What Is the Oldest Book in the World?
Photo: KnowInsiders

What Is The Oldest Book - The First Book in the World?

We’ve all taken to books at one point or another, be it just for the pleasure of reading, to do some activities or study for exams. Do you, however, know which the oldest dated printed book still in existence even today is?

That honor goes to The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist religious text. While the book dates back to the year 868 AD, it was found only in 1907, having remained hidden for nearly 1,000 years. The credit for this goes to Sir Aurel Stein, a Hungary-born British archaeologist and explorer.

History of the Diamond Sutra - The First Book in the World

Scholars believe the original text of the Diamond Sutra was written in India some time in the 2nd century CE. Kumarajiva is believed to have made the first translation into Chinese in 401 CE, and the Kumarajiva text seems to be the one most often translated into English.

Prince Chao-Ming (501-531), a son of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, divided the Diamond Sutra into 32 chapters and gave each chapter a title. This chapter division has been preserved to this day, although translators do not always use Prince Chao-Ming's titles.

Diamond Sutra - the oldest book in the world
Diamond Sutra - the oldest book in the world. Photo: Goodreads

The Diamond Sutra played an important role in the life of Huineng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Chan (Zen). It is recorded in Huineng's autobiography that when he was an adolescent selling firewood in a marketplace, he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra and immediately became enlightened.

It is believed the Diamond Sutra was translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan in the late 8th or early 9th century. The translation is attributed to a disciple of Padmasambhava named Yeshe De and an Indian scholar named Silendrabodhi. An even older manuscript of the Diamond Sutra was discovered in the ruins of a Buddhist monastery in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, written in the language of Gandhara, as cited in Learn Religions.

Content of Diamond Sutra - The First Book in the World

The Diamond Sutra is relatively short, only 6,000 words and is part of a larger canon of “sutras” or sacred texts in Mahayana Buddhism, the branch of Buddhism most common in China, Japan, Korea and southeast Asia. Many practitioners believe that the Mahayana Sutras were dictated directly by the Buddha, and The Diamond Sutra takes the form of a conversation between the Buddha’s pupil Subhati and his master.

Photo: Britannica
Photo: Britannica

The Diamond Sutra expresses the Prajnaparamita emphasis upon the illusory nature of phenomena in these words: “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.” 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.

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Why is it Diamond?

A full translation of the document's title is The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. As Susan Whitfield, director of the Dunhuang Project explains, the sutra helps cut through our perceptions of the world and its illusion. "We just think we exist as individuals but we don’t, in fact, we’re in a state of complete non-duality: there are no individuals, no sentient beings,” Whitfield writes.

Why did Wang Jie commission it?

According to Whitfield, in Buddhist belief, copying images or the words of the Buddha was a good deed and way of gaining merit in Jie’s culture. It’s likely that monks would have unrolled the scroll and chanted the sutra out loud on a regular basis. That’s one reason printing developed early on in China, Whitfield explains. “[If] you can print multiple copies, and the more copies you’re sending out, the more you’re disseminating the word of Buddha, and so the more merit you are sending out into the world,” she writes. “And so the Buddhists were very quick to recognize the use of the new technology of printing.”

What is one quote you should know from The Diamond Sutra?

It’s difficult to translate the sutra word for word and still catch its meaning. But this passage about life, which Bill Porter, who goes by the alias "Red Pine," adapted to English, is one of the most popular:

So you should view this fleeting world—

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,

A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Things that have stood the test of time tend to be prized and valuable. Old things give us a bit of insight into history, an ancient culture, or extinct natural life, or they tell us what was deemed important or of beauty in the past. It’s why we still visit historical sites, admire classical works of art, and read ancient texts.

Especially for the latter it’s rare to be able to read something that’s thousands of years old. Paper degrades easily, fire destroys collections and libraries, and people (monks or scholars usually) had to keep copying texts in order for it to remain legible and safe. This was not an easy task – not to mention highly time-consuming – but these efforts indicate that a text had a certain amount of worth and was deemed valuable enough to spend time on.

There is of course a high chance of survivorship bias for the old books that we still have today. Perhaps we can read it not because it’s valuable or any good, but purely due to some fortunate circumstances that enabled the preservation of the text. But as a general rule though, the older a book is, the more valuable it tends to be, written by William Harmsen.

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