The Buddhist Canon Goes High-Tech

When Technolgy Meets an Ancient Religion, the Result is Instant Access

by Nancy Garcia

The ancient wisdom of Buddhism has become one with the modern word's latest technology, thanks to the efforts of Berkeley professor Lewis Lancaster.

All 115 volumes of the Buddhist canon have been captured on a single CD-ROM computer disk.

Already, the high-tech canon has become a sacred religious object in Thailand, where it is placed on household altars beside lighted incense.

Lancaster, who teaches Buddhist studies in the Department of East Asian Languages, oversees distribution of the disk, which has just been published by the American Academy of Religion and Scholar's Press in Atlanta.

He chairs an electronic publication committee for the academy, a group of 7,500 academics from 1,500 campuses. The CD-ROM of the ancient Pali language scriptures was demonstrated at the academy's annual meeting Nov. 21 in Chicago.

Lancaster also helped establish the Electronic Buddhist Texts Initiative, a consortium of groups throughout the world involved in storing all versions of the Buddhist scriptures on computer.

The consortium had its second annual meeting last month in Korea, where several hundred monks, nuns, and scholars saw a demonstration of the advantages of computerized canons.

One of the these advantages is cost, since the disk for the Pali canon has a price of $299, while the complete set of the printed texts contained in the database can run as high as $12,000.

Also, scholars can use a powerful search program to find key words or phrases in seconds.

Previously, it would have been impossible to locate all occurrences of a word or phrase by looking at pages of printed text.

The canon comes in several languages --Pali, which is used by the Theravada Buddhists of South and Southeast Asia, Chinese, Tibetan, Manchu, and Mongolian.

"Buddhism has the largest canons in the world--no other religion has anything comparable.

"We've been burdened with the inability to deal very effectively with this material because it is so massive," Lancaster said.

The study of Buddhism is important, Lancaster said, because it is the only social institution that spread throughout all of Asia.

He calls the canons "a very sophisticated group of documents."

One section contains the words attributed to the Buddha.

Another has commentary written by monks over the course of nearly 2,000 years.

The commentaries include history, biographies, poems, and texts of philosophy and logic.

Computer entry is a formidable task. The Pali version, which runs more than 50,000 pages, was computerized by Mahidol University in Bangkok in honor of the Thai king's 60th birthday.

The Chinese canon, meanwhile, fills 55,000 pages.

Lancaster experienced the power of the new technology when he searched a database of 40 million characters containing the 25 dynastic histories of China.

With software from Academia Sinica in Taipei, he found seven of the earliest references to the name used by the Chinese for the Buddhist canon in just 22 seconds.

A colleague in Japan, meanwhile, had only found three instances in 40 years of research.

With the CD-ROM texts, Lancaster said, scholars will be able to complete in a few hours a full concordance of all words contained in the canons.

Berkeley has one of the major Buddhist studies programs in the United States. Founded in 1972, the program requires PhD students to learn Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan.

Lancaster expects a number of CD-ROM disks to appear over the next decade, including Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, and English versions of the Pali canon; a supplement to the Chinese Buddhist canon; the Ming edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon; the Korean Buddhist canon and works of various masters.

Fifteen trained computer operators are working now under Lancaster's direction in Shanghai, entering the 20 million characters of the Chinese supplement.

Other input teams are at work in Korea, India, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, Europe, and the United States.

"With this new technology and the availability of databases, Buddhist studies will never be the same," Lancaster said.


Copyright 1994, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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