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The Diamond Sutra: The World’s Oldest Printed Text


Long before the “Gutenberg galaxy”, the Orient was already printing hidden gems of wisdom in the form of books.

The oldest printed text in the world is believed to be The Diamond Sutra, a book of Mahāyāna Buddhism that was found in a cave 1146 years ago. Belonging to the Prajñāpāramitā, or “Perfect Wisdom” tradition, this sutra dates back to the year 868, (centuries before the West had even started using paper), and it gathers Buddha’s teachings on the nature of perception and the illusion of the material world. From its Sanskrit translation, its full name is The Perfect Wisdom Diamond Sutra that Cuts through the Illusion.

Perhaps the primary origin of knowledge is a frugal bowl, open but measured; an infinite receptacle capable of self-generating and regenerating. In this sense it is not surprising that the precious parchment, roughly five meters in length, had remained hidden in a cave together with forty-thousand books and manuscripts. The rocky “container”, which had remained sealed shut, was part of the Thousand Buddha Caves in northeastern China, and the parchment was discovered by the British-Hungarian archeologist Aurel Stein.

Stein took the collection to India and later to London, where it was briefly exhibited next to the Gutenberg Bible in the British Museum. Currently, because of its utter fragility, it is safeguarded from public scrutiny.

This small book’s enigmatic text can be recited in a mere forty minutes. Composed mainly of paradoxes such as “That which you know as the teachings of Buddha are not the teachings of Buddha”, The Diamond Sutra evokes the cathartic lightness of Zen thought, and, perhaps, it points towards the dissolution of the pillars of knowledge supporting the ubiquity of the void.

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