Buddhism and Printing


As readers know, I’ve been reading a fascinating book about the life of a Japanese-Zen monk named Tetsugen (1630-1682). Tetsugen was a prominent teacher and lecturer of the Obaku Zen sect, but his greatest accomplishment was 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The Obaku Edition was the de facto edition of the Buddhist canon in Japan until the modern period when it was superceded by the Taishō Edition (大正新脩大藏經, taishō shinshū daizōkyō).  While it wasn’t the first edition, the Obaku Edition stood out because of its quality and accessibility because of the way it was printed.

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, China was printing texts using either movable type or woodblock printing. Movable type is easier for languages with Alphabets like English, but for Chinese, which has 40,000+ characters it was error-prone and time consuming.
Yangzhou Museum - woodblock for printing - fragment - CIMG2879

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.

Pen ts'ao, woodblock book 1249-ce

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, going to China was to learn Sanskrit was a dangerous journey and very few succeeded. 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. Both were based off the Chinese Song Dynasty edition and were produced in the 11th and 13th centuries, using the Chinese Song Dynasty edition as their source. Similar to the Chinese editions, they used Korean-style Chinese characters:

Tripitaka Koreana sutra page

Further, the Korean woodblooks used to preserve the printing of the Tripitaka for the 13th century edition are preserved at Haeinsa Temple:

Korea-Haeinsa-Tripitaka Koreana-01

You can see how many blocks it took to print the whole thing. 🙂

Printing in Japan

Block-printing or any mass-printing of Buddhist texts in Japan came surprisingly late. Further, unlike the Chinese canon, there was never any effort to translate it into Japanese. Instead, similar to the Korean canon, Buddhist texts were preserved in Chinese characters.1 Further, 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 more obscure texts like the Surangama Sutra2 would be all but impossible for most monks.

Wood-block printing on a large scale finally came during the Edo Period, starting in the 17th Century. As Professor Baroni points out, there are reasons for this: 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 Japan, but with 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. Professor 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. Tetsugen, the famous Obaku Zen monk, started the 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, 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. Tetsugen died from illness while raising funds and distributing relief from the famine and his students completed the projected and presented the edition to the government.

Junjiro Takakusu

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 went hand-in-hand in Asia, and due to the complexities of the languages, various methods were used to ensure quality and ease of printing. Much of what we know about Buddhism today and Asian literature is due to the efforts of these early masters of printing.

1 This is a big reason why Buddhist chanting in Korea and Japan uses the original Classical Chinese as the liturgical language. Presumably this was intended to preserve the teachings from changes over time, but comes at the cost of requiring translations for modern readers and students.

2 The Surangama Sutra is very popular in Chinese Buddhism, especially Chan (Zen) Buddhism, but wasn’t well-known in Japan, and did not have much influence until the pre-modern period.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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