Nalanda University: Unraveling the Legacy of Ancient Wisdom and Scholarly Excellence

(An insightful conversation with Nhan Vo, Researcher on Nalanda)

Ruins of Nalanda University in Bihar, India
Ruins of Nalanda University in Bihar, India

Research Journey

  1. Could you share your motivation behind undertaking this extensive research on Nālandā University? What sparked your interest in this subject, and what were your main objectives throughout the ten-year-long data collection process?

This is a long and not easy question, and it contains 3 points: My motivation, what causes the interest, and the main objectives.
Since the question is related to many causes & conditions and the events that crossed my life in the past, I will try to describe it in the simplest way possible.

I was born in a Vietnamese Buddhist family and grew up with a strong background in Math and Computer Science. So, when any new concept appears clearly in my mind, the attitude of doubting and questioning if it is true comes naturally.

I first learned the term “Nalanda” when I attended the teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in California (2006). At that time, the title Nālandā just arose in my mind. It came up with one irritating and critical question: Why am I a Buddhist for life, but still not knowing well about this “Nālandā”? As time passed, I learned that many great Mahayana Masters also lived and worked there; specifically, one of them is my favourite Master, Xuanzang (玄奘). A few years later, even with so much information I could collect/learn about the institute, my wonder about it did not decrease at all. However, the final decision for full engagement in research about Nālandā only came after a very vivid and sad dream (circa 2011-12).

In a vivid dream, after coming back to Nālandā with a much younger religious brother from an errant duty after a few months. I saw Nālandā getting destroyed, and I was very frightened. All things that I know of were burnt to black; the remains are broken bricks and walls with a bad smell. I cried as a kid who lost his mom. The feeling was so natural and strong as I was there; the image in the dream was so alive that even after waking up from that night, and many times later when thinking about what I saw in the dream, I continued to cry and feel as if the event just happened.

So this is the final trigger that pushed me to eventually stop my worldly job as a scientist and go to India for 5 years to learn the truth about Nālandā and also to understand deeper about the Buddhist tradition.

For easy saying, the objectives of my research are:

a. To resolve my quest about Nālandā, including the dream.

b. As stated, not only myself but also many other Buddhists, specifically the Vietnamese, do not know what Nālandā is. So, it seems a big mistake if you earnestly learn Buddhism but don’t really know its true history or where the teachings that you currently learn and practice come from and how they were transferred to you.

c. As same as all Buddhists, my goal in life is to see all sentient beings get their true happiness. So if my work may contribute some productive information or facts, which can help Buddhist students to know how authentic and how valuable the teachings that they are following are, then this is a cause for my happiness as well as the graceful appreciation for the schools, the traditions, and the places that have hosted the Dharma teachings for thousands of years also.

Lastly: How do we define the “Nālandā” term? To me, it is not just the monastery itself since doing so will narrow down the most important factor that Nālandā was the main Buddhist philosophy centre in India particularly, and the largest philosophy centre in the world generally. Not only religious, but it is also the centre of logic school, art, and architecture.

We may find that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s 14th was fully true: Tibetan Buddhist tradition is Nālandā tradition (not more, not less). Chinese Buddhist tradition and some other Mahayana countries also are a kind of following Nālandā even though they may become self-transforming later. But at least at the time upto Xuanzang (玄奘) and Yijing (義淨) time, it fully adopted the Nālandā tradition.

The scope of these essays is not to find the absolute facts about what happened over a long period of thousand years ago but to find a clearer picture of the place named as Nālandā and its role within Buddhism, especially Mahayana and its tantric subschools. It also tries as much as it can to indicate the earliest source of fact that can be found through scriptures, writings, and the evidence of archaeology.

With all the above mentioned, the presentation of the essays contains two kinds of information :
(1) The facts, including the creation, rise, and destruction of Nālandā, its activities, depicting how people live, learn, and practice, and lastly, the philosophy, the teachings, and the paths.
(2) The information that is exposed in many other aspects about Nālalndā, but they are implied within stories or legendaries. Those are very important since they may indicate and be the imprint to show details that are the actual image of Nālandā.


Research Methodology

Buddhist Monk Researching at Nalanda University, Bihar, India
Buddhist Monk Researching at Nalanda University, Bihar, India

2. We understand that your research involved extensive data collection from Tibetan, Indian, and Chinese scriptures, as well as archaeological evidence. Could you shed light on the research methods you employed, the challenges you faced, and how you ensured the accuracy and reliability of the gathered information?

Following Buddha’s teachings, there should be reliable sources of valid cognition for the proper knowledge: Direct Sense, Inference by suitable logic/critical thinking, and the knowledge taught by reliable persons (such as Buddha himself and his excellent Bodhisattvas). So, pick this as a guideline; my strategy goes with three stages: Collect data, filter them, and select what to present. But where is a good and reliable source for collecting data in the regard of more than thousands of years of history?

a. So, the first sources and facts are the archaeology evidence which may come from: the Nālandā area itself, any other related archaeology evidence that is tightly related to Nālandā (such as Vikramasila Monastery) and any other facts found directly mentioned or refer to Nālandaā and its tradition. Those include nowadays things found in historical Museums around the world (or books/documents about them, for example, those India-released archaeology bulletins or many regional archaeology journals that I can find based on Google).

Some details: At 1st, as brainstorming, I tried to access all of them, which I can skim reading in the Table of Content of any articles containing the word “Nālandā”. So separate those on one side. Also try to get the pictures of those facts as much as I can, including paying fees or purchases. (Especially the National Museum in Delhi and Nāladā itself were visited by me many times). The archaeological facts are always in the “Direct Sense” Truth. Also, the content of the facts such as script stones, Seals, symbols, statues, and architects are countless values of the truth.

Nalanda University Burnt Down by the Invaders
Nalanda University Burnt Down by the Invaders

b. This is the reasonable reference or infer sources: Where do they come from? Even the three libraries of Nālandā were burnt, but their transferred scriptures are kept elsewhere. It may contain some dialogues; however, following the teaching about the four seals of Buddha, we may identify which is right and which is not. We can strictly compare or critically evaluate the main idea to know if scripture is authentic. The scope of my research is NOT to give a nailed point review of the particular objects, but with the general view, we can draw the major vital conclusions. So, with this, I tried to search all available related scriptures. The two most vastly and importantly inherited sources of literature of Nālandā are Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. Besides, the recorded history of many Buddhist places (and even from the Iranian language may also contribute some anti-facts about how Nālandā in its last breath). So sad that India itself does not keep full or enough information or scripture sources about the history of Nālandā even though there are some significant rebuilds from the historians) – So, We all know the Kangyur and Tengyur collections in Tibet are the most evidence source of scriptures the prominent experts consider the most extensive library, copied and translated from Nālandā tradition. Furthermore, those literature written in Chinese such as by Xuanzang (a prominent student with more than six years in Nālandā), Yijing (11 years studied in Nālandā), as well as the Tibetan historian such as Tāranātha (ཏཱ་ར་ནཱ་ཐ་), Bu-ston (བུ་སྟོན་རིན་ཆེན་གྲུབ་) and Gö Lotsawa (འགོས་ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་གཞོན་ནུ་དཔལ). Together they contribute a wonderful picture of Nālandā.

Moreover, multiple much smaller information sources may greatly help learn about Nālandā, especially those from Kashmir, Dunhoang, Mongolia, Nepal, and Bhutan.

Do we accept historical information as reliable: At 1st, we have to make sure of what purpose and motivation each writing or scripture was written down. How and why? Does the author try to gain any personal fame/money/power by writing such works? Also, the critical Buddhist morality question may greatly help: if the authors are real Buddhists. The way of understanding these will make his/her works become reliable or not.

c. The teachings of Buddha and the people of Nālandā were another source of reliability; Besides, those collections are generally reliable. Details of the work of the people of Nālandā may contribute massive facts/data to help us to verify or prove whether the later author sources (such as the translations in English, and German, about Nālandā) are reliable or not. This requires users to know either Tibetan or Chinese and how to delve through thousands of scriptures. In this direction, I was lucky to get help from different Buddhist organizations, specifically from Tibetan and Chinese Taiwan. I also developed a specific software that can simulate UNIX grep or Regex tool that uses for the Tibetan language to search any specific phrases with many operations such as (AND, OR, XOR, NEAR, LENGTH and other operators that are useful for searching into the collections) So with that many saying, quoting or even sometimes dialogue spelling will be verified.

d. Anyway, no one can ensure 100% any historical information that may or may not be accurate within a thousand years past, especially if the info came from the time the writing system was not yet fully developed as Buddha Shakyamuni time. However, some levels of logic may help to draw an acceptable resolution out of logical and critical thinking, which are not against each other or against the time-space historical conditions. Additionally, with the above, the Prasangika school defined some strict levels about valid cognitions (e.g. every evidence/valid cognition must be content within the proper causes and effects; it also must NOT conflict with all its timely accepted valid cognitions, …) These tools are excellent for discarding information that may need to be more suitable or accurate. So my research presents data concerning three views: (1) the facts that can be proved, (2) the information cannot be proven (yet), but it may contain/imply precious true stories, (3) The legendary stories may contain values about history, culture, philosophy, way of living, That info is not feasible and, against common sense, discarded since it may not contain any usable info.

Lastly, we should learn as much as possible about the local places (here is Magadha), culture, customs, civilization, and even the other religions in the period in which the observed event occurred. (this is as aforementioned: Time-space cause-effect); however, with a person, we also have to learn where/when/what country he came from, what background/caste he has, and also what area he was good at (just a simple example: with Asanga, if some collecting information stated that he might have some activities that are not in accordance to “Mind Only” school then it should be something wrong with it … )

Difficulties Faced:

i. Very difficult to make a general map of the timeline: The scripts and evidence (may have Carbon read but cannot state 100% what cycle of history) 

ii. the earlier time was storied virtually and traditionally transferred by “word of mouth”. So, working on matching many details in the scriptures/material/ to regain the order and the details are often complex. 

iii. Mismatched information about the same person or even. Notably, the more famous a person is, there will be more mismatched legendaries about him. The most famous case is Nagarjuna.

iv Too little information: reversely, some Nālandā people who are less famous, even if they may have a considerable contribution to Nālandā school, then the information about them reversely too little (e.g. the case of Vimuktisena and Harihabra)

v Require a broad knowledge of different majors/subjects/sciences, including history, Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophy, logic, computer skills, social, and languages.  


Significance of Nalanda

Buddhist Monk Delivering a lecture at Nalanda University
Buddhist Monk Delivering a lecture at Nalanda University

3. Nalanda University holds immense historical and cultural importance. What makes Nalanda unique, and why is it considered a treasure trove of knowledge in the Buddhist world? How does it differ from other ancient centres of learning?

Saying about the object of Nālandā itself: What made Nālandā unique? So clearly the history of its operations, the dimension, the scale, its influence/impact on other religions, countries and the world, the schools and subschools of philosophy, the logic school, the tradition of debate, the tolerance to others, the morality, the size and organization that are born and succeed in Nālandā; the people who actively stayed, how they lived and what happened to them, how they study, practice and transfer the Buddha teaching and the very last important point: the contribution that the people of Nālandā give for the world. Also, how they transfer/transmit their message and how they interact with other communities plus relationships with the local governments as well to survive as a non-breakable linkage from Buddha to the 11-12 century in thousands of years, and lastly, the large number of students that are not only Buddhist and Indian but also for the other religious and international countries as well. Those factors certainly define the unique characteristics of Nālandā. 

That also defines how it is world history’s most significant treasure source. Remember that those massive scriptures, which are mostly now found in Tibet and China etc, are directly inherited from Nālanda. This must be recognized as Nālandā ‘s heritage as well. Those include massive value in scientific developments, including philosophy, medicine, psychology, logic, architecture, art, and Buddhist practices. So these values should be noted for reuse, relearned, and redeveloped for application in the future.

About the other ancient institutes: primarily, the essay has one chapter that mentions Vikramaśila Institute, but it is not to compare them but to show this institute was a sub-school of Nālandā.

Nalanda’s Influence

The representation of Nalanda University
The representation of Nalanda University

4. Nalanda University attracted scholars and students from various regions. Could you elaborate on its impact on the spread of Buddhist teachings and its contribution to intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual growth during its prime?

The impact of Nālandā cannot be mentioned in such a short list or just in a limited interview text. A few hundred pages of my essays indicated the answer to your question. However, I may try to bullet a few significant impacts.

a. The role of Nālandā in the world of Mahayana Buddhism is crucial – including its heavy influence on any sect, any school, and any aspect of the student/practitioner life learning, ceremonies, ritual, behaviour, morality, knowledge/teachings and practice.

b. Not only with Buddhism, but the school also influenced impact on to India itself in culture, art, and society. Especially in most of the regimes, Nālandā Buddhism was one of the significant recognized religions (in such cases, the government/kings also contributed tremendous support for spreading Buddhism to the world and India), also through the history of activities, the school continuously transferred /spread out the compassion and wisdom and ways to do it of Buddha and his sons. The influence of culture may cause positive changes in other religions as well. There are times when many states within India have Buddhism as prominent religion, and it still has some effects on the Indian people today (in their culture of non-violence, for example). 

c. Same amount of teachings of influence also applied to China, Tibet, Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, and later Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. It still has a significant impact on those countries today. Nowadays, Buddhism is the most peaceful religion and the third largest one in the world, so a significant role of Nālandā also causes these results.

Teaching Tradition

Art of Nalanda University
Art of Nalanda University

5. Nalanda is renowned for its unique pedagogical methods. Could you provide insights into the teaching tradition followed at Nalanda University? How did the teachings and practices at Nalanda shape the students’ understanding of Buddhist philosophy and cultivate intellectual curiosity?

To get the data for this answer, we have to dig into many sources, including the writings of those monks who lived in the school mentioned in question 1, the transmitted traditional model of living, training and practice, which is still being applied in some Buddhist countries today, especially Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. However, the most substantial evidence should be counted from Tibet. We can learn the teaching program currently in this community to see the pedagogical methods that, if applied.

So it entirely depends on training purposes, so they will have unique methods suitable to the theoretical, the ideology, the philosophy proposed/proved the aims of training the school. Against those aims of training came from the ultimate goal of Buddhism or the Buddha’s teaching: to Bring all sentient beings from the status of impure, full of suffering and ignorance (in the means of unknowing the fundamental truths and short sight about the world/env, and causing all kind problems from this ignorance), and wandering in the cyclic world up to the status of complete knowledge of wisdom as omniscience, liberated from all afflicted situations, and found a specific path to escape out of the cyclic existence. So, To see a more profound method, we have to acknowledge that Buddhism, especially the Nālandā tradition, all uniquely follows the law of Dependent Arising theory, which part of it is the causes and effects laws (that modern science and physics accept as the ultimate law) and also any view about the status of phenomena or the world, also depend on the personal/human views which came from their mind situation, the potential karma, knowledge and the conditions of it.

So, with that in mind, we can try to check the closest pedagogy methods of Nālandā is the tradition that is still kept from many Tibetan Buddhist universities today (concerning knowing there may be some minor differences with the original).

For example: Why do students have to learn Logic debate from the beginning? Why does the school program start with learning definitions of anything, including what colour & shape, what is true or false, what are the person and the world and up to what are mind and their attributes/status? Is that similar to modern math that any math/science subjects are required to accept its axioms and principles? (Only Buddhism may undergo a much lower level that touches any aspect of life). So remember all the questions to see some insights about the current methods. I just did an example in a training program of Nālandā: Those are listed from low to high, from freshman to senior (and to final level), from easy to difficult, and from simple subject to the most complex subject, and then the latest stage of training is practising. However, this does not mean forcing students to learn all of them but is only highly recommended for novice students. At a level of high intelligence, a student can skip and jump to a level that he may be capable of and also make sure he should pass all tests (by debating) from the lower levels to ensure his path is proper. Why?

a. Learning all physical and mental world definitions, including definitions, definiendum, statuses, behaviours, properties and the relationships between the terms if available (such as sub-classes, opposites, exclusive, mutually exclusive, inclusive.

b. After that, Logic subject training is provided. This is similar to a kind of logic math; however, it is added another level of giving an example for each type of statement/fundamental theorem since Buddhism is NOT targeted pure theoretical but the real world of application, especially in deb bat, to find the Truth / Liberation. With this learning, students can later be capable of judging what is right or wrong, what is suitable or not. What should be followed and not?

c. Brief core of philosophy: The student then learns all primary philosophy schools, Buddhist subschools and non-Buddhist philosophies. Especially within Buddhist Schools, it presents all the significant issues and advantages of each main /sub-school (why?) So each person may find that particular school tenet may be well suitable for his/her capacity in order to learn practice accordingly and adapt to the capacity as well. For each significant school, the teaching includes Definitions, subschools, etymology, principles of beliefs and assertions, terms, path, and result of the path.

d. After that, students have to spend a long time on Prājñaparamita. (If you are Indian, you should know what it means). (the program may take 4-6 years) Students must learn Mahayana school’s complicated, deep, higher-level philosophy here. especially the path (please self-ask yourself why and find the proper answer)

e. The primary teaching and the most challenging subject is the Middle way (Madhyamaka). The primary teaching comes from Nagarjuna and his students.

f. Finally, students can have training in practice at a deep /high tantric level. During many years of learning, students learned many principles and foundations and were already involved in training in meditation and religious practices. Now he/she only learns the highest levels. He or she can then go to a solitary place for more profound meditation (usually in 3 years) or join the same or other organizations to continue life,

g. So during the primary program training: all students are suggested to learn very well in 5 sciences (that are only available in Nālandā and the world at its time) and learn about morality, meditation, and wisdom, which are contented in 3 baskets (Sutra, Vinaya, and Abhidharma)

So to gain more “insight”, please read the following idea from Xuan Zang, which is briefly depicted: Students learn morality, meditation, and wisdom, how to behave in relationships with gurus and also in the school rules, and obey the laws of Buddha. All must learn sūtra, vinaya, and Abhidharma; those are in Sanskrit, and all students practise non-violence.

In its (Nālandā) long history, no sangha created any taint in morality or the way of life. Every day, there are about 100 teachings in which different topics are discussed. Students never waste time and attend classes that may inspire/interest them. Whenever there is a talk in forums, there must be an expert teacher about the talking topic. The main topics include hetu vidyā, śabdavidyā, śilpa-sthāna-vidyā, citkitsā-vidyā, mantra śāstra and ādhyātmika-vidyā. The other topics are also learned as sāṃkhya, yoga, nyāya, Sanskrit, vyākaraṇa, jyotiṣa, kāvya, alaṃkāra, purāṇa, itihās, dharma śāstra, and Four Vedas Teachings and their sub-branches (Vedāṅga). Specifically, in Buddhism, there are four primary schools vaibhāṣika, sautrāntika, cittamātra, and Madhyamaka. 

The whole program may take from 17 to 21 years on average; why does it take so long? (However, in the case of Xuan Zang, he seems only to need to learn in about 6-7 years; why?)

Remember, the school is open to Buddhist monks and all laypeople (regardless of caste and religion). Students may have to pass some entrance tests; however, that is to admit only the suitable qualified candidates. The tolerance of Nālandā can also be seen through its training program.

Five sciences, logic, debate, philosophy, practice matching/according with theory/schools, tolerance to multiple schools and even to non-Buddhist thoughts

This question was mostly answered in the other question, so I would like to omit it.

Rediscovering Nalanda

As a researcher dedicated to Nalanda, what are your thoughts on the ongoing efforts to revive Nalanda University as a centre for Buddhist studies and academic excellence? How do you envision its future impact on preserving and disseminating Buddhist knowledge?

I wish the University could be revived. There are already many schools either claim the name of Nālandā or say they are doing the schools’ tradition; however, in order to judge, one should look into some points: At 1st, you need to define what is Nālandā and its tradition; what is the goal for what you wanted to achieve. This should be identified clearly and in full detail. Always remember — Wisdom and Compassion is the real point here. Then you can lay out what needs to be taken and what needs to be avoided.

I do not know how far the current wave of building Nālandā University is going on; Here are some instances of my mind — about the questions that need to be resolved before knowing/saying any further:

1. Is that the “traditional Nālandā” reflexes in the school program, and training, especially the fundamental goal of Nālandā (e.g. it is to bring all good heart & qualified people regardless of layer or casts to real happiness and the harmonic?)  

2. Do the universities follow Buddhism or at least treat Buddhist philosophy as a vital major? (please find out why this is an important question)

3. How advantageous may the school plan implement in order to get such a high level of scale in science and philosophy, deep in knowledge, especially in solid areas of Buddhist science including logic, psychology, mental treatment, self-enhancing (by meditation), philosophy and even the foundation of modern science.

Also, to reflect the primary goal of Buddha in the teaching of the paths: reaching the highest level of Compassion and Wisdom, including worldly wisdom. So the path of training of the school is supposed to go on par with this path: A student not only have the highest level of wisdom (if available) or professional knowledge, he/she must also have a warm heart and is an actual human being which has the sound and meaningful morality and altruistic in the way of life (How to train this during schools programs? To tell the truth, I wish to see this point in good shape of implementation yet!)

It is NOT such simple, since in my essays, the research points out that many such the claimed “Nālandā” universities are failed!

Way Forward

Nalanda University burning
Nalanda University burning

You may have to cautiously & carefully learn from good and bad cases either to draw out the lesions before actually starting, including knowing the causes and conditions for applying any succession and avoiding failures from the other cases.

One of the good cases is that the tradition still exists in Buddhist Universities, but we need to know what to take and what not since it looks like the schools you are building are not for monks or nuns.

How to spread the fundamental knowledge and love/likeness about Nālandā among all people of India 1st and later in the world. Why? Without the actual knowledge/love of Nālandā, you can never get the genuine support needed! Whom to serve/get 1st, then what to serve/get later.

How to convince and gather real inspiration and interest from the government and internationally. This one time, I saw, but sorry to me, it failed since the school did not go well. Why? For example, a university board of leaders needs major decision-makers who are at least supposed to know Buddhism and its philosophy correctly (not talk about a more profound level yet). And how the teachings of Buddha are respected and applied in the schools’ activities; this is not to say a student has to recognize who Buddha is. However, He/she is supposed to know what the aim of Buddha means and what the school’s / activities are to present that goal (not another way around as to encourage fame or money first). Allway “keep in mind” the money or fame will come after the high value in the quality of training/teaching, theory and practice, ineffectiveness, and especially in advancing the harmonic and morality (not materialism).

First, to get excellent leaders of the school who have both compassion and wisdom, then to attract the outstanding heart teachers following up. Moreover, with the acknowledgement of what is Nālandā from everyone around, it will thrive and be healthy.

Interviewee

Mr Nhan Vo

Pandemic Research -MAVERIC – Clinical Science R&D Service – VA Boston Healthcare System.
Expert on the Historic Nalanda University.

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