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“Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism” wins top reference prizeProfessors Robert E. Buswell, Jr. (left) and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Photo: Reed Hutchinson.)

“Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism” wins top reference prize

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

The Dartmouth Medal of the American Library Association has been awarded to the reference work co-authored by UCLA Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies Robert E. Buswell, Jr.

UCLA International Institute, February 3, 2015 — “The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism” co-authored by Robert E. Buswell, Jr., of UCLA and Donald S. Lopez, Jr., of the University of Michigan, has won the prestigious 2015 Dartmouth Medal for outstanding reference work of the American Library Association (ALA). The ALA is the oldest and largest library association in the world.

The bronze medal, a likeness of Athena (the Greek goddess of wisdom), will be awarded to Princeton University Press at a special ceremony at the annual ALA conference in San Francisco, June 25–30.


                                     Courtesy of RUSA/ ALA. 

“My co-author, Don Lopez, and I are so gratified that the ALA has chosen to recognize our dictionary with the Dartmouth Medal,” said Buswell, Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at UCLA and founding director of its Center for Buddhist Studies.

Created in 1974 and conferred by the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the ALA, the Dartmouth Award honors “the creation of a reference work of outstanding quality and significance, including, but not limited to: writing, compiling, editing or publishing books or electronic information.”

“Dictionary” co-authors Buswell and Lopez — both distinguished professors of Buddhism at their respective universities — did everything on this list except the publishing. They wrote, compiled and edited over 5,000 entries on key terms, concepts, texts, authors, deities, schools and monasteries, based on works written in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

The dictionary even offers selected terms and names from works in Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, Sinhalese, Newari and Mongolian.

A massive undertaking

“Don and I sought to produce an encyclopedic dictionary — not simply a list of terms, each with a brief definition, but instead, an extensive and detailed description of the meaning and significance of Buddhist terminology across all the major traditions of the religion, using all the principal Buddhist canonical languages,” explained Buswell.

“We also wanted the user to be able to understand how Buddhist teachings and practices intersected with each other across time and space, so that by using the dictionary the reader could begin to understand both the continuities and differences in Buddhism in India, Tibet, China, etc.“

The comprehensive scope of the “Dictionary” makes it a first in the Buddhist Studies field; previous dictionaries in the English language typically covered only one or two major Buddhist traditions and languages. Creating the reference work was consequently a massive undertaking in which the two authors were assisted by numerous graduate-student collaborators.

According to the ALA press release, RUSA award committee members recognize the “Dictionary” as “a true meisterwerk — scholarly yet accessible, exhaustive, yet usable. As one member put it, “If you can apply the word ‘elegant’ to a reference work, this would be the book.”

“The award committee found the ‘Dictionary’ appropriate for both the general public and a scholarly audience,” said Nicolette Sosulski, chair of the committee and business librarian at the Portage District Library in Michigan.

She explained that committee members had all looked up entries for basic Buddhist terms, such as “mantra,” that might interest nonspecialists and scholars alike. In all cases, they found the entries both comprehensible and in-depth. “Each entry also features italicized terms that are defined elsewhere in the ‘Dictionary,’ which function almost as hyperlinks in the printed text,” said Sosulski. “That’s a big plus for usability.”

A collaborative research project

Lopez, a specialist in Tibetan Buddhism, began the dictionary in 2001. Buswell, a specialist in the East Asian Buddhist traditions, joined the project full-time in 2005. The dictionary was finally published by Princeton University Press in December 2013, representing more than a decade’s worth of work.

Robert E. Buswell, Jr. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.) “There were many times in the course of this 12-year project when we despaired whether we would ever finish,” remarked Buswell. “I once joked that we had discovered a special depth of the Buddhist Interminable Hell reserved specifically for compilers of dictionaries, where no matter how many entries we finished, there was always one more that needed to be written. After 30-year faculty careers, we felt like we had somehow ended up back in graduate school preparing for our comps!”

With Buswell able to read classical Chinese, Korean and Sanskrit, and Lopez, classical Tibetan and Sanskrit, the two authors were able to cover major ground themselves. Together, they personally wrote over one million words.

Buswell noted that they also benefited handsomely from the resources of UCLA’s Center for Buddhist Studies and Buddhist Studies Program (one the largest in the Western world). He and Lopez, he said, plied “all our wonderful faculty colleagues and graduate students shamelessly for information.”

In fact, he said, six UCLA graduate students “made such extensive contributions to the dictionary that we listed them on the title page. Several have since gone on to academic positions of their own.” Those contributors include J. Wayne Bass (UC San Diego), William Chu (University of the West), Seong-Uk Kim (Harvard University), Sumi Lee (Dongguk University) Maya Stiller (University of Kansas), and Harumi Ziegler (Rare Books Division, UCLA Young Research Library).

Major assistance was also provided by former UCLA graduate students Caleb Carter (now a visiting professor at UCLA), Shayne Clarke (McMaster University), Heng Yi fashi (Dharma Realm University), Min Ku Kim (University of Minnesota), Youme Kim (Los Angeles City College), Karen Muldoon-Hules (UCLA), Cedar Bough Saeji (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies), Tyler Cann, Mui-fong Choi and Sherin Wing.

Buswell and Lopez had previously collaborated on “The Encyclopedia of Buddhism” (MacMillan Reference, 2004), edited by Buswell. The UCLA professor’s many publications include “Religions of Korea in Practice” (Princeton, 2007); “Cultivating Original Enlightenment” (University of Hawaii, 2007); substantial portions of the 13-volume “Collected Works of Korean Buddhism” (Joyge Order of Korean Buddhism, 2012), the most comprehensive collection of Korean Buddhist texts ever to be translated into English; and the memoir “The Zen Monastic Experience” (Princeton, 1992).

Lopez, an authority on Tibetan Buddhism, has likewise published an impressive array of scholarly works, among them, “Prisoners of Shangri-La” (University of Chicago, 1998), “Elaborations on Emptiness” (Princeton University Press, 1996) and “From Stone to Flesh” (Chicago, 2013).

After collaborating on both an encyclopedia and a dictionary, one might expect these two scholars to take a well-deserved rest. Past history, however, indicates otherwise. Keep your eyes on this space.

* “The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism” already figures prominently in the UCLA Library study guide for the university’s popular undergraduate course, Introduction to Buddhism. (Click here.)

This article was updated on February 4, 2015.