Saturday, January 24, 2009

Heinsa Temple

The teachers invited me on a trip with them to Heinsa Temple, arguably Korea's most celebrated Buddhist temple. I met the teachers at the school, where we all piled into two big charter buses for a long drive up the mountain. We arrived at our destination after almost 3 hours.

Nestled in a narrow valley high in the mountains of Southern Korea, Heinsa temple's thriving monastic community is tasked with studying, copying, and preserving over 80,000 wooden print blocks, a complete record of all Buddhist scriptures in Korea. Since 1398, monks at this location have preserved and copied texts here, many of which are now unique to this monastery and irreplaceable.

The temple and monastery buildings resemble many ancient Asian structures. Further inspection however, shows the distictively Korean ornate color and style.

The most interesting part of the temple that attracts visitors, is the Janggyeong Panjeon Complex, which has housed the 81,000 Buddhist Scriptures known as the Tripitaka Koreana. Ancient Korean monks originally used this set of wooden blocks for printing copies of the texts, which are over 700 years old. After moving the Scripts to Heinsa, it became the home of the oldest complete version of Buddhist canon in Chinese script.
You can look into the four repositories through ventilation windows and see the endless rows of shelves housing the uncanny ancient texts. Originally written in 1230-1250, 0ne can only imagine the painstakingly tedious work of monks and scholars that took place 700 years ago. Some estimate it took 30 years to complete the entire copy of the texts.

Ancient Korean Monks also developed several ingenious architectural features in the temple to assist in preserving the scripts. By facing Southwest, the buildings avoid wind and rain from the Southeast. Steep mountains to the North protect the temple from snow in the winter. The architects also used different sized windows in the North and South to ventilate the the repositories, perhaps one of the earliest use of the principles of hydrodynamics in architecture anywhere (don't quote me on this).
For reasons lost and forgotten to historians today, birds, insects and animals avoid the complex. Nobody is quite sure why. The government even created a different complex for an intended move in 1970, thinking modern storage techniques would preserve the blocks for future generations. Wooden blocks in a simulated test however, proved to develop mildew, and the move was cancelled. Even today the ancient buildings appear to be the best means for preserving these wood block texts.

Most of the text today though, is inaccessible to Koreans. The complete record of Chinese Buddhist canon is far to vast for ordinary Koreans. Only the most ambitious scholars of ancient Chinese or Korean Buddhism could even begin to unlock its secrets. The task of translating all 81,000 texts into modern Korean is still far from complete.

UNESCO declared Heinsa Temple a World Heritage Site for its cultural significance in Korea and China. The Korean Government also designated both the Temple and the Tripitaka Koreana as National Treasures.

Korean National Treasures Site

UNESCO World Heritage Site

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