The world’s oldest printed books were the wood block printings printed in China during the 7th century which were printed to spread the teachings of Buddha and the Sutras of Buddhism.
One such book is the Sanskrit book, the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, shortly known as the Diamond Sutra. The Chinese translated version of this book is the world’s oldest available “dated printed book”. This is the oldest known printed book with an explicit date mentioned on it. This book now resides at the British Museum in London.
It is a 16 feet long scroll printed on a wood block in 868 CE. The instructions on the book by the printer, Wang Jie say that it be given away for free. Obviously there were many copies of this book printed to be given away for free to spread the teachings of Buddha. The maturity in the design and printing of this book clearly indicates that such printed books were already well established during this time.
This copy of the Diamond Sutra had been hidden for several centuries in a sacred cave on the edge of the Gobi Desert. It was discovered in 1900, more than a thousand years after it was printed, by a Buddhist monk while cleaning the cave! The monk observed a crack in the cave wall while cleaning and realized that it was a deliberately concealed entrance to another section of the cave. And inside this concealed section was found this copy of the Diamond Sutra.
This printed book also has a beautifully illustrated front piece. It depicts the Buddha, surrounded by monks and devotees. In the lower left-hand corner of the illustration can be found the Buddha’s disciple Subhuti, listening to Buddha presenting the Diamond Sutra. It is believed that Buddha taught the Diamond Sutra at the end of his life. This appears as a conversation between Buddha and his disciple Subhuti and the subject of the conversation is about impermanence and the nature of reality.
The Diamond Sutra is a short popular sutra of the Mahayana Buddhism. It emphasizes on the the practice of non-abiding and non-attachment. This Sanskrit text was first translated into Chinese by the popular translator of his days, Kumaravijaya in 401 CE. Like most Buddhist Sutras, even the Diamond Sutra starts with the famous Sanskrit line
evam mayaa shrutam
meaning “Thus have I heard”
The next time somebody says, Gutenberg’s Bible is the world’s oldest printed book, make them aware of these ancient Chinese books on Buddha and Buddhism.