The Tripiṭaka Played a Key Role in Joseon-Japan Exchanges in the 15th and 16th Century
There is no parallel version anywhere in the world.
- Ninchō (忍澂), the Japanese Pure Land sect priest, 1645–1711
This quote is from Ninchō, a Japanese priest, praising the incomparable superiority of the Tripiṭaka Koreana (the Goryeo Tripiṭaka).
Why would a Japanese priest leave a message praising the Tirpitaka Koreana 300 years after the fall of Goryeo?
*The Tripiṭaka, or Daejanggyeong in Korean, refers to the complete collection of Buddhist scriptures, or the Buddhist canon,
which contain discourses by the Buddha, regulations of monastic life, and commentaries on the sutras by renowned monks and scholars.
The First Edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana (初雕大藏經)
Goryeo twice created editions of the Tripiṭaka to overcome national crises brought on by foreign threats through the power of Buddhism. The first edition, which was begun in 1011 during the Goryeo-Khitan War, was completed in 1087, and is known as the First Edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana. It was Korea’s very first set of the Tripiṭaka, but the original woodblocks were lost in a fire during the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. Therefore, only the sutras printed from the woodblocks remain. Most of the existing printed texts are found in Japan. There are only about 200 printed sutras left in Korea, but it is said that there are about 3000 in Japan, including on Tsushima Island (對馬島) and at Nanzenji (南禪寺) temple in Kyoto.
You can see some examples of the original Tripiṭaka Koreana below.
Avataṃsaka Sūtra (The Flower Garland Sutra), volume 13, woodblock print from the First Edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana (初雕本大方廣佛華嚴經卷第十三)Goryeo dynasty, 11–12th century, paper, 28 x 150cm. National Museum of Korea. ⓒNational Museum of Korea
Avaivartikacakra Sūtra, volume 4, woodblock print from the First Edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana (初雕本佛說廣博嚴淨不退轉輪經卷第四)Goryeo dynasty, 11–12th century, paper, 29.4 x 846.5cm. National Folk Museum of Korea. ⓒNational Folk Museum of Korea
Yogācārabhūmi Śāstra (Discourse on the Stages of Yogic Practice), volume 32, woodblock print from the First Edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana (瑜伽師地論卷第三十二初雕本)Goryeo dynasty, 11–12th century, paper, 44.8 x 28.8cm. National Museum of Korea, National Treasure no. 272. ⓒNational Museum of Korea
Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra, volume 221, woodblock print from the First Edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana (初雕本大般若波羅蜜多經卷第二百二十日)Goryeo dynasty, 11–12th century, paper, 24.5 x 753cm. National Folk Museum of Korea. ⓒNational Folk Museum of Korea
The Second Edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana (再雕大藏經)
After the wood blocks for the first edition were destroyed during the Mongol invasion, a second edition was made between the years 1236 and 1251. A vast set of 81,258 wooden printing blocks are the source of what is known as the Second Edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana (再雕大藏經), or the Goryeo Palman Daejanggyeong (八萬大藏經), meaning the 80,000 Tripiṭaka. This Second Edition is the oldest and most complete Tripiṭaka in the world. Its perfection was widely known in neighboring countries, including Japan.
Maybe that is the reason why the Muromachi shogunate considered the printed sutras of the Tripiṭaka the most important goods when trading with Korea. The shogunate even called their embassy to Korea the “Envoys Seeking the Tripiṭaka (請經使).”
Let’s examine some records regarding Japanese requests for editions of the Tripiṭaka found in the Joseon Wangjo Sillok, Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty.
“Minamoto Dōshin Shibukawa Mitsuyori (源道鎭), a Tandai (探題) of Kyushu, sent an envoy with an offering and asked for a printed edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana.”
Taejo Silok Vol. 12, December 29, the 6th year of Taejo’s reign
“All we have come here for is to obtain the woodblocks for the Tripiṭaka Koreana. When we left Japan, we had already told the emperor that, ‘If we cannot obtain the woodblocks, we will not come back.’ Now if I go back without anything, I will be guilty of not fulfilling my vow. Therefore, I would rather not eat and simply die.”
Sejong Sillok Vol. 23, January 2, the 6th year of Sejong’s reign.
Heart Sutra at Haeinsa , woodblock print from the Second Edition of the Tripiṭaka Koreana (陜川海印寺大藏經板般若波羅蜜多心經). Goryeo dynasty, 13th century, wood, around 24 x 70cm. Haeinsa, National Treasure no. 32. ©Cultural Heritage Administration
"… but what I need is the woodblocks of the Tripiṭaka Koreana: other treasures are useless no matter how abundantly they were piled up like a mountain."
Sejong Sillok Vol. 26, December 17th, the 6th year of Sejong’s reign.
How are the woodblocks made for printing?
Many processes were involved in creating the Tripiṭaka woodblock.
Among them, craftsmen who carved the characters had not only to be skilled at carving
but also had to understand the meaning of the text as well, and to be patient.
Such people were called gakjajang.
Watch the video clip to see in detail how the gakjajang carved the woodblocks.