond Wisdom has developed.
I beg the pardon of long-time readers if they feel that I am repeating myself as I state once again my feeling that enlightenment is not a destination, but a process, and once our wayfaring has led us to a plateau we might call enlightenment, another horizon appears before us, a further horizon, The Endless Further. Since this is more or less the theme of the blog, I feel it needs to be mentioned every so often.
It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
– Ernest Hemingway