The Meem Library, Eastern Classics, and the Diamond Sutra

Cover of the 1995 Eastern Classics Catalogue

With the opening of the Meem Library in 1990, the Santa Fe campus’s library shelving space, which for twenty-six years had been severely limited by the lack of a dedicated library building, nearly doubled. Along with this new shelving space came both needs and opportunities to grow the Library’s collection.

The seeds of the first significant need appeared at nearly the same time as the Library’s construction, as Santa Fe faculty study groups began their focus on the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese texts that would soon become the foundation of the Graduate Institute’s Eastern Classics master’s program. Eastern Classics, or EC as it has come to be known here on campus, first began as a pilot program (the “Institute for the Study of Eastern Classics”) in 1992 and has run continuously as a St. John’s College graduate degree program since 1994. The history of the founding of Eastern Classics on the Santa Fe campus has been told many times through the years in various College publications available on the College’s Digital Archives, and most recently in a 2017 article by tutor and former Associate Dean of the Graduate Institute David McDonald. As tutor James Carey (Class of 1965), under whose deanship the early development of the Eastern Classics program occurred, has remarked:

How could we not be interested in what the human mind does when it has leisure and letters and it’s free from political persecution—what fundamental questions arise for it … and what form do they take, particularly if they’ve not been touched by Greece, or by Jerusalem? So the idea of looking at the thought of ancient India and ancient China was immensely appealing….

With the addition in the 1990s of an entirely new reading list rooted in great works of the East came a need for new core library acquisitions, including multiple class copies in a wide range of English translations for each reading, original language editions of these works, and texts and reference materials to support the program’s two new Language Tutorials in Sanskrit and Classical Chinese. As has so often been the case through the years at a College like our own, where the central place of books is undisputed, our alumni and friends quickly rallied on behalf of this new program and the Library’s collection. This included significant acquisitions funding during those early years from three members of the very same family, all of whom became EC graduates and advocates: Louise Heydt (EC95) and her son and daughter-in-law William (AN95, EC98) and Elizabeth (SF85, EC03) Rohrbach. Their joint efforts over the course of a full decade led to three crucial grants from the William H. and Mattie Wattis Harris Foundation that together were instrumental in building the Library’s Eastern holdings into the strong collection we now have today. It should also be noted that the College’s annual Rohrbach Memorial Lecture, which each year brings a guest scholar to the Santa Fe campus to speak on some topic related to the Eastern Classics, is funded in honor of this same William A. Rohrbach, who passed away suddenly in 2013. Now, nearly three decades since the beginning of the EC, two of our three staff librarians have themselves been through the campus’s Eastern Classics program, and the Library continues to expand its Eastern collections with additional primary and secondary literature, new translations, and supplementary works on Asian art, calligraphy, and other topics supporting our reading and understanding of these texts.

While the Eastern Classics program is sometimes viewed as a latecomer adjunct to our Liberal Arts programs, it is worth noting that the Western tradition owes to the East a debt of which many readers may be unaware. This debt lies not in the content of Western great works, but in the very medium of their survival and dissemination–in the actual technology behind the printed book as such. Physical books are, after all, the vehicles by which the texts we read at our College have made their journeys down through the millennia and centuries and decades and into our own hands today. If the existence of books as physical objects seems merely incidental to our questionings and reflections, it bears remembering that their physical existence is in fact the sine qua non of all our reading and discussion. The being of books, we must occasionally remind ourselves, lies not only in the ἐπιστήμη of those who wrote them; it is also literally bound up in the τέχνη of the mostly anonymous multitude who through the ages have printed, preserved and purveyed them.

As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.

Diamond Sutra, tr. Red Pine

Through this lens both our undergraduate and graduate Liberal Arts programs have deep roots in China, for it is to the Chinese that we owe the invention of that essential and now ubiquitous material all readers and book lovers have come to take for granted: paper. While the West continued to struggle with the fraught and limited media of papyrus and parchment and vellum up into the 11th century, the Chinese had already discovered the process of paper-making by the start of the Common Era, a full thousand years before. Initially used primarily as a convenient and pliable packing and wrapping material, by the third century paper had begun to be recognized for its value as a textual medium and soon became a powerful catalyst in the growth of China’s written culture. It was only through the paper-making process’s slow migration from the East westward through the Islamic world that paper as a technology finally reached and then began to take hold in Europe around the year 1100, leading to the ubiquity we know today.

Nor is it only for paper-making that the literary West owes a debt to the East, for printing as a means of efficiently duplicating texts also had its origins in China. Here, in the history of book-making, we actually find a direct connection to our own EC program, for it so happens that one of the seminal works on the Eastern Classics reading list, the Diamond (or Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā) Sutra, provides the text for the oldest complete dated printed book in existence. Printed by woodblock on paper sections subsequently connected into a five-meter long horizontal scroll, the renowned Dunhuang copy of the Diamond Sutra was unearthed from a sealed cave (known since as the Library Cave) in northwest China in 1900. With a colophon dating its production to May 11, 868, this copy had been interred with some forty thousand other manuscripts and artifacts sometime in the 11th century and then lost to time for nearly one thousand years. Acquired by the British Museum in 1907, it can now be viewed in high-resolution digital form on the British Library website as part of the International Dunhuang Project, a collaboration among institutions across several continents that seeks to make more than 100,000 manuscripts, paintings, and artifacts from Silk Road sites available worldwide on the Internet.

A brief and fascinating account by the British Library of the conservation of this early example of Chinese printing can be viewed here:

Finally, for those interested in exploring in more depth and detail the discovery and significance of the Dunhuang Diamond Sutra in the context of early book-making, we recommend the following talk by Susan Whitfield, Director of the International Dunhuang Project, given at the Getty Center in Los Angles in conjunction with the 2016 exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on the Silk Road, which brought this unique book to the United States for a brief period: