Digital Reflections of the Buddha: A Life in Text and Many Images

June 4, 2019 | Yale Center for British Art

Delivered at The Future of Images Symposium on IIIF standards held at the Yale Center for British Art.

Summary From the Organizers

On June 4th, 2019, Yale hosted a daylong program entitled “The Future of Images at Yale: Introducing Yale’s new Image Standard” to demonstrate to nearly 200 faculty, staff and students the potential offered by the Yale Library and Museums’ shared commitment to implementing IIIF-enabled images across their collections. 

International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) is a model for seamlessly gathering, presenting and annotating digital images from collections at Yale and around the globe.  IIIF allows scholars and users to bring together images from collections cordoned off in discrete catalogs and it will eventually provide a cornerstone of an integrated cross-collections search and discovery platform at Yale.  This image framework also solves the problem of delivering high-quality large-scale images over the web by nimbly requesting pieces of images as requested for deep-zooming by the IIIF viewer tools, instead of accessing/ downloading unwieldy large image files.   

The program began with introductions from Amy Meyers, Director of the Yale Center for British Art, and Susan Gibbons, the Stephen F. Gates ‘68 University Librarian and Deputy Provost for Collections and Scholarly Communication at Yale University.  Their remarks set the stage for an exciting day of demonstrations, conversations, and questions about the opportunities provided by this collaborative adoption of IIIF at Yale. 

The morning session included a set of presentations from IIIF experts from Yale, Harvard University, Stanford University, and North Carolina State University.  They provided a broad context for how IIIF has been integrated at peer institutions, as well as showcasing some of the most interesting issues and projects that they’ve seen.  They also spoke to future developments coming soon to IIIF and the IIIF viewer tools.


The afternoon sessions began with a panel discussion featuring the morning speakers that was moderated by Edward Town and Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass from the Yale Center for British Art.  The audience had a lively set of questions that raised interesting conversations about implementation, adoption, use, features, and challenges.  The remainder of the afternoon’s programming consisted of scholarship Use Cases built with IIIF-enabled images.  These projects each demonstrated new aspects of scholarly inquiry that would not have been otherwise possible. 

Professor Andrew Quintman from Wesleyan University shared his Life of the Buddha project ( ), in which he has digitally reproduced and analyzed a corpus of seventeenth-century Tibetan texts and images, including a historically unique mural of the Buddha’s life story approximately 300 feet in length. His project required an elegant solution to show complex relationships across a diverse set of materials, and he sought to allow users (scholars, students, and the general public) to read and explore the story without prioritizing text over image. By expanding the Mirador Viewer’s IIIF functionality, he was able to map irregular chapter and scene boundaries on a series of very large image files, and link them to a structured hierarchy of annotations in both English and unicode Tibetan. The Mirador Viewer allows users to better understand complex relationships between the visual logic of the murals and the textual logic of the literary narrative through multiple points of entry. In doing so the project addresses a challenge facing many in the Humanities today: how can we analyze and present literature, visual art, and their institutional contexts in a synthetic fashion.  Nicolas Frisch, Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Languages and Literature, spoke about the Ten Thousand Rooms ( ) project at Yale, which is directed by Professor Tina Lu and Professor Mick Hunter.  This project uses crowdsourcing and IIIF images to translate, transcribe and annotate pre-modern chinese texts.  IIIF makes possible an endless array of annotations (marginalia) on top of image-based primary sources, an effort which is impossible to replicate on modern typeset print or original rare and fragile source material.  As an open platform, Ten Thousand rooms invites interactive collaboration between scholars, students, and enthusiastic amateurs and hobbyists whose wealth of time, storytelling expertise and language skills cannot be matched.  The project is addressing issues of access restrictions in China and the US, roles and permissions, and working with layers for other kinds of textual and data analysis. 

This session wrapped up with an interesting Q & A about how projects like Life of the Buddha fit into the traditional scholarly monograph, peer reviewed publishing model.  The speakers also addressed issues related to device screen size limitations and long-term preservation solutions.


The afternoon continued with a second session devoted to IIIF-enabled scholarship.  Lisa Fagin Davis from The Medieval Academy in Boston discussed her work reconstructing dismembered manuscripts and other kinds of dispersed virtual reconstruction.  She also provided a live demonstration of how scholars can easily create a custom manifest to compare images for analysis and study.  Edward Town, Head of Collections Information and Access, and Assistant Curator for Early Modern Art at the Yale Center for British Art presented his ambitious project to collection 4000 images of Tudor and Jacobean paintings and conservation images for study and identification.  By using IIIF to draw together images from disparate collections around the world, the Yale Center for British Art was able to use advanced technologies such as infrared-reflectography, x-ray, macro x-ray fluorescence, dendrochronology and spectrometry, as well as deep zoom brushstroke analysis and primary source research to begin stitching together clues to identify painters and make attributions.   Nelson Rios, Head of Biodiversity Informatics and Data Science at the Peabody Museum closed out the afternoon sessions with a forward thinking case study of how IIIF might be integrated into the work of scholars in natural history.  Peabody has a large and growing collection of diverse digitized objects that is not yet IIIF enabled.  He present a wide set of potential uses that used IIIF’s broad feature set, including: pan, zoom, annotations, multi-image comparison, sequencing of data, potential for modelling and measurements, cross-collections comparison, and data sharing.  He further explored some possible future scenarios in which machine learning and training and 3d visualizations might bring new depth to IIIF-enabled image sets.


The program wrapped up with a brief recap and observations from E.C. Schroeder, Director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.  Yale is in the early stages of bringing IIIF technology to campus and he captured the delight expressed by many about the broad interest across campus, as well as the commitment at Yale for collaboration and breaking down the silos that currently isolate collections.  IIIF enables new kinds of research, teaching, learning, conservation and he recognized the challenges and opportunities offered by Yale’s cultural heritage IT collaboration across the museums and libraries for making Yale’s extensive collections widely and easily available to scholars, students and visitors on campus and around the world.

For more information about IIIF or Yale’s Cultural Heritage collaboration, please contact

The Great Deeds of the Buddha: A Seminar on Text, Doctrine, and Image in Tibetan Buddhism

December 18, 2018 | Tsinghua University, Beijing | Seminar Report 1, Seminar Report 2

“Life of the Buddha” Project Overview: Digital Frameworks for Preservation and Analysis”

“Exploring the Life of the Buddha in the Jonang Murals and Texts”

Seminar on Text, Doctrine, and Image in Tibetan Buddhism, Tsinghua Unviersity

19 Ways of Looking at Milarepa

November 19, 2018 | American Academy of Religion, Denver

Translation is a multivalent process. A translation is a reading, an interpretation, an argument about the text, its author, its time and place, and about its reception in the new spaces the translator imagines herself to be placing the text. A close reading of all available translations of a given verse, for instance, reveals, potentially, as many imagined authors, times, places, doctrines, and world systems breathing life into the text as there are translations. This roundtable panel takes its inspiration from the epitome of such work: Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (Asphodel Press, 1987), a slim book that provocatively comments on nineteen translations of four lines of Chinese Buddhist nature poetry. Through a close reading of multiple English renderings, Weinberger and Paz elicit the ways in which, “a translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of a poem. As such, every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life. As no individual reader remains the same, each reading becomes a different—not merely another—reading” (43).

In this roundtable, our task is to similarly reflect on a few lines of verse attributed to Milarepa, Tibet’s earliest and most famous Buddhist poet. We ask, how might an English translation evoke emotional responses, or reflect comparable religious aspirations attributed to the Tibetan source? How do choices about the tone and timbre of a translation—reflected by word order, meter, rhyme scheme—alter a poem’s religious meaning, or transform its efficacy as a vehicle for religious transmission? To what degree can we consider the poems ascribed to a Buddhist teacher, in Tibetan or English, to be Buddhist? If translation is “a reimagining of a poem,” the roundtable participants seek to illuminate how the translation of Tibetan Buddhist poetry entails reimagining the very nature of religious expression itself. This becomes especially acute in literature where environment, feeling, experience, doctrine, and ethics are so concisely bound together in a single discourse. How do we make sense of this synthesis in Tibetan religious poetry, and how does translation work within this process of making sense?

Narrative Paintings from Central Asia to the Himalaya

23 October, 2017 | Musée Cernuschi, Paris | Conference Website |

“Writing the Visual: Translating Buddha Life Narratives from Text into Image”

Accounts of the Buddha’s final life are ubiquitous across Tibet. Among the most extensive and striking are those in the corpus of literary and visual materials produced by the seventeenth-century luminary Tāranātha Kunga Nyingpo (1575–1634) at his monastic seat of Phuntsokling in the Tibetan region of Tsang. This paper examines Tāranātha’s work entitled A Painting Manual for the Hundred Acts of the Teacher, Lord of Śākyas (Ston pa shākya dbang po’i mdzad brgya pa’i bris yig). This text exemplifies the little-studied genre of Tibetan writing known as the painting manual (bris yig). In it, Tāranātha self-consciously bridges two sets of Buddha vitae: his literary narrative in 125 chapters called The Sun of Faith (Dad pa’i nyin byed) and the narrative murals executed in his monastery’s second floor gallery, covering some 150 square meters, referred to as “the Boundless Design” (bkod pa mtha’ yas). The Painting Manual covers the entire arc of the Buddha’s life story as told in The Sun of Faith, and contains scene-by-scene instructions for its visual representation. Tāranātha’s Painting Manual thus inhabits in a middle ground between two media, effectively translating text into image. This paper draws on Tāranātha’s writings and a complete site documentation of his murals to reflect upon the different kinds of stories textual and visual narratives tell, and how the translation from one to the other leads to new forms of storied knowledge.

HH Tai Situpa Visits Yale

October 6, 2016 | Yale University |

His Holiness the 12th Chamgon Kenting Tai Situpa visited Yale, toured the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, met with several student groups, and delivered a public talk “Meditation in the Modern World.”

More information here.

Universities as Agents of Sustainable Conservation

April 12, 2016 | UN Global Colloquium, Yale University | Event Link |

UN Global Colloquium on the Preservation of Cultural Heritage

Sustainable development —the concept of meeting the world’s current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same—is of growing importance in times of rapid social transformations, global climate change, and economic uncertainty. This satellite workshop will address important challenges on the way towards sustainable conservation, in all three dimensions of sustainability: economic, ecologic, and social.

In the presence of already existing UN organizations/platforms, what role might a university consortium serve to provide solutions for sustainability in preservation? How can universities create and maintain interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary networks for addressing issues of sustainability in conservation, mitigating challenges of mitigation and adaptation for creating resilient societies, and forming links to UN sustainable development goals?

The Making of Milarepa

September 10, 2015 | Tibet House |

Public book talk on The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa

7:00 pm | 22 West 15th St, New York, NY

There is a suggested donation but I have requested that all proceeds go toward earthquake relief in Nepal.

Illuminating the Yogin’s Path: Manuscript Illustrations in Tibetan Biography

April 16–17, 2015 | University of Virginia | Conference Link |

Conference on Books and Readers in the Pre-Modern World

The ubiquity of the book in literate societies can blind us to its complex social and cultural functions in particular times and places. The materials out of which books are made, the physical form that they take, the way scripts and images are inscribed on their surfaces, the kinds of texts they preserve, and the means by which they are circulated, consumed, and even performed can illuminate economic and environmental conditions, ideological agendas, and the ways networks function within and between cultures. Studies of book culture have increased exponentially in recent years, and the aim of this conference is to offer an inter-disciplinary, cross-cultural analysis of the status quaestionis in dialogue with one exceptionally influential volume, Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts, which in 2015 will mark its twentieth anniversary.

Visit to Yale by HH the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje

April 6–10, 2015 | Yale University | Event Link |

A four-day visit to Yale University by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Activities include His Holiness’s Chubb Fellowship Lecture “Compassion in Action—Buddhism and the Environment”.

More information about the visit, news reports, and a photo gallery can be found here.

Walking through old campus

The Yogin and the Madman Receives AAR Book Award

November 23, 2014 | American Academy of Religion, San Diego |

The Yogin and the Madman receives the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion.

Remarks from the awards committee:

“It is eminently readable, engagingly written, while displaying impeccable scholarship. I am by no means familiar with Tibetan biographical literature and know next to nothing about Milarepa. But in this book, Mila does indeed come alive! through the author’s cogent analysis of the multiple readings of his biography in differing historical circumstances and of how these readings shaped and reshaped the Buddhist consciousness. This book can be read with interest by all those similarly interested in the place of  biographical literature in other religious traditions (as I am) but also by nonspecialists.

The Yogin and the Madman got me excited to read primary text material about Milarepa, someone I’d never thought about twice previously. I found the author’s argument layered and nuanced in its thought. I thought it was written nicely, with a level of sophistication and maturity not found in a lot of textual studies. The author drew richly from the primary texts, and the primary texts (both in terms of their content, reception, and deployment) are at the heart of his argument. The book also includes original translation work by the author.  Finally, it made me appreciate what texts contribute to the study of religion broadly.”

The Making of Milarepa

October 1, 2014 | University of Colorado, Boulder |

A book talk on The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa

University of Colorado, Boulder
British Studies Room, Norlin Library, 5:00 pm

Free and open to the public

Literature, Art, and Institution: Religious Studies Collaborations in Bhutan

November 12, 2013 | Yale University |

Environment, Livelihood and Culture: A Round Table Discussion on Collaborative Research Partnerships in Bhutan
Yale Himalaya Initiative Seminar, Yale University

Speakers: Edward R. Cook, Timothy Gregoire, Andrew Quintman, Mark Turin and Tshering Yangzom

  • Edward R. Cook, Ewing Research Professor and Director, Tree-Ring Laboratory, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
  • Timothy Gregoire, J. P. Weyerhaeuser, Jr., Professor of Forest Management
  • Andrew Quintman, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
  • Mark Turin, Program Director of the Yale Himalaya Initiative
  • Tshering Yangzom, Program Officer for the Bhutan Foundation