Dec 30, 2009

'Sutra' is an ancient Indian word meaning a 'classical text', and later was adopted by followers of the Buddha to refer to the discourse-sermons of Gautama himself.

Photo of original diamond sutra

Diamond Sutra. Cave 17, Dunhuang, ink on paper, British Library, Or.8210/P.2 Copyright The British Library Board

Hidden for centuries in a sealed-up cave in China, this copy of the Diamond Sutra in the British Library is the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book. It was made in 868 and written in Chinese at a time when China was the centre of the world.

Seven strips of yellow-stained paper were printed from carved wooden blocks and pasted together to form a scroll over 5m long.


The Diamond Sutra is one of many thousands of Buddhist sutra. It is about the essential meaning of Buddhism, that of non-duality: the fact that there are no truly individual existences in the world. That the world as we perceive it is an illusion: there is only non-duality.

In this sutra, the Buddha has finished his daily walk with the monks to gather offerings of food and sits down to rest. One of the older monks, Subhuti, asks the Buddha a question. What then follows is a dialogue regarding the nature of perception, in which the Buddha often uses paradoxical phrases. He is trying to help Subhuti unlearn his preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality, enlightenment, and compassion.

At one point, the Buddha explains to Subhuti the need to practise a sincere compassion that comes from deep within, without any underlying motive for gain. In another section, the Buddha addresses Subhuti's concern about the teachings gradually fading away by assuring him that, well after he is gone, there will be some who can grasp the meaning of the Diamond Sutra and put it into practice.

The teachings of the Buddha are subtle. The Diamond Sutra urges seekers of the truth to cut through the illusions of reality that bind them. Names and concepts given to both concrete and abstract things are merely mental constructs that mask the true, timeless reality lying behind them.

In monasteries, the sutra can be chanted in about forty minutes. A famous verse appears at the end of the sutra - a list of vivid metaphors for impermanence. Here are two translations:

Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.


All composite things
Are like a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, and a shadow,
Are like a dewdrop and a flash of lightening;
Thus are they to be regarded.

portrait of Susan Whitfield A talk on the Diamond Sutra given by Dr. Susan Whitfield, director of the Dunhuang Project at the British Library (MP3, 9min, 4MB).