Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Diamond Sutra

The endpapers of The Man Who Loved China, about Joseph Needham, are printed with a reproduction of the above text and illustration. I didn't realize what it was until I became fascinated with a side story in the book about the Diamond Sutra, which is what that text is. The Diamond Sutra is a Buddhist text translated from Sanskrit and made for the purpose of spreading Buddhism. The version above was printed in 868, making it the oldest printed and dated document ever found. That's about 600 years before printing appeared in Europe. It was hidden along with thousands of other Buddhist documents in a sealed up cave among many other caves in far western China, near the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, in Dunhuang, a rest stop on the Silk Route. In 1907, a European adventurer collecting for the British Museum paid a local monk 220 British pounds for the whole caveful of priceless documents, including the Diamond Sutra (which now lies in the British Library). Apparently this story still enrages people in China. The reason the story is in The Man Who Loved China is that Joseph Needham was also captivated by the Diamond Sutra, so captivated that he endured a horrific journey in 1943 to visit Dunhuang and examine the caves, many of which were painted with Buddhist scenes. What's fascinating to me is that I can actually recognize some of the characters in the text, and they look just like the printed characters in my elementary Chinese workbook (which was printed in the U.S. in 2007).

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