Post-425: Buddhist Digital Resource Center

(3600 words)

The “Buddhist Digital Resource Center” (BDRC) ( was the topic of an interesting talk I was able to attend this year.

This organization, the BDRC, is devoted to Buddhist texts: finding them wherever they may be, restoring-and-cleaning them as needed, scanning them, uploading them, hosting them on the Internet, and making them accessible. The last point there (“making them accessible”) is a lot more involve than it may sound.

This work is privately funded and is preservationist in nature. The originals of these Buddhist texts are always left with the original owners if that is at all possible (or otherwise, I presume, deposited in museums or archives in the country in which they originated).

Buddhist texts of various languages, scripts, conditions, and provenances are involved, but Tibet has an enduring pride-of-place with this organization. The role of Tibet in this thing is an entire interesting backstory, and that backstory was one of the reasons why this talk ended up so surprisingly rewarding in the best tradition of public lectures (which were once such an important part of our civic and intellectual culture).

I was interested to get a window into a subject-matter with which I was not much acquainted.

I feel compelled to record some of what I heard and learned as faithfully as I understand it, and other observations or thoughts on the project, its background, and what it all means.


The Buddhist Digital Resource Center summarizes its work with these words:

“BDRC has located, digitized, cataloged, and archived over 17 million pages of culturally significant works of Buddhist literature.”

The idea, as I heard it, is not to dump the digitized texts onto some website somewhere and call it a day; the idea is to make real efforts to make as much of the corpus they have somewhat “user-friendly,” including making the texts “searchable” (to the extent possible) and linking them up with other pertinent info.

Part of the talk I attended dealt with the BDRC’s biggest and latest project, which is the difficult task of trying to create a workable, at-least-semi-successful OCR technology. If successful, it would capture a variety of exotic, often antiquated and stylized scripts made by these Buddhist monks and scholars over the centuries. This is a huge ambition. The OCR technology for such scripts as Tibetan is far behind the OCR for the Roman scripts. The speaker also said that every monk would tend to have different writing styles.

(I feel I know a bit about OCR in part because I worked with it for a few weeks’ worth of work, back at about age nineteen, in one of my first-ever ‘office-work’-like paid job experiences. This was the 2000s, and although OCR technology for Roman scripts was pretty good, it still had such a high error rate that people like me were employed to check closely the OCR’s work and clean it all up.)

Another project BDRC is undertaking, in addition to its usual work of finding, cleaning, digitizing, etc., is a project to link terms in these texts to other material, helping to make it comprehensible. A lot of the Buddhist religious terms and proper nouns in various languages are too obscure to have any Internet footprint. BDRC plans to link these terms, when possible, to entries in a certain Buddhist mega-encyclopedia, whose name I noted as something like “Monlam Encyclopedia.” It is not in English. I think it was said to be in Tibetan, and it runs some stunningly large number of volumes.

The explanatory entries would pop-up in the viewer-screen. The idea seems to make engaging with these texts into the kind of interactive experience Internet-acclimated people seem to demand. But the idealized vision is of something that is of such ease, slashing time needed for study or contemplation, that it almost seems “non-Buddhist.”


The Buddhist Digital Resource Center was originally known as the “Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center” (TBRC). This name lasted from the founding in 1999/2000 until 2015/16. The new name, the Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), you’ll notice, has two changes: the word “Tibetan” is dropped and the word “Digital” is added.

The current chief of the BDRC is Jann Ronis. It was he who was the speaker. To judge from his voice and how he presents himself, Jann Ronis is white American. His voices rather reminds one of that mellow-California type of old.

They call Jann Ronis a “Buddhologist,” and he is the very picture of the ‘Zen’-looking person. But maybe he was just having a good day. On this day he looked ten or so years younger than his age, which is mid-forties, I think.

Jann Ronis says the TBRC/BDRC organizational founding happened in September 1999. In writing this, I find a Boston Globe article from 2001 which has it that the center “opened” in spring 2000. Maybe both dates can be defended and there was in the preparation process for six to nine months. That makes sense. There was really more like a three- or four-decade-long preparation process ahead of the founding of the TBRC/BDRC, as the founder had done similar work at the highest level for many years.

The founder, E. Gene Smith (1936-2010) of Utah, was known as “the founding American Tibetologist.” He enjoyed a wide reputation in his time, being of some importance to these things in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000, including thirty years with the Library of Congress that does some similar work to what BDRC has done with such elan over twenty-some years now.

From how his admirers speak of Gene Smith, he was one of those romantic figures lifted from the pages of another age’s history books or headlines: the intellectual-swashbuckler-adventurer type. In his case the heaviest emphasis goes upon the ‘intellectual’ part of that, but the others parts are not absent. It is lives like his that inspire novels, or maybe immortalizations in folk-song, or maybe historical dramas on the stage, or (obligatorily in our time) movies. In Gene Smith’s case I think I detect a substratum of the “gone native” type, supplementing that main. I base that only on what I heard at the talk. Certainly the Tibetans-in-exile celebrate the man as a great national hero.

Gene Smith had the courage, boldness, determination, and good timing to become a leading expert on Tibetan Buddhism, before it became more common to hear people profess admiration for that religious tradition, as had become true in the last quarter of the 20th century (or, at most, the last third of the 20th century). It was not so, at any scale, in the late 1950swhen a young Gene Smith first took an interest. From his name and place-of-origin (Utah) and unlikely ties to far-distant places, signs point to Gene Smith being of Mormon origin, which is confirmed by his obituaries.

Although associated with the University of Washington at Seattle for some time, and on the PhD track, a bolt of metaphorical lightning hit him one day which said the PhD track was inauthentic and he had some other calling. He knocked the dust off his metaphorical Big-Academia sandals and dove into preservation work outside of formal academia. By about 1968, his reputation already made, the Library of Congress recruited Gene Smith to work as a foreign representative for them. He stuck around in such roles for most of the following thirty years. He was found to be very useful in a variety of foreign postings related to collections of materials that were of interest to the USA’s defacto national library.

It is said that Gene Smith retired in 1997, and although the administrative records would corroborate that date it is a mere technicality. “Retire,” in the true sense of the word, he did not. Within two years he was steaming ahead, into the midnight darkness, with this Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center project, which, as already mentioned, he founded in 1999/2000.

One interesting thing about Gene Smith’s life is that his choice to repudiate formal academia back some time in the 1960s did not mean he repudiated scholarship, and if anything he did far more scholarship and scholarship-adjacent activities than had he lived fat-and-happy in some professorial post for a few decades. He was also always somewhere near academia. This includes the TBRC/BDRC, including its choice of home-base. The speaker said the group was originally headquartered in “Cambridge.” In context it was clear he Cambridge, Massachusetts; the current headquarters is also somewhere just nearby. While “Cambridge” in this case meant Harvard, the word traveling unaccompanied  “Cambridge” will make most think of the old university in England.

Going by the  way the speaker told the story of Gene Smith’s life in the period 2000 to 2010, the man worked himself to death. He was constantly on foreign trips and in his seventies no longer necessarily in the kind of physical condition he had been in the peak period of his Indiana Jones-like life’s work. What these trips involved was the distributing to Buddhist temples in Asia digitally preserved copies of Buddhist texts that the group had produced. There was Gene Smith, showing up at the temple gate, a bag stuffed with CD-Roms (or similar storage devices) in hand.

So Gene Smith in later years made what can be fairly called pilgrimages to these temples to distribute the materials to his vast network and promote the cause. These people knew who he was and trusted him, so it meant a lot that the digital materials came from him and not from, maybe, delivery-boy or (in the PRC-China case) some Beijing government official visiting Tibet announcing in Mandarin that he has come bearing gifts. Jann Ronis told the story that during these trips, Gene Smith was known to shanghai people into coming along as his assistants, and his own prestige could get them the all-clear, but in fact didn’t need assistants at all and really wanted more bodies because that meant more luggage space for more cases of CD-Roms.

Gene Smith died late in 2010, a single day after completing one of the trips to Asia to distribute these digital materials to the Buddhists.


(Of late, I have been thinking a lot more about “history as a historical force,” including overlaps of people’s lives, careers, movements. I have no “overlap” at all with Gene Smith and nothing like the active interest in Buddhism that the group he cultivated has had. I didn’t know the name Gene Smith until this year, as a result of this talk. But I was in South Korea in 2009-2010, the last two years of Gene Smith’s interesting life which also brought him to Asia.

A better parallel was Jared W., an American also of Ilsan, south Korea, when I arrived. Beginning in mid-2009 he became a friend. Jared W. is of Quaker origin and in my appraisal is pro-Quaker in many ways [such that if we had a system of Soviet-style identity-passports demanding an ethnocultural-religious affiliation be printed on the ID, and if “Quaker” were one of the options, I expect Jared W. might choose that]. By the circa-2010 period, Jared W. had an active interest in Buddhist teachings and an interest in engaging in an on-again-off-again study of Buddhism in Korea. His enthusiasm for the study of the thing, and for the study of much else in Korea, was inspiring to me at the time.

In Jared W., I am tempted to see a small-scale parallel with Gene Smith’s life and work. Given how much his fans praise Gene Smith, let the comparison alone be considered praise for Jared W.)


To return to the Buddhist Digital Resource Center’s current head, Jann Ronis. As I say, he was the speaker at the talk whose contents I am here summarizing and commenting upon. Jann Ronis, the Zen-looking man, didn’t say much about himself. But it is clear enough from his bio that he got interested in Buddhism in the 1990s in his student days.

To make a few light assumptions of my own, Jann Ronis may see the 1999/2000 founding of the TBRC/BDRC organization, by the lama-like E. Gene Smith, as part of his (Ronis’) own life-mission and special path. Ronis took over in 2018. He treats Gene Smith with the kind of veneration as usually given to great religious teachers.

Jann Ronis didn’t say whether he is himself a Buddhist. I’d guess that he is. I had sudden occasion to wonder if he is a Buddhist upon hearing him use a certain specific phrase. It was “God forbid.” As in, “God forbid but if there were a fire in such-and-such archive in Mongolia with a total loss, we’ll have preserved x% of their materials so far.” Would a Buddhist use the phrase “God forbid”? I don’t know. I’m thinking a true Buddhist wouldn’t get too hung up about it, though.


That the Gene Smith fans — including his successor in the TBRC/BDRC, JannRonis — are so reverential of the man also reminds of one of the few criticisms I’ve heard people make of Buddhism, or of Tibetan Buddhism specifically: the tendency (critics say) towards priestly aristocracy which creates an inevitable tendency towards ‘authoritarianism.’ I am sure the pro-Tibetan Buddhism people out there will deny this charge. But, traditionally, we of the Protestant world often claim it as one of our triumphs that we came up with the “priesthood of all believers” doctrine, and are traditionally suspicious of priestly aristocracies.

To even suggest that political-autocracy embedded in Buddhism sounds half-absurd given the wholesome image of Buddhism in the Western imagination in our time. But good authority has it that Old Tibet was a fairly called a theocracy.

A politicized version of Buddhism also fits with what I know of religio-political history in Korea. One motivation for the coup and regime upheaval in 1390s Korea, in which disgruntled elements of  the elite overturned the Koryo Dynasty, was to weaken the power of the Buddhist priesthood. The new dynasty (which came to be nicknamed “Chosun,” under the ruling Yi family) so distrusted the Buddhists priesthood that monks were for centuries banned from entering the capital except with special royal permission, and Buddhist temples were removed from the cities and regrouped in the mountains.


Although the TBRCBDRC had a “digital” focus from the start (1999/2000),at first it seems there was still a great degree of analog preservation, too. The analog preservation techniques that Gene Smith and others had been doing, practicing, mastering, innovating, improving, for years. One scene from the old days shows sturdy old hard-bound books of a special kind of long rectangular length that held multiple pages of Buddhist texts on each page, far sturdier than the originals.

Scales were tipped decisively towards the “digital” by the mid-2010s. It was at a board meeting in 2015 that the organization vote to re-name and re-focus, in fact a bow to the shifts already well underway:

(1.) A wider range than the previous Tibet focus. The new places of special focus as of 2023 are in Southeast Asia and Mongolia.

(2.) A shift to focus much more (entirely?) on the digital side of preservation which includes the effort to make material widely accessible in the ways I’ve already mentioned.  From what I understood the analog is now totally de-emphasized, which is troubling. I have a vision of possible huge losses of accumulated material on the Internet.

In any case, the two changes in focus yielded the name change from “Tibetan Buddhist Recourse Center” to “Buddhist Digital Resource Center,” effective 2016, as I’ve already mentioned.

The website of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center is:


The speaker did not once mention the word “Korea” in more than an hour. Later I poked around to see what, if anything, related to Korea appears on the site. I find nothing. The vast contents of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center include nothing on Korea, at least nothing easily searchable. If there is any reference, it must be in one of those old scripts that would need annotation to understand to someone like me.

Korea’s significant Buddhist heritage: even though things have leaned anti-Buddhist for many centuries now, it never fully went away. It’s there. A lot of old Buddhist texts are around (and modern Korean youths, young adults, and mid-age adults cannot even begin to read these historical texts, the same problem we all have with the Tibetan texts).

What do we make of the total absence of Korea from the Buddhist Digital Resource Center? My first thought is this: South Koreans very likely have done things like this already. Ever since they got it in their minds that they were a leading digital society, they have had a (perhaps-unhealthy) passion for doing things like this, and there is no pressing need to duplicate efforts. Gene Smith’s and his successors’ vision was to give a helping hand to those without the wherewithal to get such tasks done themselves, especially Gene Smith’s beloved Tibet.

There is one single mention of the word “Korea: on It is the profile-page of a certain board member, Ted Lipman. This man s said to be the former Canadian ambassador “to North and South Korea,” serving ca.2007 to 2011.

In the 2010s, Ted Lipman, as apparently sole link to Korea in the BDRC organization, had ties to the Korean Studies department of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. If BDRC ever had any Korea ties, actual or potential, maybe the key figures involved (or “not involved,” as it were, if nothing ever happened) were at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

(Vancouver. That is one of the places to which Koreans with diasporic ambitions are known to aspire to live, if they can make it happen. I have known a few with such ambitions, those who talked of it and those who had managed periods of time of residence there. I know of one or two Koreans, whom I knew a bit in 2010s South Korea, who are now living in or near Vancouver indefinitely. It is my understanding that Greater Vancouver is now all-but locked-in for having a resident-population majority with ancestral ties to Asia, and already today has more ancestral connection to Asia than to Europe. This probably explains the Korean preference for the place. The Asian outright-majority may be reality before this decade is out. Wiki-editors have the the population-stock in Greater Vancouver as of 2021 at: 43% White-European, 31% East-and-Southeast Asian, 14% South Asian, 2% Indigenous, 10% Other, incl. Multiracial and specific not-otherwise-classified groups. There were certainly many Buddhists among this new population mix, but probably the usual kind of strong tendency towards Christianity among a certain type of Western-oriented Asian.)


Another thing I learned in the talk about the Buddhist Digital Resource Center was that founder E. Gene Smith was a mentor to someone later named by Time magazine “The World’s Happiest Man.” This 1970s-era mentee was a certain white-European convert to Buddhism. His name was, and is, Matthieu Ricard (b.1947).

The speaker showed this man, Matthieu Ricard, in a 1970s photograph. He was a thin, honest-looking fellow in typical Western garb, with typical long hair typical of the period. He flanked Gene Smith as if he were one of the latter’s lieutenant (which it seems he was).

If you google-around for terms like “World’s Happiest Man” or the name “Matthieu Ricard,” you’ll find the same man in more recent times: older, head shaved, often with a half-grin, clad in Tibetan-Buddhist garb. Dubious-sounding claims are made to this effect: The world’s best available brain scans proved this man’s brain to be the happiest ever measured in a laboratory, especially during meditation.


Two books have recently been produced related to the things I’ve been mentioning her:

One is Digital Dharma: Recovering Wisdom. That book tells of the workings of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center, and its work on Buddhist texts. The book is, I presume, a more careful, accurate, and detailed treatment of the subject than the one I have given here. My account is merely based on what I heard in the talk (plus some “your-mileage-may-vary” sidebar-thoughts of my own).

The other book, very recently published, is as a biography of E. Gene Smith. This one was written in Tibetan.

The Smith biography was “launched” in the USA. I presume that is because PRC-China, with its commitment to anti-nationalism in Tibet, doesn’t allow these groups to operate freely there. Gene Smith was an American, but the biography is not available in English! Maybe later someone will so kind as to translate it. This book’s title, translated into English, is: White Lotus: The Tibetan Biography of Gene Smith (2023).

There is an element of Tibetan-nationalism, at least a “subtext” of it, involved in all of this. It was not mentioned directly, and a total neophyte might miss much of this.

It seems that Gene Smith got involved in these things right about the time that Tibet fell under PRC-China’s full control in 1959. That is the year China deposed Tibet’s native government.

As far as I know the whole “fall of Tibet” story (which is only a surface-level knowledge), a panic in the Western world resulted that had about a century’s worth of precedent by that point, in which Westerners wanted to help save traditional cultures in the East Asian cultural sphere. In 1959 and holding strong in the 1960s, the rhetoric was that “the Communists” were intent on stamping out, with malice aforethought, the beautiful-and-ancient religion of Tibetan Buddhism. A main weapon was depositing non-Buddhist migrants into Tibet to undermine the local position. In later eras, the whole Free Tibet movement, recognizable from so many bumperstickers, had a similar attitude if a very different tone.

I guess the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center is contextualizable within these milieus (or milieux, if you must). That the E. Gene Smith full-length biography has been produced and released only in Tibetan is an implicit flag-planting for Tibetan nationalism (and its allies and backers).

I also notice that the Buddhist Digital Resource Center’s website offers three language-options for navigating the site: English, Tibetan, and “Simplified Chinese” (the PRC-Chinese script). It seems they are in the middle of adding a fourth: Khmer. That one reflects their new expansion into Cambodia.