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


The history of Shūnyam has three recognizable stages.

First, as the origination of the intuition of Shūnyam in the Rig Veda, with the word Tat [literally, That]. It is then investigated and extended in the Chandogya and the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, the two oldest extant Upanishadic texts, around 1,500 BCE [see the Posts].

The formalization of the Self-Loop in the formula of the Self-Eating Expression and its birth as Shūnyam happens when the Upanishadic summaries are picked-up and perfected by the radical schools of the emerging Buddha-Dharma around 500 BCE.

They set their reformulation down in the luminous and subversive classic, the Maha Prajñā Pāramitha Vajracchedikā Sūtra. In English, ‘The Diamond Sūtra‘.

Soon after, the descent began. This was the third and final stage. Within 200 years of its construction, Shūnyam itself gets morphed into a rarefied space of high-abstractions and elevated reifications, all proxying for a missed denouement. [The Posts list about forty examples.]

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.

There are numerous larger Sūtras that dance around the idea of  Shūnyam and successfully evade any direct confrontation with its radical truth. The exception is the Prajna-Paramitha.

Its unclouded eye and unhesitant voice, its bristling lines that mock even the elemental rules of coherent linguistic structure, has made it a document of heresy to some and divine inscrutability to others.

Prajñā is ‘Primal Sight-Insight’ [inaccurately and frequently translated as ‘Wisdom’]. 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].

Prajñā Pāramitha is translatable with unavoidable clumsiness but fair accuracy as: ‘The [Self-Scuttling] Sight-Insight into the very nature of Sight-Insight [‘Observation-Understanding’]’. In other words, Shūnyam.

The original sections of the Prajñā Pāramitha Sūtra in their oral rendering date back to the century following the death of the Buddha and mark the oldest extant texts in the Buddhist canon.

The first translation from the Sanskrit was into classical Chinese in 179 CE by Lokashema from Kusana [The Tao-Hsing]. It was the first philosophical text to cross the border.

The recensions expand in stages, 500, 700, 10,000, 25,000, a total of 40 textual versions over 800 years, and finally halt at 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 faded into minor footnotes.

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

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.’

You will see little of this terse bluntness in the enlarged scriptures. 2, 500 years ago such language was bare-knuckle provocation.

And this kind of sharp debunking was called for to counter the wild claims being made by unfinished monks and unbaked teachers who had now became mainstream in the Tradition. [See the Posts for the historical evolution of the Sanskrit terms.]

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]. Unlike the other Sūtras, the Diamond Sūtra is uniquely cognizant of the centrality of the Self-Loop. And it is here that the Self-Eating Expression comes into full character, takes front stage.

The 25 Sloka compacting is the Hridaya Sutra [‘Heart Sutra] the daily invocation in every Zendo. Intentionally bite-sized and by far the most well-known, it is to be read and interpreted only as supplement to the Vajrachedika for its very tight phrasing can seriously miscue the entrant.

The language of the Diamond Sūtra is manifestly opaque to one unfamiliar with its intent. ‘[The Teaching]…is that there is no Teaching; [‘The Achievement]…is that there is no achievement’; [Enlightenment]…is that there is no such state as enlightenment’, and so on.

They are in the identical Logical-Form of the rounded Yagnavalkya Rule. And it here in these very lines that True Nothing takes birth as the terminus of the ‘Backward Step’, the full unwinding of the Self-Eating Expression.

The Diamond Sūtra is special because it alone unabashedly lays out the Self-Eating Expression, propels it to center stage as the very heart of proper Teaching.

[I’ve seen modern translations of the Sūtra where the loop is made linear, the absurdity made sensible. The loop is the heart of the Diamond Sūtra. To straighten it to a comforting sensibility is to completely waste its purpose.]

The Diamond Sūtra is the first documented exploration of the Self-Loop and its formalization in the Logical-Form of the Self-Eating Expression.

The following eight excerpts of verses from the Diamond Sūtra should give you a flavor for how it is treated in the verses. [I’ve chosen the simpler ‘Price and Wong’ translation. Keep in mind that this is language that is 2,500 years old. ]

Every one of these verses is an expression in Self-Loop. And it can be summarily reformatted, formalized, as a Self-Eating Expression.

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.’

[‘There is no Teaching; and that is the Teaching’. When you learn that, you’ve learnt the Teaching. Until you learn that, you stay back in class.]

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.”

[Enlightenment is waking up and realizing you were never-ever asleep. If you think you have newly woken up, by that very fact you are still asleep.]

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.’

[‘There is no achievement’; and to gain that truth is the achievement.]

On Self-Liberation:

Subhuti, 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.

Subhuti, if a Bodhisattva announces: I will liberate all living creatures, he is not rightly called a Bodhisattva.

Wherefore? Because, Subhuti, there is really no such condition as that called Bodhisattvaship, because Buddha teaches that all things are devoid of selfhood, devoid of separate individuality.

Buddha said: Subhuti, all the Bodhisattva-Heroes…are caused by Me to attain Unbounded Liberation Nirvana.

Yet when vast, uncountable, immeasurable numbers of beings have thus been liberated, verily no being has been liberated. Why is this, Subhuti? It is because no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.’

[‘I’ am never Liberated; to be Liberated is to see that there is no ‘Me’ that needs to be set-free. To be Liberated [Mukthi, Moksha] is to be freed of trying to be free.]

On Self-Realization:

‘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’.

[Self-Realization is the realization that there is no ‘Self’ that needs to be realized. And no ‘Self’ realizing that there is no ‘Self’ to be realized. And no ‘Self’ realizing that there is no ‘Self’ realizing that there is no ‘Self’ to be realized. And no ‘Self’…]

On Boddhisatvahood:

Subhuti…if a Bodhisattva announces: I will liberate all living creatures, he is not rightly called a Bodhisattva.

Wherefore? Because, Subhuti, there is really no such condition as that called Bodhisattvaship, because Buddha teaches that all things are devoid of selfhood, devoid of separate individuality.

Bodhisattvas who are wholly devoid of any conception of separate selfhood are truthfully called Bodhisattvas.

[If you think you are a Bodhisattva, by that very fact, you are not…!!]

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.

World-honored One, if anyone listens to this Discourse in faith with a pure, lucid mind, he will thereupon conceive an idea of Fundamental Reality. We should know that such a one establishes the most remarkable virtue. World-honored One, such an idea of Fundamental Reality is not, in fact, a distinctive idea; therefore the Tathagata teaches: “Idea of Fundamental Reality” is merely a name.

On the ‘Cosmos’:

World-honored One, when the Tathagata speaks of galaxies of worlds, these are not worlds; for if reality could be predicated of a world it would be a self-existent cosmos and the Tathagata teaches that there is really no such thing. “Cosmos” is merely a figure of speech.

Then Buddha said: Subhuti, words cannot explain the real nature of a cosmos. Only common people fettered with desire make use of this arbitrary method.


Yagnavalkya’s rounded rule becomes the celebrated directive: ‘Arouse the Mind with no abiding place’. The concrete version of the Self-Eating Expression is the central metaphor of the ‘Raft’. Both originate in the verses of the Diamond Sūtra. 

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 and not intended as teaching. They each yield very differently to interpretation and translation.

You will find fewer and fewer references to Man-Made Gods and Demons as you approach the Sūtras, a result of the Sūtric content itself approaching the vicinity of Shūnyam. The language becomes clinical. But it picks up again sharply as the literature tries to reappropriate the newer Sūtras into the mainstream. [See: ‘Nothing Holy‘]

Given the numerous revisions of the Sūtra, 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.

I am almost certain that the refrains, ‘Like sands in the Ganges’ and the ‘Accrual of Merit’ in the Diamond Sūtra are later inserts by the reverent.

In general, if the language slips to the linear, if it is avoiding confronting the Self-Loop, it is most likely a later addition. As is it’s most well-known line: ‘Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world’, which stands directly counter to the earlier definitive verses.

The Sanskrit literature is cited, not because they are ‘Holy’ in the sense of the Abrahamic religious texts, but because they are the earliest documented records of the Inquiry. They are characterized more by attempt and failure, trial and error, than they are by Claim and Faith.

The material in this Site, while repeatedly acknowledging and citing these pioneers, also regularly notes where they slipped or stopped-short. And how some made it back centuries later, the corrections noted in the verses of a different or reedited Sūtra or Commentary.

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.