The oldest printed book in the world is the Buddhist text the “Diamond Sutra.” The Sutra dates to 868 AD and uses the world’s oldest known method of printing, woodblock printing.
The British Library in London currently houses the “Diamond Sutra.” The book is over 1,300 years old.
The Diamond Sutra, the oldest printed book in the world?
Scholars believe the “Diamond Sutra” is the oldest surviving printed book in the world. However, that does not mean it is the oldest book in the world.
The oldest known surviving book is the Etruscan Gold Book of Zagreb. This book makes use of gold leaf and dates back to around 600-700 BC.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead also predates the Diamond Sutra. We know that this book dates back to around 1500 BC. It contains funerary texts to assist the deceased in the afterlife.
What is the Diamond Sutra?
The Diamond Sutra is one of the most important texts in Mahayana Buddhism. The full title of the text is “The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion.”
The book emphasizes the practice of non-attachment and the concept of “emptiness.” These are central tenets of Mahayana Buddhism.
Scholars believe a monk wrote the text in India in the 4th century AD. A 5th-century AD monk named Kumarajiva translated the book into Chinese.
According to the British Library (cited below): “Thanks to the colophon – the short dedication note written at the end, after the sacred Buddhist text – we have quite a lot of information about the context surrounding the commissioning of this particular copy.” A few characters translate as follows:
“On the 15th day of the 4th month of the 9th year of the Xiantong reign period, Wang Jie had this made for universal distribution on behalf of his two parents.”
As a result, the book reveals who made the scroll and when (11 May 868) as well as “who financed it, on behalf of whom and for what purpose.”
How did the Diamond Sutra end up in the British Library?
According to the British Library’s website:
“[The book] was found in a holy site called the Mogao (or ‘Peerless’) Caves or the ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas,’ which was a major Buddhist centre from the 4th to 14th centuries. This long cliff wall, carved with 492 caves, is located near Dunhuang, an oasis-town at the junction of the northern and southern Silk Roads, in the present-day province of Gansu (Northwest China). In 1900, a monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered the sealed entrance to a hidden cave, where tens of thousands of manuscripts, paintings and other artefacts had been deposited and sealed up sometime around the beginning of the 11th century. This copy of the Diamond Sūtra was one of such items and was brought to England by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein in 1907.” — WTF fun facts