The Creation of the Tripitaka Koreana

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The Tripitaka Koreana or the Tripitaka of Goryeo is the fullest collection of ancient Buddhist scriptures (the Tripitaka) in the world. Carved onto more than 80,000 wooden printing blocks, this grand work was done in the 13th century, under commission by kings of the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392). It is currently stored at Haeinsa Temple in the southeast of the Korean Peninsula.

The Tripitaka, meaning "Three Baskets" in Sanskrit, refers to the collection of Buddhist scriptures, or Buddhist canon, that relate to discourses of the Buddha, regulations of monastic life, and commentaries on the sutras by renowned monks and scholars.

Work on the first edition of the Tripitaka Koreana began in 1011 as a national prayer for the Buddha’s protection from invading Khitans. This smaller version, completed in 1087 was destroyed in 1232 when the Mongols invaded Korea. The extant larger version was completed in 1252, and was moved to its current location at Haeinsa in 1398.

In exile on Ganghwado Island, the royally-directed monks accomplished the historic creation of an incredible task. Each wood block measures 68 centimeters by 78 centimeters and hosts 322 Chinese characters on each side. The total of above 51 million characters are carved meticulously on the 81,258 blocks, which weigh in total some 280 tons.

The woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana show an example of the finest printing techniques of that period. Each block was systematically prepared, and individually and beautifully inscribed with a great degree of regularity. There are virtually no errors over the entire set.

Due to the sophistication of its editing and process of compilation, the Tripitaka Koreana is known as the most accurate of the Tripitakas written in classical Chinese; as a standard critical edition for East Asian Buddhist scholarship, it has been widely distributed and utilized over the ages.

The builders of the two repository-halls at Haeinsa, named Janggyeong Panjeon, utilized a geomantic understanding of nature and creative architectural techniques to create a space where the temperature and humidity is kept at ideal levels for preserving the woodblocks. Its slatted windows, sized differently in the north and south halls, ventilate the halls without aid from electronic devices.

The Tripitaka Koreana woodblocks are on the UNESCO Memory of the World register, while the Janggyeong Panjeon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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