February 20, 2011

Champion of the Tibetan Literary Canon dies. ~ Chloe Chatenever

E. Gene Smith with the Dalai Lama

Spirituality and technology have long been thought of as fundamentally at odds with each other. It is only very recently that people have slowly begun to recognize the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship between the two.

The late E. Gene Smith saw this potential many years ago, and didn’t waste any time acting on it. In 1999, while the rest of us were still trying to figure out exactly what a blog even was, he set to work digitizing his collection of 12,000 Tibetan spiritual texts. And in 2008, he traveled to monasteries scattered throughout the foothills of the Himalayas, delivering each one with a portable hard drive that contained 10,000 volumes of seminal Tibetan spiritual literature.

Smith began amassing his library of Tibetan literature (which would eventually become the largest in the world) after completing his studies in 1964 at the University of Washington. Having initially chosen to study Tibetan because students of lesser-known languages were able to avoid the draft, Smith quickly developed an interest in Buddhism, eventually earning a Ph.D. under the guidance of the Venerable Deshung Rinpoche.

Frustrated by the lack of texts available in his field, he began travelling extensively through Asia, painstakingly locating and collecting works of Tibetan literature. Many of these texts had been smuggled out of Tibet by refugees during the Chinese invasion and occupation.

“The idea is to deliver the tradition back to the owners of the traditions,” Smith explained to Mandala magazine in 2001.

In Smith, a passion for language and literature met shrewd business chops. He utilized an American food-aide program called Public Law 480, under which developing countries could buy surplus wheat from the US using their own local currency. The profts would then be reinvested in local humanitarian projects. Smith secured some of the money designated for redistribution to fund the re-publishing of the Tibetan canon.

In 1999, he founded the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center. The TBRC was designed to dramatically increase the number of people who could access Smith’s extensive library by digitizing the works he had spent his life collecting. By the time of his death, Smith had overseen the scanning and online publishing of seven million pages of text. All of them are available on the center’s website, which receives 3,000 visitors per day.

Those who knew E. Gene Smith remember his encyclopedic knowledge, the passion that fueled his life-long dedication to reincarnating Tibetan literature, and his extremely humble nature.

He is the subject of Digital Dharma, a documentary currently in production. Watch the trailer here.

Links to:
Obituary in The Economist
Obituary in the NY Times
Obituary in the Telegraph
Obituary in the Washington Post

Chloe Chatenever lives in Boulder, CO where she is interning with elephantjournal.com and Sweet Letter Press. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz where she earned her Bachelor’s in Modern Literary Studies. She likes to spend her free time traveling, singing in her car, and playing board games. She also thinks penguins are pretty cool.

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