History of Design: Reflection – Diamond Sutra


  • Origins
  • Content
  • Summary and reflection


The Diamond Sutra is acknowledged as the oldest dated printed book,which was approximately 5.3 metres in length. Commissioned by a person named Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents, the Diamond Sutra has been translated, reproduced and its content has been spread throughout the Buddhist world. Dated in the year 868A.D., the text had been discovered in 1900 by a monk in Dunhuang, China, on an old outpost of the Silk Road on the edge of the Gobi Desert. The Diamond Sutra, a Sanskrit text translated into Chinese, was one of 40,000 scrolls and documents hidden in “The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas,” a secret library sealed up around the year 1,000 when the area was threatened by a neighboring kingdom.
In 1907, a British-Hungarian archaeologist by the name of Marc Aurel Stein was on an expedition mapping the ancient Silk Road when he heard about the secret library. He then bribed the abbot of the monastic group in charge of the cave and smuggled away thousands of documents, including the Diamond Sutra.


The book was named Diamond Sutra – The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. Its intent was to help cut through the perception of the world and its illusion. It talks about emptiness(of the world) – among many things discussed as the Diamond Sutra takes the form of a conversation between Buddha’s pupil Subhati and his master.


It is interesting to see the first ever printed book had been poised for reproduction with a religious purpose – Wang Jie added a inscription on the lower right hand side of the scroll reading: ”Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents”. In Buddhist belief, spreading the image or words of the Buddha was a good deed and way of gaining merit. The Diamond Sutra was the only dated document amongst the thousands of scrolls hidden in the cave, meaning that there could have been an older scroll or book that was kept within the same library. The emergence of printing so many years before the movable type was invented – was proof that technology had been advancing at phenomenal speeds in China. Woodblock print as a method of printing on cloth, dates back to as early as 220A.D. However, the Diamond Sutra is the first completed book to be produced via this method. Moreover, the sealing of the Mogao caves, which prevented neighbouring kingdoms from ransacking and looting the sacred scrolls was proof that the religious documents kept within the caves had more than historic importance. The intricacies of the illustration elevated the beauty of the text – it was well contextualized by the painting, bringing to life the text and its meaning.


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