The Oldest Printed Text


The Diamond Sūtra

Man’s Oldest Preserved Printed Text
Ink on Paper, Cave 17, Donhuang, China

Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th day of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong’
[May 11, 868, CE]

British Museum Library, London

When properly rounded, Yājñavalkya’s Rule  would mark the origin of the Via Negativa, the first formulated Self-Negating Expression and the earliest definition for the Symbol ‘0’.

But its most complete elaboration is in the Diamond Sūtra, a specific condensation of the larger Maha Prajñā Pāramitha Sūtra.

Prajñā is ‘Primal Sight-Insight’. Pāramitha marks the limit of achievement, the full rounding of the circle with no remainder [also as the: ‘Other Shore’, the shore of the Immortals].

Sūtra, cognate with ‘Suture’, a strung-together lock, was originally meant as a mnemonic arrangement [hence the repetitious reinforcements], the anchoring reference to an oral teaching tradition.

The turn here is towards a fierce and single-minded emphasis on the absence of any independent, separated empirical ‘Self’ and its implications for viewing the world. This can lead to some exceptionally loopy language [and some profound insights]. It also gives the emerging Buddha Dharma its unique orientation [Anatman].

The recensions of the Maha Prajñā Pāramitha Sūtra expand in stages and reach as high as 100,000 Slokas [Sloka, a metrical unit of 32 syllables]. By the time the Sūtra reaches these rarefied heights of loquacious amplification, the core insights of the original text are lost or faded into footnotes.

The oral tradition and its dependence on mnemonic phrasing did not transfer well to the written word in high Sanskrit. A downward spiral progressively compacting the now unwieldy texts. The 300 Sloka version is the Vajrachedika Sūtra, [In English, the ‘Diamond’ or ‘Diamond-Cutter’ Sūtra].

Arouse the Mind with no abiding place‘ says its most the celebrated line[The metaphor of the Raft, the central metaphor of Buddhism, also originates here.]

The language of the Diamond Sūtra is manifestly opaque to one unfamiliar with its intent. It is special because it is uniquely cognizant of the centrality of the Self-Loop. The Self-Eating Expression is the principal, the only theme of the Sūtra.

[Here is an example parsing the second verse below. The Teaching is that there is no ‘Teaching’. When you see that you gain the Teaching. Until then, you are held back in class. The purport of the Self-Negating Expression is to scuttle all ‘Teaching’ including itself as a ‘Teaching’.]

For the below excerpts, I’ve chosen the simpler but remarkably precise A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam translation from the Chinese[1947]. 

On ‘Enlightenment’:

Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata attained the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment?

Subhuti answered: As I understand Buddha’s meaning there is no formulation of truth called Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.’

Subhuti, what do you think? Does a holy one say within himself: I have obtained Perfective Enlightenment?

Subhuti said: No, World-honored One. Wherefore? Because there is no such condition as that called “Perfective Enlightenment.

World-honored one, if a holy one of Perfective Enlightenment said to himself “such am I,” he would necessarily partake of the idea of an ego-entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality….

On ‘Teaching’:

Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata conceives the idea: I must set forth a Teaching. For if anyone says that the Tathagata sets forth a Teaching he really slanders Buddha and is unable to explain what I teach.’

‘Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata a teaching to enunciate?

Subhuti replied to the Buddha: World-honored One, indeed, the Tathagata has nothing to teach.’

On Achievement [‘Acquisition’]:

Then Subhuti asked Buddha: World-honored One, in the attainment of the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment did Buddha make no acquisition whatsoever?

Buddha replied: Just so, Subhuti. Through the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment I acquired not even the least thing; therefore it is called ‘Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.

On Liberation:

Subhuti, what do you think? Let no one say the Tathagata cherishes the idea: I must liberate all living beings. Allow no such thought, Subhuti.

Wherefore? Because in reality there are no living beings to be liberated by the Tathagata. If there were living beings for the Tathagata to liberate, He would partake in the idea of selfhood, personality entity, and separate individuality.

On ‘Self’:

Subhuti, if anyone should say that Buddha declares any conception of egoity do you consider he would understand my teaching correctly?

No, World-honored One, such a man would not have any sound understanding of the Tathagata’s teaching, because the World-honored One declares that notions of selfhood, personality, entity and separate individuality, as really existing, are erroneous – these terms are merely figures of speech.

Subhuti, though the common people accept egoity as real, the Tathagata declares that ego is not different from non-ego. Subhuti, those whom the Tathagata referred to as “common people” are not really common people; such is merely a name.

On ‘Views And Aspects’:

Subhuti, if you should conceive the idea that anyone in whom dawns the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment declares that all manifest standards are ended and extinguished, do not countenance such thoughts.

Wherefore? Because the man in whom the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment dawns does not affirm concerning any formula that it is finally extinguished.

Subhuti, those who aspire to the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment should recognize and understand all varieties of things in the same way and cut off the arising of views. Subhuti, as regards aspects, the Tathagata declares that in reality they are not such. They are called [merely called] “aspects”.

Just as the Tathagata declares that characteristics are not characteristics, so He declares that all living beings are not, in fact, living beings.

On ‘Wisdom And Reality’:

At that time Subhuti addressed Buddha, saying: World-honored One, by what name should this Discourse be known, and how should we receive and retain it?

Buddha answered: Subhuti, this Discourse should be known as “The Diamond of the Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom” – thus should you receive and retain it. Subhuti, what is the reason herein? According to the Buddha-teaching the Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom is not really such. “Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom” is just the name given to it…

Fundamental Reality is not, in fact, a distinctive idea; therefore the Tathagata teaches: “Idea of Fundamental Reality” is merely a name.

In the later periods, it was common for senior scholars to try and insert, delete or alter key phrases in the reconstructed verses as means of elaborating and legitimizing their own views or in a misguided attempt at straightening and simplifying the Loop. 

The way to spot a slide in the core content is to stay alert to sudden qualifying lines, lines conflicting with an earlier or later primary metric, or inappropriate, redundant refrains. In general, if the language slips to the linear, if it is avoiding confronting the Self-Loop, it is most likely a later addition.

So watch your step as you read these aged lines. They can be very helpful to the informed reader, fatally beguiling to the casually curious.

Soon after, the descent begins. Pious scribes and well-meaning monks tame Shūnyam’fierce bellow into a feeble whimper, a reverent purr.

What could have stabilized as Shūnyam and the view from Shūnyam gets morphed into a rarefied space of high-abstractions and elevated reifications, all proxying for a missed denouement. [The Posts list about 40 examples.]