April 2019

Sarah Anne joined Jann Ronis, BDRC executive director, and Philip Menchaca, manager of grants and programs, at a Cambridge restaurant to talk about the past and future of BDRC. Read on to learn about BDRC’s expansion into Southeast Asia texts as well as their plans for more resources for scholars and practioners. 

Sarah Anne: Jann and Philip, will you please introduce yourself and tell us how you first got involved with the Buddhist Digital Resource Center?

Jann Ronis: I started as executive director in July 2018. Back in the 2006-2007 school year, I was a visiting scholar at BDRC, then known as the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), so I’ve been around the organization for over 10 years. Before taking the ED position I was in academia. I went to grad school in Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia, where I specialized in all things Tibetan, including a lot of fieldwork in Tibetan monasteries. During my time at UVA I spent three and a half years in China. 

I finished up grad school in 2008, and weathered the economic downturn with a postdoc in France. When my professor went on sabbatical, I took over his classes for three semesters. From there, I got a lectureship at UC Berkeley and stayed there for seven years. I was really happy living the California life and wouldn’t have left for any job but this one. 

Philip Menchaca: I came to BDRC in 2017 from Union Theological Seminary, where I was project manager for a science and spirituality project. One component of the project was creating a new website with media products and interviews on Buddhist and science connections.

At BRDC I work on development and communications, and the role has been evolving into program management.

Jann: It sounds strange to me that Philip started just one year before me, because for a relative newbie he has a great sense of the operation’s strengths and weaknesses. He’s always thinking at the strategic level. The staff—including the old-timers—are all very committed. We work together on program planning and problem solving.

Sarah Anne: What are your top priorities as the new ED?

Jann: I’ve tried to oversee BDRC’s expansion into Southeast Asia. To be honest, I’m not sure that many Tibetan-centric users have heard about our major projects in Southeast Asia. These projects will come online within a year, and I’m positive that our longtime users will be impressed. I’m especially excited to welcome an entirely new community of users to BDRC as we begin to make available thousands of texts in Burmese and Khmer, including Pali works in those scripts. 

Photo of Jann, holding a Pali text to be scanned.

Photo of Jann, holding a Pali text to be scanned.

If there is another item on my agenda, it would be to shore up our infrastructure, which our users don’t see but is really important. Thankfully, organizations like Khyentse Foundation give us money for our general operations, which is crucial. We would run out of steam if we didn’t have that money to buy storage, maintain servers, hire new people, and double-check that everything is stored and organized properly.

Going forward, being a Tibetanist, I want to expand our Tibetan acquisitions by launching a project in Bhutan and reconnecting with our partners in India. I’d also like to move into more educational resources such as [the creation of] a dictionary. I think that BRDC should be the go-to source for both texts and lexicographical tools. 

Sarah Anne: Why is this transition from Tibet into the broader Buddhist canon so important?

Philip: The transition from the Tibetan material to the broader Buddhist traditions gives us a chance to bring the whole world of Buddhist texts together. That allows practitioners, researchers, and scholars to see the parallels between different texts and the transmissional histories of those texts, and to unite the whole Buddhist tradition together on a single platform.

Jann: One of the benefits of scaling up to include all Buddhist literature is that it makes possible so many important partnership and collaborative opportunities with our sister organizations, tech organizations, and Buddhist communities around the world. 

Sarah Anne: How is this transition going so far? And what prompted you to expand?

Photo of Gene Smith's collection at the BDRC offices.

Photo of Gene Smith’s collection at the BDRC offices.

Jann: Around 2015 some of the funders said, “You have fulfilled your mission and scanned all of Gene Smith’s collection. If you can scale up and give yourselves a new raison d’être, we’re behind you. And if not, as your donors, we don’t want to enable a zombie march forward.” 

Jeff Wallman, my predecessor, knew that BDRC could do more. He got funding for a big meeting in 2015 at Berkeley. I was in Berkeley at the time and a meeting attendee told me, “Big things are happening. In the short term, BDRC is either going to get much smaller or much bigger.” Fortunately, at the meeting BDRC came up with a plan that was supported by the Robert Ho Family Foundation and Khyentse Foundation, and we started to scale up. I was really fortunate in inheriting the organization at a time of unprecedented strength and growth, thanks to Jeff’s work. 

Fast forward to now. The committee recommended that if we want to present BDRC as players in the broader Buddhist market, we should partner with Fragile Palm Leaves (FPL) and the Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project. Our first leap into this new zone of work was FPL. That’s when we decided to move further into Southeast Asian materials because that will help us diversify, and those materials are truly endangered and underserved by other groups.

Philip: They get paid very little attention. They’re at risk. The climate alone is a big challenge for materials in Southeast Asia, especially palm-leaf manuscripts in rural monastic libraries where conservation resources are scarce or nonexistent.

Jann: They need to be recopied every generation, and there are no more copyists. 

Sarah Anne: What type of shape are they in now?

Philip: It depends. Some are okay, many are disappearing.

Jann: None are in ideal storage conditions. Even the texts that are in the National Library of Cambodia aren’t in air-conditioned rooms. They’re in cupboards and not impervious to bugs, mice, and mold.

Philip: And many places don’t have proper fire suppression systems. After the National Museum in Brazil burned, I had the thought that this could happen at any time in these institutions in Southeast Asia. There’s bad wiring, they don’t have fire safety. After our team visited the National Library of Mongolia, they said, “Their fire system is buckets of sand.”

Jann: I’ve seen them myself in 2013. Buckets of sand.

Philip: What happened in Brazil could happen there easily. It’s urgent. It’s important that the material gets digitized and secured and made accessible online. 

Sarah Anne: At Khyentse Foundation, we’re so lucky to have some amazing scholars that are part of the foundation, but many more of us are not scholars. How is the work that you’re doing relevant to “normal” Buddhists?

Jann: The work is relevant in at least two ways. One is that it’s helping keep the Asian traditions alive and strong. Now, with the support of the Khmer Buddhist Temple Foundation, we’re going into Cambodia where this project could galvanize things and lead to a resurgence in the tradition in ways that spill over into the global Buddhist community. The same thing could happen in Mongolia. 

In Cambodia, for an example, there are approximately 35,000 volumes of text either on film or in manuscript bundles in different archives in Phnom Penh. No doubt, there’s all kinds of great gems—wonderful works of Cambodian Buddhist literature: poetry, stories, retellings of the Jatakas, all those sorts of things.

This is all fodder for translators, which is the second way our work is relevant to the broader Buddhist community. I’m not even talking about 84000 and all the assistance that BDRC provides to them in terms of giving them all the various editions of the canon. Even many vernacular works such as meditation manuals, stories, devotional works, and so forth that are preserved in BDRC’s collections will be translated and read by “normal” practitioner types, and also by many people with just a passing interest in Buddhist ideas and literature. In all the great books published by Wisdom and other publishers, the translators got access to the original texts mostly through BDRC. 

Of course, translators work with their lamas, but when they hunker down and get to work, they go to BDRC because, while their lama might give them one copy of the text, there’s going to be some scribal errors and things that don’t make sense. There, an alternate version would help. That’s where BDRC comes into play. 

Philip: Cambodia is also an interesting example of how BRDC benefits the tradition. Our advisor on the project, Trent Walker, was saying that many of the texts we are digitizing in Phnom Penh have fallen out of use. Very few people still use the physical manuscripts, but they contain numerous prayers, rituals, ritual texts too, that a lot of Cambodian monks and practitioners, particularly those of the younger generation, are interested in, but they don’t have access to them. He’s shown them to monks and practitioners and they say, “Oh, let’s do this. Let’s do this ritual. We’ve heard about it, but we haven’t done it before.” They’ve fallen out of use. This revival of Khmer culture and Khmer Buddhism, that’s the impact that the Cambodia project can have.

Jann: True. That’s our impact in Tibetan Buddhism for sure. Beyond that, we’re also applying digital technology to texts. When I was being interviewed for this job, our treasurer asked me for an impromptu elevator speech with a Silicon Valley type. I was totally unprepared, but I said, “We are using technology to make Buddhism do things it’s never done before.” 

Photo of a scanning station in Thailand.

Photo of a scanning station in Thailand.

That’s true. We’re not just preserving. We’re working with optical character recognition (OCR) technology, to create e-texts from scans, making texts instantly available on mobile devices with our library app, and so forth. That’s what we do, and that gives ideas and assistance to people in Buddhist countries. 

Revitalizing local traditions and making materials available for translators are important ways that we can aid the broader Buddhist populace. More long term, our board president would like there to be more content on BDRC for the general public. That would be a real shift, and I’m not going to promise anything now, just to say that there is some thought about trying to make more general information available. 

We can’t be all things to all people. The key to our success has always been our focus. We never got into translation. We never became an encyclopedia. We perfected our skills by working on not only one language, but just one library; just one archive. And now, we’re strategically, cautiously, scaling up.