Digital Dharma (2012)
1h 30min · Documentary · 1 January 2012
Gene Smith was born in Utah and raised a Mormon. After studying science and anthropology, Smith relies on an interest and ability in obscure languages to avoid the Vietnam-era draft. While studying Sanskrit and Tibetan at the University of Washington, he takes up Tibetan Buddhism as an academic pursuit and offers to help Tibetan refugees - brought to the U.S. to teach - to assimilate into American life. He is assigned to live with the family of Deshung Rinpoche, one of the most learned lamas to escape Tibet. Smith teaches English to Deshung, and Deshung teaches Smith about Tibetan culture and Buddhism. In 1959, Red Army Soldiers destroy thousands of homes and temples. Tibetan refugees are forced to leave behind countless artifacts, the sole evidence of their culture. A 1500-year literary tradition, in Sanskrit and Tibetan, is in danger of disappearing. Smith travels through India, Bhutan and Nepal, using letters of introduction from Deshung Rinpoche to meet other Tibetan refugees. In India, he studies with notable lamas and, in 1968, starts working at the Library of Congress field office in New Delhi. Smith's home soon becomes an intellectual haven for scholars, officials and Buddhists of all nationalities. The last known official handwritten catalog of Tibetan documents and their hidden locations comes into his possession. It identifies where the monks have hidden their precious libraries for safe-keeping. A U.S.-sponsored cooperative assistance program gives Smith the opportunity to save these artifacts. Public Law 480 initiative (PL480) encourages developing countries to buy surplus U.S. wheat and other agricultural products. This program becomes known as "Food for Peace" under the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. But funds owed to the U.S. are mounting and blocked currencies, including the Indian Rupee, cannot be used for repayment, so PL480 is amended to create a kind of "Food for Thought" program. Smith and his colleagues decide that the Library of Congress should purchase these unique publications. Smith begins making copies of rare and important texts that have been smuggled out of Tibet by exiles of the four main Tibetan Buddhist lineages. These books are sent to the US and placed in university libraries for dissemination. In the late '90s, Smith realizes the power of the Internet and creates the first comprehensive library of Tibetan texts. His goal is to digitize all of the 20,000+ books in his collection so that he can return these sacred texts to native Tibetan speakers, wherever they live, and make them accessible to everyone, even in the most remote monasteries and villages, and preserve the knowledge they contain for humanity. Before he can complete his life's work, Gene Smith dies in 2010. Thousands mourn his passing and hail him as the man who saved Tibetan culture.
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