Discover the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, the World’s Oldest Surviving Complete Printed Book (868 AD)

It isn’t easy to say which book is the old­est in the world, because the answer depends on what, exact­ly qual­i­fies as a book. Dat­ing from the year 868, the Chi­nese Dia­mond Sūtra is known as “the world’s ear­li­est dat­ed, print­ed book,” the words used on the web site of the British Library, which owns the thing itself. It was found in north­west Chi­na, “in a holy site called the Mogao (or ‘Peer­less’) Caves or the ‘Caves of a Thou­sand Bud­dhas,’ which was a major Bud­dhist cen­tre from the 4th to 14th cen­turies,” its page explains. “In 1900, a monk named Wang Yuan­lu dis­cov­ered the sealed entrance to a hid­den cave, where tens of thou­sands of man­u­scripts, paint­ings and oth­er arti­facts had been deposit­ed and sealed up some­time around the begin­ning of the 11th cen­tu­ry.”

Includ­ed in this trea­sure trove, this copy of the Dia­mond Sutra “was brought to Eng­land by the explor­er Sir Aurel Stein in 1907.” With the form of not a‑book-as-we-know-it but “sev­en strips of yel­low-stained paper print­ed from carved wood­en blocks and past­ed togeth­er to form a scroll 16 feet by 10. 5 inch­es wide,” as Jere­my Nor­man writes at, it may not seem all that impres­sive when seen from a dis­tance.

But “its text, print­ed in Chi­nese, is one of the most impor­tant sacred works of the Bud­dhist faith,” a dia­logue between the Bud­dha and one of his pupils on the “per­fec­tion of insight” and the nature of real­i­ty itself, titled for its poten­tial to cut like a dia­mond blade through the lay­ers of illu­sion in which we live.

Today, we need not exam­ine the Chi­nese Dia­mond Sutra only at a dis­tance, for the British Library has made a com­plete dig­i­ti­za­tion of the scroll avail­able on its “Vir­tu­al Books” page. For those who don’t read ninth-cen­tu­ry Chi­nese, the most inter­est­ing ele­ment will be the fron­tispiece, which, as Nor­man writes, “shows the Bud­dha expound­ing the sutra to an elder­ly dis­ci­ple called Sub­huti. That is the ear­li­est dat­ed book illus­tra­tion, and the ear­li­est dat­ed wood­cut print.” The British Library notes that “the finesse in the details evi­dences the fact that print­ing had already grown into a mature tech­nol­o­gy by the ninth cen­tu­ry in Chi­na,” long before such oth­er famous books as Shake­speare’s First Folio or even the Guten­berg Bible. This is an arti­fact of great his­tor­i­cal val­ue, reflect­ed by the degree of care with which it’s been con­served. But as a believ­er might add, why focus on the age of a book when the wis­dom it offers is time­less?

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Old­est Book Print­ed with Mov­able Type is Not The Guten­berg Bible: Jikji, a Col­lec­tion of Kore­an Bud­dhist Teach­ings, Pre­dat­ed It By 78 Years and It’s Now Dig­i­tized Online

Europe’s Old­est Intact Book Was Pre­served and Found in the Cof­fin of a Saint

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece The Book of Kells Has Been Dig­i­tized and Put Online

Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Presents the 550-Year-Old Guten­berg Bible in Spec­tac­u­lar, High-Res Detail

Behold a Dig­i­ti­za­tion of “The Most Beau­ti­ful of All Print­ed Books,” The Kelm­scott Chaucer

One of World’s Old­est Books Print­ed in Mul­ti-Col­or Now Opened & Dig­i­tized for the First Time

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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