Nalanda University

Nalanda University

by Jeffrey Brooks

The monks attending Nalanda University were there for refuge.

They knew that only through their Buddhist training could they overcome sickness, old age and death. They could not escape them by hiding, by becoming powerful, by secret incantations or medicines, by prayer or philosophy or pleasure or by accustoming their body to grim austerities.

These monks had seen clearly that the only real refuge from human suffering comes from insight, in their own mind, into the way things exist.

The refuge they were seeking was not in the person of the Buddha. That person, that man, could not physically protect them from suffering and death. The Dharma, his words, written in books, could not act on their own to protect the monks. The Sangha, the community of monks who lived and studied and practiced together could not protect one another, ultimately, either.

But they knew that the insights that arose in the mind of the Buddha could protect them, completely, because these monks could study them and share them, because their minds and the Buddha’s mind existed in exactly the same way.

By studying the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, these monks would learn how to act and speak and think in a way that would create conditions in their lives that would enable them to pass through the gates of death and into a new life free from suffering forever.

And these monks knew the enlightened Sangha, the monks who had followed this way of life before and completed the path could guide this new generation by their example and their words to refuge; leading these monks to their own realization, and to the end of suffering.

These Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, were the only true refuge from sickness, old age and death.

That is why these monks came to Nalanda University.

They came to learn what the Buddha taught, and Nalanda University was set up so they could live out the teachings in the company of like-minded spiritual friends, every day of their lives, or for as long as they stayed.

In India at the time it was widely recognized that the Buddha taught something no one had ever taught before. This meant that, for the first time in history, a human being had a way to put an end to suffering completely.

The Buddha taught that everyone suffers. King or slave, merchant or warrior, priest or farmer, everyone suffers.

He taught that the suffering has a cause. It is not random and it is not uncaused.

He taught that there is an end to suffering. We do not have to simply tolerate it or scheme and struggle unthinkingly in a vain effort to get out of it.

He taught there is a path to the end of suffering. He described a way of conducting our lives which will lead, inevitably and in every case, to the cessation of suffering.

These monks heard about it. They saw the suffering of people all around them. They wanted to learn what to do about it.

By the fifth century, about a thousand years after the death of the Buddha, Nalanda University had become the major center of learning for the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.

The Buddha himself had taught at the place many times during his lifetime, when it was a mango grove, a seven mile walk from Rajagraha, the capital of Magadha where he lived. They say that five hundred merchants bought the grove and donated it to the Buddha and his followers.

Some of the Buddha’s most famous disciples, like Shariputra, studied there and departed the world from the place that would become Nalanda.

Over the centuries, as the advanced philosophical system of Mahayana was developing, the story goes, a group of 500 monks decided to create a center for study and practice at Nalanda. Their center rose and flourished and within a few hundred years, vanished.

King Ashok memorialized them in the second century, building a temple there, and supporting a community of monks. Nalanda began to grow again.

By the fifth century kings and emperors had supported the school continually for hundreds of years. The library contained tens of thousands of manuscripts – the entire Buddhist canon and commentaries, along with investigations into science and mathematics, medicine and geography, language and logic, astronomy and epistemology, the greatest collection of human wisdom ever written down – and soon there were more than 10,000 monks studying and living there, along with 2,000 teachers, from every country in the known world.

The foundations of eight huge monastery complexes and hundreds of monks’ cells are still visible there today. No more monks chanting though. No debates. No bells ringing in the Dharma Hall. Just the birds and crickets and the wind.

In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism the concern of practice extends beyond the cessation of one’s own suffering. The method goes beyond considering the condition of your own life, to concern with the lives of all beings. Your method of spiritual development is taking care of everyone, making everyone’s happiness your own personal responsibility.

This was as hard for those monks to do as it is for us.

But through training in kindness, in ethics, in deep mental clarity and insight, in a world that valued this training above everything else, they did it.

In the Mahayana tradition the training period may last for 20 or 30 years or more, and the intensity of practice pushes the intellect and the powers of reasoning, insight and observation, beyond normal limits. The monks at Nalanda were doing Olympic level competitive mind-training for a lifetime. They got good at it. They wrote down what they learned, and how they learned it.  Their research and practice deepened for 1,500 years. They have handed it down to us.

It was from Nalanda University that the traditions of Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti and Shantideva flowed. They were professors there. The logic tradition of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, the vast teachings of Asanga and Vasubandu and their successors brought Buddhism to the height of its development.

The conditions in ancient India were perfect for this.

Like the Himalayas, out of this place and time human capacity towered above anything that had been accomplished before or since.

After endless time, endless trial and effort, endless suffering people discovered where they could find true refuge, true human freedom. It was discovered by the Buddha and it was transmitted from master to student from generation to generation.

And like the Himalayas this uplift of human possibility was neither uniform nor permanent.

By the turn of the twelfth century, Buddhism was in decline in India. The tranquil atmosphere of ancient times was gone, and the concerns of people were changing.

Nalanda had received students from around the world, and Buddhist teachers had traveled from Nalanda to train monks at other Indian Buddhist Universities in Tibet, Kashmir, and Nepal, in China, and Korea, in Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, and Burma, in what are now Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, Greece, the eastern Mediterranean, and beyond.

The Muslim invasions of India had been going on for hundreds of years by the twelfth century. But now, as the contemporary Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, in his history called the Tabaqat-I-Nasiri, reported: “thousands of Nalanda monks were burned alive and thousands more were beheaded as the Turkish General Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism and plant Islam by the sword”… Minhaj-i-Siraj notes: The burning of the library continued for several months and “smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.”

While a monk from Tibet was visiting Nalanda about 20 years after this destruction he wrote that one day about 300 Turks descended upon Nalanda and killed everyone left there, except himself and the abbot, who hid in one of the two remaining buildings.

Buddhism teaches that everything that arises from causes will cease to exist as those causes withdraw.

The causes for the birth of the Buddha and the influence of his teaching in India shifted slowly at first and then rapidly. The Buddha’s teachings were gone from India after the 13th century.

The Nalanda teachings, believed by many to be the greatest philosophical and religious achievement of human beings, were most completely preserved in Tibet, where the culture supported deep Mahayana practice for another six centuries after the destruction in India.

Then, when another tyranny overran the Buddhist institutions there in the 20th century, killing the monks and burning the libraries, the Dharma, led by the Dalai Lama, went back across the Himalayas to its former home, in India.

From there, when its Tibetan vessel was smashed, its seeds were cast out upon the wind and flew everywhere around the world.

I wonder what those Nalanda monks thought when they faced the swords and clubs and flames of Khilji’s men?

One account says that General Khilji believed he was attacking a fort when he slaughtered the monks and burned the libraries at Nalanda. There are some who do not believe this, and think it was just a way of explaining the violence. But he may not have needed to explain the violence, thinking it was entirely wise and proper to uproot and destroy all of this, a good way to make a statement about the futility of resistance, and in any event restraint was not commonplace in an invasion.

It is possible that he was being completely candid.  Maybe Nalanda looked like a fort to him. It had high walls and huge, elaborate stone buildings. He may have thought there would be no other purpose for buildings like these other than fortification.

Buddhism teaches that to a great degree our habits of mind color the world we see around us. He may have seen Nalanda as a fort, without being able to see what its inhabitants saw. He was accustomed to attacking, accustomed to encountering enemies, so that is what he saw when he got to Nalanda.

He assumed these strangers valued what he valued. After all people build what they value.

Once it was Stonehenge and the pyramids, to orient people in time and space, and make order in a random universe.

Then, when raiders raided farms and farmers wanted to hang on to their stuff, castles and fortified cities with high walls became the biggest building projects. It was what people really cared about.

After a while, when things settled down, in Europe it was cathedrals that were the biggest building projects; that’s where power was centered and life was focused.

Then skyscrapers, announcing corporate power to the world.

Then shopping malls.

Now hospitals are the biggest and most expensive construction projects in most of our cities. We build them as a refuge from sickness, old age and death. But we know, as those Nalanda monks knew long ago, that there is no way we can find refuge in buildings.

I wonder what those monks did when they saw the massed and mounted army riding into the ancient stone courtyard of Nalanda.

The monks might have been complacent when they saw their killers approach. No one had really ever attacked them before. They may have had the presumption of innocents, thinking, naively, that since they are nice and well-intentioned that the world will like them and be nice to them.

They might have been terrified and tried to hide.

They might have questioned their refuge vows and wondered what ancient, hidden karma could ripen as this horror.

They might have been immensely courageous, inflamed with outrage, in defiance lifted their bare hands to drag their murderers from their horses to the ground and rip the swords from their hands, and figuring what to do next.

They might have been unafraid of death; recognizing that their greatest challenge and the most important moment of their lives was unfolding just then, and with complete equanimity maybe they could see the truth that their life had arisen based on conditions and it would inevitably end when those conditions were withdrawn, and that more important than life itself was having compassion for their murderers who, they could see, were motivated by an inner blaze of hate and desire, and who would inevitably reap the karma in the fires of hell for their cruelty.

Maybe those well-trained monks left the world thinking that their murderers were lost, soon to suffer immensely and endlessly, for no purpose, while they, the monks, were triumphant, victors in a degree of self mastery that would take them through death to a rebirth of unimaginable peace and joy.

Who knows what they thought. And who knows the minds of those Turks? Maybe they were cruel and stupid. Maybe some were nice. Maybe they did what they had to do. Maybe they delighted in murder and forced submission. Maybe they believed that they were extinguishing ignorance and establishing the truth in the only proper way. We can’t know what they thought.

But we can say what the monks studied is something we would like to study. And we can say that the behavior of the murderers is something we would like to avoid. No problem.

And we can wonder what we would have done if we had been in Nalanda that day.

Would we have run off to hide, until things settled down?

Would we have protected the monks with our utmost skill and our last breath and drop of blood?

Would we have joined the attackers, wanting to be on the winning team?

Would we have become one of the monks taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha jewels, sure in our knowledge that that is the only place that we can find real refuge?

We do not have to speculate on this question. This is not a thought experiment.

We will have to make the choice, if not right now then very soon.

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