Amitabha Buddhist Library in Chicago - Collation, Preservation, Research, and Promotion of Tripitaka in Chinese History

Collation, Preservation, Research, and Promotion of Tripitaka in Chinese History

It is believed that the collation and editing of the Tripitaka began during the Northern and Southern dynasties. With the collection of many translated sutras in the Tienjien years of Emperor Liang Wudi, the collation of the Tripitaka was begun. According to Sui Su Jing Jie Zhi, Shi Zhenyou compiled Tzu San Zan Jie Ji in the Liang dynasty. This is the earliest catalog of Buddhist texts, which is still in existence. Prior to the Sui and Tang dynasties, all copies of the sutras were hand-written. While the majority of them have been lost, a few of the hand-written copies have survived till today.

While there have been stone-carved and hand-written Buddhist texts throughout the Chinese history, carving the sutras on wood blocks to be used for printing was begun in the ninth century, late in the Tang dynasty. The earliest known wood-carved Buddhist text was uncovered in the caves at Dunhuang. It was a carved printed copy of the Dimond Sutra from the ninth of the Xiantong years of Emperor Tang Yizong (868) and was funded by Wang Jieh. This is the earliest printable version of a wood-carved sutra with the actual date recorded.

According to verified records, the practice of wood-carving the Tripitaka began with the Kaibao Zan in the Kaibao years of Emperor Song Taizu in the Northern Song dynasty in Sichuan (also known as Shu Zan). So generally speaking, the Tripitaka collation began in the Northern Song dynasty. Before that, carved sutras were all individual sutras and not collections of Buddhist texts.

The recorded Tripitaka collations in China include eight editions in the Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties, two in the Yuan Dynasty, four in the Ming dynasty, and one in the Qing Dynasty. Outside of China they included three editions in Korea, and seven in Japan (Please refer to the information in the attachment.) The primary ones are briefly described below.

In the Tang dynasty, Chishen edited Kai Yuan Shi Jiao Lu, a very detailed catalog of Buddhist texts. In the Northern Song dynasty, Emperor Song Taizu decreed that carving of the Kaibao Zan in Yizhou (Sichuan) was to begin. This was the first set of the Tripitaka from the carved woodblocks. Kaibao Zan was based on the catalog of Kai Yuan Shi Jiao Lu, and the Tripitaka editing in later dynasties were all based on the Kaibao Zan. It was also taken to Korea in the Song dynasty and became the basis for Gaolizang.

Several Tripitaka collations were completed during the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties. There were as many as four editions of the Tripitaka by the Wanli years of Emperor Ming Shenzong. They included the Nanzan, which was edited during the Hungwu years of Emperor Ming Taizu (carved in Nanjing), and the Beizan edition in the Yungle years of Emperor Ming Chengzu (carved in Beijing). In the eleventh of the Yungzheng years of Emperor Qing Shizong (1733), the emperor decreed that several officers in his cabinet and over 130 Han and Tibetan monastics were to begin another Tripitaka collation and editing version based on the Beizan version from the Ming dynasty. The emperor established a Tripitaka center in Xianliang Temple. This edition is also called Qingzan and was completed in the third of the Qianlong years of Emperor Qing Gaozong (1738). The Qingzan edition is also called the Qianlong Great Buddhist Canon, or simply the Longzan. This was the last official Tripitaka carving and edition in China, and is the most complete collection of Buddhist texts in Han ideograms. Also, its carved woodblocks are the only complete set still in existence.

The Tripitaka contains systematically collated Buddhist sutras and treatises. These have been the reliable sources for the authentic Dharma teaching since the Buddha; they are the home of wisdom. Thus, the importance and profound influence of the Tripitaka is indescribable. The editing of the Tripitaka over the dynasties preserved the translated sutras. Also, the collators discovered additional Buddhist literature and related information and included them in the Tripitaka. These efforts not only preserved the Dharma, but also made it possible for people at those times and later to learn the Dharma from reliable sources.

Upon examination of the carved woodblocks of the only extant complete set of the Tripitaka, the Longzan, we can see how much effort our ancestors invested in preserving this Dharma treasure. Today, some of the Longzan¡¦s stone steles are kept at Yunju Temple in Beijing. When I visited the temple in 2003, I had the opportunity to see some of them, including the only wood-engraving in the Longzan¡XAll Buddhas Engraving.

The wood on which the Longzan was carved was a superior grade of leimuk. Every carved woodblock was from a single piece. A hard wood, leimuk is very dense, sturdy, flat, and will not warp. Although movable-type printing technology was invented as early as in the Song dynasty, the printing of the Longzan in the Qing dynasty used fixed-type printing. It was chosen because the fixed woodblocks are easier to preserve. Perhaps, this is exactly why the carved woodblocks of the Longzan¡Xthe only extant complete set of the Tripitaka in Han ideograms¡Xhave been preserved successfully.

With regard to the preservation of Dharma treasures, we have to praise the Fang San Shi Jin stone-carving work. In the Han dynasty, Si Maqian said: ¡§Preserve this book to wait for the right people to have it.¡¨ The work on Fang San Shi Jin was the epitome of such spirit!

Buddhism underwent two major persecutions during the Northern and Southern dynasties; once during the years of Emperor Taiwudi of the Northern Wei dynasty and the other during the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Northern Zhou dynasty. During the persecutions, a large number of Buddhist texts were destroyed. Also, civil war repeatedly broke out during the Northern and Southern dynasties, and it was difficult to safeguard the hand-written sutras. To protect and preserve Dharma treasures, Patriarch Huisi conceived the idea of carving the sutras in stone and safeguarding the stone-carved steles in caves. This way the preserved steles could be used to reproduce sutras in the future.

The Fang San Shi Jin stone-caving was begun in the twelfth of the Dayeh years of Emperor Suiyangdi (605) by Patriarch Jinwan who carried out the will of his teacher, Patriarch Huisi. The stone carving continued through six dynasties, student after teacher and generation after generation, through the Ming dynasty (1368¡X1644) for a total of 1034 years. The carving resulted in a total of 1,122 Buddhist texts in 3,572 volumes on 14,278 stone steles. The effort and the scale of the work will surely never be surpassed.

Sourced from the Essay by Director Li-Su Tan:


Light of Dharma Treasure¡XCollation, Preservation, Research, and Promotion of Tripitaka
–Report on My Six-year Experience of Propagating the Tripitaka –

(The Collection of Essays of the Second World Buddhist Forum)


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