A Digital Introduction to the Chinese Buddhist Canon

The Chinese Buddhist canon contains canonical Buddhist literature as recognized in East Asia. Early practitioners interacted with one of the earliest forms of the canon by “turning” scrolls with their hands to reveal the script. In early modern and modern eras, the canon took shape as a bound and paginated codex, the pages of which were also manipulated by the reader. Most recently, the canon has been digitized and made available for free on the Internet as a fully readable, searchable, and citable text via the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA). This platform offers users a digitally interactive version of the Chinese canon that widens the scope of use for researchers and practitioners worldwide.

I am an average user of the CBETA database in the sense that I most often use its basic search function. For Buddhist Studies scholars working in the area of East Asia, this function provides a comprehensive, cross-sectional search of any string of Chinese characters against the entire canon. While this is helpful for scholars who work regularly with Buddhist sūtra literature, it can also aid those who occasionally encounter Buddhist terminology, turns of phrase, and canonical titles in texts outside of Buddhist Studies. For those working in the fields of East Asian literature, for example, where Buddhist literary references appear both subtly and overtly, CBETA can help to clarify the provenance of those often-cryptic references. Likewise, for East Asian art historians who might encounter poetic stanzas with Buddhist references scrawled in fields of visual art, CBETA may provide helpful context.

Using CBETA is fairly straightforward, though much of the site language is presented in Chinese. A standalone, offline version of CBETA for Windows is available, though the Mac version has gone largely unsupported over the last few years. There is another major database offered through a Japanese/English UI and sponsored by the University of Tokyo called the SAT Daizōkyō Text Database. This database draws from both the Chinese and Korean editions of the canon, though it frequently includes punctuation recognized in the field as having been added erroneously.

When opening the browser version of CBETA in a fresh window, users are prompted to select a path for use:

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Landing page path selection.

By selecting the third option, “Open Search Interface,” users can search for matches of strings of characters. These strings can then be pasted into the search field. After running a search, users will be presented with every canonical item in which that exact string appears. Tabs immediately to the left of this search pane include filters by dictionary entry, external database enumeration, statistics on vocabulary frequency, and links to materials held at National Taiwan University Buddhist Digital Library and Museum. In the images included here, I have used the search term 即身成佛 (C. Jí shēn chéng fó, J. Sokushin jōbutsu), a fairly common soteriological phrase found predominantly in esoteric canonical texts which refers to the attainment of Buddhahood during life.

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Search pane (right) with search results.

Clicking any one of the results in the right-hand search pane opens a digitized version of the text surrounding the search term in the left-hand display pane. Direct hits of the search term are color-coded in red within this left-hand pane. CBETA also offers users an indirect engagement with the print version of these same search results with a focus on the areas targeted by the search. By clicking the small inline image icon in the left-hand pane, a new window will open to present an image of a printed page from which that precise section of text appears. In my experience, using this function is most helpful when I encounter what appear to be stanzas in a text. Stanzas do not always appear as clearly offset from the prose sections of a text in the digitized version, and I can quickly look at an image of the print edition to help with this overall readability of offset text.

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Display pane (left) with highlighted search term.

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New window with image of the printed page.

This basic search function is simple, but powerful. Users are presented with not only direct and clear search results, but have immediate access to peripheral databases and statistical data that can better contextualize those search results. While these options make searching generally productive, I find that shorter strings of characters generally yield better results. Strings of about six or more characters limit search results because longer strings tend to vary more and may not land an exact match. For example, if a user entered a ten-character string drawn from a work of Chinese literature that happened to include the four characters (即身成佛) used in the example images above, the database would not necessarily present the same results shown in the images because the search must include all characters entered in the search field. This can be tricky, and I find that searching with smaller constituent parts of a longer string tend to yield better results. Of course, there are toggles for search field parameters (e.g. “and,” “or,” “not,” and “near”) that can help with fine-grain searches.

For users who may feel intimidated by the Chinese language interface, or for those interested in visualizing networks of data culled from the canon, there are third-party platforms that widen the scope of CBETA use. For example, Jen-Jou Hung of the Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts in Taiwan has helped to develop the CBETA Research Platform, a data analysis and visualization tool with CBETA integration. As the developer described in a presentation at DH2018 in Mexico City, this tool serves as an integrated text reader, enables search and comparison, and provides a platform for digital textual analysis. Concordance search and analysis is the major point of distinction between the CBETA database and this third-party platform. It allows users to organize search results through additional categories, such as text type, date, dynasty, author, and translator and can compare and visualize more than one search term. In the image below, I ran another search on the Research Platform with the same four-character string used above in CBETA. As you can see, the visualization shows that the four-character string 即身成佛 is indeed found most in texts within the esoteric category (密教部類):

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Analysis by text category using the string 即身成佛.

The platform also offers links to additional third-party platforms like DEDU, a parallel text reader with additional interactive reading functions. The CBETA Research Platform also widens the scope of CBETA use among the research community because it offers different ways of organizing, visualizing, and interacting with the canon.

CBETA provides a platform for interacting with the Chinese Buddhist canon in new and accessible ways. For me, the easy-to-use interface and the power of its basic search function mean that I can quickly search and reference an entire corpus of religious knowledge recognized across East Asia. And while the database is perhaps leveraged most fully by scholars in the field of Buddhist Studies, it can also provide a more comprehensive view of the Chinese canon for scholars outside of the field, and even for those without proficiency in Chinese. This breadth in potential usership is made possible through interactive tools that help to search, navigate, organize, and categorize the canon. As the database has grown through increased ease-of-use and supportive sponsorship, the development of third-party platforms has only strengthened it and made it more accessible to those working with digital tools in the area of East Asia.

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