Tripitaka Koreana

korean-buddhist-canonOver 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.

korea-haeinsa-tripitaka_koreana-01Also 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.


Ancient libraries and lost knowledge are, not surprisingly, a great fascination for many people, including yours truly. An obvious example is the great library at Alexandria, Egypt, perhaps the largest and most important library of the ancient world, which was constructed in the third century BCE and flourished as a center of knowledge until it was destroyed, possibly by a fire set by the army of Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, or by several separate acts of destruction in that and succeeding centuries.

nalanda-university-1For me, of equal or even greater fascination is another center of ancient knowledge, Nalanda. Located in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, modern-day Bihar state, Nalanda included both a university-like school and a Mahavihara, or large Buddhist monastery. Nalanda was originally just a village, on a significant trade route, where some sort of school developed, perhaps as early as the sixth or seventh century BCE. The Buddha himself is said to have lectured there, and his contemporary, Mahavira, the founder of and most important figure in Jainism, also taught there for several years. In the third century BCE, the famous Buddhist emperor Ashoka supposedly built a temple at Nalanda. A few centuries later, the important Mahayana Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna also studied there, later becoming a teacher and leader of the institution.

Nalanda flourished during the Gupta Empire of the fifth and sixth centuries CE and for many centuries thereafter. Royal patronage led to the building of monasteries and other structures. Students and scholars from as far away as China, Korea, Tibet, Japan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Greece made their way to Nalanda. Mahayana Buddhism was a main focus of study, but the curriculum also included the various Theravada forms of Buddhism as well as Sanskrit, logic, medicine, and the ancient Vedas. While a center of Mahayana Buddhist learning, much of what came to be Tibetan Buddhism was developed at Nalanda. Padmasambhava himself, one of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have worked at Nalanda in the eighth century CE.

nalanda-university-monasteriesSome of the information we have about the early history and activities of Nalanda comes from the writings of Xuanzang, the much-traveled Chinese monk, who traveled through India between 630 and 643 CE. He visited Nalanda twice, once in 637, followed by a two-year stay starting in 642. He described his surroundings: “… the whole establishment is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the entire convent from without. One gate opens into the great college, from which are separated eight other halls standing in the middle. The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hill-tops are congregated together. The observatories seem to be lost in the vapors (of the morning), and the upper rooms tower above the clouds.” He also wrote, “The lives of all these virtuous men were naturally governed by habits of the most solemn and strictest kind. Thus in the seven hundred years of the monastery’s existence no man has ever contravened the rules of the discipline. The king showers it with the signs of his respect and veneration and has assigned the revenue from a hundred cities to pay for the maintenance of the religious.”

Tibetan sources mention the existence of a huge library at Nalanda comprised of three multistory buildings, the Ratnasagara (Ocean of Jewels), Ratnodadhi (Sea of Jewels), and Ratnaranjaka (Jewel-adorned). Ratnodadhi was the largest, standing nine stories high. While the exact number is not known, the library may well have held hundreds of thousands of volumes, many of them Buddhist texts but also including subjects like literature, logic, grammar, astronomy, and medicine.

Historian Sukumar Dutt writes that the history of Nalanda “falls into two main divisions – first, one of growth, development and fruition from the sixth century to the ninth, when it was dominated by the liberal cultural traditions inherited from the Gupta age; the second, one of gradual decline and final dissolution from the ninth century to the thirteenth.” Nalanda declined as Buddhism began to disappear in India. Even Xuanzang, in the seventh century, noted during his travels in India that Buddhism was of less and less interest to people. A combination of a rise in Hindu philosophy and the Muslim invasion of northern India in the early thirteenth century was probably responsible for Nalanda’s demise. It was probably destroyed by an army of the Muslim Mamluk Dynasty under Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200 CE. Although it’s just a legend, it is said that the library was so huge that it continued to burn for three months after it was set ablaze.

nalanda-university-excavationSome teaching continued for a while longer, but on a vastly smaller scale. Gradually Nalanda was forgotten, only to be rediscovered in the nineteenth century through the work of the Archaeological Survey of India. A thorough study of the site began in 1915. Archaeologists eventually found eleven monasteries and six temples, along with meditation halls and classrooms. Many of the buildings are, or were, decorated with sculptured panels and murals. Only a small percentage of the site, however, has been examined.

According to Xuanzang, over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers lived at Nalanda at its peak. What is now officially known as the Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara (Nalanda University) at Nalanda, Bihar was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. It’s now a popular tourist destination. Wandering through the ruins, one can only imagine what daily life might have been like during its heyday, the intellectual and religious activity … and the library, and how much we have lost.

Another Thought on Compassion

“The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God’s name, it was bad theology. Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads.”
– Karen Armstrong, in The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo

front-of-missionThe Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo, more commonly known as the Carmel Mission, is only the second of California’s twenty-one missions that I’ve visited, and the first I’ve really had the opportunity to explore for any length of time. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

The Carmel Mission was one of nine founded by Father Junípero Serra. Nicknamed the “missionary of the cross,” Serra was born in 1713 on Majorca, off the coast of Spain. He entered the Franciscan order just before he turned seventeen. After earning a doctorate in theology, he taught at the Lullian University in Majorca until 1749, at which point he turned to missionary work and headed to Mexico. serra-statueHe became Presidente of the Sierra Gorda Missions in 1751, then worked at San Fernando College starting in 1758. In 1767, King Carlos III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from all Spanish colonies. All the missions in Baja California became Franciscan, and Serra was named Presidente of the Missions of Lower and Upper (Alta) California. The next year, Serra accompanied Don Gaspar de Portolá in an expedition to colonize more of what is now the state of California.

Serra established the first Alta California mission in San Diego in July 1769. Then in June 1770 he founded the Mission San Carlos Borroméo, named after the sixteenth century Italian Saint Carlo Borromeo – Carlos Borroméo in Spanish – Archbishop of Milan and patron saint of Carlos III. Mission San Carlos Borroméo was originally located in Monterey. But Serra was not pleased with the treatment that the local Native Americans were getting from the Spanish soldiers headquartered at the Monterey Presidio (fort). So the Mission was moved to a new location in the Carmel Valley near the Carmel River in 1771. The Carmel Mission became Serra’s favorite, and served as headquarters of the Alta California missions for the remainder of his life and beyond.

courtyardThe Missions served to extend Spain’s influence, and to convert the area’s natives to Christianity. Those Native Americans, from a number of tribes including the Ohlone and Esselen, did much of the construction work for the early Mission buildings. They also took on the tasks of farming as well as becoming blacksmiths, weavers, tanners, carpenters, and more. More than 4,000 natives were baptized between the Carmel Mission’s founding and 1836. Initially, the farming near the Mission was not successful, and those who lived there were dependent on supply ships. Over time that changed, and by 1783 the Carmel Mission produced enough food to support some 700 people. Continue reading

My Top Ten Blog Posts of 2014

Top TenWhen one is a blogger, it’s fairly standard behavior to look back on the past year, be disappointed in how little you’ve posted, and make a New Year’s Resolution to do better. Wanting to avoid being original in any way, I’ve decided to embrace this thinking, and to start 2015 right by looking back at 2014. Since this blog started back in 2010, 2014 was actually, to my surprise, my second most productive year. I averaged about one post a week, which is not terrible. These are the posts that statistics say reached the most people.

1. Southeast Asia Travel Journal
This is actually fourteen separate posts on my February 2014 trip to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. This was also my biggest project of the year, so I wanted to call special attention to it. While I don’t have anything especially revelatory to say in this journal, I’m pleased with how it all turned out. And some of the pictures are nice.

2. Looking at Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert
As far as single posts are concerned, this was the most popular of the year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the most popular post in the history of my blog, by a wide margin, is a similar explication of a painting with a religious theme, Giotto’s The Lamentation.

3. Roger Lipsey: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art
This is an excellent book on a subject of great interest to me. Along with this review, I followed up with another post with a few thoughts on the same theme, Notes on Spirituality in Modern Art.

4. Chinese Calligraphy, an introduction
This post and its companion, #6 below, were by far my most ambitious project of the year. After seeing the exhibition Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, I was desperate to learn more about a subject to which I had previously paid almost no attention. These two posts took months to put together, and while they don’t pretend to break anything like new ground on an exhaustively-studied subject, I believe that the information is accurate, and interesting (to me at least).

5. Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me
A meme that was making the rounds at the time. Ask me about this in a few months, and I may have a new list for you.

6. Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy
A review of the catalog for the Asian Art Museum exhibition of the same name. See #4 above.

7. The Hungry Ghosts
I believe that I first read about the Hungry Ghosts in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and wanted to know more about this theme that ranges more widely, geographically and historically, than I might have guessed.

8. Umberto Eco: The Book of Legendary Lands
A review of a lovely book on a fascinating subject. The art that comprises a good portion of the book is beautiful and very well-chosen.

9. Quint Buchholz: The Library
A work by a very interesting artist that I came across on someone’s Tumblr.

10. My Home Library, the meme
Another meme that was current a while back. Some of the questions weren’t especially relevant to my experience, but many were, and it was interesting to contemplate some of the issues raised.

The Hungry Ghosts

PretaHungry Ghosts (in Sanskrit, preta, literally “departed” or “dead person”) were jealous, greedy, self-absorbed people during their lives on earth. As a result of their karma, they were reborn as shadowy spirit figures consumed by unsatisfied greed and desire. Hungry Ghosts are usually teardrop-shaped, with dry, ashen skin, thin arms and legs, distended stomachs, necks too thin for food to pass through, “mouths the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain.”

Chökyi Drakpa has written, “The preta realm is destitute of food and drink, creating hunger and thirst. It is a grim place of rocks and charred tree stumps, where the words ‘food,’ ‘drink’ or ‘comfort’ have never even been heard … Since these pretas do not find anything to eat or drink for months and years on end, their bodies are emaciated like skeletons and they lack even the strength to stand.” Pretas tend to dwell in wastelands, deserts, or even garbage dumps and cemeteries on earth, moving freely between our world and their hell. They sometimes feed on human corpses, human waste, or flakes of skin. Unlike the ghosts and demons of other cultures, however, pretas are generally pitied rather than feared, and Buddhist monks often leave them offerings of food or money.

Bhavacakra pretaHungry Ghosts can be divided into several categories. Those who were moderately wealthy in life are in three groups: the flaming mouths (food and drink become fire), the needle mouths (their throats are so small that food can’t pass through), and the vile mouths (whose mouths are so decomposed that they can’t eat anything). Those who were very rich also have three groups: the ghosts of sacrifices (they live off the sacrifices of the living), the ghosts of losses (who live off of lost objects from the human realm), and the ghosts of great powers (the rulers of these ghosts). And those who had no wealth are able to eat just tiny portions.

Hungry Ghosts or their like are found in Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh, and Jain traditions as well as in Chinese traditional religion and ancestor worship (the phrase “hungry ghosts” is derived from the Chinese). They take different forms in different traditions. For instance, in Japanese Buddhism, the gaki are the spirits of greedy people that are cursed with a great hunger, and the jikininki similar spirits that feed on human corpses at night.Hungry Ghosts realm In Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, there are six realms of existence, possible states into which humans can be reborn based on their accumulated karma. As depicted on the Bhava-cakra, or Wheel of Life, they are those of the Gods (Deva-gati), Demigods (Asura-gati), Humans (Manusya-gati), Animals (Tiryagyoni-gati), Hungry Ghosts (Preta-gati), and Hell (Naraka-gati).

China’s annual Ghost, or Hungry Ghost, Festival honors the hungry ancestor ghosts, who on that one day of the year can emerge from their hell and visit the living. Incense is burned, music performed, and food and drink laid out for them. After the festival, water lanterns are lit and set afloat to help guide the ghosts back to the underworld. Similar festivals, typically held during summer and sometimes spread out over as much as a month, turn up in Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.

Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo describes the sort of person reborn as a Hungry Ghost very amusingly: “We have seen how people can wrap their whole lives around graspiness and neediness; and every time they meet with somebody it’s like you can hear the suction. You can just hear it.Hungry ghost image You feel like the blood is coming out of your pores. And that’s the kind of person you instinctively stay away from because, literally, you can feel your energy being sucked into them … Particularly, also, it is the kind of person who is against and has no compatibility with compassion and generosity. The person who is chronically, without hesitation, selfish to the bone.”

A Hungry Ghost is always looking outside of itself – for something, anything, to satisfy its cravings. Unfortunately, many of us are already living the life of the Hungry Ghosts, as we try to fulfill our ultimately illusory desires. Relentless consumerism is one manifestation of this. Possessiveness and obsession are others. Longing for that which we cannot have is another. Do we actually think that this magical something or someone – whether we actually attain it or whether it is beyond our reach – will bring us the happiness we so desperately crave?

SE Asia Journal: Days 17-19

Tuesday, February 25, 4:10 p.m., Bangkok

After this morning’s writing I caught a tuk-tuk and went to the Angkor National Museum, which provides a very nice summary of Cambodia’s ancient history. Their presentation started with a short summary film and the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, a collection of Buddha images in stone, wood, and precious metals from throughout Khmer history. They were arranged by posture, time period, and material. While the many small images arrayed along the walls weren’t really accessible or visible, the larger ones were in full view. A fine, meditative space.

The remaining galleries traced Cambodia’s history, from its pre-Angkorian history in Funan, through the different belief systems – Hindu, Buddhist, and to a lesser extent folk religion. Then the major Khmer kings like Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII were profiled and their works listed. Two galleries were devoted to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom; the latter was actually the more extensive. Stelae detailing Khmer history and language were followed by the concluding gallery dedicated to clothing styles as revealed in ancient Khmer sculpture, and a final section on apsaras, which I didn’t realize had so captured the imaginations of both Cambodians and tourists.

Day 17 Bayon apsara 2

Pretty females doing sensuous dances will do that. I barely looked at the sometimes extensive texts provided with the individual images, relying on the larger summary texts and the very good audio guide (featuring a voice I’m certain I’ve heard in other museum audio guides).

Then it was back to the hotel for the bus, a flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok – and now I am back in the hotel that started all this. My plan is to set this journal aside for tomorrow, then return to it back home for some final thoughts. Dinner on the river ensues in an hour.

Thursday, March 6, 5:35 a.m., Reno

On the morning that I’m finally getting back to my daily routine of walking, meditating, writing, and so on, it seems appropriate to return finally to this journal to wrap up the final, painful day-plus of my trip. I should start by mentioning that when I returned to Bangkok, my hotel room was in fact larger than my home. Two bedrooms, three baths, three televisions, and much walking space, all just for me.

The farewell dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok was quite nice. Once again there were plenty of vegetarian options for me. Along the river were all manner of noteworthy sights – other ships large and small (many tourist-oriented), large hotels, brightly lit stupas and temples, a very attractive modern bridge spanning the river, and amidst it all a few stretches of older, in some cases decrepit, buildings that hinted at what the river might have looked like in times past.

Day 18 Chao Phraya River

Along with the scenery, pleasant views along the river, and food, there was much pleasantness and picture taking with my fellow trip members. I said goodbye to everyone, and got some addresses and information from people. How lucky I was to be traveling with such nice people who also proved to be up for anything and everything the trip offered. I had two beers that night, which was probably one too many given that I had to rise at 3:30 a.m. for the following morning’s flight. Read more