Tuesday May 11, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Book

On this Day:

In 868, “The Diamond Sūtra”, the world’s oldest surviving and dated printed book was printed in Chinese and made into a scroll.  Lest you think that the Gutenberg Bible was the first printed book, the humble book has a long history well before Gutenberg. To be sure, the Gutenberg Bible from 1454 (also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42) was among the earliest major books printed using mass-produced movable metal type in Europe. It marked the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the age of printed books in the West.

But let’s return to the history of the printed book.

The Diamond Sūtra (Sanskrit: Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) is a Mahāyāna (Buddhist) sūtra from the genre of Prajñāpāramitā (‘perfection of wisdom’) sūtras. Translated into a variety of languages over a broad geographic range, the Diamond Sūtra is one of the most influential Mahayana sūtras in East Asia, and it is particularly prominent within the Chan (or Zen) tradition, along with the Heart Sūtra.

What is a Sūtra, you ask?  Good question.  Sūtra in Indian literary traditions refers to an aphorism or a collection of instructions in the form of a manual or, more broadly, a condensed manual or text. Sūtras are a genre of ancient and medieval Indian texts found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

For example, the Kama Sutra ( ’Principles of Lust’) is an ancient Indian Sanskrit text on sexuality, eroticism and emotional fulfillment in life. Attributed to Vātsyāyana, the Kama Sutra is neither exclusively nor predominantly a sex manual on sex positions, but written as a guide to the art of living well, the nature of love, finding a life partner, maintaining one’s love life, and other aspects pertaining to pleasure-oriented faculties of human life.

In Hinduism, sūtras are a distinct type of literary composition, a compilation of short aphoristic statements. Each sūtra is any short rule, like a theorem distilled into few words or syllables, around which teachings of ritual, philosophy, grammar, or any field of knowledge can be woven. The oldest sūtras of Hinduism are found in the Brahmana and Aranyaka layers of the Vedas. Every school of Hindu philosophy, Vedic guides for rites of passage, various fields of arts, law, and social ethics developed respective sūtras, which help teach and transmit ideas from one generation to the next.

In Buddhism, sūtras, also known as sūttas, are canonical scriptures, many of which are regarded as records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha. They are not aphoristic, but are quite detailed, sometimes with repetition. This may reflect a philological root of sūkta (well spoken), rather than sūtra (thread).

In Jainism, sūtras, also known as suyas, are canonical sermons of Mahavira contained in the Jain Agamas as well as some later (post-canonical) normative texts.

A copy of the Tang-dynasty Chinese version of the Diamond Sūtra was found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in 1900 by Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu and sold to Aurel Stein in 1907. They are dated back to 11 May 868. It is, in the words of the British Library, “the earliest dated printed book”.

Interestingly, it is also the first known creative work with an explicit public-domain dedication, as its colophon at the end states that it was created “for universal free distribution”. This predates the “Creative Common Licence” by centuries. A Creative Commons (CC) license is one of several public copyright licenses that enable the free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted “work”. A CC license is used when an author wants to give other people the right to share, use, and build upon a work that the author has created. CC provides an author flexibility (for example, they might choose to allow only non-commercial uses of a given work) and protects the people who use or redistribute an author’s work from concerns of copyright infringement as long as they abide by the conditions that are specified in the license by which the author distributes the work.

There are several types of Creative Commons license. Each license differs by several combinations that condition the terms of distribution. They were initially released on December 16, 2002 by Creative Commons, a U.S. non-profit corporation founded in 2001. There have also been five versions of the suite of licenses, numbered 1.0 through 4.0. Released in November 2013, the 4.0 license suite is the most current. While the Creative Commons license was originally grounded in the American legal system, there are now several Creative Commons jurisdiction ports which accommodate international laws.  But I digress…back to the Diamond Sūtra…

The exact date of the composition of the Diamond Sūtra in Sanskrit is uncertain—arguments for the 2nd and 5th centuries have been made. The first Chinese translation dates to the early 5th century, but, by this point, the 4th or 5th century monks Asanga and Vasubandhu seem to have already authored authoritative commentaries on its content.

The Vajracchedika sūtra was an influential work in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Early translations into a number of languages have been found in locations across Central and East Asia, suggesting that the text was widely studied and translated. In addition to Chinese translations, translations of the text and commentaries were made into Tibetan, and translations, elaborations, and paraphrases survive in a number of Central Asian languages.

The first translation of the Diamond Sūtra into Chinese is thought to have been made in 401 by the venerated and prolific translator Kumārajīva. Kumārajīva’s translation style is distinctive, possessing a flowing smoothness that reflects his prioritization on conveying the meaning as opposed to precise literal rendering. The Kumārajīva translation has been particularly highly regarded over the centuries, and it is this version that appears on the 868 Dunhuang scroll. It is the most widely used and chanted Chinese version.

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, Paramārtha in 558, Dharmagupta (twice, in 590 and in 605~616), Xuanzang (twice, in 648 and in 660~663), and Yijing in 703.

The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang visited a Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravāda monastery at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in the 7th century. Using Xuanzang’s travel accounts, modern archaeologists have identified the site of this monastery. 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. This manuscript was written in the Sanskrit language, and written in an ornate form of the Gupta script. This same Sanskrit manuscript also contains the Medicine Buddha Sūtra 

(Bhaiṣajyaguruvaiḍūryaprabhārāja Sūtra).

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 80 commentaries written on it (only 32 survive), such as those by prominent Chinese Buddhists like Sengzhao, Xie Lingyun, Zhiyi, Jizang, Kuiji and Zongmi. Copying and recitation of the Diamond Sūtra was a widespread devotional practice, and stories attributing miraculous powers to these acts are recorded in Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Mongolian sources.

One of the best known commentaries is the Exegesis on the Diamond Sūtra by Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School. The Diamond Sūtra features prominently in the 1st chapter of the Platform Sūtra, the religious biography of Huineng, where hearing its recitation is supposed to have triggered the enlightening insight that led Huineng to abandon his life as a woodcutter to become a Buddhist monk (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

The Bible tells us to love each other. The Kama Sutra is a little more specific.

Second, a Song:

Kanho Yakushiji is a Japanese Buddhist Monk. (Translated from the Japanesen by Google Translate)

“Born in 1979, in Imabari City, Ehime Prefecture. He is a Zen priest and musician. He is currently the deputy chief priest of the Rinzai sect Kaizenji Temple in Imabari City, Ehime Prefecture. In 2003, the chorus group “Kissaquo” was formed in Kyoto, centering on the Yakushiji Temple. The name comes from the Zen word “Kissaten,” which means “please have tea.” After Yakushiji completed his training in 2013 and became a monk, he developed activities centered on temple life with the concept of replacing Buddhist teachings with easy-to-understand Japanese and conveying them with nostalgic pop melody and harmony. .. So far, 5 albums and 15 or more singles have been released. 

Also, in order to pass on Buddhism to the next generation as a priest, the album “Prajna Shinkyo” was released in May this year, which is a combination of music and Buddhism and arranged with a voice over Prajna Shinkyo. The original version of “Hanwa Shinkyo cho ver” has been played over 2 million times on YouTube! It has recorded 1.6 million views on Taiwan’s Higashimori Shimbun and an amazing 20 million views on Chinese SNS (per https://kanho.info/profile).

Here is the Heart Sutra recorded at the Ikkyu-ji Temple, Kyoto performed by Kanho Yakushiji.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“According to the Sutras, evil deeds result in hardships and good deeds result in blessings.” – Bodhidharma


Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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