One of the World’s Most Unusual Libraries
By “Awake!” correspondent in Korea
DO YOU like to read? In these days of radio and television, in many parts of the earth reading is often spoken of as a “lost art.” But it is still one of the best means of learning. Since the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century, ‘of the making of books there has been no end,’ and knowledge has been available for many. (Eccl. 12:12) Libraries contain millions of books on every imaginable subject. However, we would like to invite you to visit, through the printed page, a most unusual library in the Far East. It is an ancient religious library, located in a temple area.
We start our trip from Taegu, the third largest city in Korea. By bus it takes about an hour and a half to reach Mt. Gaya, which lies in Gyongsang Namdo Province. The library is located in this mountain terrain, one of the most beautiful places in Korea. The Buddhist temple, and the library connected to the temple, is called Haein-Sa and is situated halfway up Mt. Gaya. On our way up Mr. Gaya we see many old women dancing as they sing old Korean folk songs. They invite us to join them, but we go ahead with our sight-seeing. Passing through three big wooden gates we come into the temple area, with its thirteen hermitages, nine for men and four for women.
One of the monks living here kindly offers to guide us around the temple area. He first directs our attention to the temple itself, its outside walls containing pictures painted in bright colors. Our guide explains that each picture has a meaning, each describing some episode in the history of Buddha and Buddhism. For example, one of them depicts Buddha leaving his former way of life to find out why wickedness and suffering exist. Yes, he even left his wife and his firstborn son. Another illustrates how Buddhism was brought to Korea from its place of origin in India, through China to Korea and then to Japan. The monk explains to us that Buddhism came to Korea about 1,600 years ago. So, because Buddhism is older here than in Japan, many Japanese devotees come here to worship.
On the rear side of the temple is yet another display of pictures showing some of the doctrines and philosophies of Buddhism. One especially catches our eye. It depicts the souls of wicked persons being tormented in a burning hell. This is interesting because it confirms the fact that the false doctrine of hell fire has a non-Christian origin.
The Unusual Library
Behind the temple we mount stone steps to two long wooden buildings, larger than the temple itself. These buildings house this strange library of—not books—but more than 80,000 ancient wooden printing blocks. It is the oldest and most complete collection of the Pali canon of Buddhism, with its three Pitaka, or “baskets.” The first contains sermons, the second, rules of discipline, and the third, a résumé of the doctrines. Our guide relates the interesting history of these blocks.
When the Mongols invaded Korea in the thirteenth century many of Korea’s early cultural and religious relics were destroyed. The Mongols burned the temple where the original version of the Pali canon, carved two hundred years earlier, was kept. All the Buddhist sutras, laws and treaties engraved on wooden plates were destroyed. The king fled to Ganghwa Island, north of the port of Inchon. Since the scriptures were considered vital to the physical and spiritual survival of the kingdom, the king immediately commissioned the carving of a new copy.
After establishment of production headquarters on Ganghwa Island, the carving work began. Hard white birch was cut into blocks all measuring 23 by 67 centimeters (9 x 26 inches), with a thickness of 3 centimeters (1 inch). For three years the blocks were soaked in seawater, then carefully dried in the shade. Next they were steamed in salt water and again carefully dried. This made the wood soft enough for delicate woodcarving. After each block was carved on both sides with about 300 Chinese characters, it was varnished as a protection against insects.
It took nearly sixteen years to complete the carving. Starting in 1236 C.E., the work was finished in 1251, with a total of 84,000 blocks engraved. Interestingly, the Buddhist doctrines and teachings are said to be 84,000. The blocks were kept in a temple on the island, were later moved to Seoul, and, finally, toward the end of the fourteenth century, were transported to Haein-Sa. Of the original 84,000 blocks, 81,340 have survived the transportation and erosion by the elements and are kept in the two fifteenth-century halls, which are specially designed to maintain proper humidity, temperature and ventilation. The Korean Encyclopædia gives the number as 81,258, but the monks and the people working in the Haein-Sa temple area claim that it is 81,340, according to the latest counting. Each block weighs 3.5 kilograms (7.7 pounds). They are indeed a testimony to the fine skill and craftsmanship of the Koreans.
Because of this library, Haein-Sa has become a center for Buddhist pilgrims and scholars. The blocks served as the text for the first Buddhist literature in the Korean language, when they were translated from the classical Chinese characters into the phonetic Korean script. These seven-hundred-year-old blocks have been used in printing books. About 7,000 books have been printed, each containing the entire contents of the existing blocks. A few copies have been sent to other countries for research and study.
In Buddhism, people are taught not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, not to commit adultery and to avoid drunkenness—in themselves good principles. Yet it has been impossible for Buddhism really to inculcate these principles in its devotees. And, in talking with many who believe in Buddhism, it becomes very clear that this religion does not tell how to cope with the many problems that mankind is facing in this twentieth century. Really, no real hope for the future of mankind is held out in the holy writings of Buddhism.
There is a book, however, that does hold out a bright hope for mankind’s future. That book is the Bible, distributed in billions of copies and, the whole or in part, in about 1,600 languages. Its origin was much earlier than any other religious books, and it has the power to transform one’s personality because it is not the philosophy of a man seeking the truth. It is from the actual Source of life and all material things—the Creator. You probably have a copy of the Bible in your personal library. Look into it for a richer life now and a hope of everlasting life ahead.