05/11 – The Diamond Sūtra

A section of the Diamond Sūtra currently held in the British Library. (Public Domain)

On this day in 868, the very first printed and dated book was produced in Tang China. Known colloquially as the Diamond Sūtra, its full title in Sanskrit was Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (or, The Perfection of Wisdom Text that Cuts Like a Thunderbolt). Originally written by Mahāyāna Buddhists somewhere in East Asia, the Sūtra – a sort of spiritual manual – contained advice on how to live in accordance with Buddhist ideals. Buddhism originated in India somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, and by the time of the Diamond Sūtra‘s publication, it had become incredibly widespread within the Asian continent. The text itself was written during the 5th century CE and rapidly became popular across the region in the written and oral tradition. Interestingly, it is history’s first work of public domain literature – a notation at the back of the Sūtra indicates that the text is intended for “…free universal distribution”.

A depiction of an early printing set-up, from the 15th century, somewhere in Europe. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Although the “print revolution” – when printing technology became widely available to private individuals – began in the 15th century with Gutenberg’s press, Chinese wood-block (AKA xylography) printing technology had existed for centuries prior. In fact, humans had been printing things and distributing them en masse since roughly 3500 BCE, when Mesopotamian and Persian government officials imprinted documents into clay using large carved wheels. Originally, the first empires used printing as a means for growing their sprawling bureaucracies, administering taxation and enacting laws; later on, printing became a means for spreading religious and propagandistic messages. Chinese xylography, for example, corresponded roughly with the rise of Buddhism; similar technologies in the Middle East helped promote the spread of Judaism, and later, Christianity and Islam. One could easily argue that the rapid spread of Buddhism can be largely attributed to the development of printing technology and the proliferation of texts like the Diamond Sūtra.

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