February 12, 2001
Gift, NEH grant boost East Asia studies program
By Barbara McKenna
The gift is significant not only because of its rich content but because it provides U.S. scholars with access to materials that were once nearly impossible to find without traveling to East Asia. The collection, which is principally in Chinese, contains commentaries, biographies, and the complete writings of many Chinese Buddhist teachers. At the core of the collection is a modern reprint of an important 18th-century 165-volume edition of scriptures and commentaries titled The Dragon Treasury.
According to professor of art history Raoul Birnbaum, "The foundation has made an extraordinary gift to UCSC, providing us with materials that are virtually impossible to acquire outside of Buddhist circles. Many of these books are not published commercially and are normally accessible only within the Chinese Buddhist community."
Birnbaum, who specializes in Buddhist studies, was instrumental in securing the gift for UCSC. While conducting research in East Asia, he met with the chief operating officer of the foundation. One of the foundation's main functions is to translate, reprint, and distribute Buddhist texts. "A traditional form of charity in Buddhist Chinese circles is to print and distribute Buddhist books," Birnbaum explained. "The contemporary Buddhist monk whose work inspires this foundation, Jingkong, holds firmly to the view that the point to Buddhism is education."
According to Christine Bunting, head of collections at the University Library, "This gift included a number of duplicate materials and so, in the tradition of this foundation, we are able to share our extra resources with other UC campuses and with some monasteries and Buddhist centers in our region." The UC campuses that have received materials are San Diego, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Irvine.
Currently, library staff members are cataloging items. Because the materials are primarily in Chinese, cataloging requires special attention. An anonymous donor provided $2,000 so that a Chinese-speaking student could be hired to assist in the process.
UCSC library assistant Yi-Yen Hayford is overseeing the cataloging--a sophisticated process that will make the catalog of materials electronically accessible in both English and Pin Yin (the international standard format for the romanization of Chinese). Later this year the library will be able to display Chinese characters in the bibliographic records of CRUZCAT, its online catalog.
It's been a busy time for Birnbaum, whose work is supported in 2000-01 by a $35,000 National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowship. The fellowship supports Birnbaum's work on a book-in-progress, "Body and Practice in Buddhist China."
Birnbaum's book seeks to portray Buddhist practice traditions in China through an examination of daily and extraordinary physical activities, from washing one's face in the morning to meditating in the wilderness for years. "When you become a monk or a nun you immediately start changing the way you think about your body, the way your body looks, and the ways in which you control your body," Birnbaum says. "Your head is shaved, you no longer wear ordinary clothing, you learn new ways to sit and stand and walk. You become very conscious of your physical activities and the ways in which you can transform them into a deeper understanding of the world."
Birnbaum is revising his manuscript and expects it to be completed this summer.
Birnbaum also received notice in late January that he has been named a member of the Hongyi dashi Feng Zikai yanjiu zhongxin--the premier research institute for the study of 20th-century Chinese Buddhist culture. With this prestigious appointment, Birnbaum becomes the first American member of the international organization, on the campus of Hangzhou Normal University in China.