Monthly Archives: August 2012

  1. Digital Dharma: Saving the Text in a Tech-Loving Age

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    August 6, 2012 by lunchboxcity


    Replication is at the heart of life. The genetic information encoded in our DNA allows new life to be passed along and to evolve. Children learn through imitation. And the copying of written information allows us to build on the past and make knowledge accessible. Gutenberg turned a wine press into a vehicle for individual enlightenment.

    E. Gene Smith, a scholar of Tibetan literature and the subject of an intriguing new documentary, was a highly original hero — of the copy. At his death in 2010, he left behind a single volume of essays, but an enormous lifework: the preservation and reproduction of tens of thousands of rare, seminal Tibetan texts from a canon integral to the history of Buddhism. In an age when information seems quick, easy and even expendable, the film Digital Dharma should make us think carefully about technology’s relationship to replication in our post-analog lives.

    As a lanky young man with a flair for languages, Smith was earning a Ph.D. at the University of Washington in the early 1960s when he became a student of Tibetan lama and refugee, Dezhung Rinpoche. But Smith’s studies were stymied by a lack of texts. The country’s astonishing canon was imperiled first by the Chinese occupation and later the Cultural Revolution, when monasteries, libraries and book collections were destroyed in huge numbers.’=

    The destruction wasn’t merely symbolic. Most often, no other copy existed when a Tibetan text went up in flames. Even into the 20th century, Tibet had no printing presses, so texts consisted of hand-lettered manuscripts or books printed from carved wooden blocks. Moreover, the texts themselves are crucial to world history. Tibet is one of four languages in which the Buddhist canon — or dharma — is preserved, and the country’s vibrant literature as a whole reflects its place as a crossroads of Asia. The losses were akin to the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

    Enter Smith, a Mormon-turned-Buddhist who began a personal, decades long quest to search and recover and then print copies of thousands of Tibetan books and texts. Working for the Library of Congress from New Delhi beginning in the 1960s, he traveled tirelessly across India, Nepal and Bhutan to find texts that refugees were hiding, then found ways to use U.S. aid to fund the printing of new copies. With velvet guile, he navigated Cold War and Sino-Tibetan politics, always placing the books — not human differences — at the center of his quest. “The idea is to deliver the tradition back to the owners of the traditions,” he told the Buddhist magazine Mandala in 2001.

    Smith’s vast publishing efforts, however, didn’t stop at the printed page. The movie climaxes with his late-life efforts to digitize the vast collection he accumulated at the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center based in Cambridge, Mass., and his 2008 travels back to Nepal and India to give exiled Tibetan monks laptops and hard drives containing their own monasteries’ sacred, now-digitized collections. The monks were ecstatic. In the film, one beaming abbot wears a pouch around his neck containing a flashdrive that Smith mischievously told him was an “amulet.” Is this the magic of technology? At the first monk-meets-computer moment, the audience at the film’s July 25 New York premiere burst into applause.

    The story seemingly ends there. But digitizing isn’t a magic solution. The laptops will need upgrades, the flashdrives must be updated, and digital media is more fragile than we often imagine. We must offer as much curatorial care to a digital canon as we should to the vast and still-important treasures of our print age. As well, the speed and invisibility of the digital neatly hides the reality of entropy. Just as our genes mutate, our traditions evolve, and our stories change, so too a digitized canon will shift little by little as time goes by. (Just peek at Google Books, with its typos and missing pages, to see that copying is never perfect.) Just as our ability to see the world is a construction — our vision is interpreted by our minds — so too the handing down of any bits of culture for the future is a building, a choosing, an incremental shoring up.

    Today, we too often believe that technology neatly solves a problem when in reality, technology merely shifts the nature of the challenges before us. I have no doubt that the inestimable Gene Smith deeply understood the depth of this issue. But do we, as consumer, producers and curators of the new canons of our age, understand what we are doing? Perhaps we should copy and paste a little less often, and think about knowledge a little bit more. Gene Smith’s vision will be missed.

    The film, directed by Dafna Yachin, will be screened August 8, 15, 22, 29 and September 5 at the Rubin Museum in New York; as well as August 17-23 at the DocuWeeks film festival in New York, and August 10-16 at DocuWeeks Los Angeles.

    (This article was featured on, click here to see the article)

  2. How to Rescue a Culture

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    August 4, 2012 by lunchboxcity


    Nine million pages of rare Tibetan writings have been made available on the Internet.

    In the course of a day online—answering your e-mail, paying bills, sending a tweet about your favorite doughnuts—it’s easy to forget how completely and utterly miraculous the Internet is. The monks of Tibet have not forgotten.

    Some nine million pages of Buddhist texts and other Tibetan writings have been rescued from almost-certain extinction and now reside on the ‘Net in a searchable, easily downloadable form. “Every morning I will be doing prostration to the computer,” one famed lama said as the huge digitization project began to bear fruit.

    The story of how the texts were almost lost (copy after copy was burned during political turmoil in the 1950s) then recovered (a U.S. scholar went all-out to find surviving volumes) is told wonderfully in Digital Dharma, a documentary at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art. The story of what is happening to the texts is evident at, run by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center.

    Unlike most e-books, the volumes on the Website aren’t just handy alternatives to paper copies; they’re the main event, the go-to source on their subject, a repository for an entire culture. Some 5,000 people from 66 countries visit the site each day.

    It wasn’t easy to build. The nonprofit research center has been scanning rare, often brittle pages for more than 10 years. At the same time, it helped develop the software needed for computers to understand Tibetan, a prerequisite for creating a search engine.

    Monks have gotten up to speed quickly—many now read the texts with iPads. When you tip an iPad on its side, which opens the landscape view, the device becomes a perfect match for the horizontal design of Tibetan pages. Is there any path in life that doesn’t lead to Apple?

    (This article was featured on, click here to see the article)

  3. Digital Dharma in New York

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    August 1, 2012 by lunchboxcity

    I am the only one in the theater. Tim McHenry, producer at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, has let me come up from Philadelphia to test our BluRay for the Wednesday night premiere of my first feature theatrical documentary, Digital Dharma. He left me with a cup of green tea and 150 empty seats. From the balcony above, I hear a young technician’s voice asking me if it looks better now. How about now?

    The larger-than-life image of E. Gene Smith is now less red. He looks good. It always looks good to me to see Gene’s big smiling Buddha-wise face. The timbre of his deep, patient voice sounds amazing in surround sound. A calm, metered, unlikely lead character for any epic story.

    Just outside this theatre is where I first met Gene only six years earlier. Feels like 50.

    At the time, I did not know that Smith, a Mormon from Utah, had dedicated his life to saving a culture that was not his own. I was doing a documentary short on Peter Gruber, a philanthropist who is credited for numerous things, including helping facilitate one of the first English translations of any Tibetan books, “Hundred_Thousand_Songs_of_Milarepa.”

    We had to interview Gene at the Rubin Museum because there was no room to fit a camera in his pint-size office down the street, where, I was told, he was digitizing thousands of old Tibetan texts. During the interview, Gene just patiently explained the importance of Peter Gruber’s publishing efforts and the basics tenants of Buddhism. He knew that he was talking to a woman whose path to enlightenment was off the beaten. Afterward, knowing his interviewers were clueless, he kindly took me and the crew to see what a Tibetan text looked like. They are called bats and look like… a cricket thing. Behind what was once the Old Barney’s department store were rows and rows and rows of cricket things wrapped in red or blue or orange cloth and piled on top of one another. I thought: Finances for the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, which Gene had established, must be a bit slim to keep 1,500 years of teachings, many of them drawn from the Buddha’s original words, on metal utility shelves.

    Over the next year, I ran into Gene several times at human rights events. He radiated a warmth and intelligence that always made me want to sit with him. I’d ask him how the digitization efforts were going and he’d tell me about some collection that was just realized in Mongolia, Bhutan or in the bowels of the Library of Congress right here in the U.S. His passion was infectious. I kept picturing ancient texts locked away in crates on forklifts, like an Indiana Jones ending. I needed to get more of Gene on camera.

    In 2008 Gene gave me permission to follow him back to India and Nepal as he set out to deliver, to the main lamas of the four leading Buddhist traditions and the Bon, 12,000 digitized texts produced from a total of 20,000 volumes that had been salvaged. Like Gene, these lamas had spent their lives finding and preserving the texts lost during China’s Cultural Revolution.

    As my field producer and I waited to board our flight to New Delhi news of the Goldman Sachs scandal splashed across the TV screens throughout the airport and around the world. The U.S. market was free falling — and we were on our way to the Himalayas with five hidden MiniMacs in our suitcases that Gene had conned us into carrying. We still did not fully understand that what we were carrying in our roll-ons held a chronicle of the advancements of mankind — from the medical to the mystical — and included the Tibetans’ original contributions, as well as the traditional works of great Indian scholars and masters which were systematically documented and preserved in Tibet.

    We were granted unprecedented access to the highest lamas, and enjoyed the generosity and “mother-hen-like” guidance of attending monks. They were so generous because, while Gene was an unknown in New York party circles, he was a legend in hundreds of monasteries in the Tibetan Diaspora. It had been a particularly long and active rainy season in the northern provinces of India and flooding was still rampant. Mudslides closed our route on more than one occasion, and there was ever-present danger on roads that deliver drama on Ice Road Truckers. One of the most memorable moments on our filmmaking trek came on our approach to the Menri Monastery of the Bon in Himachal Pradesh. Close to one hundred monks in muddy robes stood with shovels by the side of the road as our crew drove up, having just moments before cleared a huge mudslide that would have kept us from our date with the His Holiness Menri Trizin, one of Gene’s oldest friends and the spiritual leader of the Bon religion. These gentle men were determined that “Gene-la” not miss his visit with Menri. Their reward for making it so was a double rainbow, shining down on our group as the two old friends embraced. Menri gently brought his forehead in contact with Gene’s and sighed, Now that’s gooooood.

    Gene’s journey, which actually began 50 years earlier, crossed multiple borders — geographical, political and philosophical — and led to international humanitarian and academic efforts to find, preserve and make accessible the documents that form the core of Tibetan culture. This journey was an incredible gift to the Tibetan people and to all of humanity. (Now that’s really good.) But the mission is still not complete.

    As I am told the next group is here for testing in the theater and I must skedaddle, I try to feel my journey with Gene one last time. Gene gave me the gift of telling his story, but most of all I got a larger-than-life lesson on how to live a life worth living.

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    (This article was featured on, click here to see the article)

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