Vello Vaartnou and the Encyclopedia of Chinese Buddhism

CBE Logo

Logo of the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia

The following is an interview with Australian-based Estonian Buddhist monk and scholar Vello Vaartnou. It details an exciting project he has been working on since 2012 to develop the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia, an online Wikipedia-style production which seeks to collect and curate knowledge about Buddhism. The emphasis is on Chinese Buddhism, as the name suggests, but the the Encyclopedia sets out to provide a repository of knowledge about Buddhism generally. It therefore promises to be of interest to Buddhists, regardless of tradition.

The interview has been reproduced with permission.


The First Year of Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia

The end of the year 2012 marked an important milestone in academic Buddhism.             During the PNC conference held at Berkeley University on 7-9 December, Vello Vaartnou , a Buddhist monk from Australia,  launched his voluminous new project, an online Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia.

Delegates attending the Berkeley conference.

Delegates attending the Berkeley conference.

It has taken Vaartnou many years to accumulate the knowledge and merit to start such a massive undertaking – one that is expected to continue long after most of our lifetimes.

Vello Vaartnou has been a dedicated Buddhist for over 40 years and has educated people in Buddhism in many countries. He established the practical Buddhist tradition and the first nyingma movement, the Estonian Buddhist Brotherhood  in 1980 and introduced the first Buddhist objects into the Estonian intellectual and religious landscape.

He has translated books and texts, built seven stupas (including the first stupas of Northern Europe), and prayer wheels and temples.

Vello Vaartnou himself is a significant person in terms of modernizing Buddhist teachings and making them more available. He is the first ever to start using computers to paint thangkas and design temples with 3-D software and is today the author of two online Buddhist Encyclopedias and founder of two annual international Buddhist conference  in Europe and Australia. Since 2010 Vaartnou has been developing international educational projects in the Australasian region, initiating the international conferences Buddhism & Australia, an online History of Buddhist Australia, series of exhibitions and an online Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia (CBE).

Vaartnou giving an interview in Hongkong

Vaartnou giving an interview in Hongkong

The first entries for the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia were posted  in December 2012 and it has since grown to 20 000 articles in English and 4000 in Chinese. Vaartnou has continued his work on the project which is already considered one of the biggest online resources on Buddhism.

Let`s have a look at the CBE on its first birthday, and ask its author more about it.

Why a Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia?

Vello Vaartnou: 

Chinese Buddhism has a very rich and colorful history and presence. China currently has a vast amount of different Buddhist materials, including texts, chronicles, commentaries from practitioners, sutras, tantras, paintings, sculptures, temples, shrines, monasteries, etc. In modern China numerous different Buddhist traditions are practiced, for example  Chan and Tibetan Buddhism, etc. which results even more variety in available Buddhist materials in China.

China has one of the biggest populations of Buddhists in the world.  Along with its significant and increasing global influence, it has great potential to preserve and develop the Buddhist tradition, and to influence the development of Buddhism globally.

This is not my first online encyclopedia project. In 2005 I initiated an online  Estonian Nyingma Buddhism Encyclopedia in the Estonian language, the first and only Buddhism Encyclopedia in Estonia.  This subsequently helped prepare the way for this  much bigger project.

To maximize the impact on more Buddhist readers around the globe, I have started the on-Line Buddhist Encyclopedia of China, in both Chinese and English. The encyclopedia introduces different aspects and approaches, and will not exclude any Buddhist materials which are not directly related to China.

The CBE creates an advanced online source of Buddhist knowledge by bringing together Buddhists, academics, students and organizations such as universities, temples, monasteries and communities.

The CBE corrects and sets into logical and chronological order Buddhist materials and information, which have accumulated over thousands of years, adding new layers of cultural movements which have occurred and shaped Buddhism over time.

There is a great gap between Chinese and English speaking Buddhists and not all people can afford to travel to explore Buddhism in other countries.  The online Encyclopedia provides an opportunity for people interested in Buddhism to learn and study in English and Chinese and in many more languages in the future.

I plan to develop the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia in a variety of different languages, so in this sense I see it evolving into a World Buddhist Encyclopedia. The sub encyclopedias will contain information about Buddhism by country (history, traditions, teachers, lineages, scholars etc.) and language.

Tell us about the first year of CBE?

Vello Vaartnou:

The Encyclopedia ( has many stages of development :  Collecting and posting all existing digitized materials ; digitizing additional historical texts, documents and materials  and creating and promoting new forms of Buddhist education (3D, Buddhist films, etc.)

During the first year we have gathered, inserted, illustrated and provided links to more than 20,000 articles in English and 4,000 in Chinese.

The encyclopedia   currently has 36 categories with over 1,400 sub-categories, and contains: Buddhism and Science, Buddhism Related Articles, Architecture, Art and Culture, Cosmology, Festivals, Geography, Organizations, Philosophy, Practices, Buddhist Studies, Symbols, Teachers, Buddhist Views, Chinese Buddhism, Death & Rebirth, Deities, Famous Buddhists, History of Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Mahayana, Meditation, Monasteries, Rituals, Scholars in Buddhist studies, Theravada Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Translators, Vajrayana, Zen etc.

For an example of categories go to:

The encyclopedia already contains Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Japanese, Chinese and Zen dictionaries and is unique because of links within the text and because of the  large amount of illustrative materials.

Assembling and linking the material, demands both a knowledge of Buddhism as well as IT, and a complete mastery of technical solutions.

Tell us what makes CBE unique?

Vello Vaartnou:

  • CBE collects existing digitized materials on Buddhism and presents an academic approach to different aspects of Buddhism.  By managing and presenting information in a properly organized and codified manner, it makes it accessible to people today.
  • CBE contains links in every article, enabling readers to find explanations instantly and continuously  acquire new information.
  • CBE has a huge number of illustrations that illustrate and explain texts as well make it  easier to read.
  •  No other Encyclopedia has such links and illustrations.
  •  The Encyclopedia offers free access to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Managing the CBE project

 A huge amount of work on the Buddhist Encyclopedia has been done by Vaartnou and one volunteer in  a house in Western Australia, where they have worked  16- 18 hours every day,  funded entirely by Vello Vaartnou.

To date, there has been no support for the project from Australian authorities who have been approached.  For example Lotterywest, run by State Government of Western Australia, wrote:

“We do not have any interest in projects which are for the benefit of the international academic community or for the benefit of the international Buddhist community. “

Sounds pretty interesting, not to say scandalous statement in nowadays Australia, where Buddhism is the fastest growing religion …..

Vaartnou emphasis that the key of CBE aim is preservation, it is vital in these rapidly changing times to gather all available materials and translate and digitize them.

The online world poses a potential threat to traditional forms of Buddhist materials.  In addition, if Buddhism does not adapt to this changing scenario it risks becoming irrelevant.

The influence of internet has been dramatic over the past 20 years but also has a potentially negative dimension including the repetitive and flawed information and incorrect terminology.

But as we know, these changing times also provide new opportunities, the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia is just one example of how these changes can be skillfully used to the advantage of Buddhism

What happens next?

Vaartnou says that the encyclopedia is a vast project that will take decades to reach its final potential and will continuously leverage the development of computer technology and the internet to reach this potential.

There are thousands of people all over the world who read the encyclopedia every day: people who are looking for information about Buddhism can find all information in the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia. The project has received many support letters from Buddhist, scientists, monastics and laypeople.

Dr.Bolsokhoeva, a Tibetologist and specialist in Tibetan medicine: “Vello Vaartnou is the only person with both the understanding of the material and the drive will to carry out such a significant project.”

Professor Lionel Obadia from  L’université Lumière Lyon 2,  “ This is an impressive work and very useful tool – well done !”

Some of support letters:

We could say that the first year of encyclopedia has been extremely successful. The encyclopedia is used by universities, schools, monasteries and other institutions as a source of qualified information and materials and is one of the biggest online resources on Buddhism. If we look at statistics, then there are thousands of readers from all continents every day. Most of them are from the USA, China, India, Taiwan, Australia. Every day there are many readers from Stanford, Berkeley, Singapore and also from Europe, Russia,  Africa etc.

After the 3rd international conference Buddhism & Australia in February 2014 in Perth, of which Vaartnou is the author and organizer, he will leave his work in WA to visit Taiwan , Mongolia and Bhutan to discuss the further development of the encyclopedia project.


About Jovan Maud

I'm a lecturer in the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at Georg-August University, Göttingen, Germany. Interests include: transnational religious networks, popular religion in Thailand, religious tourism and commodification, and digital anthropology.
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