Buddhism in the Digital Age: Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative

Edited by Prof. Le Manh That and Ven. Thich Nhat Tu

From the time of the Buddha until now we have depended largely on language, transmitted orally and in written form, to receive His teachings. In the past twenty years the development of digital techniques of storage have vastly expanded access to these teachings, allowing for reproduction at new orders of magnitude and dissemination, via the Internet, with little or no restriction. Exploration and preservation of sacred Buddhist sites is now also possible through digital means. In this sub-theme of the Vesak Day 2008 conference, Buddhism in the Digital Age, our presenters offer a look at some of the projects that continue to bear fruit from these new technologies.

Lewis Lancaster offers the keynote address of this sub-theme with an overview of the history of Buddhist scholarship with regard to digital input, and he explores some of the implications of the new ‘‘sacredness of the digital form of the canon.” He reminds us, amidst a summary of the history of the field, that we have not always had the quality tools that we have now for working with large bodies of texts, and that the tools we have now are in part thanks to the painstaking efforts of the early pioneers of text entry.

The Venerable Thich Chan Quang investigates the effects of technology on the actual practice of the Dharma, noting that we must look deeply before we assume that new methods of coming in contact with the teachings are necessarily beneficial.

A number of scholars reflect on the uses of virtual reality in transmitting the wealth of cultural heritage bestowed on us by past generations. Maurizio Forte explores the possibilities of such a virtual heritage, or “virtual archaeology.’’ Angkor Wat previously inaccessible. Harlan Wallach presents the careful imagery and archiving work done to preserve a digital record of the only remaining structure with any period art on the site of Shuilu’an Temple near Xi’an to have survived the Cultural Revolution.

Information tools and the institutions that support and develop them have become indispensable to the appearance of digital records of Buddhist teachings and heritage. Seraja, a tool which can be used to provide access to events in cultural history in EventWeb, is presented by Ramesh Jain. The Venerable Pannyavaro describes the impact of the Internet on the spread of the Buddha’s teachings and offers some insights into the future of this realm.

The development and nurturing of text input projects have continued to advance on many fronts. In Japan, the project to digitize the full Taisho Tripitaka by the SAT project has provided the basis for the construction of a new scholarly network, as shown by Masahiro Shimoda. Min Bahadur Shakya presents the efforts to preserve and offer online a Digital Buddhist Sanskrit Canon. It is difficult to overestimate the value of the texts that were discovered at Dunhuang, and it is equally invaluable that they are available now as scanned images courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project. Susan Whitfield offers a detailed summary. The Tue Quang Foundation is perfecting machine translation of Chinese Buddhist Texts into English and other languages, as Tran Tien Khanh and Tran Tien Huyen show, and Howie Lan explains how a new method of searching scriptural databases, based on “Blue Dots View” and ring construction analysis, allow for previously unheard of pattern-finding in and insight into the texts.

Our final group of contributors has applied new digital tools to the areas of land-surveying of sacred sites and events. Shih Cheer Dean details the work of the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative of Taiwan. Vo Van Tuong has helped to map temples in Vietnam with the Vietnamese Buddhist Study Institute, generating a cultural electronic Atlas of Vietnamese Buddhism, and Claudia Liuzza ends with an overview of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, an organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of cultural heritage sites.

The Fifth International Buddhist Conference On the United Nations Day of Vesak 2008.
At the National Convention Centre, Ha Noi, Viet Nam 13-17 May, 2008. BE. 2552