Raiders of the lost Diamond Sutra

How the oldest surviving (dated) printed manuscript known to scholars ended up at the British Library

Pith helmeted and suited in khaki; assisted ably by Dash (whenever the dog died, it was replaced with another dog called Dash); and, meals in the field, with spectacular views, served by assistants on a foldable table and dinner service, and knighted for these troubles and other services to Empire ( e.g. a few toes lost to Himalayan frost-bite) — you would be hard-pressed to find a more pucca sahib than Sir Marc Aurel Stein.

Stein (26 November 1862–26 October 1943) wasn’t born an Englishman: he was a Hungarian immigrant. An academic, ethnographer, geographer, linguist and surveyor, Stein became famous for his expeditions and travels to Central Asia from both the eastern and western forward Himalayan territories of British India. He wrote several volumes on his expeditions and discoveries, the most famous being The Ruins of Desert Cathay (1912), making him a popular travel and adventure writer.

On these ‘adventures’ (some would call them raiding expeditions in the Elgin tradition), he ‘found’ (some would say bribed, vandalised, and stole) what became one of the most priceless literary artefacts— comparable to the Rosetta stone or a surviving manuscript of Beowulf — in the museums and libraries of Great Britain: a Diamond Sutra scroll dated to have been made in 868 A.D. It is the earliest date-bearing and mechanically mass-produced printed document know to historians.

Block printing in Ancient China

The Diamond Sutra is a typical, almost bog-standard, product of print technology in Tang Dynasty (9th century A.D), China. Hundreds of thousands of these types of scrolls were produced at Buddhist monasteries as a way of soliciting donations and earning karma, putting the wheel of dharma in motion by disseminating its scripture. This is not to take away from its uniqueness. If anything, the Diamond Sutra’s common-place origins point to the remarkable accomplishment that only China managed, developing all the disparate elements required to have a flourishing print culture: block printing using carved wooden presses, permanent ink (from soot and carbon black), and the development of paper, not to mention a flourishing culture of scholarship, writing and reading. All these elements combined to make printing a ubiquitous technology in Tang China.

What is particularly distinctive, and points to a sophisticated knowledge of paper-making, is the yellow tinge of the paper. The scroll is constructed from seven sections of fine paper (made of hemp and mulberry fibres). A yellow dye called huangbo was used to colour the paper. Yellow is not just an auspicious and religious colour in Buddhism, the dye also acted as an insecticide that has prevented the scroll from absorbing moisture, damp rot or being eaten and destroyed by insects.

The scroll bears a gorgeous frontispiece illustration of the Buddha delivering a sermon to his followers, which points to the sophistication and familiarity artisans had developed in block-printing.

© British Library (public domain):

For reasons that experts can only speculate, huge quantities of these scrolls were removed to the remote caves in the desert, and walled up in intricate caves complexes decorated with carvings. The burial and abandonment suggests the repression and destruction of Buddhist monasteries, the religion going from the major faith to a suppressed one, towards the end of the Tang era. Also important is the collapse of the Silk Route economy and the Buddhist communities it supported, and invasions from the direction of Turkey and Mongolia. It also possible that the monasteries had produced far too many copies but could not destroy or dispose of them because they were religious objects. Most tantalising, is the idea that the monks were aware that the dry desert caves would preserve their scrolls perfectly for millennia and left repositories there for future generations, waiting to be discovered.

The huge stores of scrolls in the deserts of Central Asia remained largely undisturbed until European adventurers like Aurel Stein and his rivals (such as Sven Hedin, Francis Younghusband, and Nikolai Przhevalsy) chanced upon them, bribed the impoverished local guardians of the caves a few trifling notes, and removed as many as they could pack into mule carts.

The Diamond Sutra as a religious object

The sutra takes the classic form of discourse (similar to Greek philosophical dialogues) of a discussion between the Buddha and a slightly dim-witted disciple. The Diamond Sutra was given its name by the Buddha himself, explains this entry at the British Library, because its teachings will:

‘cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting’.

In order to achieve to amplify the Buddha’s message of rejecting the illusionary nature of reality it uses paradoxical imagery:

“Just as, in the vast ethereal sphere, stars and darkness, light and mirage, dew, foam, lightning, and clouds emerge, become visible, and vanish again, like the features of a dream — so everything endowed with an individual shape is to be regarded.”

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, suggests: “As with most of the shorter (and later) Prajnaparamita texts, the ideas are not argued or explained but boldly stated, often in striking paradoxes, including frequent identification of things with their opposites. Thus, the form of presentation underlines the text’s thesis that spiritual realization depends upon transcending rational categories. Partly for this reason the Diamond Sutra is considered the Sanskrit work closest in spirit to the philosophy of Chan (Zen) Buddhism.”

There is at least one Western scholar out there who rejects the civilisation history of paradoxical poetry to illuminate minds (the best example of which is the Daoist Tao te Ching) and claims that the confusion is because of mistranslation of specific words. This is exactly the kind of pedantic thinking and dogmatic disciples the Buddha had to struggle with, leading to sermons such as the Diamond Sutra.


The most interesting and somewhat tragic side-story in this saga of treasure acquisition, grand games of Empire, and high philosophy, apart from Sir Stein’s toes, is that of his dog, Dash.

Dash II a.k.a Dash the Great

While Stein has a whole procession of dogs named Dash, he considered Dash II or “Dash the Great”, to be the best of his companions.

Dash II survived sub-zero temperatures, high-altitude Himalayan passes, starvation rations (left-over tea water), being mauled by semi-feral packs of sheep dogs, perilous gorge crossings (where he was ignominiously wrapped up like a bundle of luggage), and developed a taste for snow, chasing marmots, and jumping into riding position on the pommel of horses.

After this journey, Dash II then had to endure the quarantine procedures of being taken from India to the UK by steamship and four months in observation. Finally, he was re-united with Stein at Oxford. Unfortunately, after surviving the some of the most arduous treks undertaken by man or dog, leaving his fans bereft, Dash II was run over by a bus.

Divine Providence

It may seem that there is nothing more dogmatic that making donations to a temple, and the monks in their own wisdom, using that money to block print another copy of a nonsense poem, out of nothing more than manic ritual. Thousands are made in this way and now lay buried in the caves of the Central Asia. The civilisation that made these objects and scrolls is long defunct. The sun rises and falls in the desert, as do the empires of Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Buddhism itself becomes suppressed towards the end of the Tang Dynasty.

One day, a man in khaki and his dog, seeking their own place in the world arrive to prise open the rocks that seal the caves where thousands of scrolls lie dusty and forgotten. The document is extracted and conveyed thousands of miles, across oceans, in a trunk at the bottom of freighter, to a foreign land.

Under the gaze of scholars, translators, archivists and restorers, a long extinguished civilisation leaps back to life. And once again, the message of mindfulness and law that a wandering ascetic of the forests of India sought to preach, dead for thousands of years, is known by more people than ever before.

The colophon of the Diamond Sutra reads:

Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [ 11th May, 868 A.D.].

“The fifteenth day of the fourth month of the ninth year of the Xiantong reign”: the earliest date on a printed document known to man.

Wang Jie’s donation to make a copy of the Diamond Sutra for ‘universal free distribution’ makes it difficult who exactly owns an object like this. Much later, during the Cultural Revolution, most major surviving Buddhist monasteries and relics in China were destroyed. There is no way had the document been kept in China, and its importance known, it would have survived that revolution. It would never be subject to the care and attention it has received around the planet in the custody of the British Library. All said, it is still a looted object, the word ‘loot’ itself is a loan word from Hindi to English, being the most apt descriptive term for what the British did in India.

More curious, however, is the larger question: that an ascetic’s advice to his dogmatic disciple could have survived and be transmitted by such a process of accident seems nothing less than divine providence.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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