The Tripitaka Koreana part 2 – the Depository Building

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

The depository buildings which house the Tripitaka Koreana library are unique in almost every sense. Officially the largest wooden storage complex in the world, they are registered together with the Tripitaka itself as part of the UNESCO World Heritage (http://whc.unesco.org/).

The windows of the depository building...
The windows of the depository building...

The woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana were originally stored on Kanghwa Island. The current depository complex was built in 1398 at Haeinsa temple, located far inland, to be beyond the reach of enemy forces invading from the north, and invasions by pirates.

The 108 columns of the buildings symbolize the 108 defilements, or impurities, believed to separate the mind from enlightenment in Buddhist philosophy. By placing the words of Buddha within a house of defilements, it was shown that enlightenment exists within these defilements.

...ensure optimal airflow inside
...ensure optimal airflow inside

While the buildings are pleasant to look at, the true wonder is their design, which has ensured the long term preservation the Tripitaka woodblocks by maintaining good ventilation, appropriate humidity levels, and an ideal temperature.

Each wall has an upper and lower window, but the windows are different in size. Thanks to the design, fresh air flows in naturally through the larger window, and fully circulates within the building before being let out through the windows on the opposite side. This means that the air circulates naturally and is distributed evenly (see diagrams).

The layered floor keeps humidity at constant levels
The layered floor keeps humidity at constant levels

The depository was built with mud walls and mud floors. These moderated the temperature during the hot summer days and naturally kept humidity at a stable level. Beneath the mud floors of the depository chambers, there are several layers of charcoal, salt and limestone. These absorb excess moisture during the monsoon season, and release it during the dry winter when humidity levels fall.

A failed attempt was made to transfer the woodblocks to a modern cement storehouse in the 1960s. After the wood started to rot, the library was returned to Haeinsa temple. Many things about the buildings are not fully understood. Mysteriously, insects and animals do not approach the complex. Since the founding of Haeinsa temple, there have been seven fires. The Tripitaka Koreana and the buildings in which they are stored have never been burned or damaged. Many Koreans, therefore, have believed that this is due the grace of the heavens.

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