Blogs:Robert Walker/Origins of this Encyclopedia - Buddhism Project in Wikipedia
This encyclopedia originates in an edit dispute in wikipedia. A large quantity of material was deleted that we thought was well written, and we couldn't get it restored in Wikipedia. We wanted to find a home for it elsewhere on the internet. So how did this material come to be deleted in the first place?
- 1 Content deleted from Wikipedia for citing Eastern tradition Buddhist scholars
- 1.1 Our RfC (Request for Comments) on Wikipedia ... 'Are texts written by Buddhist writers and teachers that explain basic Buddhist concepts reliable secondary sources? (Regardless of whether they have western academic training)'
- 1.2 In practice they also remove material sourced to Buddhist scholars with Western qualifications, if they have taken monastic vows or are deeply committed Buddhists
- 2 Editors of the Buddhism project up to 2014, when citing Buddhist scholar monks, also thought they were following the Wikipedia guidelines on reliable sources
- 3 New wikipedia articles on core topics in Buddhism seem like a blend of Hinduism and Buddhism
- 4 Decision to restore the deleted material to another wiki
Content deleted from Wikipedia for citing Eastern tradition Buddhist scholars
Originally the Wikipedia Buddhism project was conducted in a spirit much like that of the Rimé movement which is our inspiration for this encylcopedia. It explored the full diversity of Buddhism in all its forms. For more about this see: Motivation for this encyclopedia - Ri-me approach.
However many of the original editors have left wikipedia, and the editors who are most active now have a different approach, which became increasingly popular there in the year 2014. It is a result of a change in emphasis on the best sources on Buddhism.
Just as there are theologians in the West, Buddhism has its own traditions of scholarship which date back to the scholars of Nalanda University such as Nagarjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) and earlier - see Timeline of Buddhism. The editors whose views prevail there delete material from articles on central topics in Buddhism if the only sources are within these traditions. (The project still has articles about them as Buddhists, but their work is not used to explain central concepts in Buddhism there). They also delete material on the grounds that it is sourced to scholars who have taken Buddhist monastic vows. Their view is that those who are personally less committed to the Buddhist faith are better qualified as sources for the encyclopedia.
If the same approach was used in the Christianity project, they would delete material on central topics in Christianity if sourced solely to deeply committed Christians such as Thomas Aquinas, thirteenth century author of the Summa Theologica. He was a monk, and priest in the Catholic tradition, and recognized as a saint. And of course he is considered an excellent secondary source on Christianity. In short, there are different interpretations of the Wikipedia guidelines by Wikipedia editors in the Buddhism project and in the Christianity project.
Our RfC (Request for Comments) on Wikipedia ... 'Are texts written by Buddhist writers and teachers that explain basic Buddhist concepts reliable secondary sources? (Regardless of whether they have western academic training)'
You can see wide range of views amongst the Buddhism project editors from this RfC (Request for Comments) that Dorje108 made in the Buddhism Project in 2014. The question was whether western academic training should be a necessary criterion for choosing which sources to use in the articles.
To us it was extraordinary that this was even a question. Not treat the Dalai Lama (who has the highest degree in Tibetan scholarship, the Geshe Lahrampa) or the renowned Therevadhan scholarsa such as Prayudh Payutto as good sources on the Buddhist Teachings?! They even had issues with Walpola Rahula, the first Bhikkhu to become professor in a Western university, on the basis of his commitment to Buddhism which they said made him a source to be used only with care; more on that in the next section.
The RfC is here:
- RfC Are texts written by Buddhist writers and teachers that explain basic Buddhist concepts reliable secondary sources?
"I propose that texts written by Buddhist writers and teachers that explain basic Buddhist concepts should be considered secondary sources as long as they meet the criteria specified in the guidelines (regardless of whether or not the writer has Western academic training). Do you support this? Dorje108 (talk) 21:22, 30 November 2014 (UTC)"
See also my comment in my vote in favour of the RfC, which gives some of the background:
Also more background in Dorje108's entry on Sources that I link to there.
At the same time as the RfC there was a parallel discussion in the Reliable Sources Noticeboard (RSN) Do contemporary Buddhist teachers (with no western academic credentials in studies related to Buddhism) count as primary or secondary sources?
As you can see if you click through to the RfC, the result was "no consensus" with
Although there was a small majority in favour, it was only 9 to 8 and with two of the support votes only qualified support. Such things are not decided by counting votes, and you also need a clear consensus. It was closed as no consensus. The closing admin was puzzled that it was a question since the Wikipedia guidelines on reliable sources didn't seem to need further clarification
As you will see from those details, the RfC was closed as "no consensus" with 9 in favour (2 of those only a qualified support), and 8 opposed.
We would have needed a clear consensus in support of the RfC to stop this practice of deleting material cited to the Eastern trained Buddhist scholars, and to revert the edits that deleted the material. The authors who voted oppose in the RfC include the current main editors of central articles on Buddhism in Wikipedia. The ones who voted Support are for the most part no longer active in the project.
In practice they also remove material sourced to Buddhist scholars with Western qualifications, if they have taken monastic vows or are deeply committed Buddhists
You might be surprised that I mention Walpola Rahula in the RfC, as he had Western academic training as well, the first Western Bhikkhu professor, with a PhD from Paris university. However, as we will see, the editors remove material cited to him as well, on the basis that his Eastern academic training and his monastic vows make him too involved in Buddhism to be used as a secondary source on his own religion. This makes him (in their view) a "primary source" that can be used but only with great care and not too much, and those not so involved are preferred as sources.
They treat it as like sources on a work of art, period of history or those who make a political decision, that those who are directly involved in the events are too involved in what happened to give an accurate account of events. This is one place where they put that clearly. When questioned by Dorje108, one of the editors explains that Heinrich Dumoulin, a professor and a Jesuit priest, writing about Zen, would be regarded as a primary source for being too involved in his subject of interest Zen Buddhism, not for his research methods: here (details collapsed):
They also disqualify sources on the grounds that they are Bhikkhus (have taken monastic vows). See this archive of a conversation on the Anatta talk page.
We never had an RfC on whether Bhikkhus were good secondary sources. But if we had, it is clear that it would have been a similar situation to the RfC on whether sources have to have Western academic training. It would have been equally divided, with the currently most active editors in Wikipedia saying that for the most part taking monastic vows disqualifies you as a reliable secondary source. As no consensus, this would similarly make it impossible to stop the practice of removing material cited to Buddhists who have taken monastic vows. So there wasn't much point in attempting such an RfC.
Their reasoning is the same, that (in their view) this makes them too involved in their own faith. The new editors do occasionally use cites that are Bhikkhu scholars, it's not an absolute prohibition. But they are used sparingly. For instance the currrent version of Nirvana (Buddhism) in Wikipedia has only one cite to Walpola Rahula in the main text. It's paired with a statement by Richard Gombrich that on this matter (in his view) Walpola Rahula's statement does not accurately summarize Buddhist thought
In our article Nirvana we use Walpola Rahula extensively as one of the best authors in English on central teachings in Therevadhan Buddhism. He has six cites, with four of those, paragraph length quotes. He was especially noted for his extensive knowledge of the vast (encyclopedia length) Pali Canon, which he studied in the original Pali (a now dead language, the Buddhist equivalent of, say, New Testament Greek). His What the Buddha Taught is especially noted for the way it expresses central ideas from the Pali Canon clearly in English.
It's the same picture for all the articles on central topics on Buddhism. They rewrite them, removing information cited to Bhikkhus and Eastern trained scholars. They replace this with new material cited almost entirely to Western academics, preferrably non Buddhists such as Richard Gombrich.
In this way, vast amounts of material are being deleted from Wikipedia. We felt it was valuable work and should be made available to readers who are interested in Buddhism as explained by Buddhist scholars in non Western academic traditions and Bhikkhus. We feel that many readers would be more interested to hear what the Buddhists themselves say they believe, in their own words.
So that's why we set up this new encyclopedia.
Editors of the Buddhism project up to 2014, when citing Buddhist scholar monks, also thought they were following the Wikipedia guidelines on reliable sources
Earlier editors spent years developing these articles. They followed the guidelines as they understood them.
It is a common misunderstanding to think that the guidelines are to do with being too deeply involved in the subject. The Wikipedia guideline itself says WP:PRIMARY
— Secondary sources are not necessarily independent or third-party sources. They rely on primary sources for their material, making analytic or evaluative claims about them.
This refers you to Wikipedia:Party and person, which is a supplement to the guidelines. There you read:
"Secondary" does not mean "independent" or "uninvolved". Most independent sources are not secondary sources."
The Religious sources section of the main Wikipedia essay on reliable sources gives the example of Thomas Aquinus, a monk, priest and recognized saint of the Catholic church.
For example, the works of Thomas Aquinas are secondary sources for a Roman Catholic perspective on many topics, but are primary sources for Thomas Aquinas or Summa Theologica.
And indeed - that's how the Christianity project does it. To follow up that particular example, Thomas Aquinas is used in such articles as Knowledge of Christ, a topic that he wrote extensively about.
My essay on reliable sources
I wrote a long essay on the subject in my user space on Wikipedia, which was used for a later discussion on the Reliable Sources noticeboard in 2017 (which came to nothing)
Effect of the new (2014 onwards) sourcing approach on content
This approach to what they recognize as good sources that became prevalent in the Wikipedia Buddhism project in 2014 makes a huge difference to the content. Modern practicing Buddhists and Bhikkhu scholars generally ground their expositions in the Pali Canon and other later collections of sutras, including the Mahayana Canons, along with the two thousand years long tradition of the ancient commentary texts on them. The academics that these Wikipedia articles now favour follow a different approach according to which only a small part of the Pali Canon is treated as authentic (and none of the Mahayana and later sutras). They select what they believe to be the only passages in the canon originally taught by the Buddha and interpolate using evidence from early Hindu and Jain texts to reconstruct what they think is the original teaching.
As a result of this new approach, which is strongly supported by perhaps a half dozen editors there, these articles are no longer acceptable in wikipedia:
To see how much they were changed, compare them with the same named articles in wikipedia (end of page has a link to the wikipedia article and go to the latest version) and just look at how often Bhikkhu scholars are cited.
It's the same for them all. The articles were first trimmed of just about all the Bhikkhu scholar content, then what was left was extensively rewritten, and cited mainly to various scholars working on this attempt to reconstruct what they believe to be content that predates the Pali Canon. Essentially there's nothing left of the original articles, so in effect they have been deleted and replaced by new articles.
Many modern Buddhist authors have taken the monastic vows, including the Dalai Lama (who is noted for his scholarship in Tibetan Buddhism by Tibetans), Walpola Rahula, Ringu Tulku, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ajahn Sumedho, Geshe Tashi Tsering, Pema Chodron etc.. This makes the requirement to back up most of what they say to content sourced to non Bhikkhus particularly restrictive. To us this seems an eccentric understanding of the Wikipedia guidelines. That's especially so when compared with the Wikipedia Christianity project. In this project, deeply committed Christian theologians, including those that have taken monastic vows, are considered excellent sources on their own faith.
New wikipedia articles on core topics in Buddhism seem like a blend of Hinduism and Buddhism
To a modern Buddhist the ideas presented in the new versions of these articles may seem likes a kind of blend of Hinduism and Buddhism. They sometimes even use terms that are more familiar to Hindus and unknown to most Buddhists such as 'Moksha' instead of 'Nirvana'. That shouldn't be too surprising given that the academics they use as sources rely on early Hinduism and early Jainism to help interpolate to find out what they think early Buddhists believe. Most modern Buddhists have probably never heard of this work.
The question of what early Buddhists believed is controversial, with a wide range of views from complete inauthenticity of the Pali Canon to the idea that the earliest canon was compiled during the First Buddhist council shortly after Buddha died, memorized by the monks and past on by memory like the Vedas, as described internally in the sutras.
This latter view of almost complete authenticity of the very earliest sutras is supported by a fair number of Buddhist scholars. They base this not on blind faith, but on careful examining of internal evidence, archaeological work and so on. It's not an impossible claim. Mingun Sayadaw memorized the Pali Canon word for word, a total of 16,000 pages. His memory of the canon was tested in 1954, just before the start of the Sixth Buddhist Council. For details of the reasoning both ways see Pali Canon# Attribution according to scholars.
Whether they are correct in their views or not, one thing is certain. The sutras are the basis on which most branches of modern Buddhism are practiced.
It's the material that's deleted that's the issue, not the material they added
We had no issues with the editors adding new material cited to these Western scholars. It's interesting to read what Richard Gombrich and others think, if it is reported accurately. The issue was with deleting the material cited to Bhikkhu scholars.
In turn, the main issue with deleting the Bhikkhu scholar material is that Wikipedia no longer correctly explains how central concepts are understood amongst the modern Buddhists who regard the sutra collections as authentic for their faith - that is to say - most modern Buddhists.
The result is that on core topics in Buddhism, Wikipedia now presents as "Buddhism" ideas developed by Western academics based on what they think early Buddhists believed before even the earliest main teachings in the Pali Canon were completed.
Or rather, what they present as "Buddhism" is a kind of synthesis of ideas. I don't know much about the topic, not studied Western academic Buddhism, but from the few articles I looked, at, much of this Western academic research into early Buddhism seems to be in a state of flux.
These scholars are exploring a diversity of distinctive views on what the early Buddhists believed, as is normal for scholars and philosophers. Views of individual scholars on this topic are continually evolving too. The current Wikipedia editors attempt a synthesis of all this material into a unified treatment of central ideas in "Buddhism".
For those who think the Pali Canon was compiled in the First Buddhist council after Buddha died, then these very early teachings may perhaps predate the Buddha, so if you are of that view, perhaps another way to think of it is as an investigation of teachings that just possibly might have predated the Buddha, or perhaps, believed by contemporaries. But that's just a sugggestion of a way to think about these researches :).
Their attempts to present this material as modern Buddhism I think rather obscures the situation, as that is not really how the scholars think of it. Also, the way they try to weave it together into a single essay also hides much of the interesting diversity of views amongst the modern academics. If someone has the expertise to present this material, propery presented, and explained, it would be interesting to read it. But separated out, presented as views of individual Western scholars on this matter, not presented as modern Buddhism, because not even its own authors think of it that way.
The academics themselves are not trying to change modern Buddhism
The academics cited by the articles are not themselves trying to change the way Buddhists understand core ideas in their religion. Carol Anderson is one of wikipedia's frequently cited authors in these articles, a minor author in Buddhist scholarship, favoured for her radical views on the sturas. She believes that even the Four Noble Truths was not taught by Buddha, that most of the sutra describing his first teaching was a later invention. She is a Buddhist herself and wrote a separate book that is conventional sutra based Therevadha Buddhism called "Basic Buddhism: A Beginner's Guide". It's a book for ordinary Buddhists, rather than her fellow academics. In this book, she does not mention her academic research or cite it. Instead, she presents the Four Truths just as they are in the sutras and in other books on Buddhism for modern Therevadhan Buddhists.
Richard Gombrich is perhaps their most cited author on central ideas in Buddhism. He is a renowned western Buddhist scholar who is not himself Buddhist, but finds the ideas fascinating and is interested in the full range of Early Indian ideas. He also does not consider his ideas prescriptive for modern Buddhists. None of them do. It's just academic research into what early Buddhists might have believed.
Our attempts to restore the deleted content within Wikipedia, in various forms
We explored various ways to restore the deleted content within Wikipedia itself, including rolling back (so that the new material could be added to the old articles), or adding the old material as sections of the new articles, and finally a suggestion to have both old and new as separate articles, but with no success. We tried every process of addressing the issue available in wikipedia, until there were no remaining options.
The ideas of these scholars have their points of interest. The editing dispute was not particularly over the material that was added, but the material that got deleted. For details, and a description of what they replace it by, and some of the ways we attempted to resolve the issue, if interested, see:
There are thousands of articles on Buddhism, many of which are unchanged. You may well come across a conventional explanation of the four truths, karma in Buddhism, etc elsewhere in the encyclopedia. But they continue to work on central articles deleting this material, in their efforts to improve Wikipedia (as they see it).
Decision to restore the deleted material to another wiki
After giving it some thought, we decided a good way ahead was to restore the deleted content into a new separate wiki. Wikipedia's page histories record every edit made to an article. So we can just go back through the histories until we find the old versions using the Bhikkhu scholar sources extensively.
By Wikipedia's Creative Commons license, we can copy over the entire Buddhism project, if we so wish, to a new encyclopedia, so long as we attribute the original authors through a link to the Wikipedia article, as we do. We may well copy most of it over eventually.
The motivation for this encyclopedia is to present the full diversity of modern Buddhism, based on the writings of Buddhist scholars and teachers themselves. We think that as articulate people who have spent their lives finding the best way to present the teachings, they are excellent sources to use on their own faith.
Our approach here takes much of value from the way wikipedia editing is done, and we also use ideas from Rimé to ensure we stay on track with our aim to make an encyclopedia that encourages diversity, as well as dialog and common ground, that differences are good. Most of the articles can be imported "as is", if necessary going back in history to 2015, before this change of direction and rewrite.
Which is how an editing dispute in Wikipedia gave rise to a Ri-me movement inspired encyclopedia of Buddhism
So, that is the story of how an editing dispute on Wikipedia gave rise to this Rimé movement inspired Encyclopedia of Buddhism. We are grateful to the editors who we had the dispute with, as without them, this encyclopedia would never have existed.