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From sutra rubbings to woodblock printing

The next recorded example of printing dates from more than two hundred years after the Hyakumantō Darani, in the mid-Heian period (circa 11th c.). Printed sutras (literally, “Sutra rubbings”) are mentioned in the court journals of Heian-period aristocrats such as Fujiwara no Michinaga’s (966-1028) Midō Kampakuki. Entries mention copies of the Lotus Sutra (Hokkekyō) and the Amithaba Sutra (Amidakyō) being formally presented to the Buddha during Buddhist rites or to pray for the good health of a newborn. The term “printed sutra” also appears in late-Heian Buddhist formal prayers (ganmon) in Chinese. In all, in addition to sutra copying, which was extremely popular as a devotional practice, hundreds, perhaps thousands printed sutras are known to have been made.
As stated in the sutras, traditionally, the way to accumulate religious merit was to copy the sutra by hand. However, the thought that more copies would result in more merit is probably what made sutra printing a popular votive practice among aristocrats with the power and means to sponsor it. Though rare, some printed texts believed to date from the late Heian period do survive. Unlike the texts that we have looked at so far, these are full-length scrolls made using a large number of printing blocks used in succession, which shows just how much printing had grown in both scale and complexity in the 300 or so years since the making of the Hyakumantō darani.
Despite the lack of material evidence, it is almost certain that printing developed continuously during the early Heian period (800-1000 C.E.). One possible reason for this change was the return to Japan of the monk Chōnen with a complete printed edition of the Buddhist tripitaka in 985 (Kan’na 2). Chōnen was an affiliate of the Tōdaiji temple in Nara. He sailed to China shortly after his ordination and after visiting the sacred sites of Mount Tiantai, he was received by Emperor Taizong (r. 976-997) in Bianjing.
As fate would have it, the first ever printing of the complete Buddhist tripitaka, which Taizong had commissioned, just happened to have been completed and Taizong donated one set, known as Kaibao tripitaka (*), to his distinguished visitor from overseas. Chōnen’s arrival with over 500-chests of the Kaibao Tripitaka was an event that attracted crowds of onlookers and sent shockwaves through the Heian capital. So it is more than a little likely that the arrival of printed books from Song China inspired the contemporaries to start printing full books. Here we have a modern facsimile of one of the volumes of the Kaibao tripitaka, the first woodblock edition of the Buddhist textual canon.
Originals are now extremely rare, and the Institute does not own a copy. In this presentation, I am using a modern replica. As you can see, it is a printed scroll. A printing block was used for this section, a different one for this section, in other words, a different block for each sheet of paper. It dates from the Northern Song-dynasty, so even by Chinese standards, it is a very early example of a printed book. Here we have a slightly later example; it is also from a Song-dynasty printed edition of the tripitakan, but unlike the previous example, this is an original. At the beginning, there is a printed image of the Buddhist pantheon illustrating the world described in the text.
The book itself is bound as an accordion book (orihon), which is made by folding the leaves on themselves in opposite directions, thus creating the characteristic alternation of ‘mountain’ and ‘valley’ folds. When the book is closed, it becomes a rectangular shape that calls to mind the shape of the palm leaves that were used in India to write the sutras, and which remained consistently popular throughout the Buddhist world. Thus, book printing started in earnest in the eleventh century, near the end of the ancient age. However, we are still a far cry from the modern understanding of printing as a medium for reading. Printed texts at this stage were used during religious rites, and were made for their symbolic and ritual power.
The first texts to be made for reading were those published by the Kōfukuji temple in Nara, which we examine in the next step.
During the Heian period (794 – 1185), printing evolved from short texts to full-size books. What brought about these changes? How did printing technology develop to make them possible? Let’s answer these questions while looking at actual texts from the period.

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