mpact of the Growth of the Internet and the Digitization of Research Materials on the Study of Chinese Buddhism

By Donna Walker,2014-12-28 17:29
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mpact of the Growth of the Internet and the Digitization of Research Materials on the Study of Chinese Buddhism

    mpact of the Growth of the Internet and the Digitization

    of Research Materials on the Study of Chinese


    The rapid growth of the Internet and related technological developments exert an ever increasing influence on the conduct of research and the dissemination of knowledge across the whole spectrum of academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

    understood as the academic The relatively small but lively field of Buddhist studies

    study of Buddhist texts, histories, doctrines, practices, traditions, and other related phenomena, undertaken from a variety of theoretical perspectives and by means of diverse research methodologiesis very much involved in these significant

    developments. Scholars working in various areas of Buddhist studies, as well as different Buddhist groups and individuals, have on the whole embraced the new world of the Internet, even if often the scale of their engagement with digital technologies and the presence of Buddhist studies on the Internet might lag somewhat behind that of some of the larger and better established academic disciplines.

    This paper explores current trends, prospects, and challenges posed by the growth of the Internet and the increased use of digitalized sources in the study of Chinese Buddhism. The brief review of Chinese Buddhist studies on the Internet presented here is not meant to be exhaustive. Because of the multi-disciplinary nature of the academic study of Buddhism, scholars working in the field also make extensive use of resources developed within the contexts of other disciplinessuch as history,

    literature, anthropology, and area studiesbut an assessment of them is beyond the

    1purview of this article. The same applies to religiously-inspired web sites set up by various Buddhist groups and individuals, which greatly outnumber the

    scholarly-oriented sites (although the lines of demarcation between the two are often

    2ambiguous) and provide a vast amount of information.

    Considering the fast pace of change on the Internet, any assessment of present realities and prospects for future development is tentative. However, it is safe to assume that the engagement of Buddhist scholarship with the Internet and its reliance on

     1 For instance, students of Tang Buddhism make extensive relevant histories, especially the Jiu tangshu 舊唐書 (945) and Xin tangshu 新唐書 (1060). Even more important are the various collections of Tang literature, especially Quan tangwen 全唐文 and Wenyuan yinghua 文苑英華. Other important sources

    for the study of Chan history are the collected works of famous poets, officials, and literary figures, such as those of Bo Juyi 白居易 (772846) and Quan Deyu 權德輿 (759818). To these we can add various

    gazetteers and other local sources about mountain sites and monasteries associated with Buddhism. 2 For an example of such site, see

    pertinent digital technologies will continue to grow, perhaps moving in new directions that are not yet envisaged. Notwithstanding the commendable efforts by various organizations and individuals, there is still a considerable scope for quantitative expansion as well as improvement in the quality of digital resources for the study of Buddhism. The trends and web sites surveyed below therefore exemplify not only present realities, but also point in the direction of exciting new things to come.

    Web Sites with Comprehensive Information on Buddhism

    Over the years some web sites have tried to serve as hubs or clearing houses of general information about Buddhism. One of the popular strategies was to create web sites that serve as “link farms,” which direct traffic to other sites with original content. An example of this kind of site is the Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library

    (, which proclaims itself to be ranked no. 1 among 12,200,000 Buddhist Studies web pages world-wide listed by Google, as of June 2006. While the site contains some useful links and search capabilities, unfortunately it is not a reliable source of information about the academic study of Buddhism. Not only is the whole notion of "link farms" becoming eclipsed by the emergence of potent search engines such as Google, but many of the links on the site are broken. Moreover, the data contained on the linked web pages is of uneven quality; often there is mixing up of sites that disseminate inexact and/or biased sectarian information (that seem to predominate) with those that contain useful scholarly data.

     While there is no general web page on Buddhism that can be highly recommend without reservations, an example of a site with useful and wide-ranging information is the Buddhist Digital Library & Museum, operated by the Center for Buddhist Studies at

    3the National Taiwan University. The site was initiated in 1995, the same year that the

    Center for Buddhist Studies was established by Professor Heng-Ching Hsih and other National Taiwan University faculty. In 1999 the database was renamed and it adopted the present designation. At that time the site also became a joint-venture between the Center for Buddhist Studies and the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies, which is associated with Dharma Drum Mountain, one of the main Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, noted for its engagement with Buddhist scholarship. Subsequently, the National Taiwan University Library took over the responsibility of maintaining the site in 2003. The site is available in both Chinese and English versions.

    Although the English presentation at the Buddhist Digital Library & Museum is not of the best quality and some of the links are broken, the site contains a wealth of material, including an extensive article database, with over 100,000 bibliographies and over 2,600 full texts of articles on various subjects related to the study of Buddhism. The site also contains simple lessons in Buddhist scriptural languages such as Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, as well as links to various canonical texts, collections, and relevant reference works. It also features information about Buddhist institutes and societies, and a bulletin board of news about Buddhist studies. The “museum” section of the site suggests some intriguing even if at this point largely unrealizedpossibilities; it includes a section on

    the Silk Road and the great Buddhist pilgrim and translator Xuanzang, although it is not very well designed.

     3 See

    Digitized Versions of Canonical Texts and Collections

    When I started graduate school at UCLA twelve years ago, there were hardly any Chinese Buddhist texts available in a digital format. Regular trips to the library to consult and copy materials from the Taishō 大正and Zokuzōkyō續藏經 editions of the Buddhist

    canonor perhaps buy copies of individual volumes if/when we could afford

    4themwere integral to the familiar rhythm of academic life. For most of us, graduate

    students and professors alike, today’s topic about the use of digitized sources was by and

    large a non-issue as far as our academic study of Buddhism was concerned.

    Before long, things started to change as various Chan texts and other parts of the Buddhist canon become available in digital format. The study of Chan history and literature was especially enhanced with the issue of the ZenBase CD (published in June 1995) by the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism (IRIZ), the contents of

    5which were (and still are) also available at their web site. Suddenly, a number of

    important Chan texts, including “historical” works such as Jingde chuandeng lu 景德傳燈

    祿and individual records of sayings such as Mazu yulu 馬祖語錄, became available to

    anyone with a computer. The texts were not presented in the most elegant manner and there were issues with their ease-of-use, but the publication of the CD was undoubtedly a major step, and we owe our gratitude to the individuals who worked hard on it, especially Urs App and Christian Wittern. Due to a variety of factors, especially the departure of Yanagida Seizan, who provided key support for the project, the initial creative output of the International Research Institute for Zen Buddhism started to wane in the late 90’, as far as I can tell. The original text files, many of which were in a rough

    condition, were not improved or updated to take advantage of new technological developments, nor was the first CD (initially labeled as CD1) followed with another one.

    Fortunately, CBETA (Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association, 中華電子佛典

    協會), based in Taiwan within the Chung-Hwa Institute for Buddhist Studies and

    6dedicated to making Buddhist texts available in a digital format, entered the scene. In a

    short time, CBETA started exerting major impact on the development and dissemination of digital sources for the study of Chinese Buddhism. Their publication of a CD with the Chinese version of the Buddhist canon, based on the Taishō edition, was an important

    event in the growth of East Asian Buddhist studies. Their software platform and manner of presentation constituted improvements over the IRIZ CD. The format of their CD was superior and more user-friendly, with better organization of the materials and helpful search capabilities, which were further improved in subsequent versions. On the flip side, the Taishō edition of the canon contains a limited number of Chan texts, so the IRIZ versions of many important texts still remain the only option. That is beginning to change as CBETA starts to make available a digital version of the Zokuzōkyō canon, which

    contains the largest share of Chan literature, the completion of which is eagerly awaited.

     4 Taishō shinshū daizōkyō 大正新修大藏經 and Dai Nihon zokuzōkyō 大日本續藏經 (reprinted in Taiwan

    as Xu zangjing 續藏經 ).

    5 See

    6 See CBETA benefited from the technical expertise and vision of

    Christian Wittern, who joined them after leaving IRIZ.

     Both IRIZ and CBETA deserve praise for their efforts to widely disseminate Chan/Buddhist texts, essentially by making them available free of change on their web sites and on CDs that can easily be installed on personal computes. Such exemplary attitude undoubtedly reflects the religious commitments of their members and the guiding principles of the institutions that support them, although their adoption of an Open Source approach parallels the style championed by Linux and others. Such attitude stands in contrast to various commercial ventures that try to make money by selling expensive digital editions of classical collections of texts, the contents of which are in the public domain. As such, IRIZ and CBETA represent noteworthy examples of fruitful collaboration, as work initiated by religiously-affiliated institutions comes to have notable impact on the academic study of Buddhism.

     The digital publication of the two Buddhist canons raises the specter of using them as criteria for the inclusion and exclusion of various texts. While I by no means bemoan the work on the two main canons, we must not forget texts that are not included in them.

    7For instance, important Chan texts such as Zutang ji 祖堂集 and the Recorded Sayings of

    8Damei (Mingzhou dameishan chang chanshi yulu 明州大梅山常禪師語錄) are not included

    in those two collections. The only copy of Damei’s record, (which merits greater scholarly

    attention,) is preserved in the Kanazawa bunko 金沢文庫 collection in Yokohama.

    Another similar example of a handwritten manuscript is the Dunhuang version of

    9Guishan jingce 溈山警策 (c. 850), composed by Guishan Lingyou 溈山靈祐 (771853).

    In cases of hand written manuscripts such as these, it will also be useful to provide photographic images of the original texts, and similar policy might be useful for other texts as well.

    It is also imperative to produce and disseminate digital versions of other editions of the Buddhist canon, as well of related texts or collections with historical significance. A pertinent example is the Koryo Tripitaka (Taejang'kyong), work on which was undertaken

    by the Research Institute of the Tripitaka Koreana (RITK), which for some reason did not

    10receive much publicity. There is also the SAT project in Japan, which has digitized

     7 Zutang ji 祖堂集 (952), compiled by Jing and Yun. (1) (Changsha: Yuelu shushe, 1996); (2) (K

    1503, vol. 45); (3) (Yanagida Seizan, ed. Zengaku sōsho, vol. 4 禅学叢書之四, Kyoto: Chūbun shuppansha,

    1984); (4) (Taipei: Guangwen shuju, 1972).

    8 In Kanazawa bunko shiryō zensho: Butten 1, zenseki hen 金沢文庫資料全書、仏典、第一巻、禅籍篇.

    9 The text is part of a manuscript entitled Yan heshang ji (Reverend Yan’s Collection), preserved in Paris

    as part of the Peliot collection of Dunhuang materials (catalogued as no. 4638). For a photographic reproduction of the original manuscript, see Dunhuang baozang 134.9192. There are three other versions

    of Guishan jingce: QTW 919.4243b44b; T 48.1042b43c, and XZJ 111.142c48d.The Taishō version is part

    of Zimen jingxun, a collection of mostly Chan texts, compiled during the Ming dynasty.

    10 See The RITK project was contemporaneous with IRIZ and predated CBETA. A full version of the Korean Tripitaka was already available in 2000. I am indebted to Prof. Muller for this information.

    11fewer texts from the Taishō canon than CBETA. Also worth mentioning is the

    Interactive Web Database of Manuscripts, by The International Dunhuang Project, which

    12contains a wealth of materials, especially for the study of Tibet and Tang China.

     The publication of the CBETA CD gave a new lease of life to the Taishō canon, which

    was compiled about a century ago and has many shortcomings. The same also applies to the Zokuzōkyō canon. While the Taishō canon remains a standard source, largely because

    there is no widely-accepted alternative, I wonder if the move to digitized version(s) of the canon is not also an opportunity to create better edition(s) that will replace the Taishō and

    Zokuzōkyō canons. Fortunately, there seem to be signs that we are moving in that


    Reference works and other sources

    Dictionaries and other reference works are among the academic tools most suitable for digitization and Internet use. A few Buddhist dictionaries originally published in paper editions have been converted into an electronic format. One such example is the dated by still helpful Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, originally compiled by William Edward

    Soothill and Lewis Hodous in the 1930s (and still in print). The dictionary can be used online or downloaded on a personal computer, although its interface is not very user

    14friendly. There is also the eBook version of the comprehensive and up-to-date Encyclopedia of Buddhism, edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr., which was released in 2004 by

    Macmillan Reference (after the print version was published in 2003), although it is not freely accessible and must be purchased by institutional libraries. Also worthy of note is the electronic version of the Foguang Dictionary (although the publisher

    needs to pay more attention to the compatibility among diverse software and language


    Considerable amount of information about Buddhism can also be found in general online encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia (for example, see; there is much more information about various

    Buddhist traditions and teachings in other parts of the encyclopedia). The range of articles, the scope of their coverage, and their accessibility are all commendable, although they are of uneven quality, sometimes mixing up scholarly descriptions with traditionalist apologetics that is poorly informed and reflective of sectarian sentiments.

    Beside the wide dissemination of electronic versions of published works, the web offers an exceptionally versatile and flexible platform for the creation of new reference works, with unprecedented possibilities for collaborations among scholars with different

    16areas of expertise. A good example of that is the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism. Its

     11 See

    12 See The project has been initiated and managed by Dr. Susan Whitfield, based in The British Library, Oriental and India Office Collections, London, United Kingdom. 13 Prof. Muller has informed me that CBETA, SAT, and RITK are all working on new advanced, corrected, and annotated versions of the canon.

    14 See 15 See


    origins go back to 1986, when Charles Muller, now at Toyo Gakuen University, Japan, started to compile a Buddhist dictionary. The dictionary was first placed on the Internet in 1995. Ever since, it has been updated regularly. Its steady growth of entries is based on user contributions, with Muller serving as a supervisor of the project. As of February 2006, the dictionary had 38,704 entries.

    The individual entries in the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism provide information about Buddhist technical terms, texts, monasteries, schools/traditions, and persons that appear in Buddhist canonical texts and other relevant sources, complied by experts working in various areas of Buddhist studies. A typical entry is divided into three sections. The first section gives the various pronunciation of the term in the applicable East Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese). The second section provides a brief definition and summary of the various meanings (along with Sanskrit and Tibetan renderings, if appropriate). The final section contains references to various Buddhist dictionaries. Access to the dictionaries is password protected, with guest users limited to ten searches within a 24-hour period; unlimited-use passwords are available for contributors and paid subscribers. Typically, the explanations are fairly brief, but the dictionary serves as a useful resource for both scholars and the general public, with considerable potential for continuing development.

    New desirable projects include digital versions of specialized reference works. For instance, in the case of Chan/Zen studies it will be nice to have an online/digital

    17version of Komazawa University’s 駒沢大学 Zengaku daijiten 禅学大辞典, or perhaps

    create a more up-to-date dictionary of a similar scope.

    Making an Online Community of Scholars: Listservs and Discussion Groups

    The Internet is suited for various forms of academic communication and the creation of online communities of scholars with shared interests, even if often that potential is over hyped and the problems are downplayed. Among scholars working on Buddhism, the main online discussion group is The Buddhist Scholars Information Network, better

    18known as H-Buddhism. Part of the H-net’s international consortium of interactive

    newsletters or lists that are meant to serve as communication forums for scholars and teachers, the origins of H-Buddhism go back to an earlier listserv called The Buddhist Scholars Information Network (Budschol), which was first setup by Charles Muller in 1999. After using a few commercial hosting sites (including Yahoo), the list transferred to H-Net in 2001 and was renamed into H-Buddhism. Its membership has grown steadily, notwithstanding a stringent enforcement of membership criteria that preclude the joining by non-specialists. At the time of writing, its membership stands at around 950 individuals.

    H-Buddhism describes itself as a web-based medium for the exchange of academic information among specialists in Buddhist studies. Its posting include information about various kinds of academic resources, research projects, new scholarly publications, and university job listings. The site also provides links to Buddhist studies

     17 Komazawa Daigaku Zengaku daijiten hensanjo 駒沢大学禅学大辞典編纂所, eds., Zengaku daijiten

    学大辞典 (Tokyo: Taishūkan shoten, 1985, new ed; Original 3 vols. ed. published in 1978).


    sites and a list of graduate programs in Asian philosophy and religion. By design, the list is information-oriented instead of focusing on free-wheeling discussions. Accordingly, the posted messages tend to be fairly staid and technical. A typical posting will be a request for help with identifying sources on a particular topic, or ascertaining the meaning(s) of an obscure term or passage in a primary source, such as a text from the Tibetan Buddhist canon. There are also announcements about new books, conferences, and the like. The list is thus not really a forum for exchange of ideas on issues of theory and method, as they pertaining to the ongoing (albeit ad hoc) efforts at fashioning Buddhist studies into a coherent and distinct academic field.

    The home page of H-Buddhism makes it clear that the list is not meant for religiously oriented discussions of Buddhism. To that end, membership in the list is restricted to faculty and graduate students affiliated with academic institutions. While the general public is thereby precluded from subscribing or posting on the list, anyone can access the messages posted by the members of H-Buddhism through its web site. Moreover, the whole site, including all message logs, is searchable, thus making it a potentially useful source of information about the study of Buddhism.

    Some other Online Resources

    In addition to reference works, it would be useful to create digital libraries of Buddhism-related images, which will include portraits of Chan teachers, paintings of monasteries, illustrations of important Chan stories, symbols, and events, and calligraphy. These can be augmented with collections of historical maps and pertinent illustrations, such as floor-plans of monastic building, and various databases with information about individual monasteries, sites, individuals, and texts. Another useful resource, especially for pedagogical purposes, will be comprehensive computer-based collections of digital photographs, video clips, and audio files that illustrate various aspects of contemporary Chan/Zen institutions and practices (only limited examples of which can be found scattered on the web).

    An example of a well-designed Internet resource that focuses on a single tradition and geographical area is the web site of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, which is

    19engaged in arguably the largest project of digitizing Tibetan Buddhist literature. The

    digitized texts include the main scriptural collection of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dege edition of the Kangyur canon, although the actual texts are not available online but need to be purchased on CDs. The site also contains a searchable bibliography of classical Tibetan literature and a biographical database of Tibetan religious figures, accompanied with good quality images.

     Another web site worth noting is the already-mentioned International Dunhuang Project (abbreviated to IDP), an international collaboration based at the British Library in London. Strictly speaking, the beautifully designed IDP site is not narrowly focused on Buddhism, but among its over 100,000 items there is a vast array of useful information and high quality images of ancient Buddhist manuscripts, paintings, and artifacts discovered at Dunhuang and other Silk Road sites. The images and the associated information are searchable in the IDP database, and each item is presented in its pertinent historical context with the help of useful tools such as maps, photos, and

     19 See

bibliographical data.

    Usefulness of digital sources

    As we scrutinize the increased use of digital source materials and try to asses their impact on the development of Chinese Buddhist studies, or more broadly Buddhist studies as an academic sub-field (or discipline, if you prefer), we have to keep in mind the novelty of the technologies in question, their rapid development and change, and our lack of hindsight. So far, the impact has been largely positive. Evidently, digitization provides researchers with an easy access to large amounts of texts and data with potent search capabilities. That makes textual research more effective and convenient. It enables scholars to engage, among other things, in comprehensive data gathering and analysis, or comparative philological research, of the kind that not long ago would have been difficult or perhaps even all but impossible.

    Another notable benefit has to do with the portability of computer technology. It is now possible to store whole libraries on a notebook computer, (including extensive collections of primary sources and research tools that enhance/facilitate their study and use, along with other pertinent data). Needless to say, having wide-ranging sources and reference works available in a single place and within easy reach is convenient. That usefulness is especially amplified when one conducts field research in remote locations. The ability to take a whole library with oneself, say on a study trip to Jiangxi, can influence the scholar’s choice of sites for field research and local institutional affiliations. As not being in the proximity of major libraries and research centers becomes less of a liability, at least for some kinds of research, that opens a host of new possibilities for onsite research at various locations away from home.

    In a similar vein, the widespread availability of digital sources can serve as an equalizer in the academia, as scholars from small institutions with limited library resources can increasingly access materials previously found only at research universities. As basic research materials and resources become widely disseminated in a digital format, scholars who work at small colleges are less at disadvantage in comparison with their colleagues at research institutions. On the flip side, some of the organizations that produce digitized versions of large collections of classical texts often charge high prices, which further exacerbate the rich/poor, large/small divide. Of course, large libraries with strong holdings in East Asian materials will continue to be important to the advancement of scholarship, since much of their holdings probably will not be transferred to a digital format anytime soon, but there seems to be an ongoing transition to a somewhat more egalitarian system, even if there are occasional obstacles on the way.

    Potential challenges and downsides

    As the title of today’s panel suggests, windfalls such as those I alluded to are usually accompanied with pitfalls. The partial transition to digital technology is not an exception. A minor concern is that an increased reliance on digital resources can precipitate a technical divide within the scholarly community. It is possible that scholars without requisite computer skills and adequate resources might be placed at certain disadvantage. But that is a minor concern, and it will be even less of an issue as the technology matures, thereby becoming even more pervasive and easier to use.

    A more serious issue is the impact of a wholesale adoption of digital technologies

    and resources on the conduct of academic research, and by extension the analogous changes in graduate education. The use of computer technology, especially the reliance on potent search capabilities, might at times discourage the reading of classical Chan texts and other pertinent sources, or the tedious search for data and information that often leads to unexpected discoveries. Increased reliance on computer-generated searches, notwithstanding their obvious benefits, might lead to gradual neglect of careful reading of classical texts in their entirety, or to glossing over the commentarial literature and other pertinent sources.

    Such state of affairs, if it were to materialize, might inhibit the acquisition of extensive and nuanced knowledge of a broad range of sources and information needed for sound historical understanding of a given topic. A narrow channeling of information through technologically-driven searches may also decrease the chances for unearthing of new materials and perspectives, which are often occasioned by reading and reflection on a variety of primary and secondary materials. Of course, the reverse is also the case. Namely, digital searches can occasion unexpected discoveries that one would not have made otherwise. The point I am trying to make is that we should do both, read widely in a traditional manner and prudently use digital technology.

    However, if uncritical reliance on digital sources and technologies ends up providing disincentive for careful reading and study of original textsand I am not

    necessarily predicting that it will, at least not on a wide scalethat is likely to have a

    negative impact on academic research and graduate education. Such state of affairs might precipitate a move away from traditional scholarly practices, perhaps also lead to decrease of academic standards and increase in dilettantism. An example of that might be when select passages from medieval materials are grafted into preset conceptual grids, perhaps culled from theoretical frameworks that reflect current academic fads, without firm grasp of the unique historical milieus that shaped Buddhism in China, the complex provenances and functions of the religious texts in question, or the religious mores and social ethos of the communities that produced and disseminated them.

    Concluding Remarks

    I have not much to offer in terms of conclusions, but let me end with a couple of brief points. First, let me stress that enthusiasm for the adoption of digital technology needs to be tempered with mindfulness that it is but another tool in the scholarly toolbox, not necessarily a key one. Ideally, computer expertise and technological know-how should compliment rather that replace the array of scholarly skills that are necessary for sound Chan or Buddhist scholarship. Those skills include philological proficiency, wide knowledge of primary and secondary sources, methodological astuteness, familiarity with related fields/disciplines of study, and so on.

    The scholarly appropriation of the Internet, along with the ongoing expansion of digital sources and research tools, is an ongoing process that is shaped by rapidly changing computer technologies and new trends in academic research. The Buddhist scholarly community has for the most part embraced them, albeit with varied levels of intensity and technological astuteness. This is going to be an ongoing topic of discussion, and I hope on this occasion I was able to touch upon at least some of the key issues.

    There are of course many other things to consider. For instance, I briefly alluded

    to changes in academic publishing, but there is much more to be said about the impact of new technologies on traditional forms of publishing and the emergence of new formats for the communication and dissemination of scholarly research. There is also the related issue of evaluating technologically-centered or electronically published scholarly work, especially in reference to career advancement and academic promotions. But these and other related issues will have to be left for other occasions.

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