Meditation & Health #20-Nalanda University Where the Lotus Bloomed
Nalanda University Where the Lotus Bloomed
BY WANG DA, XIANG OIAN & JIAHUI
Xuanzang (602 — 664 CE) was a Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar of the Tang dynasty. As Buddhism gained prevalence, Xuanzang became concerned about the incomplete and mistranslated Buddhist texts that had reached China. During the course of his studies, he came to know a disciple of Abbot Silabhadra, the highest-ranking monk of Nalanda University in India. This disciple urged Xuanzang to seek out his master and study under him so he could gain deeper and greater understanding of the true teachings of the Buddha and the true meanings of the holy scriptures.
Determined to reach Nalanda University, Xuanzang endured three harrowing years of travel, walking thousands of miles through deserts and over mountains, fighting off bandits and countless other deadly threats. The classic Chinese novel Journey to the West is based on his legendary quest.
The Wisdom of the Lotus
Nalanda University, also known as Nalanda Temple, was the most spectacular and prosperous Buddhist institution of higher learning in ancient India. The word “Nalanda” is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word nalam, meaning lotus. In ancient India, the lotus was a symbol of wisdom. Located near present-day Rajgir, in northeastern India’s Bihar State, Nalanda University is less than 100 kilometers from Bodhgaya, where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. This is also the place of birth and nirvana of Sariputra, an eminent disciple of Buddha.
Ancient Architectural Masterpiece
Founded by Emperor Ashoka during the fifth century CE, Nalanda University was the first international Buddhist university. It was expanded under the patronage of the great kings of the Gupta Empire, and remained a greatly respected world center of Buddhist study for nearly 800 years.
The majestic complex, built with red-clay bricks, was considered an architectural masterpiece. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and 10 temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms. Its heart was a nine-story library. The grounds were dotted with lakes and parks. Sprawling in scope, the circumference of the university was approximately 15 miles.
A page from Xuanzang’s Great Tang Records on the Western Regions describes how captivating and majestic the view from the window of his quarters was: “Moreover, the whole establishment is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the entire convent from without. One gate opens into the Great College, from which are separated eight other halls…. The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hilltops, are congregated together. The observatories seem to be lost in the vapors [of the morning], and the upper rooms tower above the clouds.”
Apex of Scholasticism
Nalanda University was the apex of scholasticism and Buddhist thought until the turn of the 12th century CE, responsible for the far-flung propagation of deep spiritual ideas. Buddhism was the core subject of its curriculum, compulsory among other disciplines taught. The institution attracted students from all over the world, as far away as China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Persia, and Greece. Its campus was home to 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students.
University of Virtuous Minds
The school had a very stringent admission process. Students were accepted only upon passing a rigorous oral examination given by a Dvara Pandits, the dean of admissions, an accomplished scholar who served as academic gatekeeper. Only 20 to 30 percent of applicants managed to get through the examination.
In addition to their spiritual studies, scholars were immersed in languages, philosophy, logic, medicine (Ayurveda), mathematics, anatomy, metaphysics, astronomy, and agricultural science. Foreign students studied Sanskrit so as to be able to translate the manuscripts into their respective mother tongues.
Students learned through active participation in tarka (the art of debate). They interacted in pairs and took turns posing questions that gradually evolved from simple memory-based learning to elaboration of concepts in depth. It was through such conscious learning that scholars trained their minds to process information at a deep level, reason well, and apply knowledge with great skill.
Linguistics analysis was another important component, as was a system of intertwined psychology and epistemology, a philosophy that studies the ontological realities of objects and investigates the contrast between opinion and justifiable belief.
Treasure Trove Unearthed
Nalanda University thrived during the period from 427 CE to 1197 CE, a period known as the Classical or Golden Age of India which was marked by extensive scientific inventions, discoveries, and arts and cultural endeavors.
The ruins of Nalanda were discovered in 1861. Excavation unveiled edifices of red bricks and thick walls, structures intended to keep the temperature of the complex comfortable across all seasons. The site unearthed in 1915 consists of 11 viharas (monasteries), four chaityas (prayer halls) and several stupas and shrines dating back to the late Gupta to late Pala dynasties.
STATUES AND RELICS: PRECIOUS PAST
The peak of cultural creativity at Nalanda University is evidenced in the magnificent architectures, sculptures, and stone and metal arts found at its archaeological site, which spreads across 23 hectares. The stucco art on the remaining walls of Nalanda depicts the life of Buddha as well as many bodhisattvas.
Xuanzang was among the many famed Buddhist monks taught by the university. Considered by the Nalanda establishment to be one of the best scholars ever born, Xuanzang was offered a senior position on their academic staff. But he declined with this reply: “Buddha established his doctrine so that it might be diffused to all lands. Who would wish to enjoy it alone, and to forget those who are not yet enlightened?”
Nalanda’s most magnificent and well-preserved relic is the three-story Stupa of Sariputra. In its niches, fine carvings of Buddha still captivate.
Among the other treasures recovered from the site is a colossal ninth-century stucco statue of the Buddha seated in bhumi sparsa mudra. A large stone image of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara along with a small shrine featuring an image believed to be that of Nagarjuna, founder of Madhyamaka (“the middle way”), point to Nalanda’s importance to spiritual history.
REPOSITORY OF KNOWLEDGE
Nalanda University had a massive library containing exquisite literature produced by its great scholars. Although no evidence of the library has so far been uncovered, there are numerous historical records describing its grandeur. The complex was divided into three main buildings, consisting of Ratnaranjak (Delighter of Jewels), Ratnasagara (Sea of Jewels), and Ratnadoshi (Ocean of Jewels). In these buildings were stored hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, sacred and rare scriptures, and a huge collection of books of various disciplines. Hence, the library was named the Dharma Gunj, meaning “Mountain of Truth,” and Dharmagania, meaning “Treasure of Truth.”
However, very few works created at Nalanda have passed through time to us in their original form; most of the literature was destroyed when the institution was invaded and burned. Chinese and Tibetan translations, mainly those taken out of Nalanda by pilgrims, have survived.
The Last Days
Nalanda continued to operate with great difficulty for some time. A visitor in 1235 found a 90-year-old teacher leading a class of only 70 student monks. When the Pala Empire ended and the Mamluk dynasty took full control of India, Nalanda University was finally abandoned.
Legend has it that when foreign invaders set the grand library aflame, the fire took three months to devour the buildings and records. The monks rescued a portion of their literature, bringing works to Nepal and the mountainous regions of Northern India. Before leaving, they covered the burned remains of the university with soil, and then the desolate ruins of Nalanda were left to rest.
Nalanda University remains symbolic of the wonders made possible when humanity truly opens itself to the Divine. Every single brick contains the imprints made by great teachers as they sought the truth; every gust of wind seems to turn over the pages of Nalanda’s history. Even the slightest echo carries the lingering whisper of eternal Buddhist thought.