The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas

Buddhas in Cave 7
A series of Buddhas in Cave 7of the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, Gansu, China

The Diamond Sutra is the world’s oldest book bearing a specific date of publication –  868 A.D. It was printed on a 16-foot scroll using woodblock and was discovered in 1907 in a series of caves in China among 40,000 books and manuscripts that had been walled up there. They are located outside the town of Dunhuang (also spelled Tunhuang).

Early Buddhist monks had made their way from northwest India to inhabit the Mogao Caves which came to be known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.”  The location had been a desert outpost along the Silk Road.

The caves were forgotten until the year 1900, when an itinerant Taoist monk named Wang Yuan Lu happened upon them and began to slowly restore the caves. When he eventually unsealed the caves, he found a cache of thousands of texts and paintings. He was unsure of what to do with all of it and was advised to reseal the location.

An archaeologist, Aurel Stein (a Hungarian working for the British)  convinced Wang Yuan Lu to part with a huge amount of manuscripts. Stein left (basically stealing) with 7000 manuscripts and five cases of paintings and relics. He gave Wang just £130 and the promise that he wouldn’t tell anyone about the transaction. The Diamond Sutra was among those manuscripts.

Stein was knighted in England but was rightly hated in China for stealing national treasures. His “discovery” led other scholars to visit the caves and they took more of the treasures, even chipping murals off the walls.

More about the Diamond Sutra

A page from the Diamond Sutra, printed in the 9th year of Xiantong Era of the Tang Dynasty, i.e. 868 CE. Currently located in the British Library, London which says it is “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.”

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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