The Tripitaka Koreana – part 1

Matthew Jackson continues his series of articles on the important treasures from Korea’s past

One crowning achievement of Korea’s Buddhist heritage that is not included in the Bozar ‘Smile of Buddha’ exhibition is the Tripitaka Koreana. There is a practical reason for this, as it consists of 81,258 woodblocks, weighs 280 tons in total, and would take 30 years to read, even with a reasonable grasp of classical Chinese. The collection of Buddhist scriptures is currently housed in the thousand-year-old Haeinsa temple, and undoubtedly one of the foremost wonders of Korea.

Tripitaka is a Sanksrit word meaning ‘three baskets’ – referring to the teachings of the Buddha (Sutra Pitaka), the precepts followed by monks and lay followers (Vinaya Pitaka), and commentaries on these two scriptures (Abhidharma Pitaka). 20 different versions of the Tripitaka were made in Asia, but of these the Tripitaka Koreana woodblocks have remained in good condition to this day.

A team of around thirty scribes completed the work in 1251, under the shadow of the imminent Mongol invasions. In 2000, after nine years of work involving one hundred experts and a cost of eight million dollars, the Tripitaka Koreana was finally digitalized. Work is also underway to transfer the characters on to copper plate; presumably to ensure their preservation through a cyber-apocalypse, which feels strangely close.

Wooden block from the Tripitaka Koreana
Wooden block from the Tripitaka Koreana

Three aspects of the Tripitaka Koreana make it particularly special – the accuracy of the characters, the breadth and profundity of the scriptures, and the beauty and resilience of the woodblocks themselves.

Thanks to the efforts of the renowned scholar monk Venerable Sugi, who compared every existing version of the Tripitaka, and the care of the scribes, who were said to have bowed before carving each letter, no errors have been found in the text.

Previous versions of the Tripitaka from other nations were drawn upon, meaning that the Tripitaka is a source for many Sanskrit texts that are now lost. The engraved characters are consistent in form, as if they were the work of one hand. The woodblocks themselves were made with specially prepared and treated wood, cut in wintertime to prevent warping, soaked in sea water for three years to remove every trace of resin, and boiled in salt water to prevent insect infestations and mould.

Almost as extraordinary as the woodblocks themselves is the depository complex built to store them, which will be covered in the second part of this article.

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