A Dictionary of Buddhism

December 9, 2013 | by Brian Short

Donald Lopez has been working in Buddhist studies since the 1980s, teaching courses and writing and editing books, advancing scholarship and dispelling myths about Buddhism as a philosophy and as a religion.

“Thirty years ago, when you said Buddhism, people thought Zen,” says Lopez, the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in LSA. “Now, when you say Buddhism, people think of mindfulness.”

As part of his mission to expand our understanding of Buddhism, Lopez has been working for more than a decade with Robert Buswell, a professor at UCLA, on an extensive dictionary on the subject. With six primary languages, more than 5,000 entries, and a length surpassing one million words, the project is the most ambitious English-language dictionary of Buddhism ever written.

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism was created to be both comprehensive and specific.  It provides terms, for example, from Korean Buddhism, which historically was seen as merely a sub-sect of Chinese Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, which was previously seen as being “so degenerate,” Lopez says, “that it didn’t even count as Buddhism, but was labeled Lamaism,” despite the fact that "lama" is the Tibetan word for a Buddhist teacher.

“We included all the important philosophical terms,” Lopez says, “as well as the doctrinal categories, saints, deities, and texts that are of pan-Asian importance. We provided these in six canonical languages—Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. We also gave extensive cross-references in the body of each entry. Some of the entries are over a thousand words in length, making this as much an encyclopedia as a dictionary.”

One single cross-reference can launch readers across continents and millennia, drawing meaningful connections that reveal a tradition that stretches from Tajikstan to Tokyo and around the world. The entry on “buddha,” for example, points readers to indigenous language terms including fo (Chinese), hotoke (Japanese), phra phuttha jao (Thai), puch’o (Korean), and sangs rgyas (Tibetan). But the process of constructing a comprehensive dictionary spanning over a million words wasn’t straightforward.

Meaningful Connections

“For example, we weren’t sure whether we should include a biography of the Buddha,” Lopez says. “The materials of the Buddha’s biography only began to be collected hundreds of years after his death, and different eras and traditions focus on different episodes from his life. It felt artificial to the tradition to include a single, chronological biography. Instead the life of the Buddha is recounted across many entries.”

Still, even at over a million words, there were many things that had to be left out. Lifting the five-and-a-half-pound dictionary, Lopez says, "I guess we need to start thinking about volume two."

The appeal of a book like this to scholars and students is obvious: a quick, accurate reference guide to terms and definitions of importance across the field. But Lopez hopes that non-specialists will also pick up the book and explore traditions that, together, are part of the fastest-growing religion in the world.

“You can read it from cover to cover,” Lopez says. “It’s filled with great stories.”


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