Thursday, April 11, 2013

At Nalanda, science first met spirituality

My article At Nalanda, science first met spirituality appeared in the Edit Page of The Pioneer today.

Today, any project that invokes the traditions of that hallowed ancient university must be based on the principles of the ‘science of the mind’, not on religion or political expediencies

Recently, I had the chance to listen to a long talk by the Dalai Lama. I was surprised as he repeatedly said that there is no such thing as ‘Tibetan Buddhism’, even less ‘Lamaism’. The so-called ‘Tibetan Buddhism’, he said, has entirely been borrowed from India, more precisely from Nalanda.
In recent times, the name of the ancient university has been in the news for the wrong reasons; we heard that a new institution carrying the name of the famed university and ‘mentored’ by Amartya Sen had shifted its operations from Bihar to Delhi. Why? Nobody seems to know. The strange move was, in any case, not explained to the Indian public; the project holders probably considering the masses too stupid to grasp the subtleties of the Nalanda project.
Further, though accusations of financial improprieties have circulated about the grandiose project, they have never really been dispelled. Why should the university be directly run by an already poorly-staffed Union Ministry of External Affairs? Why did the Ministry need to plunge into an educational venture?
But let us forget the politics for now and take a look at the depth and vastness of the philosophical background of the ancient institution. From the fifth century CE to 1193 CE, the Buddhist vihara was one of the greatest centres of higher learning of all times. Nalanda flourished under the patronage of not only Buddhist emperors like Harsha and later the Pala dynasty, but also received the support of the Hindu Gupta rulers. Before it was destroyed by the Turkish hordes of Bakhtiyar Khilji, Nalanda was spread over a large area near the village of Baragaon, 10 km north of Rajgir in Bihar. It hosted scholars, monks and scientists from the world over who flocked to the vihara, the largest knowledge centre of its time.
The Nalanda University library was so large that it is said to have been ablaze for over three months after the invaders set it on fire. It was the secular and spiritual knowledge of India which was ransacked and destroyed. However, by a twist of fate (or good karma), Tibetan monks and lamas along with some abbots of the vihara had transferred Nalanda’s knowledge to cold storage on the Roof of the World where it was preserved.
The great monastic university had come into prominence when learned sages such as Nagarjuna or Arya Deva decided to set up a vihara in Nalanda. The history of Nalanda is known thanks to Chinese pilgrims as well as Taranatha, the great Tibetan historian who lived in the 16th century and wrote the History of Buddhism in India. It is said that Arya Deva once invited Nagarjuna for a discussion on Buddhist philosophy; when the former tried to argue with Nagarjuna, he failed to grasp his reasoning. Arya Deva then understood that he had found his master; Nagarjuna later initiated him into the mysteries of the science of mind.
The Dalai Lama likes to quotes Nagarjuna who never accepted any philosophical concept without testing it. He did not even accept the Buddha’s sayings until he was able to check their veracity, using his profound mind as a tool. He never believed in blind faith. This testing mind is the foundation stone of the Nalanda tradition. The Dalai Lama, who does not hide his admiration for Nagarjuna, also quotes ‘his boss’, the Buddha himself: “My followers should not accept my teachings out of faith and devotion, but after investigation and experimentation.'”
It is surprising that Mr Amartya Sen, the chairman of the Nalanda Mentor Group, does not grasp what has been the hallmark of the Indian mind for millennia. When asked about the omission of the Dalai Lama’s name from the international project, Mr Sen stated that “religious studies could be imparted without involvement of religious leaders.” The Dalai Lama may not need to be involved in the project, but the spirit of Nalanda has to be insufflated in the project. The Dalai Lama explains: “During the eighth century, the Tibetan emperor (Trisong Detsen) invited a great master of Nalanda; his name was Santarakshita. He was a famous, a well-known scholar and master of Nalanda. He went to Tibet and spent the rest of his life there. He introduced Buddhism in Tibet. That is why I consider Tibetan Buddhism is the authentic tradition of Nalanda.”
Mahapandits such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, Chandrakirti, Shantideva, Shantarakshita, Kamalashila, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dharmakirti or Atisha wrote extensive commentaries on the Sutra, still used in Tibetan monasteries today. Santarakshita, the Abbot of Nalanda, not only introduced the Buddha dharma to the Land of Snows, but also ordained the first monks. Since then, the lamas of Tibet have faithfully followed their Nalanda teachers.
The ‘Nalanda path’ prevailed in Tibet after a long debate — the famous Samye Debate which was held in Samye monastery between the Chinese and Nalanda schools of Buddhism. The debate took two years (792-794 CE) to reach its conclusion. Hoshang, a Chinese monk, was defeated by Kamalashila, who defended the Indian view. At the end, the Tibetan king issued a proclamation naming the ‘Indian path’ (from Nalanda) as the orthodox faith for Tibet.
Nalanda tradition is not a ‘religion’, it is a ‘science of the mind’. The Dalai Lama once recounted the story of Raja Ramanna, the nuclear physicist, who told him that he was surprised to find the concept of quantum physics and relativity in one of Nagarjuna’s texts. The Dalai Lama said: “The West discovered these concepts at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century. Some Indian sages like Nagarjuna knew it nearly 2,000 years ago.” Nagarjuna’s concept of Madhyamaka (the Middle Way between extremes) was very much part of the Nalanda curriculum. The Tibetan leader clearly differentiates between this ‘science of mind’ originating from Nalanda, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist religion: “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 religion or political expediencies. Since his retirement, the Dalai Lama has spent most of his time exploring the convergence between science and spirituality. For the past three decades, he has had a dialogue with modern scientists. His Mind & Life Institute based in the US spearheads this research. Its objective is to test if the effects of meditative practices can be corroborated by modern science.
The ‘testing’ process may not be important for the practitioners themselves; the Dalai Lama recounted the story of yogis living in caves who were not at all interested in being covered by electrodes to ‘test’ their siddhis or meditative prowess. He, however, believes that it is important for the rest of humanity to realise that exercises such as yoga or meditation can bring peace of mind and ultimately a better life. He sees it as a gift from India and Tibet to the world.
Research into the confluence of science and spirituality should definitively be included in the curriculum of an institute calling itself ‘Nalanda’. The project’s ‘mentors’ must keep in mind the glorious history of the vihara. This does not seem to be the case today.

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