What is the Nalanda Tradition?

Op-ED by Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, 11 July 2023

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- The Nalanda tradition is a Buddhist philosophical and educational lineage that traces its origins to the ancient Nalanda University in Bihar, India. Nalanda was a renowned center of learning from the 5th to the 12th century CE and attracted diverse community of scholars from all over Asia, making significant contributions to Buddhist philosophy, logic and other fields of knowledge. Before we delve into details, it will be useful to dispel some common minconceptions about this famous name.

1. Nalanda was exclusively a Buddhist institution
No, it was not. While it was indeed a prominent center for Buddhist studies, Nalanda also accommodated scholars and students from various religious backgrounds, including Hindus, Jains and even non-believers. Nalanda was known for its inclusivity and facilitated the study of diverse subjects such as astronomy, mathematics, logic, medicine, and linguistics.

2. Nalanda was a monastic university
While it had a significant monastic presence, Nalanda also had non-monastic teachers and students. Laypeople, including kings, scholars and traders, were involved in its activities and supported its operations. Nalanda served as an intellectual and cultural hub where individuals from various walks of life came to pursue knowledge.

3. Nalanda was a Mahayana learning centre
Not entirely true. While Nalanda institution was primarily associated with Mahayana Buddhism and the study of Mahayana texts and doctrines, it was known for its diverse intellectual environment, where scholars from different Buddhist traditions engaged in dialogue and shared ideas. The lines between different Buddhist schools were not always rigidly defined, and individuals often explored teachings and perspectives beyond their own specific traditions.

For example,  Dharmapala (Chinese: 清辯, pinyin: Hùfa; 530–561) was a Buddhist scholar who once became the abbot of the University. Born in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, he was one of the main teachers of the Yogacara school in India. He studied texts from all the major schools, from Theravada as well as Mahayana, and attained to reverence and distinction. He developed the theory that the external things do not exist and consciousness only exists, which is one of the main tenet of the Yogachara philosophy.

4. Nalanda ceased to exist after its destruction by Muslim invaders
Nalanda University faced severe damage and destruction in the 12th century due to invasions, most notably by the Turkic conqueror Bakhtiyar Khilji. However, the misconception arises when people assume that Nalanda completely vanished after the sack. While the physical structures were devastated, knowledge and teachings from Nalanda continued to influence various intellectual traditions throughout Asia.

5. Nalanda's teachings were lost forever
Contrary to popular belief, the teachings and intellectual heritage of Nalanda were not entirely lost. While the destruction of Nalanda resulted in a significant loss of texts and knowledge, many scholars who had studied at Nalanda traveled to other regions and disseminated their learning. Buddhist texts and ideas from Nalanda were preserved and propagated in places like Tibet, China, and Southeast Asia. Additionally, efforts to revive the Nalanda tradition have been made in recent years, leading to the establishment of the modern-day Nalanda University in Rajgir, Bihar.

So what really is the Nalanda tradition?

The following are aspects that really defined the famous tradition.

1. Acquisition of Knowledge through Debate and Study

The Nalanda tradition recognized debate as a powerful tool for acquiring and refining knowledge. Through rigorous debate, students were able to explore various perspectives, challenge ideas and develop a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy and other subjects. The tradition places great importance on rigorous academic study of Buddhist philosophy, psychology, logic and other related disciplines. This involves textual analysis, debate and critical thinking, aiming to deepen understanding and develop intellectual clarity.

2. Critical Thinking
Debate fostered critical thinking skills among the students. By engaging in logical arguments and presenting their ideas in a structured manner, scholars at Nalanda developed the ability to evaluate different viewpoints and analyze complex concepts.

3. Refutation of False Views

Buddhism places a strong emphasis on the importance of discerning truth from falsehood. The Nalanda tradition believed that debate provided a platform to identify and refute incorrect or misleading views. Through the process of debate, scholars could expose fallacies and establish a more accurate understanding of Buddhist teachings.

4. Skillful Communication

Effective communication was considered vital for spreading Buddhist teachings. Debate provided an opportunity for scholars to hone their oratory skills, articulate their thoughts clearly and persuasively convey the principles of Buddhism to a wider audience.

5. Tradition of Scholarly Exchange
Nalanda attracted scholars from different parts of the world, representing various philosophical and cultural backgrounds. Debate served as a medium for scholarly exchange, enabling the synthesis of diverse ideas and the enrichment of Buddhist philosophy.

Other activities which are key to the Nalanda Tradition includes the following:

1. Meditation and Mind Training
Alongside intellectual pursuits, the Nalanda tradition emphasizes the practice of meditation and mind training. Meditation techniques from "various Buddhist traditions" are taught to cultivate mindfulness, concentration and insight into the nature of reality.

2. Ethical Conduct
Ethical conduct is a central aspect of the Nalanda tradition. Practitioners are encouraged to cultivate virtues such as compassion, loving-kindness, ethical discipline and a sense of responsibility towards others. Ethical conduct serves as the foundation for personal transformation and the well-being of society.

3. Preservation and Translation of Texts

The Nalanda tradition recognizes the importance of preserving and translating ancient Buddhist texts. Scholars and practitioners work to preserve and make accessible the vast Buddhist literary heritage, translating texts from Theravada and Mahayana sources into various languages for wider dissemination.

4. Community Engagement

The Nalanda tradition promotes active engagement with society and aims to address contemporary issues through the application of Buddhist principles. This includes social welfare projects, humanitarian efforts, environmental conservation and promoting interfaith dialogue and harmony.

Next Step Forward

It is clear that the Nalanda Tradition was never extinguished and had a lasting impact on the development of Buddhism and other fields of knowledge in different regions of Asia. It's core emphasis of thinking, debating, meditation and scholarship are still as relevant today as in the bygone years. What has dissapeared is not the institution, but the spirit embodied by the tradition.

For Buddhism to thrive, we cannot just depend on memorising ancient Pali or Sanskrit texts. Spirituality is a living experience. For it to thrive, it must be seen to be relevant in today's context. Otherwise it can get stagnant and become religious antiques deemed as "national treasures" to be displayed and viewed (but not allowed to be photographed!) in museums and research centres.

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." While this means that the tradition still lives, it has to grow out of the Tibetan cocoon.

Like a butterfly breaking out of its pupa, the Dharma wings must be freed into the Buddhist world, and redeem its place as a living spiritual energy. "Malaysian Buddhism" - if it actually exist - must be allowed to be explored beyond its Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana silos.

A time must come where one can join in and follow a debate between a Theravada Bhante with a Mahayana "Faxiang" Sifu on the analysis of consciousness, between differences and similarities of Vijñapti-matra and Bhavanga. Get followers of the two schools into a hall or debating class on a regular basis, and let the germination of thoughts and ideas around Buddhist teachings grow unabated. The tougher the questioning and the more vigorous the mental banter, the better.

Swords are made when heat are applied to make the metal malleable, and then by using hammer and anvil, hammered into shape. Likewise, Buddhist knowledge and wisdom can only grow when vigorous exchanges are encouraged in the community.

If there is no challenge to contemporary ideas of what makes Buddhism relevant in current societal context, change will not happen. We will all be going round in circles doing the same things over and over again and getting burnt out in the end.
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