Free Association


Want to take a guess?

 Okay, here’s a quiz. Can you tell me the name of the earliest example we have of a printed and dated literary work?

Right, it has nothing to do with Guttenberg; we have to go to China, and it is something philosophical—but what? Something from Confucius? Nope. Maybe something Christian missionaries put together to spread the faith? No, sir. It’s the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist work that played a seminal role in the movement of Buddhism from India into China—‘transmission’ is the word that’s used, a spiritual transmission.  Housed right now in the British Library, this particular copy bears the 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—so it appears to have been intended for mass consumption, sort of the Gideon Bible of ancient China. In terms of the European calendar, this is in May 868, roughly 600 years before Guttenberg printed his Bible in Mainz. The edition in question was discovered by a Taoist monk, Wang Yuanlu, in a cave in western China and then re-discovered (some say, stolen) by the explorer Sir Aurel Stein, who shipped it off to the British Museum. The Chinese take on this turn of events is summed up by this catalog entry written in 1961 in Beijing, then known in the English speaking world as Peking: “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.”  If this is true, they are not listening to the message of the Diamond Sutra.

For the Diamond Sutra is the poster child of the floating world: It’s message (to briefly dip into the text)…  all things having the nature of emptiness have no beginning and no ending… there is no sight, sound, odor, taste, object, and knowledge… preaches the radical emptiness of the world and the radical emptiness of the self, and it recommends this emptiness as a way to understand and exist in a world where suffering is the norm: after all, clinging to that which is not stable might just epitomize what’s wrong with our situation in this world. The Diamond Sutra is the diamond that penetrates the emptiness of the world.  This Diamond Sutra, however, for all the good intentions of Wang Jie, has become an artifact, and after a long stay in a cave in China, it has become imprisoned in the British Library, a strange fate.

So, is the Diamond Sutra gnashing its teeth there in the British Library? Or is it floating in tranquility in the emptiness?

 A sutra is a collection of aphorisms, strung together into a coherent whole, and as a container of oral wisdom it was meant to be held in the mind, chanted, retained as part of a spiritual transmission—so writing it down might be seen as a violation of its message, and printing it…well, that might be thought of as a complete anomaly: an attempt to fix and stabilize a teaching of and for the mind outside the mind.  Except of course, a good Buddhist is expected to do good deeds and copying the words of the Buddha is a good deed indeed. So printing it…might be tremendous multiplier of that good deed, like a prayer wheel that offers a prayer each time the wind spins it round.

It might be…but, the Diamond Sutra begins, as many sutras do, by stating, This I have heard… and those prayer wheels have always seemed like cheating, haven’t they?

Following the Way?

The Taoist monk, Wang Yuanlu, takes a hit in this story. Yes, he had the sense to take care of the caves, which are now a tourist destination, but no, there’s no way he should have let Stein waltz off with all the treasures. The Indians struck a better deal for Manhattan Island. It doesn’t seem like Sir Aurel received any of the bad karma that other well known raiders fell prey to. Howard Carter and Lord Elgin suffered under the curse of the Egyptian and Greek gods respectively; perhaps the Chinese gods are not so potent. Or perhaps a Taoist perspective mitigated their cry for vengeance. It’s just a book, after all…

Marc Aurel Stein is worth knowing about. Born in Hungry, he studied in some of Europe’s finest institutions of learning, in places like Vienna, Leipzig and Tubingen. He was at Cambridge and Oxford in the mid 1880. In 1900, he went on his first exploration, searching for the Silk Road. It was on his second expedition in 1906 that he traveled to the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas in Mogao, struck up a friendship with Wang Yuanlu, and found thousands of documents in what has come to be known as Cave 17. I’m sure it made sense to Stein to get those documents out of a dusty cave and into the bosom of civilization, and the most important work in the pile was the Diamond Sutra. Cave 17 is arguably the greatest archeological find in the history of mankind, and it got Stein knighted in 1912. Sir Aurel filled 26 wagons with stuff.

Taoism in China created the perfect audience for the Diamond Sutra. Consider the emptiness of the Tao—

The thirty spokes join on the one hub, and their usefulness to the carriage is just where they aren’t. You take a clay lump to make a dish, and the clay’s usefulness is just where it isn’t…The space between Heaven and Earth, well, is like a bellows: it’s empty and inexhaustible, it moves and continues to emerge…

Or the Uncarved Block:

Though the uncarved block is pretty small, nothing under Heaven can govern it. When the first principle gets a name, names will be but good. You will know, then, that this is the time to stop.

—So we have a Taoist monk tending ‘The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas’, and a book printed with carved blocks expounding a Buddhist philosophy; we have Aurel  Stein, an explorer  and adventurer of the old exploit -and save-for-western-civilization school, and a book removed from its culture, ensconced in merry old England.

Enter stage left, Joseph Needham, who was traveling in China and searching for artifacts himself, visiting the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas in 1943 at just at about the time Stein died in Kabul. Needham is responsible for a tome called Science and Civilization in China. Science and Civilization in China is encyclopedic in scope; it does what the title says it will, presenting the vast civilization of China in 26 mammoth volumes. Science and Civilization in China changed our perception of China in the 20th century: from a backward second rate country to a major civilization. It’s one of the great scholarly accomplishments, a collaboration of western and Chinese scientists that was unprecedented and is unduplicated. When Needham was pondering these issues back in Cambridge, looking for definite and clear evidence, one of the books that influenced him was the Diamond Sutra, that is, the Diamond Sutra the artifact, the one Aurel Stein purloined from Cave 17, the one Wang Yuanlu gave away for a song.  Printing! A definite date! It opened a door for Needham. And the more he looked, the more he found. I’m not going to tell you to read Science and Civilization from cover to cover, but take a look. It’s an amazing book.

So what of Wang Yuanlu? Was he a dotty Taoist, the dupe of Stein and the betrayer of Chinese civilization, or was he instrumental in the reinvigoration of China and in the understanding of China by Europe?

 Or was he part of the spiritual transmission of Buddhism to the west?

T’ao Ch’ien lived from +365 to + 427 so he was not writing about Wang Yuanlu when he wrote The Biography of Mr. Five Willows. In fact, he was probably writing about himself, but perhaps he has something to tell us about the monk who swept the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.

I don’t know what place he is a native of. I don’t know what his family name is, or his given name, or his ‘studio name,’ or his ‘society name,’ or his pen name. He has five willow-trees planted beside his house, and we call him ‘Mr. Five Willows’.

He often leaves his bar down across his door, and some people find him taciturn. He does not get very excited about glory or money. They say he likes to read, but I’m afraid explication de texte bores him. Whenever there is a felicitous juxtaposition of ideas, he can get so excited about it that he forgets to eat.

Mr. Five Willows likes a glass of wine now and then, but because he does not have a lot of money, he usually has to go without it. His relatives and old friends know this thirst of his, and they sometimes lay in wine and ask him by. When he comes to drink he doesn’t stand on ceremony, and he usually does not stop until he is quite drunk. When he is quite drunk, if he feels like staying he stays; if he feels like going home, he goes home. He may not tell you about it beforehand.

The four walls of his house are falling in, and they let through the wind and the sun. He goes around in a robe of fur that is patched and sewn. His cup and bowl often are empty, but you would think he is at a great banquet.

He often writes on this or that to amuse himself, and he tries clearly to say how he feels about things. He forgets about ‘the profit and the loss’, and I suppose he will go on like this the rest of his life.

We might say, ‘Chin Lu has said, “Don’t be sad about poverty. Don’t be anxious about wealth.”’ I think he was talking about the sort of man Mr. Five Willows is. Holding the wine cup to his lips, writing essays and composing poems, doing what he feels like for his own delight—isn’t this ‘to be a citizen of the Serene Emperor’ isn’t this to be a subject of ‘the Bean-flower Emperor’?  











Published by extrasimile

define: extra: excess, more than is needed, required or desired; something additional of the same kind. define: simile: a simile is a type of figurative language, language that does not mean exactly what it says, that makes a comparison between two otherwise unalike objects or ideas by connecting them with the words “like” or “as.” The reader can see a similar connection with the verbs resemble, compare and liken. Similes allow an author to emphasize a certain characteristic of an object by comparing that object to an unrelated object that is an example of that characteristic. define: extra: an minor actor in a crowd scene

2 thoughts on “Free Association

  1. Yes. Thank you for your thoughts. I enjoyed going back and reading this piece. I recently came across a biography of Sir Aurel Stein by Jeannette Mirsky. He’s a rather interesting character—but of course so is Joseph Needham. The way history is taught these days, focusing on Greece, Rome, a little dusting from the ‘dark ages’ and then on into western Europe does a great disservice to the world. (I don’t mean to imply Greece and Rome are not important.)

  2. I knew of books like I Ching and Art of War – read about the Richard Wilhelm I Ching translation (1950) referenced from Carl Jung books – Then thought the Art of War was the oldest book, but your post opens up a new thread of knowledge to me.

    I guess I saw I Ching as the oldest Oracle and Art of War is one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy…


    Quotes from :

    In 1800 “English scientists William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle discovered that applying electric current to water produced hydrogen and oxygen gases. This process was later termed ‘electrolysis.'”

    “The discovery of electrolysis was an important historical step in the development of hydrogen energy and the hydrogen fuel cell.”


    I have worked with modern hydrogen fuel cells, and right off you’d think the complete process was discovered just yesterday in our modern world… so I can see how one might learn the Gutenberg Bible was the first printed book, but was actually the first printed Bible…

    I found your research about the Diamond Sutra valuable knowledge – thanks for sharing…

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