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The Nalanda Tradition excluded from Nalanda

August 7, 2010

Claude Arpi Blog
August 5, 2010

It is always surprising to discover that an
Indian Nobel Prize Laureate does not possess the
insight to grasp what has been the hallmark of
the Indian mind for millennia. I am speaking of
Dr. Amartya Sen, the Chairman of the Mentor Group
who tries to revive the ancient Nalanda
University. Dr. Sen recently made a statement
showing he is not in tune with the spirit of the
Indian Ancient Viharas. This is rather worrying
for the project. One can always argue that he is
just a modern economist and can’t be expected to
understand the subtleties of the Ancient Indian Mind.

The facts: when asked about the omission of the
Dalai Lama’s name from the international project,
Dr Sen stated that “religious studies could be
imparted without involvement of religious leaders.”

This is a flabbergasting statement. Does it mean
that ‘religious studies’ should be disconnected from the practitioners?

It reminded me that in the 1960’s in Europe when
the first Buddhist Lamas were engaged as
Lecturers in Universities, they were told not
interpret Buddhism as an ‘insider’, but remain
‘outsider’. It is probably what Dr. Sen mean when
he spoke about the Dalai Lama: “Being religiously
active may not be the same as (being) an
appropriate person for religious studies.”

These declarations from someone supposed to be an
eminent intellectual proves that Dr. Sen has no
knowledge of what once upon a time made Nalanda
University the greatest knowledge center of the entire world.

Does he know why the great viharas of Northern
India attracted scholars and students from Korea,
Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia or Greece,
at least till the day it was looted by Bakhtiyar
Khalji’s Muslim troops in 1193?

Simply because the teachers, the gurus, the
pandits taught what they had practiced and experienced.

It is during the 8th century that Trisong Detsen,
the great Tibetan King invited Shantarakshita,
the Abbot Nalanda to Land of Snows to introduce
the Dharma and ordain the first monks. Since
then, the Lamas of Tibet have faithfully followed the masters of Nalanda.

During a recent encounter, the Dalai Lama
explained: "I always describe Tibetan Buddhism as
pure Buddhism from the Nalanda tradition.
...Nalanda had great masters such as Nagarjuna or
Arya Asanga. …During the 8th century, the Tibetan
Emperor invited Shantarakshita. He was a famous,
well-known scholar and master of Nalanda. He went
to Tibet and spent the rest of his life there. He
introduced Buddhism in Tibet. I myself studied
the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism; first I
learned by heart and memorized what we call the
Root Texts. All these Root Texts have been
written by Nalanda masters. "The Tibetan Buddhist
tradition is the Nalanda tradition which combines
the Sanskrit and the Pali traditions as well
Buddhist Tantrayana. Masters like Nagarjuna,
Aryadeva and Chandrakirti wrote tantric treatises in Sanskrit."

After the Muslim invasions, the monasteries of
Tibet became the last repositories of the ancient
wisdom which had been virtually destroyed in India, its land of origin.

Dr Sen does not seem to understand that Nalanda
tradition is not a ‘religion’, but a ‘science of
the mind’. The Dalai Lama recounted the story of
Dr. Raja Ramanna, the nuclear physicist who told
him that he was surprised to find the concept of
quantum physics and relativity in a text of
Nagarjuna. The Dalai Lama continued: "The West
discovered these concepts at the end of the 19th
century or beginning of the 20th century, when
some Indian sages like Nagarjuna knew it nearly
2,000 years ago.” Nagarjuna’ concept of
Madhyamaka (the Middle Way between extremes) was
very much part of the Nalanda curriculum.

The Dalai Lama likes to speak about his contacts
with Western scientists. They started 27 years
ago: "We have had some serious discussions. We
have been meeting annually; the interest is from
both sides. …In Buddhism, there is a lot of
explanation about the mind, many categories of
mind. Therefore Buddhism should be considered as ‘science of mind’."

The Tibetan leader clearly differentiates between
this ‘science of mind’ originating from Nalanda
and Buddhist philosophy (like Buddhist relativity
of things, he explains) and Buddhist religion. He
said: “When I contact modern scientists, I don’t
put them in contact with Buddhist religion, but
with Buddhist science and to some extent to
Buddhist philosophy.” And he adds: “It is
important to understand that when we say
‘Buddhist science’, we mean science of the mind;
it is something universal; it is not a religion.
Buddhist religion is not universal, it is only for Buddhists."

The Nalanda project should be based on the
‘science of the mind’, not on Buddhist religion.

Unfortunately one has the feeling that Dr.
Amartya Sen would like to recreate a new
Shantiniketan, in other words an academic
institution without its original Spirit. How to
lay the foundations of Nalanda International
University without the Spirit of Nalanda?

Some analysts tell me, "You are wrong, it is not
a question of religion or science, but of
politics, Sen is a politician and has to take
care of Chinese susceptibilities. China wants to
participate and does not want to hear about the Dalai Lama”.

This is terribly ironic. Dr. Sen are probably
unaware, but the Chinese fought hard to impose
their own system of Buddhism in Tibet, but
finally it is the Nalanda Path which prevailed.

The decision was taken after a long debate, the
famous Samye Debate which was held in Samye
(Central Tibet) between the Chinese and Nalanda
schools of Buddhism. Shantarakshita before dying
had predicted that a dispute would arise between
the two schools of Buddhism that had started spreading in Tibet.

The first one -- the Chinese school, influenced
by Taoism -- was of the opinion that
enlightenment was an instantaneous revelation or
realization. This system of thought had spread throughout China.

The second school, taught by the Indian Pandits
of Nalanda, known as the ‘gradual school’ --
asserted that enlightenment was a gradual
process, not an ‘instant one’, but requiring long study, practice and analysis.

The Samye Debate took two years (792-794 CE) to
reach its conclusion. Hoshang, a Chinese monk,
represented the ‘instant school’ was defeated by
Kamalashila who defended the Indian view. At the
end of the debate, the king issued a proclamation
naming the Indian Path (from Nalanda) as the orthodox faith for Tibet.

Today, the Marxist rulers in Tibet seem to have
forgotten these details; they want to participate
to rebuilding of the Great Vihara. It is fine,
but it is nonetheless strange that the main
living proponent of the Nalanda tradition is kept
out of the project. I am sure that he does not
mind, but it would certainly have been a blessing
to have him as a mentor (or Chancellor), like
Shantarakshita did for Tibet one day.

It is clear that it is the Spirit of appeasement
and not of the Spirit of Nalanda is prevailing
over South Block today. It is sad.
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