By David A. Mason
The greatest wisdom that mankind has ever expressed in written form is preserved in collections of the scriptures from the great religions. These are revered by religious believers and spiritual seekers across the world, as the primary literature of our highest aspirations to understand our personal selves, the world around us and our place within it. By their guidance we learn how to live better day-to-day lives, and how to reform the patterns of our minds towards appropriate health, compassion, prosperity, reverence, dignity, love and wisdom.
The compilation of all Buddhist scriptures is generally known as the Tripitaka, which is simply the Sanskrit word for "three baskets." This refers to the Sutras or recorded teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha, the Sastras or orthodox commentaries on the Sutras by enlightened masters, and the Vinayas or rules and procedures of the Buddhist monastic communities. At the great Buddhist Council called by Emperor Ashoka the Great to gather and standardize the texts 2,260 years ago, they were written on leaves and literally placed into three different large baskets according to the above distinctions.
By the twists and turns of historical circumstance, Korea ended up possessing the world's most complete extant set of ancient Tripitaka, particularly of all those in Chinese characters. The 80,000 plus-wooden printing blocks with scriptures carved on them are regarded as one of the nation's greatest treasures, and a valuable religious heritage of the world.
The formal international name of this collection is the Tripitaka Koreana, although many Buddhist scholars know it as the Goryeo Tripitaka because it was carved during the medieval Goryeo Kingdom (935-1390). Koreans themselves call it the "Palman Daejanggyeong," which means "Eighty-Thousand Great-Protective Scripture." The name "Palman Daejanggyeong" also means that the production of this set of woodblocks was intended to lead people through these 84,000 gates of the Buddha-dharma to attainment of enlighenment.
It comprises 1,496 titles in 6,568 volumes, including all standard Mahayana texts of that time along with supplementary essays and historical records written by Korea's own monastic scholars.
The story of this great sacred treasure begins with a Goryeo Prince known to us as Uicheon Daegak-guksa. Although the son of a king, he became a Buddhist monk and devoted himself to scholarship and attempted to unify Korea's various rival Buddhist schools under one broad doctrine. Backed by royal financing and influence, he traveled through China collecting copies of all the Buddhist scriptures, and organized them within a palace library in Gaeseong, the capital at that time. When invaded by the Manchurian Khitans in 1087, the Goryeo leaders commissioned the carving of a less-complete collection of Tripitaka printing-blocks as a ritual way of supplicating the cosmic Buddha's assistance for national defense, and unifying the minds of their citizens.
However, that original set of woodblocks was destroyed by fire during the horrific Mongol invasions of Korea beginning in 1232. The entire Goryeo government and its supporters fled to the fortress-island Ganghwa Island (at the end of the Han River in what is now Incheon), and heroically staved-off nearly three decades of attacks from Genghis Khan's armies before being forced to surrender. Fortunately, they brought the contents of National Preceptor Uicheon's royal Buddhist library along with them to the island, as one of their most precious treasures to be preserved at all costs. King Gojong ordered the revision and re-creation of the Tripitaka printing blocks.
This time the carving took 16 years, from 1236 to 1251, with the participation of monks from both the various "seon" meditational and "gyo" teaching sects. The blocks were made of birch-wood from southern Korea, petrified with salt to prevent decay. Just to prepare the wood took more than six years, as they were soaked in seawater for three years, then cut into blocks (70 by 24 by three centimeters and almost four kilograms each), which were boiled in salt water and then dried in the coastal wind and sun for three years. After each block was carved, it was covered in an insecticidal lacquer and framed with metal to prevent warping.
The carefully reviewed and organized collection of scriptures, supplemented by valuable historical records, was then carved onto 81,340 of these blocks by a team of around 30 monks supervised by one scholastic master. They worked with extremely careful religious devotion to carve the Chinese characters backwards onto the hardened wood, composing themselves in brief meditation sessions before carving each single word. The result of their highly skilled and disciplined efforts is what is now known to the world as the Tripitaka Koreana itself. What really does seem like a religious miracle is that the 52,382,960 characters found on them are said by contemporary scholars to not include even one single error.
After the Mongol influence over Goryeo declined, this precious treasure was transferred onto the mainland. In 1398, it was again moved to Haein Temple, Mt. Gaya. The blocks were carried that distance by a long procession of Buddhist women who balanced them on their heads, a devotional ritual that is reenacted by believers during an annual festival held at that monastery. Haein Temple was chosen to store these blocks due to its remoteness, nestled in a deep valley surrounded by high peaks, far from any urban center. Two long wooden repository buildings were built in the 15th century to house them, employing a brilliant architectural design that fits with the surrounding climate and wind-flow so as to prevent any deterioration of the wood, according to Korea's traditional geomantic theories.
The combination of the ingenious wood-preparation measures and architecture of the repositories, both quite advanced technologies for that time, with the difficulty that future invaders had of attacking this monastery, was successful in preserving the entire set of blocks in excellent condition despite the fact that they were carved almost 800 years ago.
The twin main buildings and two subsidiary repositories named the "Janggyeong Panjeon" along with their contents have been designated as one of Korea's eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as National Treasure No. 52. The UNESCO evaluation committee declared that the Tripitaka Koreana is one of the "most important and most complete corpus of Buddhist doctrinal texts in the world, and is also outstanding for the high aesthetic quality of its workmanship." It is an excellent example of the advanced technical manufacturing skills that Korea has always possessed and applied to its products, from ancient times until today.
The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism has operated the Research Institute of Tripitaka Koreana at Haein Temple for over a decade, in order to conduct research on this grand heritage and provide correct information. The monastic academicians and technical specialists have successfully imaged and digitalized the entire set of scriptures, and are now working on translating the 52 million ancient Chinese characters into modern Korean and English, building a massive computerized database. This will eventually become searchable over the Internet and in CD-ROM disks, with supplementary indexes, glossaries, dictionaries, scholarly commentaries and comparisons with the world's other collections, providing an amazingly valuable spiritual resource to all humanity.
In this way, the Tripitaka Koreana remains a living and evolving treasure, one that Koreans of any and all religious points of view are deeply proud of in their hearts.