Florida State University : Research in Review

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Treasured Texts
Bryan Cuevas

The sheaf of papers on Bryan Cuevas' desk contains writings from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Long and narrow and culled from a handmade book tethered in pale orange ribbon, the oddly shaped pages were printed from old woodblocks most likely preserved by monks who fled Chinese communism in Tibet in the early 1960s.

Far from a dryly written manual on burial techniques, the text offers prayers for the dead, the physiological signs of death as well as a thorough explanation of the ritual methods "by which death can be averted and postponed so that living beings might be liberated from suffering."

Cuevas, an associate professor of religion and Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at FSU, helped bring the text to the university last year as part of a massive, 25,000-volume acquisition of books and micro-materials related to religion and culture in Asia.

The collection, which includes items in English, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Japanese, Chinese and Korean, as well as a large compilation of text on microfiche, elevates FSU to the top tier of universities that offer Asian studies in the southeastern United States.

In terms of research, Cuevas says, no other Florida universities can boast such a treasure: The collection consists of a significant percentage of materials from India and Tibet, and was amassed under what was known as the U.S. government's Public Law-480 program from the 1960s to 1980s. Under the program, copies were made of everything from daily newspapers to fine art to prized antiquities such as old Hindi and Sanskrit texts dating to the 15th century.

Over two-decades, a flourish of PL-480 texts and materials were made available to about 20 U.S. institutions and universities, including the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions in Carmel, N.Y., established by C.T. Shen, co-founder of The Buddhist Association of the United States.

When Shen's group donated its collection to the University of Virginia a few years ago, the university's rare books curator who happened to be a close friend of Cuevas' sounded the bell.

Cuevas, who earned his doctoral degree from UVA, traveled back to his alma mater to see the cache first hand. The 25,000 books stacked floor to ceiling in room after room proved "stunning," recalls Cuevas who was as intrigued by the collection's sheer size (hauling it required two 18-wheel semi-tractor trailer trucks) as with its broad scope that includes a reach of topics from religion to medicine to science to political theory.

Because UVA had originally received a duplicate set of the Asian studies materials under the PL-480 program, university officials decided to auction Shen's collection among a select group of private bidders.

In 2008, FSU's Department of Religion collaborated with the University Libraries, the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics and the Office of the Provost to raise $50,000 to buy the collection from UVA.

"To have a thriving research program," explains Cuevas who has long opened his personal Asian studies book collection to undergraduates as well as graduate students learning to do research: "We have to have a thriving library."