This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for May 11, 2017: To the Woman at the Retirement Center

May 11, 2017: published: Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra was published on this date in A.D. 868 — it’s the oldest printed book in the world to bear a date. It is a Chinese translation of a Sanskrit holy text, and its full title is The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. The book was printed using wood blocks, one block to a page and seven pages total, bound together in the form of a scroll. It’s not very long, only about 6,000 words, and the whole thing can be recited in 40 minutes. It was probably printed so that multiple copies could be distributed to Buddhist monks, who would read it aloud on a regular basis.

A small inscription at the bottom of the scroll reads, “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents.” There is no more information on who Wang Jie was, but it was considered a blessing to disseminate the teachings of the Buddha, and the more copies that were printed, the bigger the blessing.

The Diamond Sutra was one of 50,000 texts and paintings sealed up in the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas in China’s Gansu province. The caves were carved out of a cliff face along the Silk Road, and monks would collect holy scriptures of various religions from the travelers that passed by. The caves were sealed up a thousand years ago, and the darkness and dry desert air preserved the texts and cave murals very well until they were discovered by a Taoist monk named Wang Yuan Lu in 1900.