Tibetan Buddhism, heir to ancient India’s Nalanda Tradition

The Buddhist Channel, 27 May 2023

Dharmsala, India -- At the CIHTS’s conference on "Mind in Indian Philosophical Schools of Thought and Modern Science" held in Sarnath, India in 2018, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, said that "... (Tibetan Buddhism) is universally acknowledged as the heir to the Nalanda Tradition."

Further elaborating on this famed institution, His holiness further praised Nalanda as the epicentre of ancient Indian thought that can be relevant today in terms of learning to tackle destructive emotions. "India", he said, "is the only country that could combine the benefits of modern education with ancient Indian knowledge to enable more people to achieve peace of mind."

Ancient Nalanda and it's Tradition

Ancient Nalanda, from 427 until 1197 CE, was a center of learning located in present-day Bihar, India. It was renowned for its scholarly pursuits and intellectual exchange. It attracted scholars from various Buddhist traditions, including those who later became instrumental in the development of Vajrayana.

Nalanda played a vital role in promoting the patronage of arts and academics during the 5th and 6th century CE, a period that has since been described as the "Golden Age of India" by scholars. Before it was destroyed and burned much of its facilities at the beginning of the twelfth century by the Islamic invader Bakhtiyar Khilji, Nalanda held over 9 million texts.

The Nalanda tradition emphasized rigorous academic study, logic, and debate as means to attain a deep understanding of Buddhist philosophy and practice. This approach influenced the intellectual and philosophical foundations of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Scholars at Nalanda engaged in the study of sutras, commentaries, and treatises, which formed the basis for the later development of Vajrayana texts and practices.

Vajrayana Buddhism and Nalanda

Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, emerged as a distinct tradition within Mahayana Buddhism around the 6th or 7th century CE. It incorporated elements of Indian tantric practices, including rituals, meditation techniques, and the use of symbolic visualizations, as a means to achieve enlightenment. These tantric practices were heavily influenced by the Nalanda tradition's emphasis on scholarly inquiry and intellectual analysis.

Many prominent Buddhist scholars from Nalanda, such as Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, and Atisha, played significant roles in shaping Vajrayana Buddhism. They contributed to the development of tantric theory, ritual practices, and the integration of philosophical concepts into the Vajrayana path. Their writings and teachings laid the foundation for subsequent Vajrayana masters and their lineages. Here, we explore their roles in more detail.


Nagarjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is widely regarded as one of the most influential Buddhist philosophers in history. His profound insights into the nature of reality, as expounded in his seminal works such as the "Mulamadhyamakakarika" (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), laid the groundwork for the Madhyamaka philosophy. While Nagarjuna's primary focus was on the Mahayana tradition, his teachings on emptiness (shunyata) and dependent origination (pratityasamutpada) had a profound impact on the development of Vajrayana.

In Vajrayana, Nagarjuna's teachings on emptiness became instrumental in the understanding of the subtle nature of reality and the transformative power of meditation and ritual practices. His works provided a philosophical basis for the unique Vajrayana practices centered around deity yoga, mandala visualization, and the use of mantras.


Chandrakirti (c. 600 – 650 CE) was another influential scholar from the Nalanda tradition. His most renowned work is the "Madhyamakavatara" (Introduction to the Middle Way), a comprehensive commentary on Nagarjuna's "Mulamadhyamakakarika." Chandrakirti's commentary became one of the primary texts studied by Vajrayana practitioners, particularly those engaged in the practice of deity yoga and tantric meditation.

Chandrakirti's writings elucidated the concepts of emptiness and dependent origination, providing a philosophical framework for Vajrayana practitioners to understand the nature of mind, reality, and the interplay of conventional and ultimate truths. His commentary also addressed the relationship between conventional reality and the visionary world of tantric practices, helping to bridge the gap between intellectual understanding and experiential realization.


Atisha Dipankara Shrijñana (982 – 1054 CE), commonly known as Atisha, was an Indian Buddhist scholar and practitioner. Although Atisha is primarily associated with the development of the Kadampa tradition, his teachings and influence extended to the Vajrayana as well. Atisha played a crucial role in revitalizing Buddhism in Tibet and shaping the early stages of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Vajrayana tradition.

Atisha is renowned for his work "The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment" (Bodhipathapradipa), which provided a step-by-step guide to spiritual development. While this text is primarily oriented towards the gradual path (Lamrim) of the Mahayana tradition, it also incorporates tantric elements, such as the importance of guru devotion and the integration of tantric practices into the spiritual path.

Atisha's emphasis on ethical conduct, compassion, and the cultivation of wisdom influenced the development of Vajrayana in Tibet, providing a solid foundation for later masters and the growth of various Vajrayana lineages.

Intellectual and Philosophical Rigor

While Nalanda boasts of these three famous alumnus, they were not exclusively responsible for the development of Vajrayana Buddhism. Nalanda institution as a whole provided an intellectual and philosophical environment that greatly influenced the emergence and growth of the Vajrayana tradition. Here are four key reasons how the Nalanda tradition impacted Vajrayana.

1) Scholarly Pursuits
Nalanda was renowned as a center of learning, attracting scholars from various Buddhist traditions. The scholars at Nalanda engaged in the study of Buddhist texts and comparative studies, analyzing and contrasting Buddhist philosophy with other philosophical systems prevalent during their time. They also produced numerous commentaries and exegeses on Buddhist texts and composed treatises and scholarly works on various aspects of Buddhism, covering topics such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, meditation practices, and ritual procedures. One their key scholarly expertise is translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into other languages, such as Tibetan, Chinese, and Pali.

2) Intellectual Rigor

The Nalanda tradition placed great emphasis on logical analysis and debate. Scholars engaged in formal debates to refine their understanding of Buddhist philosophy and to establish logical and rational grounds for their arguments. Debates served as a means to sharpen one's reasoning abilities and to explore different perspectives on philosophical topics. The intellectual rigor of the Nalanda tradition influenced Vajrayana by encouraging the development of clear and systematic explanations of tantric theory and practice.

3) Integration of Philosophy and Practice
The scholars at Nalanda sought to integrate philosophical understanding with practical application. They explored various meditation techniques and integrated them into their study and contemplation of Buddhist texts. This integration of philosophy and practice was crucial in the development of Vajrayana, as it provided a framework for understanding the profound symbolism, rituals, and meditative techniques employed in tantric practices.

4) Transmission of Knowledge
Nalanda served as a hub for the transmission of Buddhist knowledge to various regions, including Tibet, where Vajrayana flourished. The teachings and intellectual heritage of Nalanda were carried to different parts of Asia by scholars and practitioners, contributing to the growth and development of Vajrayana lineages.

In summary, the Nalanda tradition's emphasis on scholarship, intellectual rigor, the integration of philosophy and practice, and the influence of its famous scholars significantly shaped the emergence and growth of the Vajrayana tradition. It provided the intellectual and philosophical foundation that guided the development of tantric theory, rituals, meditation practices, and the understanding of the profound symbolism and transformative power of Vajrayana Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is indeed, the rightful heir of the Nalanda tradition.

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