Let us step back in time, not ten years, not a hundred years, but a thousand years, to the dawn of the past millennium, when there was a very different world from what we know today. In Europe, peace at last from outsider invasions leads to a population explosion and the development of society in the High Middle Ages. Africa is ruled in the north by the Fatimid Caliphate, a Shi’ite Muslim dynasty, while the Sahara and all lands south of the great desert are home to numerous empires, kingdoms, and tribes. The Americas would not have their ill-fated encounter with sea-roving Europeans for another five centuries; the classical Mayan civilization centers have been abandoned in Mesoamerica, and the mound builders of the Mississippian culture dominate what is now the central and southwestern United States.
Halfway around the world, in East Asia, the nation of Goryeo is fending off Khitan invaders of the Liao Dynasty in what is now northeastern China and eastern Mongolia. Goryeo does indeed drive back the Khitans, but the victory is not won through valor and force of arms alone. Sensing that this national crisis calls for more than just military might, King Hyeonjong orders the carving of woodblocks for the canon of Buddhist scriptures. For 76 years, monks secluded in mountain temples around the country carry out this monumental task, demonstrating not just the spirit of Goryeo but also its advanced printing culture.
Only a century and a half later, though, tragedy strikes when the Mongols overrun Goryeo and burn the woodblocks in 1232. “This crisis became the greatest opportunity,” says Venerable Sungahn, director of the Preservation Department of the Institute of the Tripitaka Koreana at Haein Temple. In only 16 years, dedicated monks carve a new version of the Buddhist canon that is more accurate than the original and incorporates advances in technology. Today, this Tripitaka Koreana, inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register and housed in Haein Temple, is the beating heart of the festivities celebrating its millennial anniversary this year.
Home of the Tripitaka Koreana
Our journey begins with a visit to Haein Temple. We follow the crowds up the sun-dappled road leading deeper into the folds of Mt. Gaya, but along the way, something catches the eye. It is a sign pointing away from the foot-worn path. We follow it, and soon find ourselves alone, standing before a pit in the ground. Within the pit are half-buried statues of seated Buddhas, and on the other side stand two young men, with a pick and a shovel, who are discussing the best way to continue the excavation.
This is not an archaeological site, though. It is “Excavation Project,” by the artist Cho Duck-hyun. A combination of installation art and performance art, this work is one of many scattered around Haein Temple and its environs as part of the Haein Art Project, a collection of some 50 artworks that expresses the meeting of art and religion. “The Sound of the Buddha,” located near the entrance of the temple, is a bronze statue of the Buddha by Ahn Sung-keum. But this is no ordinary statue. It is split into two, with a space in between the two halves for you to discover your inner Buddha nature and become whole.
Korean artists are not the only contributors to this project. As we near the front gate of the temple, a strange sight comes into view: rainbow-colored plasticine mandalas attached directly to the gate’s stone foundation. This is “Kalchakura,” by the Chilean artist Magdalena Atria. We pass over the mandalas and through the single-pillar gate on the way to the main grounds of the temple. In the first courtyard is a stone pagoda with an elaborate, winding path around it. Simply walking around the pagoda is an act of meditation, and as we follow the path we have time to contemplate where we are and why we are here. It is not easy to slow our steps when we know that the 81,258 woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana await us at the rear and uppermost level of the temple complex.
Not too long after, the sun is bright in the blue sky as we make our way up the last flight of stairs to the buildings where the woodblocks are housed. We step over the lintel of the lotus-shaped doorway to find ourselves in the midst of the Tripitaka; behind wooden grates, tall shelves housing the woodblocks stretch out to either side. The air is fresh, thanks to the windows specifically designed to facilitate ventilation, but at the same time the weight of history hangs in the air. It is incredible to think that the woodblocks have been housed here for over 750 years, yet they are still capable of producing crisp prints of the scriptures.
Copies are rarely printed from the original blocks these days, of course, as Venerable Sungahn tells us later over a cup of oolong tea in his quarters. “Warm conversation needs warm tea,” he says as he prepares the drink for us himself. Over the next few hours we discuss many things, and along the way we learn just how sparse our knowledge of the Tripitaka Koreana really is. Near the end of our conversation, though, he says something interesting. “Everything is change,” he says with a smile, “and accepting that fact is the key to escaping the troubles of life.”
At first, this seems like a strange thing to say for someone who is charged with the preservation of the centuries-old set of woodblocks. Is not the act of preservation an attempt to hold back the tide of change? But then his meaning becomes clear. “The Tripitaka is a very difficult text. We need to create a link or code that can connect us to it.” Indeed, everything is change, and preservation of the Tripitaka does not simply refer to the physical preservation of the woodblocks but the preservation of everything that the Tripitaka represents.
Celebrate the Tripitaka’s Spirit
Our second day begins early at the main event site. The venue is scheduled to open at 10:00 a.m., but so many people are waiting to get in that the gates are opened early. Beyond the central Millennium Plaza is the Tripitaka Millennium Hall, the main venue of the exhibition and our first destination.
Inside the hall, our journey begins in the imposing Tripitaka Exhibition Room, a cylindrical room that draws the eye upward along a gently sloping spiral walkway, not unlike the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In the center of this space, a holocube displays the 3D image of a Tripitaka woodblock.
The walls are decorated to resemble shelves, and as we walk up the spiral pathway we see that there are also actual shelves here, housing what look to be woodblocks. In fact, these are copperplate reproductions of the Tripitaka. Just over a thousand have been completed so far, but the work will continue after the festival and the shelves lining the walkway will eventually hold 81,258 plates.
At the top of the walkway, on the second floor of the hall, are a number of rooms that lead visitors deeper into the Tripitaka Koreana experience. In one room, life-size exhibits depict in detail the production process of the Tripitaka. It all began with the painstaking process of proofreading and editing the contents and then preparing the master text. This text was then placed onto the individual blocks, in reverse, and carved into the wood, character by character.
In another room, a video shown on a large screen explains the scientific knowledge that went into the construction of the buildings that have housed the Tripitaka for all these centuries. From the floor lined with charcoal and then salt to allow the earth to breathe, to the specially designed windows, every element serves one purpose: to preserve the Tripitaka in the pristine state in which it remains today. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, we see that this room is not just a theater — it is, in fact, a reproduction of the interior of the buildings where the woodblocks are stored.
There are plenty of exhibits located around the hall that allow visitors, young and old, to experience the Tripitaka Koreana firsthand, from woodblock-style printing stations to specially designed chairs for visitors to pause and listen to sutra recitations. Without a doubt, the biggest draw of the Tripitaka Millennium Hall is the room that contains woodblocks and other print materials from Korea and around the world. The star of this show is an original woodblock from the Tripitaka on display within a glass case. It’s hard to believe that this was created 750 years ago; look closely and you can still see the careful marks of the craftsman’s tools.
There are four other halls in the main event site, two located on each side of Millennium Plaza. To the right as we exit the Tripitaka Millennium Hall is the World Exchange Hall, where the artworks and installations created by over 60 artists from around the world capture the spirit of the Tripitaka. Next door is the World Citizen Hall, where visitors can participate in the festivities. Sculptures hang from the ceiling here, weighed down with thousands of multicolored strips of paper. A closer look shows that they are not just for decoration: on each is a wish written down by a visitor. Also here is a small room for the “108 bows relay.” One hundred and eight is a significant number in Buddhist thought as it represents the number of illusions that cause all human suffering. The goal is to have 81,258 visitors complete the Buddhist ceremony of bowing 108 times, thus setting a Guinness world record. At the time of our visit, 15,000 visitors had already done so.
On the opposite side of Millennium Plaza are two larger halls. The Knowledge Civilization Hall begins with a timeline outlining the history of print culture in both the East and the West. On display here are many relics and reproductions of stone tablets, woodblocks, handwritten manuscripts, and other materials that show the development of print culture through time. In the dim light of the hall, though, one exhibit shines brightly: a collection of Buddhist sutras penned in gold ink by the contemporary Korean calligrapher Hur Rak. The precise beauty of the tiny characters is breathtaking, and the detailed illustrations call to mind some of the finest illuminated manuscripts housed in museums around world. At the end of the hall we reach the modern age with an exhibit of one thousand small digital displays, orchestrated in a symphony of light and color that symbolizes the only constant in human life: change.
At the Spiritual Culture Hall visitors can learn about the influence that Buddhism has had on everyday life. Everything from common phrases, tea culture, and art forms, such as bronze bells and stone pagodas, all have their roots in Buddhism. But this is no passive experience — a winding walkway encourages visitors to enter a meditative state of mind, and at the end of the hall is a special room set aside for visitors who would like to meditate.
Experience the Tripitaka Firsthand
Back outside, Millennium Plaza beckons with its white and orange peaked tents. The tents are filled with people eager to try their hand at carving their own woodblocks, printing from replica woodblocks, or making arts and crafts like wind chimes and lotus lanterns. Having been impressed by exhibits on the process of making Tripitaka prints, we decide to try the woodblock printing. The first step is to apply the ink. Traditionally, this would be done with a brush, but we use a modern ink roller to ensure that the woodblock is fully coated. The rich, pungent smell of ink is in the air as we position a sheet of Korean paper on the woodblock. All that remains is to rub the paper gently with a cloth-covered rubbing sponge, and our very own woodblock print takes form. When it is finished, it feels like we are holding a piece of history made with our own hands.
As the sun climbs higher into the sky, the crowds around us grow larger. Soon a line of people snakes through Millennium Plaza and an announcement is made that the wait to see the original Tripitaka woodblock is now two hours. Many visitors decide to recharge with food and snacks at the restaurant pavilion, where skewers of meat and other tempting foods beckon.
But there is a bustle at the other side of the event site: men, women, and children dressed in traditional attire stand in rows, as if waiting for a parade. This is a reenactment of the Tripitaka procession by which the woodblocks were transported. The procession is led by musicians playing drums and gongs and escorted by fierce-looking soldiers in full armor and with weapons at the ready. Next is a group of women with replica woodblocks on their heads, affixed with ribbons tied beneath their chins. They walk the sandy path in straw shoes, their hands clasped in front of them in reverence. Behind them are a group of young children, all of whom are excited to be carrying the woodblocks on their backs. Older children, and men and women with A-frame carriers on their backs, and finally oxen bearing bundles of woodblocks bring up the rear. For those walking in the procession and those cheering them on, it is another chance to experience the Tripitaka.
As Venerable Sungahn says, the Tripitaka is indeed a difficult text. The exhibitions, events, and celebrations of the Millennial Anniversary of the Tripitaka Koreana, though, are the first link that brings us closer to its profound mystery. We leave the event site with a greater understanding of the history behind the Tripitaka and the wisdom and effort that went into its creation, but perhaps most importantly, the Tripitaka Koreana is no longer something of which we have only heard or seen. It is now a living, breathing part of our lives.