Nalanda Buddhist Philosophy 101
Origin: I started to write this particular blog post almost as a script for answering the question that many people, most importantly my parents, had for me after I attended this study retreat on the Nalanda Buddhist philosophy.
At the one-week long study retreat at the Deer Park Institute in Bir (Himachal Pradesh), I was part of a classroom of about 100 people of different ages and from different parts of the world. Everyone was here to spend time either initiating themselves or refining their understanding about the Wisdom Chapter, the 9th chapter of the Boddhisattvacharya Avatar (Boddhisattva’s Way of Life) by Acharya Shantideva.
What fascinated me the most about the subject of Nalanda Buddhist philosophy, India’s ancient knowledge system, was simply how advanced it was and still is. Many of the questions that modern science continues to ask today – in the fields of psychology, brain science, and even quantum physics; are those which had been answered in the Nalanda school several centuries back. This knowledge is very relevant, in fact necessary, in today’s world where almost everyone struggles in dealing with stress, anxiety and more.
The Nalanda tradition of knowledge, more than 2 millennia old, originates from Gautam Buddha’s teachings, carried forward by learned sages such as Nagarjuna, Arya Deva and the other Nalanda Masters who established and strengthened the Nalanda University* in what is today Bihar. Discourse on Buddhist philosophy gained momentum and transformed into a very refined science of the mind over many centuries in Nalanda – which was recognised as the biggest centre of learning in history.
(*the original Buddhist Vihara, NOT the new university which has been set up in the same place as its namesake now)
It was in the 8th Century that the Tibetan Emperor Trisong Detsen invited well-known scholar and Nalanda master Santarakshita to Tibet. Acharya Santarakshita stayed on in Tibet for the rest of his life and introduced Buddhism there. It is because of this connection that His Holiness Dalai Lama often says that Tibetan Buddhism is the true preserved form of the Nalanda tradition. He says that the Indians were the original teachers and Tibetans are the faithful students who, for over 10 centuries, have preserved the secular and spiritual knowledge of this land. However, the Guru-shishya role has reversed since then, beginning when the tradition began to die in mainland India. When the Nalanda University was ransacked by invaders in the 11th century and the monumental collections in the libraries continued to burn for over 3 months, the knowledge thankfully lived on in Tibet. Today, we are fortunate to have teachers like Geshe Dorji Damdul la, the Director of the Tibet House in New Delhi, who continue to share the knowledge with all its depth and meaning to everyone who wants to learn. Even a primitive understanding of all of this deep scientific knowledge strengthens my pride in India’s ancient knowledge systems which had largely gone undocumented and the little documentation destroyed during the series of conquests and colonisation.
I’ve shared my experience of being a new-comer in the Buddhist philosophy classroom in the previous blog-post.
In order to attempt an introduction of what I learnt while studying in Geshe la’s classes, I like to compare the study of the Nalanda Buddhist philosophy with that of the study of mathematics.
Mathematics explains the phenomena which existed well before any of the mathematicians did.
Geshe la is very particular about clarifying that the understanding of ‘shunyata’, or ‘emptiness of objective existence’ was not one of Gautam Buddha’s “inventions”. This was a phenomena which has continued to exist from the beginning of time and one which Buddha was able to understand, interpret and put into the form of a philosophy for the benefit of all who may attempt to learn it. A constant comparison, for the sake of making modern folks understand, is to the scientific genius Einstein. He did not create gravity, neither did he ask anyone to blindly follow what he had discovered. His understood the phenomena through intense reflection and shared it in an intelligible manner for the benefit of the world.
Buddha is, thus, the Teacher – the one who teaches about the phenomena of the world, the causes of negativity and the solution to the causes themselves. And being the perfect teacher, He encourages questioning, debating and reasoning based on logic. The debates between different schools of Buddhist philosophy are fascinating because they rely heavily on an analysis of what the opponent says and giving logically-sound comebacks which cannot be refuted.
At this point, it is important to see the difference between philosophy & religious belief. Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist psychology and the Buddhist religion are three distinct fields. So while religion is practiced on the basis of personal beliefs, philosophy is a subject that thrives and grows through the process of debating with opposing schools of thought to arrive at more clear ways of making sense of the phenomena around us.
Maths is not studied only by mathematicians – its study and its applications are universal.
A few days back, at his 3-day teaching in Dharamshala (November 2019), His Holiness Dalai Lama pointed out how “ignoring the presence of the sixth sense, the mental consciousness affects the experience of pain and pleasure, can have a lot of ill effects on our mental and thus physical health.”
We were never thought about the sixth sense in science lessons at school, simply because modern scientists haven’t been able to wrap their head around it so far, while the scientists and philosophers at Nalanda had refined their study of it several centuries back. Today, knowledge of the 5 senses is considered an obvious piece of information to have, regardless of one’s profession, yet an understanding of the sixth sense of considered esoteric. The understanding of Buddhist philosophy is not just for those who would like to have a PhD in it. We all study maths till different levels during our education and apply it accordingly. A study of philosophy is the kind of mind-training which enables every individual to see things in clearer light with evolved perspectives and thus perform better in their own field of work.
Every individual wants to live their best life and get rid of the sorrows and fears that hound us. We want to stop the undesired impact that many external factors have on us. The environment around us keeps asking for our attention, pushing and pulling our mind in different directions. Our mind has no rest. It is exhausted, it is anxious and it is fearful. Under the control of external factors, our mind has lost its freedom. This is not to say that we want to stop feeling any emotion at all. We simply want to be in-charge of our own thoughts and feelings and have some level of control over them instead of our mind running haywire all over the place.
How is the knowledge of something so relevant not considered mainstream?
Maths can be studied in any language
There are textbooks and classroom discussions on mathematics in English, Hindi and whatever regional languages possible. It is the knowledge that matters, not the language. Anyone studying Buddhist philosophy in any language other than Sanskrit or Tibetan is not less committed. Geshe la reminded us in class one day on how it is better to understand 80% of the teaching in English as compared to only 5-10% of the teaching in Tibetan, a language which is very well-refined and advanced, but difficult every for native-speakers to study philosophy in.
Rote learning of the formulae has no benefit, no matter how fast or melodiously you can sing about the quadratic polynomials
The sutras, matras and chants are the means of communicating the knowledge. The fact that they sound beautifully rhythmic and poetic, is an additional achievement of the Nalanda masters and the tibetans. (Trust me, even the English translation compiled by Tibet House is so beautifully done that I just want to keep the book for the sake of the poetry).
Yet they are not complete in themselves.
Thub nam dhig pa choo yi mi tru shing
Droway dhug ngyal chag ghi mi sel la
Nyid ki togpa shen la po min tay
Choe-nyi dhen pa ten pay drol war ghur
The Buddha does not wash the negativities of being;
Nor does He remove their miseries by His hands;
His spiritual realisations are not transferred to them;
It is by teaching the truth of suchness, that beings are liberated.
Just the chanting of any of these will not relieve anyone of pain or agony. It is important to understand what the words mean, analyse, pore over them a little, and accept them only if your mind agrees. The effect comes from learning and imbibing. A lot of the rituals we do follow even while studying philosophy, like prostrations, are signals to our own mind and body to start preparing to receive knowledge. There’s reason and logic behind the rituals too. The praise of Buddha Shakyamuni is not because there is any part of him which wants to hear us singing that praise. We sing that praise as sign of aspiration for us to imbibe the qualities that he represents.
A pre-schooler learning to count in maths class cannot explain the Pythagoras theorem, yet it does not discount the study so far
Most importantly, it’s a journey.
I have just started learning the words that are essential to the discussions around this subject; understanding emptiness & selflessness, subjective and objective existence, isolates and entities, mind and consciousness, aggregates and senses, ultimate analysis and conventional analysis… and so on. It’s a journey that we all Start with at some point of time, which we can only move along one step at a time.
Tadyatha Om gatay gatay paragatay parasamgatay Bodhi svaha
(The mantra of ‘Perfection of Wisdom Sutra’, the Heart Sutra
Sanskrit: Arya bhagvati prajnaparamita hridaya sutra | Tibetan: Shes rab snying po)
The words enlist the 5 successive paths that one travels on during the journey of learning. There are various stages, each of which you must move along in its own time.
There’s no long-jump from the first ‘gatay’ to ‘bodhi svaha’!