Explore the Diamond Sūtra: The World’s Earliest Dated and Printed Book in Existence

Explore the Diamond Sutra, the World's Earliest Dated, Printed Book

The Diamond Sūtra, printed on May 11, 868, resides at The British Library. (Photo: The British Library, Public Domain)

Like its namesake stone, the Diamond Sūtra was found underground. In 1900, a Buddhist monk in the Gansu province of China stumbled upon a sealed entrance leading to a series of 492 connected caves. The site had been closed off to the world since the start of the 11th century. Once a major Buddhist center, the area is known as Mogao (“Peerless”) Caves or the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas. Among the treasures recovered from the caves is the Diamond Sūtra—the earliest dated, printed book in existence.

The Diamond Sūtra is a scroll stretching about 16 feet long. It was made through ancient Chinese woodblock printing, a craft that long predated the European printing press. A single woodblock would be used to print, and then the individual pieces of the scroll were connected into one. The start of the scroll, or frontispiece, is an elaborate print of the historical Buddha with his disciple Subhūti and other figures gathered under trees. The text is a sacred one, and while this copy is the earliest extant, many others were printed over the intervening centuries.

The book is also dated. A colophon at the end reads: “On the 15th day of the 4th month of the 9th year of the Xiantong reign period, Wang Jie had this made for universal distribution on behalf of his two parents.” On the Western calendar that is May 11, 868. Wang Jie seemingly financed the scroll's creation by artisans in honor of his parents. At some point, it made its way to the caves, where it may have been studied before it was sealed away for hundreds of years. After the caves' unsealing in 1900, the book was removed. It was brought to England by Sir Aurel Stein, an Englishman traveling abroad, in 1907. The scroll is now conserved and preserved in The British Library and can be explored in its entirety online.

The Diamond Sūtra is an ancient scroll known to be the oldest complete, printed, and dated book in existence.

Explore the Diamond Sutra, the World's Earliest Dated, Printed Book

The text comes from a series of Buddhist Caves which were sealed for hundreds of years. (Photo: The British Library, Public Domain)

It was found among other precious Buddhist manuscripts in ancient caves sealed for hundreds of years.

Explore the Diamond Sutra, the World's Earliest Dated, Printed Book

The scroll is the earliest printed example of a dated, printed book. (Photo: The British Library, Public Domain)

h/t: [Open Culture]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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