Background of the Diamond Sutra

Buddha Photo by Alex JohnsonWhat Is A Sutra?
A Brief History of The Diamond Sutra
Methodology: How This New Translation Was Done
Other Translations Used In Creating This New Translation


What Is A Sutra?

This definition of “Sutra” is provided by the UW-Madison Buddhism Study Group:

“The word sutra is the most common term for a Buddhist scripture, so that Buddhists refer to the sutras just as Christians might speak of the Bible.

But although it tends to be used so generally, sutra has a specific meaning.

It comes from a word meaning ‘a thread: so it suggests a number of topics strung together on a common thread of discourse.

The form of a sutra is almost always the same.

First you get a description of where the discourse was given, what was going on, and who was present. That is followed by the main body of the text, which usually consists of a teaching of the Dharma, the real truth, by the Buddha himself. The sutra then ends with an account of the effect of the Buddha’s teaching on the people listening.

It is important to understand that whatever is said in the body of a sutra is not just issuing from the ordinary level of consciousness.

It isn’t something that has been worked out intellectually.

It isn’t a proof or an explanation of something in the mundane sense.

It is a truth, a message, even a revelation, issuing from the depths of the Enlightened consciousness, the depths of the Buddha nature.

This is the essential content of any Buddhist scripture, and this is its purpose: to communicate the nature of Enlightenment and show the way leading to its realization.”


A Brief History of The Diamond Sutra

The World’s Earliest Dated Printed Book


Diamond Sutra Scroll

Diamond Sutra. Cave 17, Dunhuang, ink on paper
British Library Or.8210/ P.2
Copyright © The British Library Board

From “Landmarks in Printing: Diamond Sutra”:

“Hidden for centuries in a sealed-up cave in north-west China, this copy of the ‘Diamond Sutra’ is the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book. It was made in AD 868. Seven strips of yellow-stained paper were printed from carved wooden blocks and pasted together to form a scroll over 5m long. Though written in Chinese, the text is one of the most important sacred works of the Buddhist faith, which was founded in India. Although not the earliest example of a printed book, it is the oldest we have bearing a date. By the time it was made, block-printing had been practised in the Far East for more than a century. The quality of the illustration at the opening of this ‘Diamond Sutra’ shows the carver of the printing blocks to have been a man of considerable experience and skill.

This scroll was found in 1907 by the archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein in a walled-up cave at the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’, near Dunhuang, in North-West China. It was one of a small number of printed items among many thousands of manuscripts, comprising a library which must have been sealed up in about AD 1000. Although not the earliest example of blockprinting, it is the earliest which bears an actual date.

The colophon, at the inner end, reads: ‘Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong [i.e. 11th May, AD 868]’. ”

Diamond Sutra Scroll

Diamond Sutra Scroll Photo

Here is information from the web page:
The Oldest Printed Text in the World – The Diamond Sutra.

According to National Library of Peking in 1961, the Diamond Sutra is described as: “The Diamond Sutra, printed in the year 868….is the world’s earliest printed book, made of seven strips of paper joined together with an illustration on the first sheet which is cut with great skill.” The writer adds: “This famous scroll was stolen over fifty years ago by the Englishman Ssu-t’an-yin [Stein] which causes people to gnash their teeth in bitter hatred.” It is currently on display in the British Museum. The scroll, some sixteen feet long, 17 an half feet long and 10 and half inches wide, bears the following inscription: ” reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents on the fifteenth of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xian Long (May 11, 868)”


Methodology: How This New Translation Was Done

This new translation was created by taking 15 different previous translations of the Diamond Sutra and carefully reviewing them line by line.

diamond-sutra (3)

Each chapter was reconstructed line by line, word by word, by comparing each of these different translations.

This new translation kept every element that was common through each of the other 15 translations.

In some cases some translations had more text, and others less. Where the text seemed to be “embellishment” or repetition that I did not believe was necessary to the message I left it out.

If there was any doubt on my part I tended to leave words or passages in rather than remove them if they seemed to work with the tone or tenor of the passage.

I left out most of the long names or names of locations, such as Anathapindika, which was the location in the Jeta Grove where the Buddha spoke.

I also left out words like Tathagata, the Arhat, Bodhisattvas, Bhagavat, Mahasattvas, Bhikshus, Nirvana, Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, and annutara-samyak-sambodhicitta. In every case I came up with a simple word which kept the spirit of the Sutra while making it easier to read.

For forms of address I chose “Most Honored One” or “Buddha” to refer to the Buddha.

I chose this over other forms in other translations such as these: “World-Honored One”, “O Lord”, “O Well-Gone”, “Tathagata”, “Arhat”, “The Fully Enlightened One”, “The Lord”, “O Sugata”, and “Thus Come One”.

There is a balance between a very “formal” style in some translations, and overly “familiar” styles present in some others. This translation finds a middle ground, maintaining and respecting the seriousness of the setting and message, while avoiding cumbersome phrases or attempting to “dumb down” the style presented in the bulk of the other translations.

For example, one translation had the phrase “So listen up, Subhuti”, another translation had “Buddha replied: Listen carefully”, a third said “Therefore, O Subhuti, listen and take it to heart, well and rightly”, and finally another said “Please listen with all of your attention and the Tathagata will respond to your question”.

The final translation that I came up with in this instance is this: “Listen carefully with your full attention, and I will speak to your question.”

After reviewing each chapter line by line, word by word, I worked the final translation over one more time to make any minor adjustments that would make the text flow more like our modern language.

The resulting translation presented here is one that is true to every line and every word of the original Sutra, as passed on through these 15 earlier translations.

Finally, you will find below a list of the other translations I used in preparing this new translation.

I hope you enjoy this site and come back often to read this wonderful Buddhist text, and feel free to show your support for this work presented here by donating to the hosting, registration, and upkeep of this website. Just click here to support this site.

Alex Johnson

Other Translations Used In Creating This New Translation

buddha_sit_smallThe Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra – A Translation of the Diamond Sutra.
Translation on Buddhism Today
The Oldest Printed Text in the World – The Diamond Sutra

Note: the sites below are no longer available. The translation used on this website was completed in 2003, and all of these sites were active at the time. – (Link No Longer Available) – (Link No Longer Available) – (Link No Longer Available) 2 – (Link No Longer Available) – (Link No Longer Available) 2 – (Link No Longer Available) – (Link No Longer Available) – (Link No Longer Available)v 2 – (Link No Longer Available) 3 – (Link No Longer Available) – (Link No Longer Available) – (Link No Longer Available)

There are also three other web sites that had translations that are no longer available.


* To begin reading the Diamond Sutra just Click Here for Chapter 1.

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