The Diamond Sutra: The World's Oldest Printed Book

Curators’ Corner

The Diamond Sutra: The World's Oldest Printed Book

Have you heard of the Diamond Sutra? It’s the oldest book in existence – in a way, at least.

The Diamond Sutra, as described by the British Library, is “the world’s earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.” This relic of Buddhism isn’t the outright oldest book – woodblock printing was invented some 200-300 years prior – but it’s the oldest surviving book with the date it was published printed on it. That’s pretty cool, especially because it was printed in the year 868 using a technique that’s similar to modern offset printing.

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What the Diamond Sutra is about

On the front of the Diamond Sutra is an illustration of Buddha explaining a “sutra” – or “teaching” – to an elderly disciple named Subhuti. At the end, when Subhuti asks Buddha how the teaching should be remembered, Buddha says to call it, “The Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom.” The lesson – according to the British Library – calls for devotees to “cut [like a diamond blade] through the illusions of reality that surround them.”

Courtesy of the British Library (

How it was made

The Diamond Sutra wasn’t made for reading on the go; it’s 7 pages, 16 feet long. The massive scroll was created using printing’s great, great grandfather – woodblock printing. For each page, a skilled craftsman carved a wooden block by tracing the reverse image of a thin paper that was pasted face down to the block. A block was made for each page, and up to 1,000 sheets a day could be printed from a block. Sounds like offset printing (using plates and an “offset” image for mass production) in its ancient form to us.

At the end of the scroll, a note dated 11 May 868 reads, Reverently made for universal distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents,” making it the oldest dated book.

Courtesy of

Why it lasted and how it was found

The Diamond Sutra and 40,000 other scripts were sealed in one of the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas” in Dunhuang, a stop along the Silk Road trade route in western China. They were preserved because, well, they were in a dark, dry desert cave.

In 1900, a monk discovered a blocked entrance to the cave, broke in, sealed it back up and stayed to guard it. When archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein showed up in 1907, he supposedly gained the monk’s trust and left with cases of relics and artifacts. Stein didn’t know much about what he had taken, but he had left with the Diamond Sutra, which traveled with him to London and eventually ended up in the British Library.


– And that’s the story of the Diamond Sutra. Learn more on the British Library’s website, and in this Huffington Post article.