Woodblocks of Buddhist Sutra in Vinh Nghiem Pagoda

Vinh Nghiem Pagoda is an old pagoda in yen dung district, Bac Giang Province. It was built at the beginning of the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225). The pagoda is considered a Buddhist museum in North Vietnam because it is a place where many precious documents and the cultural heritage of Buddhism are preserved. The most notable of them is a set of 3,050 woodblocks for printing Buddhist sutras in Chinese and Nom scripts.



Vinh Nghiem Pagoda has the longest history of training talented Buddhist monks in Vietnamese Buddhism. It organized the carving of woodblocks for printing and storing Vietnamese bibliographies throughout the feudal dynasties. The pagoda is preserving a treasure of precious cultural heritage, including over 100 worshipping statues, eight ancient epitaphs and a system of panels, couplets and worshipping objects. It stores Buddhist sutra woodblocks and other bibliographies which have been carved in different periods by Buddhist monks of the Truc Lam Zen School.
In 1994, Ha Bac Province’s Museum (now Bac Giang Province’s Museum) carried out an inventory and researched this precious storage of woodblocks. There were a total of 3,050 woodblocks and most of them were carved from the 17th – 19th century. They were mainly sutras, books and documents of Buddhist commandments and some poems, poetic essays and diaries of eminent monks of the Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen School. For its inestimable value, the woodblock preservation in Vinh Nghiem Pagoda has been evaluated as a “national precious thing”.

An invaluable woodblock of Buddhist sutra. Photo: Tran Huan

Books printed by woodblocks of Vinh Nghiem Pagoda. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha
Preserving ancient woodblocks. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha

Vinh Nghiem Pagoda where over 3,000 ancient woodblocks are preserved. Photo: Tran Huan

A UNESCO delegation and Vietnamese archeologists visit Vinh Nghiem Pagoda. Photo: UNESCO’s file

Tourists are amazed by an ancient woodblock of Buddhist sutra. Photo: Hoang Quang Ha
During surveys, researchers saw that these woodblocks were carved by artisans in Bac Giang, Bac Ninh and Hai Duong Provinces during different periods. They were made of Thi wood taken from the pagoda’s garden. This type of wood is soft, smooth, durable and easy to carve. It is rarely curved or cracked. The woodblocks were carved in Chinese or Nom scripts, using a very difficult and sophisticated technique. Each side of a woodblock is correlative with two pages and the scripts are plain and sharp. These show that the artisans were not only excellent in the carving technique but also conversant with arranging the documents and fluent in Chinese and Nom scripts – a type of ancient handwriting with a complicated composition of the Vietnamese people.
The size of the woodblocks varies depending on the categories of the sutras. The biggest woodblock is over 1m in length and 40-50cm in width. The smallest one is only 15 x 20cm. The surface of the woodblocks has a shiny black colour which is the printing ink left from the prints. Due to these layers of printing ink the woodblocks are durable, long lasting and woodworm-resistant.
The set of woodblocks in Vinh Nghiem Pagoda has been determined by researchers as having great value in learning. On the basis of the content of these woodblocks people can decode many issues from the past, such as the history of Vietnamese Buddhism, science and techniques, philosophy, sociology and linguistics. The Chinese and Nom scripts on the woodblocks serve as a basis for linguists and historians to explain the history and the development process of the Vietnamese people’s handwriting, especially the change of Chinese scripts (of Chinese people) into Nom scripts (a type of pictographic script created by Vietnamese people on the basis of Chinese scripts). This not only shows the development of linguistics and scripts but also the national pride of the Vietnamese people.
The appropriate authorities have prepared documents to submit to UNESCO for its recognition of the woodblocks in Vinh Nghiem Pagoda as a World Documentary Heritage. Hopefully, in the near future Vinh Nghiem Pagoda’s woodblocks will be “awakened” and glorified after nearly two centuries of “sleeping” in the dust of time.
Story: Vinh Hung – Photos: Hoang Quang Ha – Tran Huan – File