Buddhism and Printing

A Buddhist monk named Tetsugen Dōkō (鉄眼道光, 1630-1682) was a prominent teacher and lecturer of the Obaku Zen sect. I’ve written a few recent posts about him. However, his greatest accomplishment was perhaps providing a complete, printed collection of the entire Buddhist canon in Japan called the Obaku Edition of the Triptaka: Ōbakuban daizōkyō (黄檗版大蔵経). The Obaku Edition was the de facto edition of the Buddhist canon in Japan until the modern period when it was superseded by the Taishō Edition (大正新脩大藏經, taishō shinshū daizōkyō) in the 1920’s.

But why such a big deal? It helps to look at the history of Buddhism and printing to understand.

Printing in China

As early as the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th century) China was printing texts using either movable type or woodblock printing. Movable type is easier for languages with alphabetic writing systems like English, but for Chinese, which has 40,000+ characters it was error-prone and time consuming.

An example of block printing in Chinese language. Notice how the Chinese characters are carved backwards, so they print correctly on paper when pressed. User:Vmenkov, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Instead, a block of wood could be carved to print a whole page and re-used over and over. This is called “wood block” printing. If the blocks were good quality and well-maintained (i.e. protected from insects and the environment), it could be used for centuries.

The Pen ts’ao, 1249 C.E. Printed with woodblock, this illustrated book discusses Chinese herbal medicine. User:Parhamr, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The entire Buddhist canon or Tripitaka was a popular choice for printing. However, unlike religious texts such as the Quran or Bible which encompass a single book, the Tripitaka is HUGE. Imagine a complete set of encyclopedias then double or triple that. That’s the size of the Buddhist canon roughly. So compiling and printing an official copy was a massive undertaking.

Further, especially in the Tang Dynasty and earlier, translation was a big challenge. As the story of Xuan-zang shows, journeying to India from China in order to learn Sanskrit was an extremely dangerous journey and very few succeeded. Of the few who did, even fewer truly mastered Indian language and the subtleties of Buddhist thought. Instead, the Chinese government brought in Buddhist monks from various cultures on the Silk Road: Parthians like An Shigao, Kushans like Lokaksema and Kucheans such as Kumarajiva. The language differences between Sanskrit and Chinese were formidable and sometimes multiple editions of the same sutra were translated but eventually a complete Buddhist canon was compiled in the readable, literary Chinese of the day.

Starting in the year 983, with the Sichuan Edition, to the late Ming Dynasty, 20 official editions of the Buddhist canon were printed out. Some were better than others. The Yuan Dynasty Edition for example was considered inferior quality.

Printing in Korea

Similar to China, Korea developed sophisticated wood-block printing methods for publishing, using the Chinese Song Dynasty edition as their source, albeit with the Korean system of Chinese characters. This edition is called the Tripitaka Koreana.

Much of this printing took place at the Buddhist temple of Haeinsa (해인사, 海印寺), where the wood blocks are still preserved to this day:

A row of wooden print blocks used to create the Tripitaka Koreana, as preserved in Haeinsa Temple. Lauren Heckler (the Flickr ID is malpuella) at Flicker, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You can see how many blocks it took to print the whole thing, it was a massive project, and Korean Buddhist community did an amazing job both in the initial undertaking, as well as preserving history. I wish I knew more about this, better yet, I’d like to visit Haeinsa someday.

Printing in Japan

Block-printing or any mass-printing of Buddhist texts in Japan came relatively late. Further, due to geographic isolation, Japanese Buddhist monks often had fewer texts and resources available for research. Finding a copy of the Lotus Sutra or Pure Land Sutras was easy but texts such as the Surangama Sutra, popular in Chinese Buddhism, but largely unknown in Japan, would be all but impossible for most monks.

Wood-block printing on a large scale finally came centuries later during the Edo Period, starting in the 17th Century. As Dr Helen Baroni points out that Japan was finally stable after a century of warfare, and Buddhist monks turned more and more to scholarship so the demand for texts increased. At that time, most Buddhist monks relied on hand-copies versions, or Buddhist texts imported from China, which were carefully guarded. A typical monk or temple in Japan would have had access to far fewer sutras than their counterparts in Korea and China, but in the Edo Period, the demand for more texts finally changed the situation.

The first edition to be published was a government-sponsored edition called the Tenkai Edition or Tenkaiban (天海版) and was completed in 1648. Dr Baroni explains that only a few copies were printed and it was based on the problematic Yuan-Dynasty Chinese edition. Further, it used moveable-type, so there was a risk of human error in each copy due to the complexity of Japanese language and its use of Chinese characters.

The next edition was the Obaku Edition mentioned above. What was impressive about this edition was that it was superior quality using woodblock prints, and entirely a voluntary effort. Government funds were not used. The aforementioned Tetsugen started this effort around 1667. Per tradition, Tetsugen first got permission to take a break from Zen practice from his Chinese-teachers Yinyuan (隠元隆琦 1592—1673) and Muan (木庵性瑫 1611-1684). From there, Tetsugen, a skilled orator, toured Japan providing lectures mainly on the The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (discussed in detail here), the Surangama Sutra and the importance of keeping the precepts.

Through these lectures, Tetsugen was able to secure enough funding to setup a print shop in Kyoto, while the compilation and editing of the edition took place at Obakusan, the main Obaku Zen temple an in another temple in Osaka, Zuiryuji where Tetsugen resided. A number of monks under Tetsugen also volunteered in the project, and by 1680, there were 6,956 volumes and over 20,000 blocks used. This was the de facto Buddhist canon used in the Edo Period due to availability and quality of work.

Sadly, Tetsugen did not live to see his edition completed. While waiting in the capitol of Edo (Tokyo) to present an edition to the Shogun, he heard of a famine in the countryside and left to assist in the relief efforts. There, Tetsugen sadly died from illness, there and his students completed the projected and presented the edition to the government.

The Obaku Edition was the preferred copy of the Buddhist canon edition used until the 1920’s when it was superseded by the afore-mentioned Taisho Edition. The Taisho Edition project was started by a Buddhist scholar named Takakusu Junjirō (高楠順次郎 1866 – 1945 pictured above) who wanted to promulgate Buddhist-based education around the world. The quality and breadth of the Taisho Edition, or “Taisho Tripitaka”, has made it one of the most popular sources used for East-Asian Buddhist research. You can find it online easily, though not all of it is translated into English.


Long before printing was available in Europe, Buddhism and printing of literature went hand-in-hand in East Asia, despite the complexities of the language. Much of what we know about Buddhism today and Asian literature is due to the efforts of these early masters of printing.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: