Diamond Sutra

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Elder Subhūti addresses the Buddha. Detail from the Dunhuang block print

The Diamond Sūtra is a Mahāyāna (Buddhist) sūtra from the Prajñāpāramitā, or "Perfection of Wisdom" genre, and emphasizes the practice of non-abiding and non-attachment. The full Sanskrit title of this text is the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.

A copy of the Chinese version of Diamond Sūtra, found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in the early 20th century by Aurel Stein, was dated back to May 11, 868.[1] It is, in the words of the British Library, "the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book."[2]


The earliest known Sanskrit title for the sūtra is the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, which may be translated roughly as the "Vajra Cutter Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra." In English, shortened forms such as Diamond Sūtra and Vajra Sūtra are common. The Diamond Sūtra has also been highly regarded in a number of Asian countries where Mahāyāna Buddhism has been traditionally practiced. Translations of this title into the languages of some of these countries include:

  • Sanskrit: वज्रच्छेदिकाप्रज्ञापारमितासूत्र, Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
  • Chinese: 《金剛般若波羅蜜多經》, Jingang Boreboluomiduo Jing (Chin-kang Po-je-po-lo-mi-to Ching); shortened to 《金剛經》, Jingang Jing (Chin-kang Ching)
  • Japanese: 金剛般若波羅蜜多経, Kongō hannya haramita kyō, shortened to 金剛経, Kongō-kyō
  • Korean: 금강반야바라밀경, geumgang banyabaramil gyeong, shortened to 금강경, geumgang gyeong
  • Mongolian: Yeke kölgen sudur[3]
  • Vietnamese Kim cương bát-nhã-ba-la-mật-đa kinh, shortened to Kim cương kinh
  • Tibetan འཕགས་པ་ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་རྡོ་རྗེ་གཅོད་པ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོའི་མདོ།, Wylie: ’phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa rdo rje gcod pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo


Statue of Kumārajīva in front of the Kizil Caves in Kuqa, Xinjiang province, China

The full history of the text remains unknown, but Japanese scholars generally consider the Diamond Sūtra to be from a very early date in the development of Prajñāpāramitā literature.[4] Some western scholars also believe that the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra was adapted from the earlier Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.[4] Early western scholarship on the Diamond Sūtra is summarized by Müller.[5]

The first translation of the Diamond Sūtra into Chinese is thought to have been made in 401 CE by the venerated and prolific translator Kumārajīva.[6] Kumārajīva's translation style is distinctive, possessing a flowing smoothness that reflects his prioritization on conveying the meaning as opposed to precise literal rendering.[7] The Kumārajīva translation has been particularly highly regarded over the centuries, and it is this version that appears on the 868 CE Dunhuang scroll. In addition to the Kumārajīva translation, a number of later translations exist. The Diamond Sūtra was again translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Bodhiruci in 509 CE, Paramārtha in 558 CE, Xuanzang in 648 CE, and Yijing in 703 CE.[8][9][10][11]

The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang visited a Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravāda monastery at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in the 7th century CE. Using Xuanzang's travel accounts, modern archaeologists have identified the site of this monastery.[12] Birchbark manuscript fragments of several Mahāyāna sūtras have been discovered at the site, including the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (MS 2385), and these are now part of the Schøyen Collection.[12] This manuscript was written in the Sanskrit language, and written in an ornate form of the Gupta script.[12] This same Sanskrit manuscript also contains the Medicine Buddha Sūtra (Bhaiṣajyaguruvaiḍūryaprabhārāja Sūtra).[12]

The Diamond Sūtra gave rise to a culture of artwork, sūtra veneration, and commentaries in East Asian Buddhism. By the end of the Tang Dynasty (907) in China there were over 800 commentaries written on it.[13] One of the best known commentaries is the Exegesis on the Diamond Sutra by Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School.[14]

Contents and teachings[edit]

A traditional pocket-sized folding edition of the Diamond Sūtra in Chinese

The Diamond Sutra contains the discourse of the Buddha to a senior monk, Subhuti.[15] The Diamond Sūtra, like many Buddhist sūtras, begins with the phrase "Thus have I heard" (Skt. evaṃ mayā śrutam). In the sūtra, the Buddha has finished his daily walk with the monks to gather offerings of food, and he sits down to rest. Elder Subhūti comes forth and asks the Buddha a question. There follows a dialogue regarding the nature of perception. The Buddha often uses paradoxical phrases such as, "Subhuti, that which is called the Buddha Dharma is not the Buddha Dharma; therefore it is called the Buddha Dharma".[16] The Buddha is generally thought to be trying to help Subhūti unlearn his preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality and enlightenment. Emphasizing that all forms, thoughts and conceptions are ultimately illusory, he teaches that true enlightenment cannot be grasped through them; they must be set aside. In his commentary on the Diamond Sūtra, Hsing Yun describes the four main points from the sūtra as giving without attachment to self, liberating beings without notions of self and other, living without attachment, and cultivating without attainment.[17]

Throughout the teaching, the Buddha repeats that successful assimilation of even a four-line extract of it is of incalculable merit and can bring about enlightenment. Section 26 also ends with a four-line gatha.

All conditioned phenomena

Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,
Like dew or a flash of lightning;
Thus we shall perceive them.”[16]

Dunhuang block print[edit]

Frontispiece of the Chinese Diamond Sūtra, the oldest known dated printed book in the world

There is a wood block printed copy in the British Library which, although not the earliest example of block printing, is the earliest example which bears an actual date. The book displays a great maturity of design and layout and speaks of a considerable ancestry for woodblock printing.

The extant copy has the form of a scroll, about 5 meters (16 ft) long. The archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein purchased it in 1907 in the walled-up Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in northwest China from a monk guarding the caves - known as the "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas".

The colophon, at the inner end, reads:

Reverently 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 [11 May 868].

This is approximately 587 years before the Gutenberg Bible was first printed.

In 2010 UK writer and historian Frances Wood, head of the Chinese section at the British Library, was involved in the restoration of its copy of the book.[18][19] The British Library website allows readers to view the Diamond Sutra in its entirety.[20]

Selected English translations[edit]

Author Title Publisher Notes Year ISBN
Thich Nhat Hanh The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion Parallax Press The Diamond Sutra with a Vietnamese Thiền commentary 1992 ISBN 0-938077-51-1
Edward Conze Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra Random House The Diamond Sutraand The Heart Sutra, along with commentaries on the texts and practices of Buddhism 2001 ISBN 978-0375726002
Red Pine The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom; Text and Commentaries Translated from Sanskrit and Chinese Counterpoint The Diamond Sutra with Chán/Zen commentary 2001 ISBN 1-58243-256-2
Hsuan Hua A General Explanation: The Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra Buddhist Text Translation Society 2002 ISBN 0881394300
Nan Huai-Chin The Diamond Sutra Explained Primodia Media 2004 ISBN 0-9716561-2-6
A.F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-neng Shambhala Classics Translation of the Diamond Sutra and Platform Sutra 2005 ISBN 978-1590301371

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Soeng, Mu (2000-06-15). Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World. Wisdom Publications. p. 58. ISBN 9780861711604. Retrieved 11 May 2012. 
  2. ^ "Online Gallery - Sacred Texts: Diamond Sutra". Bl.uk British Library. 2003-11-30. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  3. ^ "Manuscript of a Mongolian Sūtra". World Digital Library. Retrieved 2014-06-22. 
  4. ^ a b Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations. London, UK: Routledge. p. 42. ISBN 0-415-02537-0. 
  5. ^ Müller, Friedrich Max (1894). The Sacred Books of the East, Volume XLIX: Buddhist Mahāyāna Texts, Part II. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. xii–xix. 
  6. ^ "The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalog (T 235)". A. Charles Muller. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  7. ^ Nattier, Jan (1992). "The Heart Sūtra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15 (2): 153–223. 
  8. ^ "The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalog (T 236)". A. Charles Muller. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  9. ^ "The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalog (T 237)". A. Charles Muller. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  10. ^ "The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalog (T 220,9)". A. Charles Muller. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  11. ^ "The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalog (T 239)". A. Charles Muller. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  12. ^ a b c d "Schøyen Collection: Buddhism". Retrieved 23 June 2012. 
  13. ^ Yongyou Shi (2010). The Diamond Sūtra in Chinese Culture. Los Angeles: Buddha's Light Publishing. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-932293-37-1. 
  14. ^ Hui Neng; Cleary, Thomas (1998). The Sutra of Hui-neng, Grand Master of Zen: With Hui-neng's Commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Shambhala Publications. ISBN 9781570623486. 
  15. ^ Lannom, Gloria W. (April 2008). "The Diamond Sutra: fantastic factoids about ancient sites, historical objects, and amazing discoveries". Dig, 10(4). 
  16. ^ a b "The Diamond of Perfect Wisdom Sutra". Chung Tai Translation Committee. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  17. ^ Hsing Yun (2012). Four Insights for Finding Fulfillment: A Practical Guide to the Buddha's Diamond Sūtra. Buddha's Light Publishing. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-932293-54-8. 
  18. ^ "Restoring the world's oldest book, the Diamond Sutra". BBC. December 5, 2010. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  19. ^ Wood, Francis; Barnard, Mark. "Restoration of the Diamond Sutra". IDP News (38): 4–5. Archived from the original on April 5, 2013. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  20. ^ "Copy of Diamond Sutra". bl.uk. Archived from the original on June 3, 2004. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Cole, Alan (2005). For a close reading of the text's rhetoric, see chapter 4 of Text as Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahayana Buddhist Literature (Berkeley: U Cal Press, 2005), pp. 160-196, entitled "Be All You Can't Be, and Other Gainful Losses in the Diamond Sutra."
  • William Gemmell (transl.): The Diamond Sutra, Trübner, London 1912.
  • Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters: Journeys on the Silk Road: a desert explorer, Buddha’s secret library, and the unearthing of the world’s oldest printed book, Picador Australia, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4050-4041-9.

External links[edit]