“I will leave this record to people who learn through practice and are easy in truth, so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage.” —Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen Lineage in Japan

In 2018, the San Francisco Zen Center(SFZC) applied for an Ashoka Grant to digitize their archives of more than 11,000 dharma talks recorded between 1966 and 2006.  (Since 2006, all new dharma talks have already been digitized.) The quality of the audio cassettes deteriorates over time, so the Zen Center wanted to preserve these talks and make them available to the public through an online media platform. 

Photo of the audio files that SFZC is updating to digital format.

To make these archives widely accessible, SFZC is working with Engage Wisdom, a company that has created a cloud-computing toolset for digitizing and sharing recordings of from all types of media.  With the Engage Wisdom tools, SFZC can include transcripts and archival photographs along with the dharma talks, so they can be searched, studied, and collaboratively organized by community members worldwide. 

“Time is of the essence,” said Susan O’Connell, senior teacher and past president of SFZC. “The magnetic tapes are fading and disintegrating further each year. The grant funds will support the important work of digitizing and remastering so that we can begin to share them.”

The first batch of digitally remastered talks is online now, and as work continues, the full archive will be online by early next year.  

For more than 50 years, SFZC has generated and recorded more dharma talks by Buddhist and Zen Buddhist teachers than any other Zen organization in the Western Hemisphere. “This treasure trove deserves to be shared with the worldwide diaspora of western Zen lineages that have branched out from Suzuki Roshi’s disciples, as well as with everyone who is inspired to learn more about this tradition,” said Charlie Wilson, founder of Engage Wisdom. “Bringing the archive to life in this online format will give everyone the ability to hear these words of wisdom spoken in the voices of the teachers themselves, and opens a forum where fellow students can study and unfold the dharma together.” 

One of the most valuable things about the digital archive is the ability to capture notes, descriptions, and keyword tags contributed by any community member who listens to the talks. These interactions deepen everyone’s ability to search through the 11,000 hours of audio, find the words they’re looking for, and draw connections between the many common threads. SFZC senior students will encourage and moderate discussion to foster a deeper understanding of each talk.

By sharing these teachings, SFZC will connect with a global audience. Their SoundCloud channel, for example, reaches more than 1.3 million followers from all over the world, including many younger people and people who are new to the buddhadharma.