Nine hundred years ago, the Korean peninsula was under siege. From their northern homelands, barbarian tribes known as the Khitans raided cities and towns, laying waste to countless Korean lives. The Korean military successfully repulsed the invaders for decades, but the continued incursions forced King Hyonjong, who ruled between 1010 and 1039, to exhaust every defensive alternative. Hopelessly outnumbered and facing military instability at home, Hyonjong concluded that his kingdom’s fate lay not in his own hands but in those of a higher power.

The entrance to the buildings that house the Tripitaka
The entrance to the buildings that house the Tripitaka

In 1011, in an effort to secure the protection of the Buddha for his kingdom and people, King Hyonjong ordered the compilation and carving in wood of the entire Korean Buddhist canon. The result of this meritorious work was called Pal Man Dae Jang Kyung, or “The Great 80,000 Hidden Sutras.” Westerners have labeled it the Tripitaka Koreana.

The king reorganized the priesthood and ordered them to collate and translate all available Buddhist writings from China. This was a monumental undertaking for Korean monks, for it was the first time that the entire known Buddhist canon was committed to written form. Scholars now believe that the format and calligraphy of the Tripitaka Koreana were actually modeled after those now-extinct Chinese works, but the Korean version was said to have surpassed all its predecessors in precision and beauty.

 

The entrance gate that leads to the library buildings at Haein-sa. Courtesy of Robert Young.
The entrance gate that leads to the library buildings at Haein-sa. Courtesy of Robert Young.

The wooden printing blocks were completed some two decades after they were started. For storage and safekeeping, monks transported them to Puin-sa, a small temple near Taegu. Although the Tripitaka had been finished, the king was bewildered because peace still had not descended upon his kingdom: Khitan raiders continued to attack Korea both directly, with organized troops, and indirectly, when refugees fleeing the Mongols left a path of destruction through Korea. The Khitans actually continued to lay siege to the peninsula until a Mongolian cavalry force stamped them out in northern Korea in 1218.

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