Nestled in the Gaya mountain range in southern Korea, the Haeinsa monastery houses the Tripitaka Koreana, the largest, most complete set of Buddhist scriptures in existence — over 80,000 wooden tablets (enough to print all of Buddhism’s sacred texts) kept in open-air storage for the past six centuries. The tablets were carved between 1237 and 1251 in anticipation of the impending Mongol invasion, both as a spiritual effort to ward off the attack, and as an insurance policy. They replaced an earlier set of blocks that had been destroyed in the last Mongol incursion in 1231.
From Korea’s national heritage site description of the tablets:
The printing blocks are some 70cm wide 24cm long and 2.8cm thick on the average. Each block has 23 lines of text, each with 14 characters, on each side. Each block thus has a total of 644 characters on both sides. Some 30 men carved the total 52,382,960 characters in the clean and simple style of Song Chinese master calligrapher Ou-yang Hsun, which was widely favored by the aristocratic elites of Goryeo. The carvers worked with incredible dedication and precision without making a single error. They are said to have knelt down and bowed after carving each character. The script is so uniform from beginning to end that the woodblocks look like the work of one person.
I stayed at the Haeinsa temple last Friday night on a sleeping mat in bare room with a heated floor, alongside a number of noisy Koreans (including the rather sardonic temple webmaster — Haiensa is a Unesco World Heritage site and so keeps a high profile). At three in the morning, at the call to the day’s first service, I tramped around the snowy courtyards under crisp, chill stars and watched as the monks pounded a massive barrel-shaped drum hanging inside a pagoda. This was for the benefit of those praying inside the temple (where it sounds like distant thunder). Shivering to the side, I continued to watch as they rang a bell the size of a Volkswagen with a polished log swung on ropes like a wrecking ball. Next to it, another monk ripped out a loud, clattering drum roll inside the wooden ribs of a dragon-like fish, also suspended from the pagoda’s roof. It was freezing cold with a biting wind — not pleasant to be outside, and at such an hour. But the stars were absolutely vivid. I’m no good at picking out constellations, but Orion was poised unmistakeably above the mountains as though stalking an elk on the other side of the ridge.
It’s a magical, somewhat harsh place, Haiensa. The Changgyeonggak, the two storage halls that house the Tripitaka, were built ingeniously to preserve the tablets by blocking wind, facilitating ventilation and distributing moisture. You see the monks busying themselves with devotions and chores, practicing an ancient way of life founded upon those tablets. The whole monastery a kind of computer, the monks running routines to and from the database. The mountains, Orion, the drum all part of the program. It seemed almost more hi-tech than cutting edge Seoul.
More on that later.