Buddhist Canonicities: Value and Evaluation in the Digital Age

On the Occasion of the New Publication of the Digital Tripitaka Koreana

Charles Muller, Toyo Gakuen University


Part I: Notes on the Formation of the East Asian Buddhist Canon


The Greek-originated term canon, first applied in the context of the assimilation of religious literature into the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible, has been used increasingly in our generation to refer to bodies of authoritative or paradigmatic secular literature. In recent times, the notion of canon has become a topic of hot discussion in the fields of literature in the West, as postmodern forms of analysis, led by deconstruction, have been used to interrogate arbitrarily imposed borders that delimit the secular canons. They have exposed a variety of long-used centrisms (phallocentrism, ethnocentrism, etc.) that have served to marginalize the works of those who have been placed, for one reason or another, outside of the power structures of the academy. Most importantly, postmodernist criticisms have sought to show the assumption of an "inherency" of value in classical works to be a myth perpetrated by the gatekeepers of the so-called traditional canon. While not all of the findings of this new trend in literary analysis are applicable to the development of the canons of clearly defined religious sects, there is nonetheless much that we can learn from their discourse, especially in relation to the development of future canons.

In the context of pre-modern East Asian philosophical literature, we use the term canon (and more importantly, its adjectival form of "canonical" meaning "authoritative") to translate the Sino-Korean concept of jing/gyeong , or diăn/jeon . The Eastern and Western concepts are quite close in connotation, since gyeong and jeon are used with reference to the "classical," in the sense of being standards by which literary/artistic value has been judged, and continues to be judged. The notion of a collection of canonical works brought together to form a single body is indicated in Sino-Korean with such terms as jang or jip , but these terms do not in themselves contain any special connotations of value. Also, in their meaning of "collections," they give no special connotations of "closure," and thus show a degree of difference from the scriptural corpora of Western religions. While the Torah and Bible have been set and closed for long over a millennium, the Buddhist canon is in theory, never sealed. Since it is understood in Buddhism, or at least in Mahāyāna Buddhism, that all sentient beings possess the capacity for enlightenment, the Buddhist canon can, and should, be continually added to.

The composition of the modern East Asian canon starts with the assembly of the tripitakas at the earliest Buddhist councils in India. The subsequent long history of philosophical developments in India and Central Asia during the next several centuries resulted in the formation of a massive body of literature from which texts would later be selected for translation into literary Chinese. The selection of texts for translation was influenced by a vast array of factors related to doctrine, political, social, and economic conditions, competing or analogous ideologies, literary quality, degree of accessibility, personal taste, and so forth. Indeed, the overall processes of canon formation are so numerous, subtle, interwoven and compounded that they almost defy analysis.

Nonetheless, there are certain important differences between a secular literary canon, which develops in a much less organized fashion, usually lacking a specific doctrinal principle and/or aims, as opposed to a religious canon, such as that of Buddhism. A religious canon must necessarily embody, adhere to, and express a well-defined set of principles. The determination of the canonicity of a religious text can, to a certain degree, be made based on the conformance of its content with a determinable mode of discourse, with less attention paid to its popularity, political leanings, economic constraints etc. But although their role is minimized, these other factors will never be completely absent.

The largest part of canon formation however, has nothing to do with formal rejection or acceptance by recognized authorities, but rather the durability and/or popularity of individual texts within their given environment. Their attainment of canonical status is, rather than being determined by a single authority, or authoritative body, determined by the flow of time and tide in itself. This view runs in opposition to the long-cherished assumption about canonical works—"classics"—that their attainment of authoritative status is directly due to their possession of some special "innate" value that exists largely independent of their environment. The traditionally held notion that texts gain canonicity due to inherent qualities was long taken for granted in the humanities fields (albeit often unconsciously), and even argued for directly in recent times by such influential scholars as Gadamer, who claimed that a work's attainment of "classical" status is due to its special ability to speak to us directly.1 In the world of postmodern analysis, such notions have become difficult to sustain. As Barbara Smith observes:

When we consider the cultural re-production of value on a larger time scale, the model of evaluative dynamics [...] suggests that the "survival" or "endurance" of a text -- and, it may be, its achievement of high canonical status not only as a "work of literature" but as a "classic" -- is the product neither of the objectively (in the Marxist sense) conspiratorial force of establishment institutions nor of the continuous appreciation of the timeless virtues of a fixed object by succeeding generations of isolated readers, but, rather, of a series of continuous interactions among a variably constituted object, emergent conditions, and mechanisms of cultural selection and transmission. (Smith, 30)

The selection of the Indic texts that were translated into Chinese was based first on decisions made by persons on the Indian/Central Asian side as to what works were most appropriate for the communication of the Buddhist doctrine to China. After gaining a basic understanding of Buddhism, the Chinese had some options for choosing texts that resonated with their own religious and philosophical tendencies. Thus, the sensibilities of both sides played a role. After this, there were a broad range of other social, political, and economic factors that went into the choice of translated texts.2

Within a few centuries, a large body of Buddhist texts began to accumulate in China, comprised not only of bona fide translations from Indic languages, but also pseudo-translations that were actually composed in China,3 and new Chinese treatises and commentaries. The need to separate the authentic Buddhist works from the chaff eventually became apparent to Buddhist scholars. In response to this need, a tradition of evaluation and standardization was initiated and pursued, starting from Daoan (312-385) and continuing up to Zhisheng (fl. 730)4 in China, who in turn provided the inspiration for such Korean scholars as Ŭich'ŏn 義天 (1055-1101) and Sugi 守其 (fl. 1230-1250). The cataloging work by these two scholars was done in connection with their position as editors to the first and second editions of the monumental new woodblock canon, the completion of which brought the East Asian Buddhist textual corpus into a defined format for the first time.

The reasons for the creation of this canon included factors such as the seeking of talismanic power for state-protection and other less soteriologically oriented concerns. But seen purely from the perspective of preservation and transmission of the Buddhist teachings, the creation of a woodblock canon offered two main advantages: (1) carving into wood brought the corpus a significantly higher measure of stability and durability; (2) the creation of woodblocks allowed for a dramatically enhanced potential for reproduction and dissemination. Not only could texts be copied and distributed a thousand times faster; they could be produced free of errors—a major advantage over hand copying.

At the same time, however, the creation of a woodblock canon on the scale of the Tripitaka Koreana brought a heretofore-unthought of degree of closure. Before this time, newer texts, or texts that were considered to be eccentric, heretical, etc., competed technologically on the same footing with authenticated works. From a certain perspective, we might say that the pre-printing press age bears a similarity to the digital age, in the sense that anyone who was sufficiently literate could pick up his or her brush and compose a religious text, and rest technologically on the same level as a recognized authority--in much the same way that anyone in the twenty-first century who is computer literate can compose a work and place it on a web site. While the creation of the printable canon dramatically transformed the technology for the dissemination of the texts that had been approved, it also created an unprecedented technological gap between included and excluded works. Thus, while it was created ostensibly for the purpose of enhanced dissemination of the buddha-dharma, the print canon at the same time brought with it a pronounced measure of closure. Canonization took on the aspect that has been observed by Gerald Bruns:

[F]rom the technical standpoint of literary or textual criticism, with its special concern for the final form of documents, canonization frequently refers simply to an official closing and fixing of texts in a form that is declared to be authoritative (for whatever particular tradition) against all prior, competing, eccentric, and subsequent books and versions." (Bruns, 66).

The creation of type printing marked the beginning of a new age not only for Buddhism, but also for scholarly and literary pursuits in general. The complex process of having a work carved into wood, or set into type, created an economic and technological hurdle, which necessitated the development of rationalized evaluative processes. Once a text had surmounted this hurdle, it was ensured placement in an immeasurably higher level of potential for reproduction/distribution. The difference was so radical that it became much more likely for a work that did not make it into print to disappear.

Although the Haeinsa woodblock edition was not the first effort of its kind5 in this area, it was the first one that survived intact down to modernity. The Haeinsa canon remained as the leading authoritative source for the East Asian Buddhist canon until it its usage outside of Korea was surpassed by the Japanese Taishō. Although the Taishō was problematic in terms of accuracy,6 it succeeding in becoming the predominant source for scholarship on East Asian Buddhism for a number of reasons, a major part of which are related to political history.

Part II: Future Trajectories of the East Asian Canon

I will speak now about the future prospects of Buddhist canons, both (1) as traditional collections (i.e., the Koryeo Daejanggyeong or the Taishō Daizōkyō as monolithic entities) and (2) the individual canonical texts as separate works. Within the second category, I would like to address two further aspects: (a) that of future study of the East Asian originals, and (b) the nature of the new Western versions that will be generated. These considerations are deeply contingent on a single, rather fascinating new variable: the advent of the digital age.

A year or so ago, the question was put to me in Korea: what will the future be for the Korean canon in its new digitized form? Will it retake some of its original prestige vis-à-vis other versions of the canon, such as the Taishō? The answer to this question is inextricably tied to other broader questions, such as where the digital revolution will end up taking humanities scholarship in general, and where it will take Buddhist studies specifically. Although this room at present is filled with some of the leading visionaries in the advancement of scholarship into the digital age, I suspect that due to the wide range of yet undetermined variables, many are still hesitant to make exact predictions about what changes will take place, how they will take place, when, and where. We need, in making such projections, to take into consideration some of the more fundamental technological questions involved, especially as they concern matters of creation, analysis, transformation, copying, and distribution. Each one of these areas is being transformed far more radically than they were at the time when the technological shift occurred from hand copying to the printing press.

Speaking first about canons in the narrow and monolithic sense of the word, i.e. the Daejanggyeong, Daizōkyō, etc., we can imagine that in one sense, their success may eventually come to be measured in terms of the degree to which they become transparent, and for all practical intents and purposes, even disappear. The very notion of a monolithic collection such as these is something that originated with the creation of the woodblock, and the resultant production of bound volumes. The point of closure of these canons is, as with any single work, in the end, arbitrary. As Barbara Smith notes:

The work we receive is not so much the achieved consummation of [the process of literary composition] as its enforced abandonment: "abandonment" not because the author's techniques are inadequate to his or her goals but because the goals themselves are inevitably multiple, mixed, mutually competing, and thus mutually constraining, and also because they are inevitably unstable, changing their nature and relative potency and priority during the very course of composition. The completed work is thus always, in a sense, a temporary truce among contending forces, achieved at the point of exhaustion, that is, the literal depletion of the author's current resources or, given the most fundamental principle of the economics of existence, at the point when the author simply has something else -- more worthwhile -- to do: when, in other words, the time and energy s/he would have to give to further tinkering, testing, and adjustment are no longer compensated for by an adequately rewarding sense of continuing interest in the process or increased satisfaction in the product. (Smith, 28)

Canons, and especially printed canons, reach closure not necessarily when all texts of sufficient value have been located, but rather according to the economics of a given situation. One of the first things the entry into the digital era will ensure is that these kinds of economic constraints will be immeasurably loosened. The particular canonical collection in itself will be seen not so much as being that particular collection, but rather as one of the sources for a given text, no doubt, in the case of the Daejanggyeong, as a more authentic source. Once digitized, the individual texts will be taken out of their presently ordered location on a CD or server, and converted into a wide variety of formats on the local computers of thousands of users, resurfacing in the context of wholly new arrangements. They will be compared mechanically with other Chinese versions, and with Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan versions to produce new, more accurate editions; they will be analyzed by linguists, historians, and anthropologists with an array computational tools, and they will be translated far more rapidly then they would have been otherwise.

Will the digitization of the Korean Tripitaka have any bearing on the possibilities of its returning to a level of prominence and usage equal to that of the Taishō? If we can see what is likely to happen in another decade or two, the question will likely become moot. For the time being however, during this present age of transition, the factors of digitization, and networking are going to add a major new dimension to the determination of which version is more popularly used. As far as authenticity and accuracy are concerned, there is no doubt about the status of the Korean canon, and therefore, if it is readily available in an easy-to-use format, consulting it could well become standard practice, whereas prior to digitization this may not have been the case.

Whether or not one will want to consult it first, is another matter, and will depend largely upon the grasp that its producers have of the new dimensions of textual value engendered by digitization, most important of which are: accessibility and usability. Since the vast majority of scholars in our field are not especially adept at handling digital tools, their consideration for which version to use will be based primarily on the simple matter of which one is easiest to get hold of, set up, and use.7 Here, of course, the addition of supplementary enhancements (tools, dictionaries, links, markup) may well play a role. But if the addition of such supplementary tools slows down digital release at this critical juncture, or unnecessarily complicates the usability of a certain collection, it could well result in that collection being forgotten about. As Prof. Katsumura likes to say, "plain is good."

Here, however, I am referring only to the dynamics that will be sustained during a relatively short period of time—the present period of initial digitization and release. Since we have all grown up immersed in the paradigm of paper media, it is difficult for us to see the degree to which our way of thinking is conditioned by this prior medium and all the techno-methodologies that went along with it. For example, in the pre-printing press era, text locations in scrolls were identified by the text's title and fascicle number. In bound and printed books, citations have been made by volume, page, column and line numbers. Those of us who are now working with digitized versions of the canons are still citing this way in accordance with the present standards of our discipline, but it is hard to imagine how this practice can possibly endure into the next generation. With the general dissemination of freely available digital texts and smart, quick search tools, citation of a text's title and version should suffice as a reference. The scholar, working on-screen, will be able to go directly to the passage in question with a mouse click, or perhaps a voice command, or some other kind of gesture that we cannot yet imagine.

The notion of a separate monolithic collection, such as Daejanggyeong, Taishō, Jeonseo, Zokuzōkyō, Dunhuang Edition, etc., will become immaterial, except in the case where some discrepancy between versions has not yet been resolved. It does not mean that these origins will become unimportant, or forgotten; the value of masterpiece collections such as the Tripitaka Koreana or Taishō Daizōkyō will in many ways be more fully realized than they had been before. They will, nonetheless, be largely transparent to every day use (as, someday, if we are lucky, operating systems may be). Due to the lack of the need of structure of bound volumes and sets of volumes that need to be identified as monolithic entities, the focus in the digital age will move more toward texts, and families of texts that have machine-identifiable relations. The availability in digital format, of a number of versions of the same text, coupled with digitally powered analytical tools, will allow for the development of newly edited/corrected versions.

Part III: The Development of the New Western Canon in the 21st Century

The question that most intrigues me as a Westerner and speaker of English, is the role that the Network is going to have in the creation of the next major Buddhist canon, the English canon.

In terms of the basic task at hand, the situation is comparable to that in first century China, where Buddhism would be imported first in a trickle, and then as a flood, from a radically foreign cultural and linguistic environment. Also, as was the case between India/Central Asia and China, the incoming tradition is far from uniform in character. Buddhism is being transmitted to the West under the auspices of a variety of schools, as well as cultural variations of these schools. These cultural regions and subdivisions of Buddhism each have their own emphases, characteristics, and their own canons. But while we do have practice centers with traditional labels, such as Gelukpa, Vipassana, Zen, etc., Western Buddhism is in fact taking on a noticeably eclectic character. Most Western Buddhist practitioners will readily go out to hear a lecture from an eminent figure who hails from a different tradition; the Vippassanists read Zen books, and the Zen people read the Dalai Lama, and maybe even Shirley McClain. This is not to even mention the semi-conscious inclusion of Judeo-Christian cultural practices.

The most dramatic difference in these two major crossovers of the Buddhist tradition, lying two millennia apart, will be that of the technology involved. TV, telephone, and of course, the Internet, bringing with it computer-based translation have already created a whole new universe of international communication. At the level of their role in providing access to the principles of the Buddhist tradition on the part of new believers however, texts should remain as important as ever, and here the role of the Internet will come to the fore. While it is likely that paper book publication will endure for some time, it is inevitable that the economics of publication will gradually engender a movement toward Internet publication—especially of low-profit works—a category into which most Buddhist texts will undoubtedly fall.

Besides the likelihood that the bulk of the development of the new Western canon will be internet-based merely for economic reasons, there are a number of other related factors that will make the Internet an attractive medium for translators.

  1. Facility and rapidity of publication. Translators will not have to wait three or four years to see their work come into public view after the completion of their manuscripts.
  2. Flexibility of format. Those who presently wish to scholarly publication of any sort, are almost never allowed to use the format they desire, due to the constraints posed by publishers. Authors/translators often want to include various kinds of apparatus such as changes in font style and size, formatting according to one's special needs, and inclusion of the source text in the original language; some or all of these options are regularly rejected by paper publishers.
  3. No limitations of length or notation. Those who wish to publish a scriptural translation but have a disinclination to be limited by projects that insist on no annotation and other scholarly apparatus--who prefer instead to translate with as much explanatory paraphernalia as they like, can publish on the web.
  4. Inclusion of multimedia and other digital tools, including sound and video clips, links to dictionaries, related texts, other scholarship, and any other resource desired.
  5. Unlimited possibilities for revision, and radically enhanced possibilities for collaboration. A digital translation can be worked on by a team of scholars around the globe, regardless of their location. And it can always be updated based on new scholarship, new insights to the text, and comments from others.

The major down side to online publication is, of course, the equal facility with which works of substandard quality can also be published. I mentioned earlier the similarities in the pre-printing press era to that of the post-printing press era, noting that in both cases the lone unrecognized author is not at a significant technical disadvantage vis-à-vis the recognized authority. However, in the case of pre-printing press times, this equality only applied at the stage of writing itself, and disappeared at the point of reproduction and distribution. While anyone with literary abilities could certainly have sat down and written a manuscript, one would have needed the economic power that comes with accepted status in the field to have one's writings copied and distributed to the extent that the work could be widely read.

The situation with the Internet is radically different. Anyone who composes any piece of nonsense can place it on the web to be found by search engines. S/he can publicize the work through e-mail lists, and can even directly submit URLs to portals such as Yahoo and InfoSeek. And indeed, there are already sites on the Internet that characterize themselves as Buddhist translation centers, which are administered by persons with no formal scholarly training in the interpretation of Buddhist texts. In this vein, the situation of the development of a new Western language version of the Buddhist canon has much in common with other scholarly fields, which have yet to begin serious widespread consideration about setting up the mechanisms for evaluating the quality of internet-published materials. In the case of web-based translations of Buddhist canonical works, it will probably be the case that a sufficiently large body of material will have to be developed before serious attention is paid. The resolution of this issue will no doubt occur along with that of the resolution of these matters in the Academy as a whole. But this time will come quickly, and so it would behoove us to begin to deliberate on the problem now.


Bruns, Gerald L. "Canon and Power." in Canons, (pp. 65-83) edited by Robert von Hallberg.

Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Trans. Sheed and Ward Ltd. New York, 1982.

Lancaster, Lewis R. The Korean Buddhist Canon: A Descriptive Catalogue. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. "Contingencies of Value." in Canons, (pp. 5-39) edited by Robert von Hallberg.

von Hallberg, Robert, ed. Canons. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984.



1. Gadamer says "The classical is what is preserved precisely because it signifies and interprets itself: [that is,] that which speaks in such a way that it is not a statement about what is past, as mere testimony to something that needs to be interpreted, but says something to the present as if it were said specially to us...(Gadamer, 257) return

2. We can see a similar dynamic at work in the process of the translation of canonical works from Buddhist scriptural languages into Western languages. While only a small fraction of the Asian Buddhist canonical works have been rendered, there are some that have already been translated several times. In the case of popular Zen related works, this repeated translation is probably due more directly to their popularity with Western audiences, whereas with works such as the Lotus Sutra, repeated translation is no doubt more attributable to a momentum that comes from within the East Asian, and especially Japanese, tradition. return

3. These pseudo-translations comprise the main portion of the so-called East Asian "apocrypha." The background of the composition of such works has been researched extensively by such Japanese Buddhologists as Yabuki Keiki (矢吹慶輝), Hayashiya Tomojirō (林屋友次郎), Mochizuki Shinkō (望月信亨) and Tokiwa Daijō (常磐大定) in the early in middle part of the century, while more recently the topic has been treated in the works of such scholars as Mizuno Kōgen (水野弘元) and Makita Tairyō (牧田諦亮). The most comprehensive of all works which treat apocrypha is Mochizuki's monumental Bukkyō kyōten seiritsushi ron (仏教經典成立史論), in which the author devoted several hundred pages to the in-depth analysis of the origin of numerous important apocryphal texts. In terms of dealing directly with the apocryphal phenomenon, of next importance is the more recent Gikyō kenkyū (偽經研究) by Makita Tairyō. Recently "apocryphal studies" has become a prominent topic for Western scholars of East Asian Buddhism, who, in their efforts to put together a cogent history of the development of East Asian Buddhist thought, have found that the apocryphal texts played a seminal role in the creation of distinctive forms of East Asian Buddhism. In the English language, an extremely valuable volume, Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, was published in 1990, edited by Robert Buswell, containing the articles by ten eminent scholars of East Asian Buddhism. Another of Buswell's works, The Formation of Ch'an Ideology in China and Korea, also treats a major aspect of the apocryphal phenomenon in considerable depth. return

4. Daoan compiled the Zongli zhongjing mulu 綜理衆經目録 (Comprehensive Catalog of Scriptures) in 374 (not extant); generally known by the abbreviated title An-lu 安録 (An's Catalogue). Zhisheng compiled the Kaiyuan shijiao lu 開元釋教録 (Record of Śākyamuni's teachings compiled during the Kaiyuan period), listing 1,076 extant works. return

5. The first Korean woodblock edition was preceded by Chinese Shuben 蜀本, carved between 971-983. Four other editions were made during the Song. See Lancaster (1979), p. x; Ch'en, (1964) 375. return

6. Due to the shortage of necessary fonts (approximately 11,000 typeset characters had to be used for a corpus that contained about 35,000 different characters) decisions had to be made by printing personnel regarding the replacement of characters. return

7. It is easy to make a case in point here from my own research: although the starting time and completion time of the Daejanggyeong input were both prior to that of the Taishō, for my own research, I am presently primarily using the version of the Japanese Taishō developed by the Chung-Hwa institute. Why? Quite simply, because they were the first to offer the East Asian canon in a readily usable plain text format downloadable from the Internet, which did not require special software. return