Haeinsa Temple: History, Tripitaka Koreana & Statue

Instructor: Kelly Bryan

Kelly has taught English in four different countries, mostly recently at Dongguk University in South Korea. She has a master's degree in teaching English as a second language.

Haeinsa Temple in South Korea is home to the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of over 80,000 wooden tablets that contain the Buddhist scriptures. In this lesson, discover the history of Haeinsa and the enduring cultural significance of the Tripitaka Koreana.

Haeinsa Temple and the Tripitaka Koreana

Nestled on the side of the Gaya Mountain, Haeinsa Temple seems like any other large Buddhist temple found on the southern half of the Korean peninsula, with vibrantly painted walls, grey-clad monks, and crowds of tourists. However, Haeinsa is home to the Tripitaka Koreana, a treasure that has survived fire, invading Mongols, and the Korean War itself.


Haeinsa (pronounced as three syllables, hay-een-sah) is one of Korea's Three Jewel Temples, Buddhist temples representing the Three Jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, dharma (Buddhist teachings), and sangha (the Buddhist community of monks). Haeinsa represents dharma and holds a special status in Korea's Jogye Order of Buddhism, the country's largest Buddhist sect. It was originally constructed in the early 9th century as a show of gratitude to two monks, Suneung and Ijeong, who cured the king's wife of illness. Another version of the story states that Suneung constructed the temple after becoming enlightened in China. The name Haeinsa means ''Temple of Reflections on a Smooth Sea,'' which references a line in Buddhist scripture that likens the wisdom of Buddha to a tranquil sea.


Haeinsa has functioned continuously as an active temple of Korean Seon Buddhism since its founding. Seon Buddhism is the Korean version of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Monks and nuns study and worship at the temple and in the hermitages that dot the nearby mountainsides. Haeinsa is a popular tourist destination and offers temple stay courses to laypeople interested in learning more about Seon Buddhism.

A unique feature of Haeinsa is that its main hall, Daejeokkwangjeon (''the Hall of Great Silence and Light''), is dedicated to Vairocana Buddha rather than Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha) like most Korean temples. In Korean Buddhist tradition, Vairocana is a symbol of the Buddhist concept of Emptiness. The hall houses a wooden Vairocana Buddha statue that was carved in 1769 and is the oldest wooden statue in Korea.

Tripitaka Koreana

The centerpiece of Haeinsa is the Tripitaka Koreana. ''Tripitaka'' is a Sanskrit term meaning ''three baskets,'' and is the traditional name for the entirety of the Buddhist scriptures. The term refers to the way the texts were initially recorded. The texts were written on leaves that were sewn together and placed in baskets divided by subject. The first basket, the Vinaya Pitaka, provides instructions for living a monastic life. The second basket, the Sutta Pitaka, has records of the teachings and sermons of Buddha. The third basket, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, is a collection of writings that includes songs, poems, and stories. The Tripitaka Koreana is the scriptures translated into Korean. It consists of over 80,000 carved wooden blocks and is considered by some scholars to be one of the most complete Buddhist scriptures written in Chinese characters.

The Tripitaka Koreana was compiled in the 11th century during the Khitan invasion as an evocation of Buddha's protection. The original blocks were destroyed in the 13th century when the Goryeo Dynasty was fighting off the third Mongol invasion of the Korean peninsula. The blocks were carved a second time later that century. The undertaking attracted many monks and carpenters who were seeking to end the war by appealing to Buddha. This copy was moved to Haeinsa in the 1390s where it remains to this day.

The Tripitaka Koreana
Tripitaka Koreana

The text of the Tripitaka Koreana is notable not just for its physical beauty, but for its completeness and precision. There are no known errors found on any of the tens of thousands of blocks. It is also the basis of the Taiwanese, Japanese, and Chinese Tripitakas. In modern times, it is housed on a CD-ROM collection stored at Dongguk University in Seoul.

When created, the tablets, which are made of birch wood, were soaked in sea water for three years and then dried for an additional three years. They were then painted with lacquer and framed with metal. This process was meant to protect the blocks against warping, cracking, decay, and insects. The process was successful because the blocks remain intact and in good condition all these centuries later.

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