Over 80,000 woodblocks, created in the mid thirteenth century and containing one of the oldest and most complete collections of Buddhist texts in the world, the Tripitaka Koreana, or Korean Buddhist Canon, is a significant accomplishment in world history.
The spread of Buddhism throughout Asia was dependent in large part on the availability of the important Buddhist scriptures, and translations thereof. The generally accepted date for the beginning of Buddhism in Korea is 372 CE, around three centuries after it had arrived in China, as translations from Sanskrit to Chinese of important Buddhist texts, along with commentaries on them, started making their way from China to Korea.
Initially, these were in the form of handwritten manuscripts. In the tenth century, the Chinese started to carve the central Buddhist canon onto wooden printing blocks. From these, xylographs (prints made from woodblocks) could be made in large numbers. The first set of such carvings was executed between 971 and 983. Koreans soon became aware of this and requested their own print, which arrived in 991.
In 1010 the Khitan invaded Korea, and it is said that the Korean King Hyonjong vowed that if they could be expelled from his country, he would have a new set of carvings of those Buddhist texts created. That happened and the King followed through, resulting in the first Korean carvings, completed in 1087. By that time the central canon had grown, supplemented by further texts brought from China and Japan by visiting Korean monks. As a result, by the end of the eleventh century Korea possessed one of the most comprehensive collections of Buddhist texts to be found anywhere in the world.
But then, in 1231 CE, the Mongols invaded. King Kojong had to leave his capital, and the precious set of woodblocks were taken to a distant monastery. Not long after, the Mongols overran that monastery and burned the entire set of blocks. Four years later, the task of creating a new set of blocks got underway, continuing from 1236 to 1251.
That set has been preserved to the present day as the Tripitaka Koreana. Totaling 1,511 titles and 6,568 volumes, the Tripitaka Koreana remains among the most complete and accurate collections of ancient Buddhist texts. It is so accurate, in fact, that the Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese editions of the Tripitaka are based on the Korean version. Tripitaka, by the way, means “three baskets,” referring to the three categories of writings included within the canon: rules for monastic life, sutras or sermons of the Buddha, and Buddhist philosophy and interpretations.
Also called the Goryeo Tripitaka (Goryeo being the dynasty that ruled Korea during the tenth to fourteenth centuries, and the source of the country’s modern name) or Palman Daejanggyeong (Eighty-Thousand Tripitaka), the Tripitaka Koreana consists of 81,258 blocks, each twenty-seven inches in length, nearly ten inches in width, and more than an inch in thickness. Each is carved on both sides with twenty-three lines of fourteen characters each. So uniform are the Chinese characters that some have speculated that a single person carved them all, although the current thinking is that a team of some thirty craftsmen probably did the work. No errors have ever been discovered in the 52,382,960 characters!
The wood for the blocks came from birch, magnolia, and cherry trees from Korea’s south coast. The wood was first soaked in sea water for three years. After the blocks were cut, they were boiled in salt water, then left outside for another three years. Once they were carved, the blocks were covered with a poisonous lacquer to ward off insects, and given metal frames to prevent warping.
They were first stored at a palace, then resided at a couple of different monasteries before being taken in 1399 to Haeinsa, a temple and monastery on the slopes of Mount Gaya near Taegu, where they have remained to the present day. Four buildings, called the Janggyeong Panjeon, were built in the fifteenth century to house the woodblocks. Along with the buildings’ natural ventilation, the foundations are reinforced with charcoal, lime powder, and clay to help control both temperature and humidity. Now almost eight hundred years old, the blocks remain in excellent shape.
The Tripitaka Koreana is the 32nd national treasure of Korea, and the Janggyeong Panjeon is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the 52nd national treasure of Korea.