OCTOBER 2021, Northwestern University, Evanston
Building Indra’s Net for the Information Age
– Dr. Jann Ronis kick starts the inaugural lecture for the 2021 – 2022 Khyentse Foundation Buddhist Studies Lecture Series at Northwestern University
On October 6, Dr. Jann Ronis, the executive director of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC) in Boston, MA, gave a talk on the center’s Buddhist text preservation work. He also introduced their innovative new platform, the Buddhist Digital Archive (BUDA). This inaugural lecture of the 2021–2022 Khyentse Foundation Buddhist Scholar Lecture Series, hosted by Northwestern University, was its first online webinar and in-person hybrid event.
Image above: Northwestern University Campus (Courtesy of Northwestern University)
Image above: Dr. Jann Ronis giving the lecture at Northwestern University, October 6, 2021
The Buddhist literary heritage is vast, spanning more than two thousand years, in numerous Asian languages. Today, Buddhist temples and monasteries across Asia are home to hundreds of thousands of volumes of scriptures and other writings, many of which are unique or endangered. Local efforts to preserve texts and maintain associated traditions of study, performance, and veneration are flourishing in many communities, often in the face of considerable challenges to cultural sustainability. One international organization that coordinates with grassroots projects is BDRC, which is currently engaged in large-scale projects to digitally preserve Buddhist texts in Thailand, Cambodia, Tibetan region of China, and Mongolia. BDRC digitizes more than a million pages annually.
Image above: Buddhist manuscripts
In his lecture, Dr. Ronis presented the living manuscript cultures at three of these locales and the ethical considerations involved in this preservation work. He recounted vividly the story of how the late E. Gene Smith (1938-2010) started the visionary preservation of Buddhist manuscripts in India in the late 1960s. In 1999, Gene founded the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC) in the United States. The mission of TBRC was to promote the flourishing of the Buddhadharma and Tibetan culture by digitally preserving Gene’s personal collection of more than 10,000 volumes of Tibetan texts, making them freely available online to practitioners, scholars, and libraries worldwide. In 2015, TBRC expanded its preservation scope beyond Tibetan Buddhist texts and took on a new name, Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), to reflect its pan-Buddhist digital nature.
Image above: Tīkā-kyō nissya text from the Fragile Palm Leaves collection in Thailand, as displayed in BUDA’s new image viewer (Page View).
The highlight of Dr. Ronis’ presentation was a brief introduction of BUDA, the largest online collection of Buddhist literature in Asian languages, including thousands of Southeast Asian palm leaf manuscripts digitized by BDRC in the last five years. BUDA was launched in May 2020 and offers open and free access to more than 25 million pages of Buddhist texts in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and other languages. With global travel highly restricted and many university libraries closed because of the pandemic, now more than ever BDRC and BUDA offer an essential service to dharma teachers, scholars, and translators worldwide. BUDA was built for collaboration and data sharing. Its search engine integrates the BDRC collection with related Buddhist resources at major universities, libraries, and international institutions, including 84000: Translating Words of the Buddha, the Cambridge University Library, and the British Library.
Image above: Indrajāla – Indra’s Net. As the multifaceted surface of each jewel reflects all other jewels in the net, each of the reflected jewels also contains the reflections of all other jewels; thus there is an unending process of infinite reflections.
“It was an honor to be part of this KF event,” Dr. Ronis told us. “The talk was meant to be informative but, in many ways, it was also a public celebration of the thriving Khyentse ecosystem of scholars, practitioners, and preservationists. BDRC is so fortunate to be a part of “Indra’s Net,” an interconnected system dedicated to Buddhadharma. Working with Prof. Sarah Jacoby and her wonderful students helped draw out some of BDRC’s strengths that aren’t always right on the surface and gave both of us ideas about creating more dynamic partnerships between BDRC and Khyentse scholars. Indra’s Net is not just a metaphor, but something that all of us are creating together.”
Dr. Ronis holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia (2009). In 2006, fresh from 18 months in Beijing and Eastern Tibet, he was a scholar-in-residence at TBRC, where he had the good fortune to work closely with the organization’s founder, E. Gene Smith. From 2011-2018, he taught Tibetan and Religious Studies at UC Berkeley, first as a postdoc and then as a lecturer. He and his team are working to expand BDRC into a truly pan-Buddhist resource, with enhanced digital tools and expanded literary holdings from around the world.
Image above: Dr. Ronis in front of a Yellow Jambhala statue in Tibeto-Chinese style (13th century), Hangzhou, China, December 2018.
Khyentse Foundation has been supporting Buddhist Digital Resource Center since 2005 and has funded over four million dollars over the years as a major effort in preserving Buddhist texts. BDRC’s founder E. Gene Smith was Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Khyentse Foundation’s longtime friend and colleague. “He is such a great man,” Rinpoche once said at a Khyentse Foundation meeting. “With Gene’s digital library, no future disaster, whether natural, political, or economic, will destroy these precious Buddhist texts.” Gene passed away shortly after returning to New York from India in December 2010. We can remember this great man, a modern day Patron King, by listening to Rinpoche speaking about Gene Smith.
Image above: Rinpoche visits the E. Gene Smith Archives at Southwestern University of Nationalities in Chengdu, China, Sept 22, 2015. Photo by Kris Yao.
The Khyentse Foundation Buddhist Studies Lecture Series at Northwestern University, supported by Khyentse Foundation, is a scholarly initiative spearheaded by Prof. Sarah Jacoby. Its aim is to create a forum for intellectual stimulation, dialogue, and community building among the international body of doctoral students and junior faculty funded by Khyentse Foundation, along with the contingent of Buddhist Studies doctoral students studying at Northwestern. The university has hosted eight lectures so far on various topics in Buddhist Studies.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche was invited to the lecture series via Zoom and had a lively conversation with the young Buddhist scholars on Feb 2021.Watch the recording of the conversation here.