Judged by almost any conventional standard the text known as the Diamond Sūtra (Sanskrit, Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra) was, and remained, an important MahĀyĀna sūtra across wide geographic boundaries and over a very long time. The date of its composition in Sanskrit is uncertain. Arguments have been made for the second and fourth centuries of the common era. It was first translated into Chinese at the very beginning of the fifth century, but both Vasubandhu and AsaṄga, two learned Indian monks who probably lived in the fourth or fifth centuries, had already written authoritative commentaries on it, and this would seem to require that it was already an important text in their day, and had therefore been in circulation for some time. Whereas for many Mahāyāna sūtras only very recent eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Sanskrit manuscripts survive, for the Diamond Sūtra we have at least three much earlier manuscripts that date from the fifth to the seventh centuries and come from widely separated places. The existence of such early manuscript remains may also testify to the text's importance, and certainly reveals, when compared with later versions and translations, how the text developed and changed its shape over time.
Once translated into Chinese in the fifth century, the Diamond Sūtra was then translated again at least five more times by some of the brightest luminaries of Chinese Buddhist scholasticism, and perhaps eighty or more commentaries were written on it in Chinese. The Diamond Sūtra, and several Indian commentaries on it, were also translated into Tibetan, and further translations, paraphrases, and developments of it survive, in whole or in part, in a wide range of Central Asian languages—Khotanese, Sogdian, Uigur, and so on. The Diamond Sūtra was, obviously, the focus everywhere of an enormous amount of attention in learned Buddhist circles.
The Diamond Sūtra, however, was not of interest only to the learned. In the practice oriented and at least rhetorically anti-intellectual schools of Chinese Chan, for example, it was also assigned an important place. In the carefully constructed religious biography of the famous, if largely legendary, sixth patriarch Huineng, the Diamond Sūtra appears as the pivot of his religious life: Huineng was supposed to have been an illiterate woodcutter when he heard it being recited and it transformed his life. In fact, the recitation and copying of the Diamond Sūtra was in itself in many places, and at many times, a widespread religious practice under-taken for a variety of less elevated, but no less crucial purposes. Tales of the "miraculous" power of the recitation and copying of the Diamond Sūtra are preserved not just in Chinese and Japanese collections of "miracle tales," but also in Tibetan and Mongolian. This clearly was a text that worked on many levels, and for a variety of different kinds of Buddhists.
The Diamond Sūtra is, of course, not its real name, but an abbreviation based largely on early attempts to translate its title into English. In Sanskrit it is called the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā. Bearing in mind that vajra is an almost untranslatable Sanskrit term referring to a kind of divine and dreadful weapon, like a discus or thunderbolt, and only by secondary association applied to the hard, cutting properties of a diamond, the title might be translated as "The Perfection of Wisdom [text] that Cuts like a Thunderbolt." This title would seem to suggest several things. First the Vajracchedikā is classified by its title as a perfection of wisdom text, and this claim has, by and large, been accepted by modern scholarship, even though its relationship to this larger group of texts remains problematic. Almost from the beginnings of modern Buddhist studies it was described as a succinct summary of the perfection of wisdom, but the Vajracchedikā makes no mention of several seemingly definitional perfection of wisdom ideas like ŚŪNYATĀ (emptiness) and upĀya (skill in means). s
This is puzzling. Equally puzzling, and hence the enormous number of commentaries written on it, is what the text means. But the second thing the original title might suggest is that any search for meaning in this text may be fundamentally misdirected. According to its original title, the "wisdom" it refers to does not explain or describe. It cuts or shatters. This in turn might suggest that a religious text of this sort was not meant to convey ideas or doctrine, but was rather designed to affect, rearrange, or shatter established ways of seeing oneself, the world, and conventional religious practices. At one point in the text the monk Subhūti is described as bursting into tears of amazement and wonder at what the Buddha was reported to have said. This response, a rather unmonkish reaction, is apparently the anticipated response to the "message" of the text, and it is virtually certain that large numbers of those who have tried to more systematically analyze it have also been reduced to tears.
Conze, Edward, trans. Buddhist Wisdom Books. London: Allen and Unwin, 1958.
Müller, F. Max, ed. The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 49: Buddhist Mahāyāna Texts, Part 2: xii–xix; 110–144. London: Oxford University Press, 1894.
Schopen, Gregory. "The Manuscript of the Vajracchedikā Found at Gilgit: An Annotated Transcription and Translation." In Studies in the Literature of the Great Vehicle, ed. Luis O. Gómez and Jonathan A. Silk. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.