Replication is at the heart of life. The genetic information encoded in our DNA allows new life to be passed along and to evolve. Children learn through imitation. And the copying of written information allows us to build on the past and make knowledge accessible. Gutenberg turned a wine press into a vehicle for individual enlightenment.
E. Gene Smith, a scholar of Tibetan literature and the subject of an intriguing new documentary, was a highly original hero – of the copy. At his death in 2010, he left behind a single volume of essays, but an enormous lifework: the preservation and reproduction of tens of thousands of rare, seminal Tibetan texts from a canon integral to the history of Buddhism. In an age when information seems quick, easy and even expendable, the film Digital Dharma should make us think carefully about technology’s relationship to replication in our post-analog lives.
As a lanky young man with a flair for languages, Smith was earning a PhD at the University of Washington in the early 1960s when he became a student of Tibetan lama and refugee, Dezhung Rinpoche. But Smith’s studies were stymied by a lack of texts. The country’s astonishing canon was imperiled first by the Chinese occupation and later the Cultural Revolution, when monasteries, libraries and books collections were destroyed in huge numbers.
The destruction wasn’t merely symbolic. Most often, no other copy existed when a Tibetan text went up in flames. Even into the 20th century, Tibet had no printing presses, so texts consisted of hand-lettered manuscripts or books printed from carved wooden blocks. Moreover, the texts themselves are crucial to world history. Tibet is one of four languages in which the Buddhist canon – or dharma – is preserved, and the country’s vibrant literature as a whole reflects its place as a crossroads of Asia. The losses were akin to the destruction of the library at Alexandria.
Enter Smith, a Mormon-turned-Buddhist who began a personal, decades long quest to search and recover and then print copies of thousands of Tibetan books and texts. Working for the Library of Congress from New Delhi beginning in the 1960s, he traveled tirelessly across India, Nepal and Bhutan to find texts that refugees were hiding, then found ways to use U.S. aid to fund the printing of new copies. With velvet guile, he navigated Cold War and Sino-Tibetan politics, always placing the books – not human differences – at the center of his quest. “The idea is to deliver the tradition back to the owners of the traditions,” he told the Buddhist magazine Mandala in 2001.
Smith’s vast publishing efforts, however, didn’t stop at the printed page. The movie climaxes with his late-life efforts to digitize the vast collection he accumulated at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, and his 2008 travels back to Nepal and India to give exiled Tibetan monks laptops and hard drives containing their own monasteries’ sacred, now-digitized collections. The monks were ecstatic. In the film, one beaming abbot wears a pouch around his neck containing a flashdrive that Smith mischievously told him was an “amulet.” Is this the magic of technology? At the first joyous monk-meets-computer moment, the audience at the film’s July 25 New York premiere burst into applause.
The story seemingly ends there. But digitizing isn’t a magic solution. The laptops will need upgrades, the flashdrives must be updated, and digital media is more fragile than we often imagine. We must offer as much curatorial care to a digital canon as we should to the vast and still-important treasures of our print age. As well, the speed and invisibility of the digital neatly hides the truth of entropy. Just as our genes mutate, our traditions evolve, and our stories change, so too a digitized canon will shift little by little in the making. (Just peek at Google Books, with its typos and missing pages, to see that copying is never perfect.) Just as our ability to see the world is a construction – our vision is interpreted by our minds – so too the handing down any bits of culture for the future is a building, a choosing, an incremental shoring up.
Today, we too often believe that technology neatly solves a problem when in reality, technology merely shifts the nature of the challenges before us. I have no doubt that the inestimable Gene Smith deeply understood this. But do we, as consumers, producers and curators of the new canons of our age, understand what we are doing? Perhaps we should copy and paste a little less often, and think about knowledge a little bit more. Gene Smith’s vision will be missed.
The film, directed by Dafna Yachin, will be screened August 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 and September 5 at the Rubin Museum in New York; as well as August 17-23 at the DocuWeeks film festival in New York, and August 10-16 at DocuWeeks Los Angeles.