17.703 a remarkable story

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Sat Mar 13 2004 - 05:09:26 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 703.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 13 Mar 2004 10:05:33 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: a remarkable story

The most remarkable story of E. Gene Smith's preservation of Tibetan
literature is told in the latest Times Literary Supplement, no. 5267 for 12
March 2004, in the Commentary column, p. 13. Smith, a Utah-born Mormon who
traces his lineage back to the brother of the prophet Joseph Smith, was
converted to Buddhism by a Tibetan scholar and lama Deshung Rinpoche on his
visit to the U.S. in 1960. Smith then began the studies necessary to read
and interpret the Tibetan canon (becoming in time perhaps the greatest
Western scholar of Tibetan literature). Sometime later the lama suggested
he go to India to locate and publish most important works of Tibetan
literature before they were lost forever. This became his life's work. He
eventually collected over 12,000 books of poetry, medicine, history,
biography and principally Buddhist religious texts, spanning 10 centuries
and comprising the largest collection in the West if not the world. Until
2001 this collection was housed in his 6-room duplex in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, the books covering every surface and floor in every room but
the kitchen; his bed was wedged between bookshelves. Then in 2001, after 40
years of collecting, he found two angels, Shelley and Donald Rubin, who
have founded perhaps the largest museum of Himalayan art in the West and
have allotted ample space to Smith's Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center.

Tibet is a land with an extraordinary scholarly tradition dating back to
the 7th century. Much of the literature exists only in the form of highly
perishable manuscripts and block-printed books, on strips of mulberry-husk
paper, bound together by straps of cloth. The centuries have taken their
toll; so also did the Chinese invasion. Without Smith's efforts much of not
all of what is now in safe hands would have been lost completely. Smith
estimates that scholars now have about 10% of what once existed, 80% of
what was well known. Little of this has been translated, so the culture
remains largely inaccessible to the West. Given the importance of this
literature not only in itself but for the transmission of Buddhism from
India through China to Japan, and from Japan to the West, much already of
great interest to many people is to be learned from this collection.

The collection is going digital, at www.tbrc.org, where over 7,000 authors
and 20,000 book titles are already to be found. The ambition is to put all
of Tibetan literature online.

The author of the article, Cynthia Haven, stresses the importance of online
publication for the rescuing and preservation of cultural treasures such as
the Tibetan canon. "If all that exists in Tibetan literature is online and
downloadable, it becomes virtually indestructible -- unlike the fragile,
ethereal tangkas that line the walls around Smith's offices, where
electronic reproduction can give only a whiff of the original." I hope she
is right about this virtual indestructibility.



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