Early Chinese Printing
Juan [fascicle] no. 6 (of 7) of the Chinese translation of Itivrttaka sutra [Benshi jing; Sutra on Original Occurrence].
Trans. by Xuanzang in 650 CE. 70 pages, six columns per page, 30 columns per sheet, 17 characters per column. 14 sheets (average sheet length: 570 mm.), five pages per sheet. Accordion format (305 x 7980 mm., print surface from top border to bottom border: 245–250 mm.). Single woodcut borders at top & bottom of text. Orig. sutra binding of semi-stiff paper wrappers. Woodblocks carved by Ge Fang & Ma Qing (& others) in Sixi (present day Huzhou), printed between 1110s/40s–1276.
This fascicle, in its original sutra binding, was printed in the 12th or 13th century in northern Zhejiang, China, as part of an extremely rare edition of the Buddhist canon variously known as the Yuanjue Canon, Zifu Canon, or Sixi Canon. Examples very rarely appear on the market. This edition of the Buddhist canon was for a long time largely unknown in China, until the famous Chinese book collector and scholar Yang Shoujing (1839-1915), brought a set back from Japan in the late 19th century. Now in a Chinese library, this is the only near-complete set, as far as we know, the rest being single sutras.
Yuanjue, Zifu, or Sixi Canon?: The three names refer to some or all of the imprints of the Chinese Tripitaka made from a set of blocks that were carved in a place called Sixi (present-day Huzhou), in what was then Songting township, Guian county, Hu prefecture, part of the Circuit of the eastern and western Zhe of the Southern Song.
Sixi, one of the names retrospectively used for this edition, was the location of Yuanjue Meditation Hall, founded in 1119-25, where the printing blocks were housed and perhaps carved. Sometime after 1239, the hall’s name may have changed to Fabao Zifu (lit., “Dharma jewel supplying happiness”) Meditation Temple, whence Zifu Canon.
Bibliographic scholarship has dated certain imprints of this canon to either the period of Yuanjue Meditation Hall or that of Fabao Zifu Meditation Temple, calling imprints dating from the earlier period Yuanjue Canon (or “first Sixi canon” [qian Sixi jing]) and imprints from the later period Zifu Canon (or “second Sixi canon” [hou Sixi jing]). On the basis of a comparison of two catalogues of the canon — one claiming to be of the Yuanjue Canon and one of the Zifu Canon — it was believed that a substantial amount of re-carving had taken place between the Yuanjue and Zifu canons. However, the catalogue purportedly of the Zifu Canon has been shown, in fact, to have been based not on an inventory of a set of the Zifu Canon but on another, unrelated catalogue. Thus there is no reason to assume that a substantial amount of re-carving of the blocks took place after the temple changed its name, and, ipso facto, there is no reason to posit the existence of two Sixi canons. Printings ascribed to the Yuanjue and Zifu canons belong to the same edition of the Chinese Tripitaka, printed at various times during a period that stretched over a century. Blocks were repaired and replaced during this period but not to the extent that would justify calling them two editions.
The Timing of Carving and Printing: The sources are ambiguous as to when carving of the blocks began. Li Fuhua and He Mei state that the carving began in 1126, whereas Wang Chonglong says it began before 1110 (and thus not at the Yuanjue Hall, which had not yet been founded), and agrees with others that it likely had finished in 1132. It has also been proposed, however, that carving only began in 1132. Finally, 1140 has been proposed as another completion date. Therefore, we can say with confidence that the initial set of blocks was carved sometime between the 1110s and 1140s.
Once the blocks were carved, they were used for printing for a long time. Some printings can be dated because they contain colophons.
Liu Yuantang has documented three instances of blocks being mended (buban): in 1238, 1248, and 1250. The blocks were burned by the invading Mongols in 1276, which is thus the terminus ante quem for prints from the Yuanjue Canon.
Our Copy and the Yuanjue / Zifu Canon: Benshi jing is marked with the ordinal character shen in five editions of the Chinese Tripitaka. Of these five, only the Yuanjue Canon (also known as the Zifu or Sixi Canon) is a possible candidate. More precisely, our copy appears to be from a late printing of the Zifu Canon, dating from sometime in the latter portion of the period 1110s/1140s-1276. The vast majority of extant sutras from this edition of the canon are late printings. They have the following characteristics:
1. Sheets folded into five pages, with six columns per page (30 per sheet) and 17 characters per column.
2. Glosses appended to the end of the volume.
3. Single woodcut borders at top and bottom of text. For earlier printings of this edition, one source specifies that the borders go around on all four sides, but for the later printings, the same source simply says “single-lined margin frame” (danxian biankuang). This would appear to suggest borders also at the beginning and the end of each sheet.
4. No empty column before the beginning of the text on the first page.
5. Small-script numerals marking the number of the sheet are printed at the beginning of every sheet (as opposed to in the crease between pages, for example), except for the first sheet.
6. Printed area of roughly 570 mm. long and 250 mm. wide.
The sutra has a total of seven fascicles (juan), of which we have fascicle six. The upper cover and the first line of the first page both have the character shen (in manuscript on the cover), which is here used as an ordinal (drawn from Qianzi wen [The Thousand Character Essay]) to arrange the sutras of the Chinese Tripitaka.
Layout and Appearance of Our Copy: Unsurprisingly for a very large printing project that took many years, not all the sutras of the Yuanjue Canon have the same appearance. Yet the dimensions of our copy agree with other known copies: five pages per woodblock, six columns per page, 17 characters per column. Other non-official Song editions of the Buddhist canon (Chongning and Pilu) have six pages per block but the same number of columns per page and characters per column.
The measurements of our copy accord with copies of other sutras from the same edition of the canon held by the Gansu Provincial Library in Lanzhou, the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and the Gotoh Museum outside of Tokyo. The layout of our copy accords with that of a different sutra from the same canon that has been reprinted in facsimile in [Supplement to the Chinese-language Tripitaka of China] in terms of borders, placement of the ordinal character, lack of page number on the first page, and an empty column before the title on the first page.
The Carvers: Ge Fang and Ma Qing, whose names are visible where the sheets are joined, are known to have worked as carvers on the Yuanjue Canon.
The Text: The sutra has been associated with the practices of self-salvation referred to as hinayana or “lesser vehicle.” According to a description published in the Buddhist journal Renhai deng [Lantern for the Sea of Mankind] in 1935 [in trans.], the “main tenets of this sutra are to benefit oneself and others by changing bad practices and cultivating good ones, in order to escape from suffering and to attain the mental state of joy.” The sutra is divided into three sections. Our juan contains the beginning of the third section.
The Translation: The Chinese translation was done by Xuanzang (600/602-64), Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, monk, scholar, and patriarch of the Chinese Yogacara tradition. Along with Kumarajiva (344-413), Xuanzang was one of the two most influential and prolific translators of Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese. In 627, he embarked on an epic journey to India, where he studied Sanskrit. He returned to China in 645 with over 600 Sanskrit manuscripts in his luggage, along with images, relics, and other artifacts. Settling in the Tang capital of Chang’an, he established a translation bureau, where he oversaw a team of monks who transcribed the texts and, in the process, made translations, polished the renderings, clarified texts, and certified both their meaning and syntax.
Provenance: With the seal of Toshodai-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara and a UNESCO heritage site. The temple was founded in 759 CE by a monk from Tang China. We can assume that this sutra was once part of the holdings of this temple. Indeed, this temple today still owns a sutra from the Yuanjue (or Zifu/Sixi) Canon.
In fine condition. The original “wallet” binding is made of treated paper. The spine is partly perished.
❧ Our description is based almost entirely on the research of Marten Soderblom Saarela of the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan, who prepared a report (available for inspection) on our edition.
See also Li Fuhua & He Mei, Hanwen Fojiao dazangjing yanjiu [Studies on the Chinese Buddhist Canon] (Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe, 2003); and Yuexi, “Benshi jing gaishuo” [“Summary Account of Itivrttaka Sutra”], Renhai deng, Vol 2., no. 21-22 (1935), pp. 386-90.
Li Fuhua, He Mei, & Jiang Wu, “Appendix 1: A Brief Survey of the Printed Editions of the Chinese Buddhist Canon,” in Spreading Buddha’s Word in East Asia: The Formation and Transformation of the Chinese Buddhist Canon, eds. Jiang Wu & Lucille Chia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), pp. 312-13.
Item ID: 8663