BEAR Research Briefs are concise and accessible introductions to Buddhism and East Asian Religions (BEAR) topics. These essays seek to answer questions from FROGBEAR research clusters by drawing from their research cluster activities.

Where do Buddhist scriptures come from?

Cluster 2.2: “‘Secondary’ Producers, ‘Primary’ Roles”
Author: George Keyworth, University of Saskatchewan


Beginning in the first century of the Common Era, Buddhist texts began to be translated into Chinese. Although Buddhism is a religion that was founded in ancient India, today the largest collection of Buddhist literature is available in Chinese. Our research cluster engages with this history of transmission, production, and reproduction of Buddhist scriptures.

Buddhism can be traced to India and the followers of Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 5th–4th century BCE), known to his disciples as Śākyamuni Buddha. The teachings of the Buddha were transmitted orally, then written down in a variety of South Asian languages (e.g., Pāli and Sanskrit) and translated into Central and East Asian (Chinese, not modern Mandarin Chinese) languages. The oldest extant catalog to a collection of all the scriptures translated into Chinese was produced by the monk Sengyou (445–518). Sengyou’s catalog demonstrates that Chinese Buddhists conceived of a canon—or collection with three types of scriptures (sūtras, vinaya, and commentaries)—as a fruitful way to organize translated Buddhist scriptures. A key to understanding why the Chinese cataloged and organized all the translated scriptures can be found in the Chinese term for sūtra or scripture. Jing is the ancient Chinese word for a Classic text, as in the Thirteen Classics which almost certainly predate Confucius (551–479 BCE).

An authoritative catalog of all the scriptures was completed in 730 by Zhisheng (d.u.) during the mid-Tang (618–907) dynasty, which lists 1076 separate texts in 5048 scrolls or rolls. Zhisheng’s catalog inventories how many pages were one required to hand copy each text. When the Buddhist canon, now called all the scriptures from a monastic library (da zangjing 大藏經), was first printed between 971–983 in southwestern China under the Song dynasty (960–1279), Zhisheng’s catalog was strictly followed. Nearly all of the 24 or 25 printed editions of the Buddhism canon in Chinese (rather than in Tibetan or Mongolian) in China from 983–1913 follow Zhisheng’s catalog. By contrast, the Pāli Buddhist canon was not cataloged or printed until the late nineteenth century. Likely following the example of Tang Buddhists during the ninth century, there are three extant early catalogs of Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhist canons were printed after the early fifteenth century. Under British colonization of South Asia (ca. 1757–1947), many Sanskrit manuscripts were published during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; earlier manuscripts and manuscript fragments in Sanskrit have been found at Gilgit (present day northern Pakistan), Haḍḍa (near Jalalabad, Afghanistan), and in Xinjiang.

Printed editions of the Tibetan canon are separated into two parts: the kangyur in 108 volumes, which consists of translated texts, and the tengyur with commentaries to a wide array of translated materials, including treatises written by Indians and Tibetans. Catalogs to printed editions of the Buddhist canon in Chinese reveal how restrictive the contents are. Buddhist teachings were taken from China to northern Vietnam as early as the second century, Korea by the fourth century, and Japan during the mid-sixth century. Until the early twentieth century East Asian Buddhists did not translate texts written in Chinese. Instead they read and recited texts in Chinese with their vernacular languages. Most reliable editions of Buddhist literature in Chinese that predate extant printed materials and incorporate a rich variety of commentarial literature written by East Asians—including the teachings of the East Asian traditions such as Chan (Seon or Zen), Pure Land, and esoteric or tantric Buddhism—can only be found in Japan, Korea, and in northern China. The single hoard of Buddhist manuscripts found in China in cave no. 17 from the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang at the turn of the twentieth century, which was almost certainly closed circa 1006, is perhaps the single most valuable archaeological discovery in East Asia. But the chronological restriction to the beginning of the eleventh century means that literally thousands of texts written by East Asians were not yet available.

East Asian Buddhists wrote scriptures on at least three media: manuscripts on paper; stone; and woodblock printing or xylography on paper. A complete copy of the manuscript Buddhist canon that Zhisheng’s catalog classified was brought to Japan by 735 and copied during the late eighth century. These manuscripts survive today in the Shōgozō repository of Tōdaiji temple in Nara. Copied during the twelfth century from ninth century manuscripts, we also have eight manuscript Buddhist canons in Japan. The oldest one was copied for the Matsuno’o shrine-temple complex in Kyoto. In 2017, our research cluster explored colophons of several exemplary texts and examined notable objects of material culture which showed the considerable role played by individuals from lesser-known Shingon- and Tendai-affiliated temples and shrine libraries in transmitting and preserving a large body of religious literature.

Koreans first printed their own canon between 1011–1087, but the woodblocks were destroyed by a Mongol invasion during the 1230s. The Second Goryeo Canon (1237–1249) is extant, consists of 1517 titles, and is the basis for the modern East Asian Buddhist canons. Sometimes using gold or silver ink on indigo paper or simply black ink on ordinary paper, Koreans also printed Chinese and Korean commentarial texts from the Tang, Song and Goryeo (918–1392) dynasties with exquisite illustrations. In 2018, our cluster visited the National Museum of Korea to examine rare woodblock printed materials and consider the central role Koreans played in transmitting lengthy commentaries together with images.

The Fangshan Stone Canon from Yunju monastery near Beijing, China, where more than 14,000 steles (22.5 million characters) with rock-cut scriptures were first carved during the 7th century, and scriptures were renovated or added until the early Qing dynasty (1644–1912), especially during the Khitan Liao (907/916–1125) and Jurchen Jin (1115–1234) dynasties, is the best example of how East Asian Buddhists preserved Buddhist scriptures in stone. In 2019, we traveled to Hangzhou, China to look at to the tradition of inscribing dhāraṇīs (spells) on pillars and inspect sites with dhāraṇī pillars.

The extent to which the Khitans who ruled north China were fervent supporters of Buddhism is evident from the North Pagoda in the city of Chaoyang (modern Liaoning province). Inside the lower relic crypt of this magnificent pagoda, which was renovated during 1043–1044, is a four-tiered pillar carved with nine dhāraṇī (spell) texts. And inside a silver-plated, copper pagoda-shaped container kept in the upper relic crypt with embossed dhāraṇī texts in both Chinese and Siddham Sanskrit scripts are several of the same texts carved on the pillar in the lower crypt. These scriptures with sacred syllables either written in Sanskrit letters or Chinese transcription on stone and imprinted on thin sheets of metal demonstrate how East Asian Buddhists preserved their religious texts for as close to eternity as possible.

As researchers of Buddhist scriptures and their histories of production, we contribute to these processes of preservation and education by training a new generation of scholars during site-specific fieldwork; recording and sharing images of sites, manuscripts, and other objects for public access through UBC Open Collections; and creating new knowledge about the culture of transmission.

Imagining the Future of Material Religion Research in Asia: GIS imaging and Drone Image Ethnography in Taiwan

Cluster 1.2: “Religion and Technology”
Author: Kai Shmushko, Tel Aviv University/Leiden University


Material Religion

A move toward taking “the material” seriously in humanistic and social scientific scholarship was given an enormous boost by trends in culture studies, beginning primarily in the 1980s, that called for more sustained academic consideration of the cultural dynamics surrounding material objects. As a field of academic inquiry, religious studies have begun to be marked by this material turn (Pintchman 2016). Currently, there is a growing movement of scholarly interest in material religion, a movement that fixes its gaze on visuality, materiality, and embodiment as vital religious categories. This movement is led by scholars such as Brigitte Myer, David Morgan, Sally Promey, and more, who emphasize the importance of objects, sensation, and commodification in religious subjects and societies. Focusing on materiality in the study of religions “signals the need to pay urgent attention to a real, material world of objects and a texture of lived, embodied experience” (Houtman and Meyer 2012, 4). This suggested framework for research on religion grossly examines the interaction of religion and material culture.

Material culture is a fruitful way to understand how religion works since many scholars have come to regard belief as shifting sets of practices, as what people do rather than only or primarily the doctrines or texts they observe. Even when some religious actors destroy or change the use of objects such as images, but also larger objects such as spaces of worship we have the opportunity to see material culture at work (Morgan 2008).

Arthur Asa Berger has stated that: “Scholars may argue about definitions of material culture. We can say that if you can photograph it and it is not too large nor complicated, we can consider it to be an example of material culture” (2009, 16). I suggest that ongoing technological developments are broadening this definition by allowing drones footage to become an approachable almost everyday tool. This technology might complicate our visual data image, but it can contribute to studying material culture.


The Eye of the Small Drone

Geographic observation includes the basic study of the physical environment but generally goes beyond it. It aims to comprehend spaces, territories, and cultural landscapes in their material and immaterial dimensions (Casagrande 2018). According to Guarrasi, human groups shape their places by adapting them to material conditions; nevertheless, this adaptation occurs based on the perceptions and intentions of actors and decision-makers. The process takes place in relation—not necessarily in agreement—to formal or informal regulations.

In this overall mechanism, culture is a major driver (1992, p. 32). In principle, we could observe how a particular space is configured from environmental and reification points of view. We could then use the acquired information to grasp knowledge not only on material and (possibly) regulatory status of the area but also, at least to some degree, about decisions and perceptions by communities in their living space (Casagrande 2018).

At the symbolic level, the landscape is surveyed in its material features to identify elements of a specific culture’s presence and/or actions, whether this presence is current or past. In this case, analyses are oriented to recognizing specific material “markers” which can be associated with one or more systems of values, beliefs, and identities. From this point of view, drone observation can be thought of as a twofold knowledge acquisition means. Indeed, on the one hand, it can provide information and data about symbolical markers present in the observed scene. On the other hand, it is the drone itself that, by being guided to acquire data about a specific landscape, may provide information on priorities and perceptions of the users in reading their landscape and cooperating to its observation (Turco 2010, pp. 263–266; Bignante 2010; Grainger 2017).


Dense Urban Areas

Recent scholarship has stressed the importance of exploring the materials of the urban religious landscape. Marian Bucharet suggests the notion of “infrastructuring religion” meaning the ways in which religious life is premised upon the production, maintenance, and working of mundane materials, which are intertwined in the interactions and dynamics of religious actors and practices and beliefs (2019). Religion, in this approach, is mediated not only by ritual or sacred objects but routinely also by infrastructures—“building materials for temples, roads used for processions, water used for religious hygiene, the electricity that serves to illuminate prayer rooms and powers the microphones, which amplify the holy spirit” (Burchardt 2017).

While there are changing local and national regulations to flying small drones in urban areas, quite a lot can be gained from this methodology while adhering to environmental conditions and local regulations. Using drone flying technology allows us access to dense areas, urban corners that cannot be reached from the ground. We can begin to consider these angles in terms of ethnography, hidden between dense urban areas as liminal spaces with new ethnographic potential. It is worth to explore the visuals produced from a drone as neither emic nor etic in the simple sense. They do not represent the belief or the practitioner but are also not direct translation of the researcher’s point of view. Therefore, they can be viewed as a third aspect to the emic-etic duality, with a methodological contribution of its own.


Mapping Religious Landscape in Taiwan

 Taiwan is affluent with a living culture of various religious traditions such as Buddhism, Daoism, Popular (folk) Religion, Christianity and others, apparent in the public sphere of the island. Some cities in Taiwan count dozens of temples and worship places belonging to one or a few of these religious traditions. These physical spaces, constructed in various periods, are layered with the history, politics, stories, and living dynamics that comply with the religious life of the peoples of Taiwan. While the big-scale monasteries and temples on the island have received scholarly attention, hundreds of temples in Taiwan are local, undocumented, unstudied.

Considering that, geographical, visual mapping of the religious sites of Taiwan is figuratively and literally—a new territory. Its potential allows new angles and perspectives on religious sites such as statues, temples, monasteries, burial grounds. Mapping these sites and creating a database of footage is a material exploration into the particularities of religion in Taiwan. Historical, textual, and ethnographic research is conducted throughout the academic sphere to understand these religions. Studies are dedicated to their specific practices and trajectories on the island, and their material interactions with social, economic, and environmental attributes of Taiwanese society. In the words of Clart and Jones, “We must forgo the singulars in favor of plurals to arrive at an understanding of the religious experience of Taiwan both in the here and now and in historical perspective.”

GIS imaging and the work with Miniature UAV (drone) in the context of Material Religion, can provide a useful, innovative methodological tool for researching Taiwanese religious landscape. In the summer of 2019, as part of the research project of the FROGBEAR cluster on religion and technology, we gathered in Dharma Drum Mountain monastery for a fieldwork workshop led by Oliver Streiter (National University of Kaohsiung), Simon Wiles (Stanford CIDR), and Marcus Bingenheimer (Temple University). They offered a hands-on workshop in GIS and Aerial Imaging for the study of religion. We were working on contributing to the GIS mapping database work, which began in 2017 and continued, adding to it more data on some of the existing religious sites in North Taiwan, as well as drone footage and field interviews in the sites (the sites were in Sanzhi 三芝區district, Shimen district 石門區and Jinshan district 金山區).

Looking at the future of the project- and the study of religion in Taiwan, this essay aimed to broadly think about the methodological and philosophical implications of the workshop. Most of the data collected in the workshop has been edited into short informative films and is available on the FROGBEAR database website. Moreover, we can now begin to articulate the potential contribution of this sort of research workshop to the study of Material Religion in Asia.



No matter how the dronosphere will be established in the future, it seems that it will include portions of airspace that were not traditionally used in geographic observation. This is per se, an innovative element.

These tools are a step to a research, manifested in physical landscapes that only could have been imagined in the past but are slowly becoming a part of our toolbox, as an extension of our bodies, a broadening of our perspective. In the current reality of the global pandemic, physical attendance in various spaces and geographical locations has become more selective. Scholars face limitations in traveling to religious sites for fieldwork within this context. We can imagine a research world where authorized Drone observation can serve as a resilient tool for studying religion. As previous methodological shifts, this direction might coincide with various new challenges and considerations to be addressed, alongside valuable prospective.



Berger, Arthur Asa. 2009. What Objects Mean: An Introduction to Material Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Bignante E. 2010. “The use of Photo-Elicitation in Field Research.” EchoGéo 11. doi: 10.4000/echogeo.11622.

Burchardt, Marian. 2017. “Infrastrukturen des Religiösen: Materialität und urbane Ordnungsregime.” In Architekturen und Artefakte, edited by Karstein, U., and T. Schmidt-Lux, 233–250. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Burchardt, Marian. 2019. “Assembling the Profane Materialities of Urban Religion.” Material Religion 15 (5): 627–628. doi: 10.1080/17432200.2019.1666584.

Casagrande, Gianluca. 2018. “Small Drones and Geographic Observation.” In Small flying Droenes – Applications for Geographic Observation, edited by G. Casagrande, A. Sik. and G, Szabo, 1–12. Debrecen: Springer International Publishing.

Clart, Philip, and Charles Brewer Jones. 2003. Religion in Modern Taiwan: Tradition and Innovation in a Changing Society. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Guarrasi V. 1992. “Cultural geography and semiotics of culture.” In Humanistic and Behavioural Geography in Italy, edited by Corna Pellegrini G., 29–35. Pisa: Pacini Editore.

Grainger A. 2017. Citizen Observatories and the New Earth Observation Science. Remote Sensing 9 (2):153. doi:10.3390/rs9020153.

Houtman, Dick, and Birgit Meyer. 2012. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. New York: Fordham University Press.

Morgan, David. 2008. “The materiality of cultural construction.” Material Religion, 4 (2): 228–229. doi: 10.2752/175183408X328334.

Pintchman, Tracy. 2016. Sacred Matters: Material Religion in South Asian Traditions. State University of New York Press.

Turco, A. 2010. Configurazioni della territorialità. Milano: Franco Angeli.