Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Dhamma On Wikipedia

I occasionally look through Wikipedia. It’s a bit like browsing through a good bookshop or library. Last week I decided to go through it thoroughly to see how Buddhism is presented. This is what I found. A few of the entries that directly relate to Buddhism; e.g. Nirvana, Dharma, Bodhisattva, Dalai Lama, etc. are well-done, while most are too brief or superficial. Perhaps the entry ‘The Miracles of the Buddha’ is indicative of most of those directly related to Buddhism. It has only one reference to the Tipitaka and no actual quotations. It makes no mention of the earliest, the early and the later traditions but lumps them all together as if they were all equally authoritative and valid. It casually confuses ‘popular tradition’ with scriptural teaching. It does not explain the Buddha’s attitude to the subject in full. At its best it is a superficial overview, and at its worst incorrect. When it comes to subjects not normally associated directly with Buddhism in the popular mind, but about which the Buddha often has something pertinent, even important, to say, most entries rarely even mention the Buddhist position, although the Jewish, Christian and or Islamic are usually well represented. (I notice the Mormon ‘take’ appears in just about ever entry. No doubt they have a well-organized committee making sure their beliefs are well represented) Take ‘Marriage’ for example. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic positions on this subject are given in full, as you would expect. The section on ‘Buddhism’ directs you to ‘The Buddhist View Of Marriage’ which has six lines on the subject with no references to or quotes from the Tipitaka. The bottom of this entry directs the reader to ‘Buddhist Ethics’ which gives a brief and very superficial account of the subject with only one quotation from the Tipitaka, from the Dhammapada. All other citations are from secondary sources. If we look at ‘Forgiveness’ the Islamic, Jewish and Christian views are detailed and well-referenced while the section on Buddhism is again scant and with only one quotation, again from the tired-old Dhammapada. In many Wikipedia entries, if Buddhism is mentioned at all, it is lumped under ‘Dharmic Religions’ or ‘The Indian Tradition’. Reading Wikipedia you would get the impression that Buddhism is definitely in the ‘also ran’ religious sweepstakes.
The entry on ‘Capital Punishment’ claims that there is a difference of opinion amongst Buddhists on the subject without mentioning that the Buddha’s opinion on killing of any kind is unambiguous. It also has two quotes from, you guessed it, the Dhammapada (God I hate the Dhammapada! Or more correctly, I hate the unimaginative lazy writers who can’t be bothered consulting any of the other 16,000 pages from the Buddhist scriptures) and neglects to quote what the Buddha says about executioners and judges who hand down cruel punishments. The section on Buddhism in ‘Altruism’ goes on about ‘the chain of cause and effect’ without even mention the word ‘altruism’, let alone addressing or explaining what Buddhism say has to say on this important subject. In the entry ‘Animal Rights’ (an exceptionally well-written article incidentally) there is a section on ‘The Status of Animals in the Ancient World’ which is empty as yet. Someone could write about the ethical and philosophical foundations in Dhamma in relation to animal rights – but no one has. The entry on ‘Woman in Buddhism’ by contrast, has been contributed by a someone well-versed in (I could say ‘biased towards’) Vajrayana and quotes June Campbell, Susan Murcott, Diana Paul, Shugsheb Jetsun, Rita Gross, Miranda Shaw, Tenzin Palmo, indeed just about everyone except the Buddha. The few quotes from the Tipitaka are mainly ones that support the position that early Buddhism is anti-feminine, which seems to be the main point of the article. This is summed up by Bernard Faura’s (whoever he is!) statement that ‘Buddhism is relentlessly misogynistic’. I would say that Bernard Faura is relentlessly ill-informed. If anything, the entry on ‘Alms’ is even worse. It is quite detailed but it has obviously been contributed by a monk from the Thai forest tradition. One can tell this because the writer only feels it necessary to mention giving alms to monks – the poor, the needy, travelers, etc are of course not worthy recipients for generosity.
After I read these last two entries I started to think that perhaps it is just as well that Buddhism is not mentioned very much in Wikipedia. But it has also made me think what can be done to improve and expand Buddhism’s presence on this otherwise excellent, widely read and, I assume, increasingly influential resource. Two things came to mind. (1) Continue with my www.buddhismatoz.com (which will soon be corrected and enlarged) and forget about Wikipedia. (2) Organize a group of well-informed and energetic Buddhists to write better entries and submit them to Wikipedia. This second option would require some discussion of the required structure and form of the proposed entries. Just off the top of my head here are a few of the things I feel should be considered.
(A) All articles should aim to present the Dhamma as a viable, practical and all-embracing philosophy of life perfectly relevant to the modern world.
(B) All articles should be founded on scriptural material and give references.
(C) Every subject that Buddhism has something relevant to say about, no mater how brief, should be dealt with. For example, the Wikipedia on ‘Body Piercing’ has a section on Religion which includes a Christian and the Mormon perspective on the subject. Why shouldn’t there be something on what Buddhism might have to say on this subject?
(D) A historical-chronological approach should be taken, distinguishing between early material and later developments.
I would consider the two entries ‘Nirvana’ and ‘Luminous Mind’ in Wikipedia to be good examples of articles based on the principles I am suggesting. Both are well-written, accurate and detailed. Am I correct in saying that both these articles have been written by Bhikkhu Thanissaro?
The problem with this second of the two option I was considering would be of course, trying to overcome ‘Buddhist indifference’. What do you think?


Scott said...

Wikipedia is the go-to source for most people on most subjects this day. However charming and valuable Buddhism A-Z may be, it would behoove Buddhists to concentrate on making Wikipedia just as complete.

Do we have your permission to cut and paste relevant text from Buddhism A-Z into Wikipedia?

artim said...

anyone can register himself or herself and add text to wikipedia.. i am happy to volunteer myself to update a section.. any other volunteers? perhaps Bhante you can direct us volunteers so that we can cover everything.. we could start on the Buddhism section first before going onto other areas..

Perry said...

Bhante, maybe you are aware of www.dhammawiki.com ? A Wiki dedicated entirely to Buddhism.

On another note, the brief pages on Buddhism isn't always a bad thing, for example the Criticism of Buddhism page, which is minimal compared to it's Abrahamic cousins, and all I can recall of it is the current Pope claiming Buddhism will "replace Marxism as Catholicism's biggest enemy".

Arun said...

Thank you for writing this great post! Articles on Buddhism in Wikipedia are notoriously poorly written and fail to comply with Wikipedia policies and guidelines (notably these issues); however, in amending these issues we should strive to not to merely promote our own opinions and understandings, but to aim for a higher goal of fairness, impartiality and factuality (including textual references, such as the Suttas).

Sheridan said...


That would be a great project for all Buddhists. The main question I get when people find out I'm Buddhist is, "How much pot do you smoke?" but it is America.

Before any of this is undertaken, though, could you give a small tutorial, or just e-mail one to me, on how to site properly?

Also, I did have a question on a section of the Suttas. The Sutta Nipata is an intriquing collection. The tone and subjects tend to be different. As opposed to the more practical teachings in the Majjhima Nikaya, the Sutta Nipata talks of things like not holding to any views as true whatsoever.

Do you have any thoughts on the subject? Let me know. If you would like to e-mail me, my address is sheridan.a.smith@gmail.com and I will try and not take up much of your time.



Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Scott,
When you ask ‘do “we” have permission’ who is “we”?

Dear Sheridan,
Then how much pot DO you smoke? The general opinion amongst scholars is that much of the Sutta Nipata is the earliest existent record of Buddhism. Firstly its Pali is very archaic. It seems to pre-date the period when the Dhamma was structures into the ‘four this’, ‘the six that’ and ‘the eight something else’. It also portrays monks living alone or in small bands in the forest, rather than large well-established monasteries where the main rule was ‘Whatever you do don’t upset the dayakas’. But most interestingly, as you point out, it also seems to emphasize the concept that right view is to have no view. Of course Buddhism would have never survived if the Dhamma had not been put into numbered categories, if monks hadn’t moved into monasteries and they had not conformed to lay expectations, but it may have lost something in doing so. So the Sutta Nipata offers a useful reminder that the scaffolding is not the building, that the map is not the territory, that the prescription is not the medicine. My all-time favorite verse from the whole of the Tipitaka is Sn. 71.

David said...

Dear Bhante,

I cannot contend that I am even remotely competent to write accurately about Buddhism, but I am reminded of the maxim that “one should be careful about what one wishes.”

I believe that you are, indeed, a scholar of Buddhism and I have great confidence in anything you would post.

With all due respect to the other writers on the blog, all of whom appear to be much more knowledgeable than I about Buddhism, I wonder if encouraging more persons to write on Wikipedia might aggravate the misinformation, and/or invite counter-productive discord.

Sometimes, “the road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions.”

As always, appreciative of your insight and wishing you the best in all your endeavors…

no said...

Christianity has a long history in English speaking countries, so it is natural that it is better represented in Wikipedia. In fact, when one talks about religion in the English language, somehow the ideas will usually have their roots in Christianity, so much so it becomes quite a strain to express Buddhist ideas in English. Nonetheless, in the last 50 years or so, I think, there has been an explosion of materials on Buddhism in English, which is indeed remarkable.

The entries in the Wikipedia is not taken by internet users as authoritative themselves, but as a guide for further research. Even with Buddhism under-represented in Wikipedia, information is not lacking. I had a look on the topic "marriage" itself. Though the write-up was brief and inadequate, if one followed up the links provided, one is actually confronted by an avalanche of material/information on the subject.

In one of the links to a particular link provided under "Marriage", I found dmoz.org, which provided 235 links on Theravada Buddhism, but I was disappointed to find no link to Buddhismatoz.com there (though there was a link to "Contemplatives, Singapore"). Hence, perhaps, the Venerable might wish to concentrate on building up Buddhismatoz.com, and get it to show up in links and search engines. I understand that there are ways to get it done, perhaps one of which is to post entries in Wikipedia and reference the website.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear No,
That sounds like good advice. I will follow it up.

David said...

Dear Bhante-

I thought you might be interested in this article about a new movie involving the tulku beliefs in Tibetan practice. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/claudia-ricci/buddhism-cant-be-this-bad_b_230709.html

Unfortunately, I think that Tibetan cultural manifestations of Buddhism are often perceived as within the “core” of Buddhism.

Be well and take care.

Sheridan said...


Thank you very much. That was exactly what I was looking for!


David (TheDhamma.com) said...

Yes, what 'no' said is good advice. The best way to improve google ratings and website rankings in general is to have lots of links to your site at other people's websites. Traffic is very good too, but google notices links more.

I am doing my part, with DhammaWiki.com I have most of Bhante's articles from A to Z at Dhamma Wiki with link references to A to Z and some to this blog. That comes to about 400 links to A to Z, which helps the rankings so that when people search on google, that site will come close to the top.

An example of how this works can be done by typing in dhamma encyclopedia at google and you will see that DhammaWiki.com comes up at the top and also other articles from there too. This was achieved through traffic and numerous other sites that link to this resource.

djbuddha said...

While I agree with the gist of your post, Bernard Faure (the guy who calls Buddhism misogynistic) is a fairly well-know Buddhist scholar who currently teaches at Stanford. His quotes in this article are taken far out of context, and his opinions about Buddhism may seem biased, but they are extremely well-informed opinions from reading the texts, in their original languages.

Which, of course, is the central problem with Wikipedia. Rather than being written by people who know what they're talking about, articles are written by people who have read the work of people who know what they're talking about and mistakenly believe that that's the same thing as actually knowing what you're talking about. Which isn't always true.

nihonshukyo said...


Speaking as one who does actively write Buddhist articles for Wikipedia, I can say from personal experience it's harder than one might think to put together a cohesive article on a subject like religion. In addition to researching the topic well enough to know it, one also has to be familiar with Wiki-markup language, templates and such to present it properly.

Then, in spite of your efforts, someone else comes along and alters it a week later.

I wrote a significant amount of work on the "Buddha" article, but it's hardly recognizable anymore.

Nevertheless, I know some of the guys on the "Buddhism" WikiProject and they're good guys/gals, and are trying their best. Give them a break, or help in the efforts, ok?

As a Buddhist priest in Japan wrote: criticism is something best restrained or not done at all.


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Nihonshukyo,
Thanks for explaining some of the problems in contributing to Wikipedia. Someone has already detailed these very problems to me privately and when I asked him to post his comments on my blog he declined saying ‘I don’t want to discourage others trying to improve things’. Concerning the ‘good guys/gals’ trying their best, you must have missed my comments that ‘some articles are well done’ while others ‘are well-written, accurate and detailed’. And of course, my whole post was a public reflection on whether or not it would be worthwhile to ‘help in the efforts’.

nihonshukyo said...


Thanks for clarifying the post. I see what you are trying to say. I won't defend some of the really haphazard articles you cited because they are not well-written, and a lack of citations is always a challenge on Wikipedia articles.

It also seems to apply that your suggestions are not already in place, but what i hope to get across is that there are already organized groups of people on Wikipedia (see: WikiProject Buddhism) trying to make a difference. Suggestions A-C are among the things that this group of volunteers strives to accomplish. D is an interesting one to consider, though I am at a loss as to how to implement.

Catch is of course, organizing people you've never met across many timezones, different lifestyles and Buddhist backgrounds. :-/

But I think you've added good input here, and I hope you and others reading this consider joining WikiProject Buddhism, and adding your $0.02. I think Wikipedia has too much turnover on editors, and not enough people stay with it long enough to get good at Wiki markup and correct articles. So, every person counts. :)


Roni said...

Bernard Faure has written 2 books on gender issues in (mostly Chinese and Japanese) Buddhism. Exerpts can be found on Google Books:

The red thread: Buddhist approaches to sexuality
The power of denial: Buddhism, purity, and gender

He also has a less scholarly book touching on the subject: Unmasking Buddhism