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’.

The radical young scholar-monks of the emerging Buddha-Dharma pick up the thread around 500 BCE. And their break from the earlier literature was evident in their sharp and single-minded focus on investigating ‘Subject’. It gives the evolved Buddha Dharma its unique and defining orientation [Anatman; a term I don’t use given its numerous and conflicting historical definitions].

They set their results down in a pioneering text, the Maha Prajñā Pāramitha Sūtra, a text which in time defines the very basis of the Mahayana Tradition of Buddhism and a root source for a variety of later traditions including C’han Zen.

And what is central to it is its exhaustive use of the Self-Negating Expression. In fact the Sūtra is simply the exclusive application of the Self-Negating Expression, reflected in almost every verse, as it applied to the parameters, the contours of the emerging Buddhist World-View.

Yagnavalkya’s rounded rule becomes the celebrated directive: ‘Arouse the Mind with no Abiding Place‘. And the high-abstraction of the Self-Eating Expression is made concrete and accessible in the central Buddhist metaphor of the ‘Raft’. Both originate in the verses of the Diamond Sūtra. [See the Posts].

Prajñā is ‘Primal Sight-Insight’. Pāramitha marks the limit of achievement, the full rounding of the circle with no remainder [the ‘Reality Limit’]. 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 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.

Pious scribes and well-meaning monks had tamed Shūnyam’fierce bellow into a feeble whimper, a reverent purr.

Soon after, the descent begins. 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.]

Here for example is a translation of the opening verse from the original compilation of the Ratna Guna [Dr. Edward Conze, 1951]:

‘No Wisdom can we get hold of, no higher perfection,
no Bodhisattva, no thought of Enlightenment either,
when told of this, if not bewildered and in no way anxious,
a Bodhisattva courses in the Well-Gone’s Wisdom’.

Or this:

‘Those who teach the Dharma, and those who listen to it taught;
those who have won the fruit of an Arhat, a single Buddha, a world-saviour; and the Nirvana won by the wise and learned,
mere illusions, mere dreams-so has the Tat-agatha taught.’

This mocking of notions like ‘Higher Perfection’ and Nirvana [the latter, a very meaningful term] is directed at the emerging literature of the period, flowery claims made by unfininished monks and short-stopped scholars. You will see little of this terse bluntness in the enlarged scriptures. 2, 500 years ago such language was bare-knuckle provocation.

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’.

‘Enlightenment’, a newly popular expression, is the settled conviction of the absence of a Separated ‘Self’. If you think you have newly arrived at that primal truth, you are not done with the platform of a Separated ‘Self’. There is not, never was a Separated ‘Self’ to begin with; and there is no Separated ‘Self’ to newly realize its own absence.

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.

‘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.

Sūtra is fiercely focused, if cryptic, teaching. The Upanishad is mystical poetry in which teachings can be gleamed. The Rig Veda is solemn invocation meant for performance at formal sacrifice. They each yield very differently to interpretation and translation.

The full Diamond Sūtra from the A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam translation from the Chinese [1947]:

Dr. Edward Conze’s labor draws heavily on Haribhadra’s Abhisamayalankaraloka, Nagarjuna’s Commentaries and others. His translation is from the Sanskrit [1988]:

There are numerous other, but these verses are difficult to accurately translate. I suggest staying with the above.

The Hridaya [‘Heart’] Sūtra