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[Lee Kyong-hee] Tripitaka tours for the pandemic-weary public

In 1398, the most complete collection of Buddhist texts went into Haein Temple, never to be seen in its entirety by the general public. This year, amid the global pandemic, the temple in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang Province finally offered access, saying, “We hope to help people find the hope and strength to overcome the crisis, just as our forebears did in the face of foreign invasion.”

Free tours began on June 19, the first of many scheduled on weekends, but now they are suspended until Sept. 5, a victim of the soaring COVID caseload. The texts, engraved on 81,258 wooden printing blocks known as the Tripitaka Koreana, once again can only be visualized.

I joined a tour earlier this month. Haein is the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and represents dharma, or the Buddha’s teachings. Famously conservative, it is changing. The 500 bhikkhus at the temple are granting more accessibility.

Past the One Pillar Gate, the main entrance, my small tour group negotiated the gradually ascending temple compound as two student guides from the Vinaya seminary, where monastic life is learned, described halls and pagodas before reaching the woodblocks.

The Tripitaka depository is situated behind the main worship hall, on the highest terrain of the temple grounds embraced by scenic Gayasan. Approached by climbing steep stone stairs, it has two long rectangular halls facing the courtyard in between, with two smaller halls on the sides. The back hall contains the woodblocks.

Ingenious wisdom and technology of eight centuries ago keep the woodblocks and the halls in near-perfect condition today. Inside the wooden hall, the sultry summer heat is instantly forgotten despite the absence of air conditioning or a ventilation system. The air felt cool and pleasant amid the solemn and mysterious atmosphere emanating from the woodblocks, which form two rows on shelves. The open grilled windows had no mosquito nets, but the monks said they never find any mosquitoes or flies, or even any birds, approaching the depository.

The natural, pristine condition speaks to the outstanding technical know-how and devout endeavor of the ancient architects and engineers who worked under royal patronage. Their innovation enabled the Tripitaka Koreana and its depository to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List (1995) and Memory of the World Register (2007), the only heritage awarded the double crown, in addition to the status of Korea’s designated National Treasures.

A collection of all Buddhist scriptures and writings by eminent monks and scholars that existed in the 13th century, the Tripitaka Koreana is regarded as the finest of all East Asian versions of the Buddhist canon in Chinese script, in terms of comprehensiveness, accuracy and beauty of calligraphy. As the standard canon in East Asia, it became the basis for Japan’s movable metal type edition published in 1923, which came to be used as the basic text for Buddhist studies around the world.

The superb condition of the woodblocks would challenge modern science to duplicate. The feat, of course, involved a myriad of factors. The painstaking process of processing the wood, the selection of the site of the storage halls and the structure of the halls are a few.

Wild cherry and birch wood was mostly used to make the printing blocks. The wood was carefully processed to weatherproof the grain and impede decay. That stage alone lasted several years. The wood was first soaked in seawater for three years, then cut into blocks and boiled in salt water. Another three years was spent drying the wood in shade and exposing it to the mountain winds before making the surface smooth. Only then did the writing and carving of the scriptures begin.

After the text was carved, the blocks were added with thicker panels on the sides to protect the carvings from abrasion and keep air flowing between the blocks when stored. The corners were reinforced with metal pieces to prevent warping. The blocks were then given a poisonous lacquer coating to repel harmful insects. Hence the blocks still look fresh and can produce crisp, clear prints.

Choosing the site of the depository and designing the storage buildings was shrewdly scientific, too. Standing at 655 meters above sea level and facing southwest toward a valley with high peaks at the back, the two simple, sturdy buildings are designed to provide optimal natural ventilation and temperature and humidity control. Maximizing air flow within the halls are the open grilled windows in different sizes.

The clay floors also help control temperature and humidity in the buildings. The floors have thick layers of salt, charcoal and lime underneath, which absorb excess humidity during the rainy season in the summer and maintain an optimal humidity level during the dry winter months. The roofs, built of clay and tiles covering wooden rafters and brackets, also prevent abrupt changes in temperature caused by direct sunlight.

Since the canon was written in classical Chinese, most Koreans could not read them. Breakthroughs came with the translation of the entire canon into modern Korean. Undertaken over 36 years by Dongguk University’s Buddhist Sutra Translation Center, the translation was completed in 2017. Also, digitization of the entire canon, all 52 million characters, was completed in 2000 by the Research Institute of the Tripitaka Koreana.

The digital edition, produced over nine years, came in a single CD. It was a dream come true for Ven. Jongnim, who initiated the project to build “cyber sangha” and reform Buddhism. The digitalization led him to create a larger database that includes the original woodblock edition of the Tripitaka Koreana, published in the 11th century but destroyed by fire in 1232 during the Mongol invasion, leaving only partial prints preserved in Japan and Korea, and all relevant texts that came between the two editions.

Hopefully, the tours, reserved online on a first-come basis, will resume soon to widen appreciation and understanding of the woodblocks and ultimately bring more people closer to the teachings contained in them.

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (