Buddhist Discussion Mail Lists: Reflections on Prior Developments and a Proposal for the Creation of a New Kind of Buddhism Discussion List
A. Charles Muller
January 19, 2002
Table of Contents
|2.||The First Models: BUDDHIST and BUDDHA-L|
|3.||Personal Observations on BUDDHA-L|
|4.||My Turn as Moderator: ZenBuddhism|
|7.||Principles for the Operation of the List|
|8.||Dumping Yahoo's Commercials and the Move to H-Net|
|9.||Proposal for a New Buddhist Discussion List|
|10.||APPENDIX I: Original BUDDHA-L Announcement (sent out in November 1991)|
|11.||APPENDIX 2. STATEMENT OF INTENT OF BUDDHIST@LISTS.MCGILL.CA (sent out in April 1998)|
Although it has now been over a decade since the appearance of the first public e-mail discussion lists that dealt with Buddhism, the advancement in the number and sophistication of such lists over this period has not been that significant, especially as compared with developments on the HTML side of the Internet. Indeed, among Buddhism-oriented studies e-mail lists, there have been far more failures than successes.
That many lists have already come and gone can be attributed mainly to the fact that those who first took it upon themselves to establish Buddhist studies related mail lists were working in uncharted territory. The field of Buddhist Studies had its own special complexities in terms of list membership and posting content, since the problems inherent in the disparity between expert and non-expert, which face any academic list, were compounded by the opposing tensions to be seen between practitioners, whose basic perspective is that of faith, and scholars, whose orientation, especially in the modern West, is largely positivistic and critical.
2. The First Models: BUDDHIST and BUDDHA-L
The only real field-wide list for scholars of Buddhism for most of the past decade has been BUDDHA-L, administered by Richard Hayes of McGill University. Originating during the early nineties, it continues to serve a valuable function today, with a membership of over 800 persons. In response to my request in connection with the composition of the present essay, Prof. Hayes kindly took the time to write a brief history of that list, which goes as follows:
BUDDHA-L was founded in October 1991 as a spin-off of the BUDDHIST forum, the original address of which was buddhist@jpntohok. The BUDDHIST forum, I have heard, was originally founded in the 1980's as a means of enabling Japanese scholars who were working on the Lotus Sutra to communicate while working on a joint project. When the Lotus Sutra project was finished, the forum was opened up to a wider academic public. By the early 1990s, most of the subscribers were in the United States, with only a minority of them being scholars specializing in Buddhist studies. The BUDDHIST list was unmoderated and was not well maintained, so the quality of discussion was uneven, and the list unpredictably went down from time to time.
In September of 1991, a series of computer mishaps at its original host institution led to the list closing for about six weeks. During the time the BUDDHIST list was down, several of its subscribers got in touch with one another and began discussing the possibility of founding a new list. After some discussion it was decided that the new list would be primarily for academic specialists in Buddhist studies and that it would be moderated [This list was named BUDDHA-L]. 1 Jim Cocks of the computer center at University of Louisville took care of the technical details of founding the list, and Richard Hayes of McGill University took responsibility for recruiting members and moderating the discussions. Cocks and Hayes have been co-owners and moderators of the list ever since it was founded. It was originally assumed that the membership would level at around 30 subscribers. To everyone's surprise, the number of subscribers rose rapidly to over 600 and remained at that level for many years. In recent years it has grown slowly to its present size of just over 800 subscribers.
Although the original mandate of BUDDHA-L was to be a forum for the discussion of the academic teaching and research of Buddhism, it has never been limited to purely academic discussion. While most of the early discussants were academics in Buddhist studies, discussions tended to be much wider than the originally announced intention of keeping focused on matters of curriculum and graduate thesis supervision. Many scholars who were on the original subscription list were also practicing Buddhists who evidently wished to work out their own relationship to and understanding of Buddhism as much as they wished to discuss how to teach Buddhism in the classroom.
Spirited debates among "scholar-practitioners" and between academics and non-academic Buddhist practitioners were common in the early years of BUDDHA-L. Only in recent years have the discussions tended to keep within the original description of the list as announced at the beginning. The list is still more discussion oriented than information oriented, but discussions have tended to be much tamer and less intense and drawn out than in the early years. 2
Many English speakers in the field of Buddhist studies who have been on the Internet for a while have subscribed to BUDDHA-L at one time or another.
3. Personal Observations on BUDDHA-L
I signed on to BUDDHA-L in 1995, remaining on the list until 1998. Although appreciating the need for this kind of list, and admiring Hayes' unstinting efforts in both stimulating and moderating discussion, I began to realize that BUDDHA-L did not really provide what I was personally looking for in a scholarly e-mail forum. I was seeking access to the largest possible number of people teaching and doing research on Buddhism at universities and research institutes. This was especially important to me as a developer of on-line research oriented resources—both to receive and transmit information. Although BUDDHA-L was clearly a list with scholarly orientation, the percentage of my colleagues in the field who subscribed to this list was actually quite low.
Over time I also began to grow weary of the character of the discussions themselves. 3 The main reasons for this were:
Eventually I came to the conclusion that the time I was spending dealing with the messages from BUDDHA-L was not worth it, and I unsubscribed. But once again, to duly credit Prof. Hayes, there are several hundred people out there who have continued to find this list quite satisfactory for their needs. Indeed, at present, there is no real substitute for those who seek to engage in academic discussion of Buddhist issues.
4. My Turn as Moderator: ZenBuddhism
During approximately the same period that I was on BUDDHA-L, I became involved with the ZenBuddhism list, which was founded and owned by Matthew Ciolek of Australian National University. Dr. Ciolek, a Zen practitioner whose area of expertise lies outside of Buddhist studies, started this list with the intention of creating a scholarly alternative to the plethora of practice-oriented Zen lists on the Internet that were, to put it bluntly, totally off the wall. Although ZenBuddhism was intended to be academic in nature, there were no specific criteria for subscribing, and so the list was populated by a wide range of people. Among these were a handful of accredited scholars, a number of mature, balanced Zen teachers, and a sizeable contingent of sincere and humble individuals who were looking to learn something about Zen.
Unfortunately, the list also became infested by a number of individuals who apparently considered themselves to be enlightened, or at least far closer to enlightenment than the rest of us, and who felt it was their duty to disrupt our discussions in order to show us what Zen really was. When a rich intellectual discussion of a seminal point would begin to develop, some self-designated imitator of Linji would invariably shout a kōan at us, to make the point that intellectual discussion of Zen was a heretical activity.
Ciolek, as the moderator, was uneven in his handling of these posts. Sometimes he would forward them to the list, and sometimes he would reject them, and from time to time he would kick people off the list without explanation. I began to intercede here and there, pleading for a "middle path" approach on the part of both the listowner and the subscribers. In time, Matthew asked me to assume the list's moderatorship.
Taking this as an opportunity to see what kind of sober-minded discourse about Zen might be created in such an environment, I took up this task in earnest, initiating a "Zen Studies" series, wherein once or twice a week I would introduce a basic Buddhist concept, and guide the discussions that developed. This series became extremely popular with the subscriber base, and I received a steady stream of messages of appreciation from practitioners, Zen teachers, and scholars around the globe. I moderated this list with two main assumptions as grounding principles:
In view of the fact that our medium of communication was an e-mail discussion list, rather than the confines of a Zendo, there was, as far as I could see, no other way to create edifying discussion. The majority of list members were delighted with this approach, and the generally high quality of discourse seen on that list for the next year or so is something that I look back on with some satisfaction.
However, this attempt at creating an environment for sober-minded discussion of Zen issues horrified many Zennists, who began to shout insulting remarks to the list and myself via e-mail (for the first time, I got a real feel for what American Zen truly is!). Since I had no control over subscriptions, there was no way to get rid of these people. Matthew, for his part, began to be uncomfortable with the heightened of traffic on the list. Realizing that this was, in the end, his list, and that it would be impossible to push it in the direction I wanted without full control, I bailed out, letting go of the moderatorship and terminating my membership in the list. 4
5. Interim Reflections
I ended my involvement in BUDDHA-L and ZenBuddhism at about the same time. During the same period I also terminated my subscriptions with a number of other lists of similar character, including the Chinese Philosophy list, the Daoism list, and one or two other dharma-type lists on which I had been lurking. It was not that I believed that philosophy/religion mail lists were inherently flawed; I just couldn't find one that was run the way I wanted.
I also belonged to a couple of technical lists, and scholarly lists that covered area studies, history, and so forth. These lists, even when disagreement occurred, were never plagued by the kind of raving, nonsense, emotion, and irrationality that were part and parcel of the Buddhism lists. Moderators of Buddhism-related lists (and certain other religion lists) with their sliding range of practitioners and scholars, were faced with an extra set of problems beyond those that would be seen on, say, a computer-related list, or an area studies list. 5
I also learned valuable lessons from such lists as Chinese Philosophy and Daoism, which were born, grew into great activity, and almost overnight, collapsed. On the Daoism list, no one ever really took up the mantle to stimulate or temper discussion. The Chinese Philosophy list (an unmoderated list) became quite active for a period of time, but after one particularly nasty episode, wherein, for a few days running, one articulate American scholar heaped rude insults on a German academic who was clearly at a linguistic handicap, the list died.
I concluded from these observations that no list in our field could ever have a chance of success without strict and careful moderation. I also came to believe that scholars who subscribed to these philosophy/religion lists could be divided into a few basic types: (1) those who enjoyed, if not at the level of personal engagement, at least as spectators, spirited discussion of issues; (2) those whose purpose for subscribing to such lists was purely for access to information, to have a means of being in contact with their peers, and who had no interest in joining or observing online debates and discussions; (3) an in-between type of scholar who might tolerate, and perhaps even participate in online debate if it were carried out in a rigorous and disciplined format. My assumption was that the virtually all scholars in my field sought information and peer contact, regardless of whether or not they were interested in discussion. Therefore, if one wanted to create a network that would gather the largest amount of scholars possible, one would have to start with a strictly information-oriented list, where discussion would be kept to minimum.
6. Making Budschol
During the year or so after my exit from all Buddhism and philosophy/religion lists, I continued to work hard at the development of my online dictionary of Buddhist terms, along with becoming deeply involved with the administrators of a number of digital Buddhist projects through the Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative. I had compiled, over time, a list of the e-mail addresses of 60 or so of my closer colleagues: mostly East Asianists and people who were interested in digital resources. I would send this group regular announcements regarding my dictionaries, or other important developments in digital resources for Buddhist Studies. As my posts became more frequent, I began to consider the idea of trying to automate the process. The do-it-yourself online e-mail list had begun to appear, wherein one could create his/her own mail list in a moment. I created such a list, named Budschol ("Buddhist Scholars") on the OneList service, and on May 14, 1999, sent the following message out to sixty colleagues:
I am writing today to invite you to join a mail list devoted solely to the communication of information between accredited scholars of Buddhism.
The Buddhist Scholars Information Network (Budschol) has been created to serve as a medium for the exchange of information regarding resources, events, projects, publications, job listings, and so forth, among the worldwide Buddhist scholarly community. The primary purpose of the list is to serve as a means for accredited scholars to keep in touch with each other regarding the most recent developments, without getting a mountain of e-mail every day. Therefore, it is not a "discussion" list, but is instead, a bulletin board oriented information service. Membership is restricted, being limited to those who hold an advanced degree in Buddhist studies, or who are currently enrolled in an advanced degree program. You can subscribe by....
The following day, fifty-eight people had subscribed, and the remaining two signed up the day after. Encouraged by this, I spent a few weeks actively seeking out and inviting other Buddhologists, and within a month, the list had approximately 150 subscribers.
In order to establish the right atmosphere for Budschol, I expended a considerable amount of energy at the beginning in searching out and supplying various kinds of information related to jobs, conferences, newly published books and journals, etc. Soon, to my delight, a few other list members began to help by contributing the same type of information. Budschol had taken off.
At first, some subscribers were not prepared for the kind of austere atmosphere I sought for the list, and suggested that I broaden its scope to include more discussion, humor, and so forth. But the majority of members had apparently found the concise character of Budschol to be exactly what they were looking for, and a steady flow of messages of appreciation and encouragement helped me to stay the course.
Though the task of moderating became heavier in terms of volume, it did not take long before there were very few posts that had to be rejected for content problems. More and more people began to contribute information and pose serious and useful queries. The reputation of the list spread without active promotion on my part, and the subscriber base continued to grow. Editors from quality publishers of Buddhist studies related books, such as the University of Hawai`i Press, SUNY Press, Wisdom, and Curzon posted announcements to the list, thus solidly supplementing the quality of our content.
As the list grew, it became difficult for me to handle all the administrative tasks along with the growing number of messages, so I asked for help in the task of moderating. Three capable volunteers came forth who understood Budschol's raison d'etre 6 In May of 2001, two years after its inception, Budschol had approximately 400 members. What is remarkable about this statistic is that except for about ten special cases (representatives from publishing houses and independent scholars), every one of these members are holders of advanced degrees in a field related to Buddhist Studies, or currently enrolled in advanced degree programs. Over almost three years, there have not even been ten unsubscribes from the list, a statistic that I think would astound most listserv owners.
7. Principles for the Operation of the List
Thus, Budschol can be seen, I think, as an eminently successful mail list, given the difficulties inherent in trying to keep several hundred Buddhologists on line in one group. But the keys are fairly simple. Most important is the strict regulation of membership. The level of discourse of e-mail lists inevitably fall to the level of the least common denominator. If you want to have specialist-level discourse, the list has to be limited to specialists, period. 7
The second main component for the success of the list is a strict moderating policy. 8 Posts on the list are limited to information regarding academic resources, new research projects, scholarly publications, university job listings, and so forth, for specialists in Buddhist Studies who are currently affiliated with academic institutions. General discussions of issues regarding Buddhism as a religion, philosophy, practice, or lifestyle are not initiated. Disagreements over the facticity of a statement made by another list member may be stated, and such objections may again be countered one time by any discussant. But extended debates are recommended to be pursued offline. Having established this as the list's atmosphere, almost all members understand and are happy to abide by this—to the extent that the moderators are occasionally chastised by list members when they slip up on maintaining these principles.
8. Dumping Yahoo's Commercials and the Move to H-Net
Budschol originally started up with a small list hosting company called OneList, which gave us pretty good human service, with a minimum of advertisement and little forced submission of personal information. OneList was soon bought out by EGroups, which was in turn absorbed into Yahoo. With each move, service got worse (actually, with Yahoo, support became non-existent), and the commercialism increased, such that our web site was filled with ugly banner ads, and list members who wished to search the archives were forced to submit an unreasonable amount of personal information to the Yahoo customer database.
I was initially planning to remedy this problem by setting up a private listserv program on my university server. But having been a subscriber to H-Net lists for a number of years, I decided to take a look at what they had to offer. After some investigation, I came to the conclusion that H-Net was the perfect host for our list. H-Net's aims of establishing a solid, professional, academic, peer-reviewed information network were exactly fitting to those of Budschol. H-Net offered well-tested listserv functionality, attractive web site creation, and a solid training and support system for list editors. What attracted me the most, however, was the H-Net book review system.
Book reviews are something that I always felt would be an optimum object for the e-mail medium, and I had made a number of attempts to generate some interest in producing book reviews on Budschol, but to no avail. Without an office to handle and distribute the books and reviews, and without the list having some kind of pre-established status as a book review organ, it was difficult to initiate such a system. H-Net had been doing it for years, providing an office, means of distribution, and even copyediting. So given the many positive aspects of H-Net, I applied for the creation of a list under their auspices. In August of 2001, Budschol moved to its new host, renamed as H-Buddhism.
The move to H-Net brought our list a new level of visibility, and so we experienced a sharp increase in our membership (now approximately 490). But this new level of visibility also exacerbated the problem of requests for membership from non-specialists. During the first month, for every application accepted, I had to turn down three or four. Many of these people, often PhD holders from other fields, were mature, educated persons with deep personal experience in Buddhist practice, and were shocked at being rejected (despite my best attempts at writing a polite letter of explanation), and I received many bitter complaints.
The need to exclude intelligent and sincere persons with a strong interest in learning about Buddhism has disturbed me since the earliest days of Budschol, since, if possible, I would like to provide access to information to non-specialists as well. Indeed, my previous work on the ZenBuddhism list was almost completely opposite in character from that seen on H-Buddhism, as it was intended to promote discussion of Buddhist topics in an informed, edifying manner with discussion, debate, question and answer, open to all who sincerely wanted to learn.
The creation of Budschol/H-Buddhism did not represent an abandonment of that dream. I just came to the conclusion that no significant accomplishment for Buddhist Studies in the e-mail medium could be obtained without first gathering a solid body of experts. My larger vision, from the start, has been the eventual creation of two related, but different kinds of lists: one that is information-oriented, populated almost exclusively by scholars, with restricted membership and posting policies; the other list would be discussion oriented, have open membership, and promote extensive, yet clearly directed discussion.
9. Proposal for a New Buddhist Discussion List
The creation of a strictly information-oriented list for scholars, although requiring work, was not unduly complicated, once its parameters were defined. The prospect of creating a Buddhist Studies discussion list that has a large number of specialist scholars is something far more complex. Nonetheless, I am convinced that it can be done, as long as the right guidelines are established from the start. First, regarding the basic parameters for discussion itself:
The above four principles are the general principles to govern the character of the discussion. In terms of the specific format for a new type of Buddhist discussion list, I envision the following structure:
The key needs for this list are (1) a fine-tuned listserv setup with an easy-to-use web interface to facilitate mail/nomail switches. For the list members, the ease of use of this interface has to be equivalent that of turning one's TV on and off. Given the unusual number of subscribers who would be coming in and out, the list's staff cannot afford to be bogged down in subscription related work. (2) a team of dedicated and knowledgeable staff—primarily moderators—who understand the goals of the project and know how to handle a wide range of input from list members. Enough people should be gathered so that they could work in shifts, perhaps serving as moderator during one discussion session, and then resting for two or three. Of course, to provide for these kinds of needs, some sort of institutional support would be extremely helpful. I am convinced that this type of list is not only viable, but that given the rapidly rising interest in Buddhism in the West, that it could turn into an incredible success.
10. APPENDIX I: Original BUDDHA-L Announcement (sent out in November 1991)
NEW DISCUSSION GROUP FOR SCHOLARS OF BUDDHISM: An electronic discussion group called BUDDHA-L has recently been formed towards the end of providing a means for those interested in Buddhist Studies to exchange information and views. It is hoped that the group will function as an open forum for scholarly discussion of topics relating to the history, literature and languages, fine arts, philosophy, and institutions of all forms of Buddhism. It may also serve as a forum for discussion of issues connected to the teaching of Buddhist studies at the university level, and as a place for posting notices of employment opportunities.
The primary purpose of this list is to provide a forum for serious academic discussion. It is open to all persons inside and outside the academic context who wish to engage in substantial discussion of topics relating to Buddhism and Buddhist studies. BUDDHA-L is not to be used for proselytizing for or against Buddhism in general, any particular form of Buddhism, or any other religion or philosophy, nor is it to be used as a forum for making unsubstantiable confessions of personal conviction.
The discussion on the list is to be moderated, not in order to suppress or censor controversies on any topic, but rather to limit irrelevant discussions and idle chatter, and to redirect or return messages sent to the list by accident. Content or style will never be altered by the moderator, whose only responsibility will be to forward all appropriate postings to the list.
11. APPENDIX 2. STATEMENT OF INTENT OF BUDDHIST@LISTS.MCGILL.CA (sent out in April 1998)
BUDDHIST is a mailing list for the purpose of friendly discussion about Buddhism, its ideas, practice, development, and application. Posts should be directed to the list topic. Lively debate is welcome, but we aim for a deep concern both for the matter being discussed (for truth, if you like) and for those participating in the conversation. With this in mind, contributors to the list are expected to aim for quality rather than quantity of discourse, limiting the number of messages they post in any one day.
Subscribers are expected to use their public, legal names in their subscription. But there are no requirements of orthodoxy or accomplishment in order to participate. Therefore, what you read on BUDDHIST carries no warranty of truth, intelligence, or kindness. Judge for yourself what is well said, useful, and wholesome.
Should you have a problem with another subscriber's posts to the list, remember that you have a number of alternatives: you may reflect on your attitude and how their words affect you; you may discuss your concerns privately with the other subscriber, or publicly on the list; you may decide to stop reading posts by that subscriber; and you may contact the listowners, stating the problem as you see it.
The listowners are responsible for all facets of list administration, and may terminate or deny any subscription.
Paul Bellan-Boyer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Christopher Fynn (email@example.com)
1. Please see Appendix I for the original announcement of BUDDHA-L
2. Received by e-mail from Prof. Hayes on July 25, 2001. Hayes adds: “The BUDDHIST list, incidentally, still exists. It has now moved to McGill University, where it is maintained by Chris Fynn and Paul Bellan-Boyer, with technical help from Richard Hayes Its subscription list has steadily remained at around 250 members since 1990, although of the subscribers who were on the list in 1990, probably no more than five are still subscribers today.” (BUDDHIST's statement of intent is included in Appendix II).
3. My explanation of these points is intended in no way as a disparagement of the policies of BUDDHA-L, but merely as an indication of my own peculiar needs and interests. Also, the complaints that I air here are generally reflective of most discussion lists in this area, and not unique to BUDDHA-L.
4. The ZenBuddhism list, I am told, continued on for another year or so, but was shut down some time in 2000.
5. I found an interesting example in the Confucianism list, where list members demonstrated a natural air of civility and rationality, making the position of list moderator almost unnecessary. I have always taken this as an indication of an influence of the topic materials of their research.
6. The first three moderators on Budschol were Scott Hurley, Michelle Spuler, and Franz Metcalf. Later on, when the list transformed to H-Buddhism, Scott and Michelle moved on to devote their energies to other projects, but Franz is still doing his regular stint at the moderator's helm. The other slots have since been filled by Monika Dix and Shaul Katzenstein.
7. I have been repeatedly and severely disparaged in personal mail and on other e-mail forums as being the promoter of a form of Buddhological elitism. Indeed, I regularly receive requests for subscriptions from persons who are obviously educated, sensitive, and often steeped in a deep practical knowledge of the Buddhist tradition. It has been quite painful for me to turn these people away, but it is my conviction that a line has to be drawn somewhere, and I just don't know where else to draw it. I am convinced that if non-specialist, non-academics begin to join the list, they will eventually begin to say or ask things that are off-topic or too basic. The specialists, seeing this, will begin to exit the list. The suggestion has occasionally been made to grant membership to non-specialists on a non-posting basis. I have also rejected these requests for two reasons: (1) the creation of a second category of membership would complicate subscription handling, and (2) it is quite likely that these people, being unable to post to the list, would begin to write to scholar list members privately, asking for further information, and so forth. Thus, we have continued to hold the line on membership policy. The charge of elitism may seem to fit here, but those who understand my full intentions know that it does not apply, since the creation of this list has been for me, only one stage in larger plan to provide information on Buddhism to a much broader base of people.
8. The Moderator's Guidelines for H-Buddhism are available on request for those who are interested. They are a bit too lengthy to attach here as an appendix.