Thus Have I Not Heard

Dharma archivists are running out of time to save precious recordings of the pioneering teachers who brought Buddhism to the West.

By Meg Federico

Photo by Egor Khomiakov

In many Buddhist traditions, the role of archivist was considered a spiritual responsibility, and a lineage holder appointed a trusted disciple to that role. The archivist’s job was to preserve and protect the teacher’s body of work for the benefit of future students. In recent decades, Tibetan refugees carried texts on their own backs across the Himalayas to save them, and monks throughout the Buddhist world have helped to create libraries through copying and printing. As a result, the ancient Buddhist teachings have lasted a long time, but what of those of modern teachers in the West, whose many talks and instructions are captured on audio- and videotape? Will these teachings be available to future students?

The discourses of the Buddha were first memorized by disciples and passed down in an oral tradition, and then, about six hundred years after his life, they began to be written on palm leaves. The humble palm leaf seems absurdly vulnerable—a fire or one rainy, moldy season might have erased that effort. But those palm leaves lasted long enough for the works to be copied onto paper, a revolutionary advancement. Paper, under the right conditions, can last for centuries. Now, the paper record of the Buddha’s teachings and those of his many descendents is supplemented and complemented by increasingly sophisticated and versatile means to capture and preserve information on tape and in digital form. However, the life span of these new technologies, no matter how widely adopted, is uncertain. Technological prowess cannot ultimately defeat the enduring nature of impermanence, and one thing we know for sure, the early work of pioneering teachers who came to the West is disintegrating. Some of it has already been lost.

Without the immediate intervention of dharma students in the West, the gifts of these first teachers—preserved primarily in collections of audio- and videotape—are at risk. A vast collection of recorded dharma is decaying, creating a potential charnel ground of lost dharma. The good news is that through the efforts of a few very hard-working people in various sanghas, many of these precious and irreplaceable collections are gradually being restored and digitized. But the dharma archivists we spoke with for this story face a range of challenges, including: learning and managing (and in some cases developing) new technology; finding safe and adequate storage environments; recruiting and training staff and volunteers; raising funds for projects whose benefit may lie far in the future; distributing the teachings; navigating the complex world of copyright; and capturing the oral record of students before they die. Without a great deal of effort in all of these areas, teachings will be lost to future generations of would-be students.

From Analog to Digital

Starting in the 1960s, many sanghas routinely recorded dharma talks. It’s almost surprising that early students had the foresight to do so, given how haphazard the early dharma organizations were. But there was nothing remotely resembling a long-range plan and no concept of just how large the collection of recordings would turn out to be.

The Dharma Seed archive project began as an archive for activities at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, and has evolved into the central collection and distribution point for more than seventy Insight Meditation teachers. It now holds an overwhelming collection of 10,000 titles. “When I started here, we had analog tape dating back to the founding of IMS in 1975,” says Judy Phillips, who has been involved with Dharma Seed since its inception. And the archive continues to grow, adding new talks and recordings of group meditation instruction given during retreats.

In 1970 Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche established Vajradhatu Recordings, which oversaw the recording of his many lectures, seminars, and public talks across North America and Europe. “We just went out and taped everything, because it all seemed important,” says James Hoagland, who recorded a number of the talks. Now Hoagland videotapes talks by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Both of these teachers’ works (as well as those of a variety of other teachers who presented teachings to the Shambhala community) are preserved in the Shambhala Archives, whose holdings exceed 12,000 audio- and videotapes, as well as tens of thousands of paper materials and artifacts.

Analog magnetic tape was the state of the art for audio recording at the time that early teachers in the West were recorded. “Analog” means that the electrical impulses that represent a piece of sound create a physical image in the magnetic material that is laminated onto a backing. That image is lost when the tape falls apart, and tapes last only a few decades, even under optimal conditions. In dharma centers everywhere, the lovingly and laboriously collected tapes are degrading and require attention right now.

Routine recording of Suzuki Roshi—founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and its associated contemplative center, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center—began in 1966. The talks were often recorded on amateur equipment by well-meaning albeit unskilled volunteers, but if you’ve ever heard one of these early tapes, you know it was worth the effort. However, Suzuki Roshi’s recorded lectures, numbering approximately four hundred, were discovered several years ago to be “deteriorating, literally disintegrating,” says Michael Wenger, dean of Buddhist studies at San Francisco Zen Center. As a result, the center has faced critical decisions about diverting limited resources to preserve the tape legacy of their founding teacher.

Zen Center is not alone in dealing with this problem. The archive of teachings by Eido Shimano Roshi, the founder of Dai Bosatsu Zendo in upstate New York, contains hundreds of tapes, both reel-to-reel and cassette, that date back to the early 1970s. Roshi continues to teach, and his talks continue to be recorded, adding to the body of work that must somehow be managed. Like impermanence itself, the process of staying ahead of impermanence is never-ending—and slow-moving. “Roshi said that my job will never be done,” says King Dexter, who has been working to digitize the collection from his studio in Colorado Springs. “My main concern is digitizing and archiving the original as quickly as possible. Since most of the digital conversion has to be done in real time, the process is quite slow.”

For San Francisco Zen Center, as with many urban organizations functioning in tight quarters, simply having enough room for an archive is an issue. “Do we want more shrine room space for practitioners or do we want to preserve old talks?” says Wenger. There’s always a trade-off. Even renting an extra office won’t solve the problem, because analog collections require climate-controlled storage for maximum longevity. A stable, controlled environment is important because tape gets damaged when exposed to rapid changes in temperature. If the air gets too dry, the magnetic layer flakes off and the tape can crack when handled. Water damage or high humidity causes the binder that holds the magnetic data on the backing to dissolve, and the tape literally goes “sticky.”

Climate-controlled storage was a real obstacle for San Francisco Zen Center. “We didn’t have enough space, period, let alone a state-of-the-art facility,” says Wenger. Yet with the help of Mark Watts, who established an archive for his father, Alan Watts, Suzuki Roshi’s archive, still mostly on analog tape, was moved to Watts’ climate-controlled facility in 2000.

The Shambhala Archives is housed in the basement of Shambhala’s headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a damp seaport city. The location doesn’t seem ideal, but it was the only space that could be made available, so the sangha worked hard to ensure that the climate in the basement wouldn’t pose a problem. The ceiling was retrofitted with a rubber membrane. In the event of a leak from the building above, water is shunted to the floor, causing an alarm to activate. An air conditioner designed to run at temperatures as low as 32 degrees Fahrenheit (when most people would want heat, not cooling) helps to cope with humidity, along with several strategically placed household dehumidifiers. These humble appliances kick in when expensive, high-grade sensors tell them to.

Restoring an analog archive is a daunting venture and can take a lot of ingenuity. Carolyn Gimian, founder and former director of the Shambhala Archives, was left with a mass of cassette and reel-to-reel audiotape and half-inch videotape. Jim Wheeler, a conservation expert Gimian met at an archiving conference, designed a low-tech, low-cost method for preserving half-inch videotape. “He sketched the design for this crazy contraption on the back of a napkin. It consisted of, among other things, the suction head from a Remington electric shaver.” Gimian had the device built and assembled a team of staff members and volunteers to painstakingly vacuum the dust off the original videotape so the images could be digitized.

The annals of tape restoration are filled with stories of improvised equipment and trial-and-error methods. For example, damp analog tape can be “baked” back into replayable condition. “You need a low, slow, even heat,” says Gordon Kidd, who directs Kalapa Recordings, the audio and video fulfillment house for Shambhala International. Kidd favors “baking” the tape in a vegetable dehydrator. “The best temperature is about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and most kitchen ovens don’t go that low or heat evenly enough,” he says. Baking doesn’t “fix” the tape, but it provides the archivist with an opportunity to copy it. Once the tape has been restored, the next step is digitization, because those restored tapes begin to deteriorate the instant they’ve been cleaned or baked.

Like the other archivists, Dharma Seed’s Judy Phillips is caught trying to digitize the analog backlog while processing new, incoming digital talks. That means finding the people and the funding to do the work, as well as the conversion equipment. “We currently translate analog talks to a digital format by reading in eight tapes or four minidisks at a time into a computer that converts the talks to digital. The tapes are read in at double speed, but the minidisks take real time, hour for hour.” To digitize more tapes, you need more equipment and more people; you can’t simply turn up the speed.

The slowness of the conversion process can be frustrating, says Carolyn Gimian. “People are always wanting us to provide immediate access to more than we are able, particularly over the web. We’ll get there, but it is going to take a while.”

King Dexter is going through the very same process with recordings of Eido Roshi’s talks. “Once the original is safely digitized and archived,” says Dexter, “I can then return to the file at leisure and edit, clean up and make a final mix that can be used for reproduction, teaching, or fundraising. Since none of the talks I’ve listened to so far were recorded with professional gear, the quality of the originals ranges from completely unintelligible to just OK. This obviously impacts the extent to which I can improve the quality of any given original and is often most disconcerting. But that’s the nature of audio.”

“We still get some analog,” says Phillips, “but we’re working hard to get all equipment upgraded to digital soon.” There are many advantages to going digital: it is hard to damage, easy to store, takes up less space, and reproduces an exact duplicate of the original every time. Dharma talks recorded in digital format can go directly to hard drive storage. The raw, unedited talk can be stored indefinitely until there’s a demand for it. But few sanghas can afford optimal equipment for their needs, so they usually rely on a patchwork of devices, donated and bought secondhand. There’s also the problem of training. “It’s hard to make sure people know how to use the equipment properly,” says Phillips.

The Future of Archiving

Whether conserving illuminated manuscripts from the fourteenth century or managing a twenty-first-century digital collection, an archive by its nature looks toward the future. “I try to be the eyes and ears of the people who aren’t born yet. I try to represent their interests,” says James Hoagland. For these reasons, deciding what to keep and what to discard is difficult, and not many dharma centers have clearly articulated policies.

Currently, new programs and lectures at San Francisco Zen Center generate hundreds of recordings annually. “They just kind of stockpile,” says Michael Wenger. “From time to time we ask teachers to pick their three best talks so that we can discard some of their other ones.” However, there’s no systematic policy in place.

The Shambhala Archives so far has no official plan for what to keep and what to let go. “We may decide to eventually deaccession [get rid of] original analog audio recordings if we feel the digital duplicates will last and aren’t missing information that is embedded in the originals,” says Carolyn Gimian. “We haven’t quite made that decision yet. We’re still storing old tapes off-site.”

Digital media, while thought to be enduring, is a relative newcomer to data preservation; only time will tell how well it holds up. Disaster planning is a hot topic at archival conferences everywhere and emphasizes the necessity of adequate redundancy to protect a collection, even after it has been digitized. Zen Center maintains Suzuki Roshi’s analog archive in two locations, while his digitized forty-lecture series resides at several dharma centers. At the Shambhala Archives, a bank of hard drives maintains digital data in a variety of formats because, according to Gordon Kidd, “There is no guarantee that any one format will survive the test of time.”

Like the longevity problems associated with analog formats, commercial CDs have been found to fall apart after a few years. Several sets of gold-laminate CDs, designed to last for three centuries, hold Trungpa Rinpoche’s digital archive and are stored at several widespread geographical locations.

The digital age holds great potential: it could help to expose thousands, if not millions, to Buddhism and provide a highly effective means for distributing Buddhist teachings. Gimian is investigating the possibility of providing direct downloads through a website. Dharma Seed recently launched its new website (still at that now distributes teachings directly online. Recordings of teachers’ talks can be directly uploaded by the teachers themselves (though most often this is done by staff at the center where the talk was recorded), and anyone can download the talks to their home computers or listen online. Teachers can also tell Dharma Seed if teachings have restricted access, and then only students qualified to hear them can gain access, through a password system. “Our hope,” says Judy Phillips “is to eliminate a lot of front-end administration by giving students direct access, but it has taken us several years to create and implement this new model.” Dharma Seed has outsourced the distribution of audiotape and CD copies of talks to meet the needs of those who can’t or don’t wish to download or stream talks online.

Funding and Copyright

Funding for archives, particularly the archives of small, slightly obscure Buddhist organizations, is a struggle. Communities are always faced with pressing, day-to-day needs that require money, such as program development, renovations, building retreat centers, and supporting living teachers. Archives are usually a second-string concern. In the mid-1990s, Michael Wenger was able to obtain $30,000 from the board of San Francisco Zen Center to back up (on analog) and transcribe about four hundred hours of Suzuki Roshi’s lectures. It had been more than twenty years since Suzuki Roshi’s death and getting this funding was critical to preserving his archive. An initiative to distribute a forty-lecture series to the Branching Stream network of centers affiliated with San Francisco Zen Center will help to support the digitization of those talks.

Dharma Seed obtained its original funding from the Insight Foundation and donors. In the late 1990s, a practitioner named John Moyer contacted Dharma Seed and offered to help the organization digitize its analog archive. He supplied the equipment along with the technical know-how. “We’re totally grateful to this one practitioner who put us on this path,” says Phillips.

For years, Dharma Seed charged a fee for copies of any of its archived talks. Then in 1999, Dharma Seed decided it wanted to find a way to make copies available for free, and the following year it began offering newly recorded teachings at no charge. Andrew Olendzki, former Dharma Seed board president, explains, “Our goal has been to go out of business. We have already moved from selling tapes at a discount to freely distributing the talks in multiple forms (tapes, CDs, MP3s, and other audio files), and we now rely entirely upon the generosity of listeners to support the operation.”

The Shambhala Archives is funded through donations, government grants, and a few individual project initiatives, but the operation is forever struggling to stay afloat. An “Adopt a Tape” campaign to raise funds to restore and digitalize Trungpa Rinpoche’s video archive has been discontinued due to lack of interest. Internationally, a large number of Shambhala centers have funded the digitization of a 1,500-lecture collection of Trungpa Rinpoche’s Hinayana and Mahayana talks by agreeing to purchase it to make it available as a library for local students. If simple curricula are developed—such as one recently created for a DVD series from Trungpa Rinpoche’s 1974 foundation class at the Naropa Institute that has become very popular—then old teachings become new, and students’ inspiration to support archiving and distribution may increase; at least, that’s the hope.

Just as important as securing support is ensuring clear ownership of the material under the stewardship of the archives. Archivists need to know who owns the copyrights to the material they hold, because the ownership affects reproduction rights. Copyright law is complex, and dharma centers need to get legal advice on this crucial issue as it may dictate how a teacher’s legacy can or cannot be used by students. When a teacher gives a talk, the spoken words by themselves are considered to be intangible and do not constitute, in any legal sense, a “thing.” However, once the spoken words are recorded on paper, audiotape, or digital media, a “tangible object” comes into existence. Strange as it may seem, unless there is a prior agreement, the person who records the talk legally owns the recording and the reproduction rights, because he or she created the tangible object that forms the legal basis for copyright. If that talk is then transcribed, the transcriber legally owns that version of the talk, having created the transcript. If the person doing the recording is on the dharma center’s payroll, the copyright belongs to the dharma center. If there is a contractual agreement that an outside recorder or transcriber is performing “work for hire,” the copyright bypasses the technician or transcriber and goes to the teacher or dharma center, whoever contracted for the recording to be made.

Dharma centers and teachers need to make agreements that specify ownership and stipulate conditions. But even when it’s clearly established, copyright ownership is valid only over specific intervals of time, with respect to a variety of scenarios. Factors such as publication date, creation date, and whether or not the item in question is a “work made for hire” may affect the duration of ownership. When a teacher dies, he or she can only bequeath the copyright of works if he or she owns it in the first place. Trungpa Rinpoche was able to bequeath copyright to his wife, Diana Mukpo, because he had considered the issue in the early 1970s and legally established his ownership. None of his written or recorded teachings can be reproduced without his wife’s permission, at least until the copyright runs out. Suzuki Roshi’s copyrights were passed on to his family by default, because, though he held those rights, the recipient was not specified. “For all intents and purposes, Suzuki Roshi’s copyright reverted to his family,” says Michael Wenger. And for the most part, Zen Center has been overseeing the use of Suzuki Roshi’s copyrighted material.


In addition to official dharma archives and websites, the digital revolution has spawned independent websites that carry out a new kind of archival activity. These websites, often labors of love, give us a highly personal look at teachers, events, and teachings that augments the official record. Crooked Cucumber and The Chronicles of Chögyam Trungpa websites are important examples of collections of personal recollections and opinions that maintain the intimate quality and immediacy of the teachings.

David Chadwick initially started as a vehicle for his biography of Suzuki Roshi, Crooked Cucumber, but the project mushroomed to include interviews with former Suzuki Roshi students, sangha news, points of interest, and opinions. “There’s a wide spectrum of voices, and I think it’s good to have a complete, unbiased picture of Roshi as a human being,” says Chadwick. “How can you aspire to enlightenment yourself if you expect enlightenment to make you more than human?”

The Chronicles of Chögyam Trungpa website also began as a vehicle for a book. “I originally wanted oral histories, firsthand accounts of people’s experiences with Chögyam Trungpa, so that I could build a book,” says Walter Fordham. “I view people’s stories as something much greater than nostalgic reminiscing. Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings are illustrated by and accessible through these personal stories.” Now audio interviews, print interviews, event coverage, online discussions, a readers’ forum, and links attract 10,000 visits a month. Currently, 350 members help to support the website through donations.

The embryonic Chögyam Trungpa Legacy Project takes this dynamic view one step further, emphasizing the social aspect of Trungpa’s dharma legacy. Chögyam Trungpa promoted a variety of forms and introduced them to his students as vehicles of enlightenment. Theatre, kyudo, design, bugaku, photography, poetry, sailing, dressage, calligraphy, tea ceremony, decorum and etiquette, elocution, and governance—an abundance of activities to cultivate awareness beyond the meditation cushion. “This legacy can’t just be noted, cataloged, and stored, because that won’t preserve it,” says Joe Litven, a Legacy Project supporter. Like the chanting of the sutras, he adds, “This transmission has to be enacted and preserved by living people and handed down to survive into the future.”

Meg Federico

Meg Federico is a writer and journalist living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she writes a weekly newspaper column on the changing roles of caregivers and care receivers.