The Oldest Printed Text

The ‘Diamond-Cutter’ Sūtra
[Mahā Prajñāpāramithā Vajracchedikā Sūtra]

Man’s Oldest Preserved Printed Text
Ink on Paper, Cave 17, Donhuang, China

Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th day of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong’
[May 11, 868, CE]

British Museum Library, London

Sūtra, cognate with ‘Suture’, a strung-together lock, was originally meant as a mnemonic arrangement [hence the repetitious reinforcements], the anchoring reference to an oral teaching tradition.

The recensions of the Maha Prajñā Pāramitha Sūtra expand in stages and reach as high as 100,000 Slokas [Sloka, a metrical unit of 32 syllables].

By the time the Sūtra reaches these rarefied heights of loquacious amplification, the core insights of the original text are lost or faded into footnotes.

Pious scribes and well-meaning monks had tamed the Symbol’s fierce bellow into a feeble whimper, a reverent purr.

The confusion arises because this Sūtra, and for the first time in the mainstream literature, demands that all talk of ‘Self’ and Subject be as definable entities and not as unverifiable claims beyond the reach of investigation.

The oral tradition and its dependence on mnemonic phrasing did not transfer well to the written word in high Sanskrit.

A downward spiral progressively compacting the now unwieldy texts. The 300 Sloka version is the Vajrachedika Sūtra, [In Englishthe ‘Diamond’ or ‘Diamond-Cutter’ Sūtra].

The language of the Diamond Sūtra is manifestly opaque to one unfamiliar with its intent. It is special because it is uniquely cognizant of the centrality of the Self-Loop. The Self-Eating Expression is the principal, the only theme of the Sūtra.

For the below brief excerpts, I’ve chosen the simpler but remarkably precise A.F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam translation from the Chinese[1947]. 

On ‘Enlightenment’:

Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata attained the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment?

Subhuti answered: As I understand Buddha’s meaning there is no formulation of truth called Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.’

Subhuti, what do you think? Does a holy one say within himself: I have obtained Perfective Enlightenment?

Subhuti said: No, World-honored One. Wherefore? Because there is no such condition as that called “Perfective Enlightenment.

World-honored one, if a holy one of Perfective Enlightenment said to himself “such am I,” he would necessarily partake of the idea of an ego-entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality….

If you take these lines literally and walk away you don’t understand the intent of this verse. It’s to be read as a Self-Eating Expression:

‘Enlightenment’ is realizing that there is no such special state to be called ‘Enlightenment’. When you realize that, you are ‘Enlightened’; until you realize that, you drift in ‘Ignorance’.

On ‘Teaching’:

Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata conceives the idea: I must set forth a Teaching. For if anyone says that the Tathagata sets forth a Teaching he really slanders Buddha and is unable to explain what I teach.’

‘Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata a teaching to enunciate?

Subhuti replied to the Buddha: World-honored One, indeed, the Tathagata has nothing to teach.’

As before, if you take these lines literally and walk away you don’t understand the intent of this verse. It’s to be read as a Self-Eating Expression:

The Teaching is the deep understanding that there is no Teaching. When you understand that, you gain the Teaching; until you understand that, you are held back in class.

On Achievement [‘Acquisition’]:

Then Subhuti asked Buddha: World-honored One, in the attainment of the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment did Buddha make no acquisition whatsoever?

Buddha replied: Just so, Subhuti. Through the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment I acquired not even the least thing; therefore it is called ‘Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.

[You can try this yourself.]

In the later periods, it was common for senior scholars to try and insert, delete or alter key phrases in the reconstructed verses as means of elaborating and legitimizing their own views or in a misguided attempt at straightening and simplifying the Loop. 

The way to spot a slide in the core content is to stay alert to sudden qualifying lines, lines conflicting with an earlier or later primary metric, or inappropriate, redundant refrains.

In general, if the language slips to the linear, if it is avoiding confronting the Loop, it is most likely a later addition.

So watch your step if you are reading the aged lines of the full Sūtra. They can be very helpful to the informed reader, fatally beguiling to the casually curious.

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