The Culture of Sutra Copying in Korea and Japan

The Chinese character that is read "sa," as in the Korean word sagyeong (寫經), means ‘copying’, thus sagyeong in Korean and shakyō in Japanese mean copying the Buddhist sutras or other scriptures. When Buddhism was first transmitted, Buddha's words could be conveyed only orally through recitation. The sutra-copying culture began when the Buddha's words were translated into written form and the scriptures were copied to spread them widely.

Scene of Copying (筆寫) Sutra (經) ⓒ Cultural Heritage Administration
Scene of Copying (筆寫) Sutra (經) ⓒ Cultural Heritage Administration

The two epigrams below are the Copied Sutras of Goryeo era (918-1392), and Kamakura era (1185-1333). The practice of copying sutras is found in both Korea and Japan, as they both belong to the Buddhist cultural sphere. Sutra copying was a shared cultural practice that both countries appreciated. However, we still can see that there are small differences in terms of style. The two manuscripts below are sutras copied during the Goryeo era (918–1392) and in Kamakura era (1185–1333).
Please click to see the details

Transformation Scenes (變相圖)
Transformation scenes (變相圖) are religious images placed at the front of scrolls to summarize the content or symbolically convey the essence of the sutra that follows. Transcribing scripture was not merely to convey Buddhist teachings; the act of transcribing a sutra was recognized as a way to accumulate merit (功德). In order to accumulate merit in this way, sutras were decorated with gold and silver ink and transformation scenes were painted.

Please click to see the details of transformation scenes

Why are the copied sutras from Goryeo and Kamakura so famous?

So far, we have looked at copied sutras representative of Korea and Japan. 

Why then do the copied sutras of Goryeo and Kamakura attract so much attention? 

It is because of the invention of woodblock printing. Before the invention of printing, copying sutras meant the each one must be transcribed by hand, but the invention of woodblock printing allowed scriptures to be produced in large numbers. The Goryeo and Kamakura periods are famous because they focused on the "narrative of merit" to be gained from the process of copying the sutras, rather than on the mass production of scriptures.

On the other hand, if you are interested in the exhibition of Goryeo's masterpiece of woodblock printing, the Second Edition of Tripiṭaka Koreana, please click on the button below to visit the exhibition website.

ⓒKim Seung-kwon, reporter at the Kyongnam Shinmun
ⓒKim Seung-kwon, reporter at the Kyongnam Shinmun