holy texts of Tibetan Buddhism are not very portable. That is not necessarily a problem if you are
studying peacefully in a monastery, but it is a serious drawback if your
country is invaded by an imperial power.
Such was indeed the fate of Tibet.
Following the 1950 Communist invasion, centuries of Tibetan culture were
at of risk of being lost forever.
However, one American scholar successfully spearheaded a drive to
digitize, translate, and disseminate thousands of sacred and secular Tibetan
texts. His campaign is documented in
Dafna Yachin’s Digital Dharma (trailer here), which is
currently screening during DocuWeeks New York 2012.
late E. Gene Smith was a perennial student who specialized in East Asian
languages with little commercial application.
Tibetan was perfect for his purposes.
Yet, as he immersed himself in the culture, he became increasingly
alarmed about its chances for survival.
After the initial invasion and again during the Cultural Revolution, monasteries
were ruthlessly razed and books were systematically burned. As a result, many critical texts were
completely unavailable to the Tibetan Buddhist Diaspora.
most of the books still survived, hidden away to avoid the Communist rampages. In the 1960’s, as a Library of Congress field
worker in non-aligned India, Smith catalogued and facilitated the publication
of hundreds of volumes smuggled out of Tibet.
Retiring from the Federal government, Smith eventually cofounded the
Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, which would pursue the mission of
digitization and translation, insuring the wisdom of Tibet will survive and
spread across the world.
Yachin nearly venerates the Tibetologist as if he had been a lama himself.
While Smith surely did invaluable work preserving the endangered Tibet culture,
he was not infallible. In fact, the 1960’s
era pacifist seems to have carried some residual ideological baggage, leading
to the somewhat debatable decision to leave his collection to the Southwest
University for Nationalities in Chengdu, Sichuan. Smith was determined to return the ancient
documents to the Tibetans, laudably considering himself only a temporary
caretaker. Yet, just how trustworthy a
caretaker a Chinese chartered institution will be surely remains to be seen,
particularly considering earlier efforts to transfer his collection were
forestalled by the 2008 riots that swept across Tibet. At least the contents of his collection are
now preserved for posterity.
fascinating, Digital offers viewers
some helpful context for understanding Tibetan Buddhism as well as the captive
nation’s thorny history over the past seventy years or so. It is also one of the more polished
productions seen during this year’s DocuWeeks, featuring some stylish but
informative graphics. Despite prompting
some unanswered questions, Digital Dharma
tells a great story. In fact, it is
the rather rare film that presents both religion and technology in a positive
light. Respectfully recommended for
amateur Tibetologists and China watchers, Digital
Dharma screens through Thursday (8/23) at the IFC Center in New York, as
DocuWeeks 2012 comes to a close.
Labels: Documentary, DocuWeeks '12, E. Gene Smith, Tibet, Tibetan culture