The Newsletter 79 Spring 2018

Digital Buddhology

Di Luo

Buddhist studies in the digital age is faced with immense opportunities, challenges, and problems both old and new. By using the word ‘Buddhology’, we encourage readers to think of not only text-based Buddhist studies but a cross-disciplinary field where art, architecture, and material culture are an integral part of the term in question.

In this issue’s ‘China Connections’, we invite readers to look at the exciting development of digital Buddhology in present-day China. Highlighted here are recent digitization projects by Peking University, Zhejiang University, and the research institutes at the world heritage sites of Dunhuang, Yungang, Longmen, and Dazu, some involving international collaborations such as with the Getty Center and Harvard University.

Conservators, researchers, curators, and educators from around the world work toward the common aim of preserving Buddhist cultural heritage – texts, images, objects, monuments, and entire sites – by exploring and adopting, all the while pushing the forefront of, digital technologies. Contributors of this issue demonstrate how Buddhist canonical work and manuscripts in multiple languages and media have been made available through open-access online databases; how Buddhist monasteries and their ancient wooden buildings and century-old murals are recorded and experienced through Virtual Reality; and how rock-cut cave temples with their monumental statues are captured using laser-scanning or photogrammetry and reconstructed for conservation as well as education purposes. The benefits of the application of digital tools are immediate, certain, and manifold: they make quick and precise documentation, allow (in some instances) for a greater accessibility to and searchability of Buddhist materials, and provide excellent research and educational materials.

The very practice of digitization forces us to reconsider the very meaning and significance of the ‘cultural heritage’ itself. Concerns have been made as to how much a digitally recorded or reconstructed piece of work can be considered an extension to that heritage and the protection thereof, while much of the ‘aura’ of the original has been lost during the process of digitization. On the other hand, some have advocated for the ‘digital life’ or ‘digital afterlife’ of Buddhist art and architecture, as Buddhist practitioners actively engage themselves with all kinds of digital tools and platforms in their religious routines. We hope that you find some answers, but more importantly further questions, from the five essays presented in the following.

Di Luo is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Global Asia, NYU Shanghai (