Tuesday, December 13, 2005

India | Nalanda University

After a stop in the old town of Rajgir for lunch at the famous Green Hotel, where I sit at a table with a Taiwanese lady I had met earlier that day at Vulture’s Peak—she chatters with me as if we are old friends catching up on the news after a lengthy parting—we drive through the narrow gap between Vaibhara Hill and Vipula Hill and back out onto the plain. Seven or eight miles past the new city of Rajgir a narrow road cuts off to Nalanda. In front of the entrance is a hubbub of tea stalls, souvenir stands, and particularly voracious beggars, but once past the front gate and into the large walled compound (unlike Vulture’s Peak, a ticket is required here)—the expansive grounds are immaculately maintained, with mowed lawns, paved paths lined with flower beds, neat and informative signposts, convenient placed benches for the weary, and not so much as a gum wrapper of trash visible anywhere.
Spotless grounds of Nalanda
Present are well-dressed, affluent-looking Indian families on outings (it’s a Sunday), a smattering of Tibetan pilgrims, and bunches of monks and nuns in burgundy, orange, and ochre scattered about the landscape like bouquets of tulips.
Tibetan Pilgrims
Nalanda and its environs have a hallowed place in the history of religion and learning in India. Even before the establishment of the monastery and university the area was famous for its pleasure parks and rest houses. According to one legend the Buddha in a previous life had lived here as a king and due to his kindness to his subjects both he the capital of his kingdom became known as “Kindness without Remission,” the rough meaning of the nalanda according to one interpretation of the word. . The Buddha himself gave teachings here, including the Brahmajala Sutra, the first discourse of the Tripitaka, and the Ambalatthika Rahulovasda Sutra, and his two main disciples, Sariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana, were born nearby. In addition to the Buddhist associations, Mahavira (the honorary title of a teacher by the name of Vardhamana), a contemporary of the Buddha who is regarded by followers of Jainism as the greatest of all their teachers, spend as many as fourteen rainy seasons in the area. (Ironically, Mahamaudgalyayana was later beaten to death by assassins said to be in the pay of local Jains.)

Although the area was famous, the origins of what became the Nalanda monastery and university are uncertain. Taranatha (who as you know was a Previous Incarnation of Zanabazar), in his monumental History of Buddhism in India claims that in the 3rd B. C. century King Ashoka came here on a pilgrimage to visit a stupa dedicated to Sariputra and that he subsequently built another stupa nearby in honor of the Buddha.

Taranatha further intimates that the construction of this stupa marks the very beginning of Nalanda’s development into a monastery. The very existence of this stupa has been questioned, and there are no other indications that any kind of monastic establishment had been founded this early. Some sources state that Nalanda as we know it was in fact founded in the second century A.D. by King Sakraditya of Magadha. The earliest archeological findings at the site, however, date from the early Gupta Dynasty ((350 a.d – 650 a.d.) Also, our pilgrim friend Fa Hien, who visited the area early in the fifth century, took note of a stupa marking the spot where Sariputra’s body was cremated but refers only in passing to a nearby monastery, leading some to conclude that no significant monastic establishment or university existed at the time of his visits. We do know that by the late fifth century and early sixth century, under the Guptas, the monastic university was firmly established. Some of the archeological remains at the site today date from this period. From then on Nalanda continued to grow.

One of its greatest patrons was Harsha (606-647), one of the last Gupta kings. The peripatetic pilgrim Xuanzang visited here during Harsa’s reign and spoke of his munificence: “The king of the country respects and honours the priests, and has remitted the revenues of about 100 villages for the endowment of this convent. Two hundred householders in these villages, day-by-day, contribute several hundred piculs [one picul equals 133.3 lbs.] of ordinary rice, and several hundred catties [one catty equals 160 lbs.] in weight of butter and milk. Hence the students here, being so abundantly supplied, do not require to ask for the four requisites [clothes, food, bedding and medicine]. This is the source of their perfection of their studies . . .”

The Gupta Dynasty fell in 650, eventually to be replaced by the Pala Dynasty, famous for its patronage of Buddhism. Although the Pala emperors established numerous other monasteries, including Vikramasila, Somapura, and Odantapuri, they continued to support Nalanda. There was one burst of building activity during the Pala period in the ninth century, perhaps following a devastating fire, and much of the statuary from Nalanda which has survived dates from this period. The end of the Pala Dynasty, brought about by the incursions of Islam, would also spell the end of Nalanda.

A whole galaxy of notable Buddhist gurus and scholars studied or taught at Nalanda. As one commentator noted, “to study the history of Nalanda is to study the history of Mahayana Buddhism.” As we have seen Nagarjuna, who according to legend retrieved various Mahayana texts, including the Prajnaparamita, from the Nagas, is said by Taranatha and others to have taught at Nalanda. See two Prajnaparamita texts:
Admittedly the historical ground is a bit shaky here, since other sources place Nagarjuna in south India for much of his life, and there are questions of just how much of a monastic establishment existed at Nalanda in the second century A.D. when Najarjuna is said to have lived. Nevertheless, Najarjuna is inextricably connected, either by fact or legend, with Nalanda. “The legend goes,” we are told by the renowned modern-day Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, “that Nagarjuna was approached by nagas (dragons) in human form after one of his lectures at the monastery of Nalanda. They invited him to their undersea kingdom to see some texts they thought would be of great interest to him. He went with them magically under the sea and discovered a vast treasure trove of the Mahayana Sutras, not only the Prajnaparamita, but also the Jewel Heap, the Lotus, and the Pure Land Sutras.” Having studied this sutras with the Nagas, Nagarjuna, according to legend, then returned to Nalanda and introduced them into human society. Whatever their origination, there is no doubt that Nalanda became a leading center for the dissemination of Mahayana doctrines. (Bardi-dzoboo, credited with being an earlier incarnation of Zanabazar, is said to have lived at Nalanda during the time of Nagarjuna.)

Taranatha further asserts that Aryadeva, the main disciple of Nagarjuna, a Madhyamaka master and author of the Catuhsataka, among numerous other works; Asanga, fourth century A.D. founder of the Yogacara school of Mahayana; and Vasubhandu, Asanga’s half-brother, who at Asanga’s urging—according to some accounts—converted to Mahayana and became an proponent of the Yogacara school, all spend considerable time at Nalanda and that the latter two served as abbots here. Again there are questions about the chronology here, and whether a significant monastic university actually existed at Nalanda during the lifetimes of these individuals.

On firmer historical ground, Dignaga (480-540 A.D.), a later student of Vasubhandu who wrote extensively on the Adhidharma, is known to have taught at Nalanda. This would have been about the time the monastic university began to flourish under the Guptas. Later luminaries include Dharmapala, a leading light of the Yogacara school and an influential teacher of Silabhadra (529-645 A.D.), who as we shall shortly see taught the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang; Dharmakirti (seventh century A.D.), an outstanding teacher of logic known as the Kant of India; and the immortal Shantideva, author of The Way of the Bodhisattva, which is still in print today in numerous additions (I have met people who have memorized large chunks of it).

Numerous figures connected with the spread of Buddhism to Tibet also studied at Nalanda. This in part explains why Nalanda remains to this day an important pilgrimage site for Tibetans. Among these notables must be included Thonpi Sambhota, inventor of the Tibetan script, although little more is known of his activities either at or after Nalanda. Most famous among the other Tibet-connected personages are Padmasambhava, also known as “the Lotus-Born,” Santarakshita, who received his monastic vows at Nalanda from the monk Jnanagarbha, and Kamalasila, a student of Santarakshita’s. All three of whom lived in the 8th century A.D. Padmasambhava and Santarakshita traveled to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen, who visited to introduce Buddhism into his kingdom. Padmasambhava’s efforts at disseminating Buddhism in Tibet were so successful that is often referred to by Tibetans as “the Second Buddha.” In the 770s Padmasambhava and Santarakshita oversaw the construction of Samye Monastery, the very first monastic establishment in Tibet.

Padmasambhava and Santarakshita modeled Samye on the monastic complex at Odantapuri, which as mentioned had been patronized by the Pala Dynasty. Odantapuri was completely obliterated during the Moslems incursion of the 12th century and until just recently even its location was unknown. Now it is believed to have located at Bihar Sharif, just seven miles north-east of Nalanda. It is not surprising then that Padmasambhava and Santarakshita knew of Odanaturi and were able to model Samye after it. The design which they used is supposed to represent the Buddhist model of the universe. The three-story main temple represents Mount Sumeru, the mythical mountain at the center of the Universe. The four so-called Ling Temples at the corners of the main temple represent the four continents which according to traditional Buddhist cosmology surround Mount Sumeru. It was here at Samye that the first seven Tibetans were ordained by Shantarakshita, after the Indian teacher had closely examined them to see if they were fit to be monks. They are still known today as the Seven Examined Men.

Kamalasila, Santarakshita’s student at Nalanda, traveled to Tibet in his teacher’s footsteps and gained fame as a debater. At that time Ch’an Buddhism as practiced in China, which emphasized the concept of sudden enlightenment, was also being taught in Tibet, most famously by the Chinese Ch’an master Hvashang Mahayana. During the years 792-794, a debate was held between the Ch’an Buddhists and the Buddhists from Nalanda who represented the so-called “gradual enlightenment” school. The “gradual enlightenment” school led by Kamalasila won the debate, and the Nalanda-taught form of Buddhism gained ascendancy in Tibet, but he may have paid for it with his life. In 795 he was murdered, according to some accounts by a Chinese assassin dispatched by his debate opponent.

None of these worthies, regardless of how extensive their other writings may have been, left any detailed record of Nalanda itself. The best account we have comes from the Indefatigably Peripatetic Pilgrim Xuanzang, who made a dramatic entrance here in 636 A.D. At time of his arrival his fame had already proceeded him to such an extant that four distinguished members of the university came out to met him and led him to a house where it was said Maudgalyayana had been born. The party stopped here for refreshment. “Then,” his biographer tells us, “with two hundred priests and some thousand lay patrons, who surrounded him as he went, recounting his praises, and carrying standards, umbrellas, flowers, and perfumes, he entered Nalanda.” Xuanzang:
The sanghadaramas [monastic complexes] of India are counted by myriads, but this is the most remarkable for grandeur and height . . . 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, standing in the middle . . .
The entrance to the complex in now through a narrow gate and passageway on the eastern side of the walled complex. In Xuanzang’s there was a famous Northern Gate which served as the main entrance to the monastery. Those who sought to study at Nalanda were confronted here by a gate keeper who acted as a kind of Dean of Admissions. “If men of other quarters,” Xuanzang tells us, ”desire to enter and take part in the discussions, the keeper of the gate proposes some hard questions; many are unable to answer, and retire. One must have studied deeply both old and new books before gaining admission. Those students, therefore, who come here as strangers, have to show their ability by hard discussion; those who fail compared to those who succeed are as seven or eight to ten.” This Northern Gate no longer exists nor is its exact location known, although its ruins are thought to be somewhere under the villages to the north of the current walled compound.

Inside the gate the entire population of the monastery turned out to greet Xuanzang. After taking a seat right by the side of the residing priest, a proclamation was made: “‘Whist the Master of the Law [Xuanzang] dwells at the convent, all the commodities used by the priests and all the appliances of religion are for his convenience, in common with the rest.’”

Then he was led into the presence of the redoubtable Silabhadra, the leading master of the Yogacara school and the greatest scholar of the many at Nalanda. “The priests, belonging to the convent, or strangers residing therein,” according to Xuanzang, ”always reach the number of 10,000, who all study the Great Vehicle, and also the works belonging to the eighteen sects . . . There are 1000 men who can explain twenty collections of Sutras and Sastras; 500 who can explain thirty collections, and perhaps ten men . . . who can explain fifty collections. Silabhadra alone has studied and understood the whole number. His eminent virtue and advanced age have caused him to be regarded as the chief member of the community.” His renown was so great that no one at Nalanda called him but name but instead referred to him as “Treasure of the Good Law.”

Xuanzang approached this worthy on his knees, kissed his foot, and showered him with compliments. Asking Xuanzang to take a seat, Silabhadra then asked Xuanzang where he was from. “‘I am come from the country of China, desiring to learn from your instruction the principles of the Yoga-Sastra [Yogacara].’” Since Xuanzang’s fame had proceeded him to Nalanda, we must wonder why Silabhadra had to ask where he was from. Perhaps the great scholar was too absorbed in this studies to have heard in advance about the famous pilgrim-traveler.

Anyhow, upon hearing that Xuanzang was from China Silabhadra’s eyes filled with tears. He called to his nephew Buddhabhadra and asked him to recount to Xuanzang an event which had happened three years before. Silabhadra, it seems, had long been suffering from colic, but at that time the attacks had become so severe that he wished to end his life and had thus resolved to starve himself to death. In the middle of the night three devas, or spiritual beings, appeared to him in a dream. They asked, “‘Are you anxious to get free of this body of yours? The scriptures speak, saying, the body is born to suffering; they do not say we should hate it and cast away the body.’” The devas further explained to Silabhadra that in a previous life he had been the king who had mistreated his subjects and that his present illness was karmic retribution for these past misdeeds. Then revealing that they were the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara, Maitreya, and Manjushri, they advised Silabhadra that if he faithfully continued to teach the Yogacara doctrine for the benefit of those who had not yet heard it he would be cured of his illness. They added, “Do not overlook that there is a priest of the country of China who delights in examining the great Law and is desirous to study with you: you ought to instruct him most carefully.”

Obviously Xuanzang was the Chinese priest prophesied in the dream, now come to receive the teachings from Silabhadra. “The company present hearing this history were all filled with wonder at the miraculous event,” we are told. “The Master of the Law [Xuanzang] having heard for himself this narrative was unable to control his feelings of sympathy and joy.” He was, in fact, so unable to control himself that when he was asked how long he had been traveling he blurted out, “three years,” even though by that time he had been on the road at least seven. Apparently in his eagerness to please he wanted the length of his travels to coincide with the prophecy.

Xuanzang ended up staying at Nalanda for a total of five years, studying with Silabhadra and other learned men, collecting sutras to take back to China, and perfecting his Sanskrit, knowledge of which he would need to translate these works into Chinese. During his stay he was royally treated, receiving considerable rations each day, including a peck of Mahasali rice. “This rice,” we are told, “is as large as a black bean and when cooked is aromatic and shining, like no other rice at all. It grows only In Magadha and nowhere else. It is offered only to the king or religious persons of great distinction . . .” He was also given an elephant to ride, a privilege usually reserved for royalty.

Xuanzang was effusive about the various temples and buildings of Nalanda “The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hill-tops, are congregated together,” he mentions. “The observatories seem to be lost in the vapors of the morning, and the upper rooms are above the clouds. From the windows one may see how the winds and clouds produce new forms, and above the soaring eves the conjunction of the sun and the moon may be observed.” One of the observatories was at least nine-stories high, and there were three libraries, Ratnasagara, Ratnadadhi, and Ratnaranjaka, containing thousands of book in numerous languages.

He also mentions a Tara Temple: “. . . in a vihara [temple] constructed of brick is a figure of Tara Bodhisattva (To-p’u-sa). This figure is of great height, and its spiritual appearance is very striking. Every fast-day large offerings are made to it. The kings and ministers and great people of the neighboring countries offer exquisite perfumes and flowers, holding gem covered flags and canopies, whilst instruments of metal and stone resound in turns, mingled with the harmony of flutes and harps. These religious assemblies last for seven days.” This is perhaps one of the clearest indications of just how strong the Cult of Tara was as far back as the seventh century A.D.

Xuanzang was also impressed by his follow monks at Nalanda [there is no mention of any nuns]:
The priests, to the number of several thousands, area men of the highest ability and rank. Their distinction is very great at the present time, and there are many hundreds whose fame has rapidly spread through distant regions. Their conduct is pure and unblamable. They follow in sincerity the precepts of the moral law. The rules of this convent are severe, and all the priests are bound to observe them. The countries of India respect and follow them. The day is not sufficient for asking and answering profound questions. From morning to night they engage in discussion; the old and young mutually help one another. Those who cannot discuss questions out of the Tripitaka are little esteemed, and are obliged to hide themselves for shame. Learned men from different cities, on this account, who desire to acquire quickly a renown in discussion, come here in their multitudes to settle their doubts, and then the streams of their wisdom spread far and wide. For this reason some persons usurp the name of Nalanda students, and in going to and fro receive honor in consequence.
As with all organic entities, however, no sooner had Nalanda ripening and flowered than decline decay and set in. The university became immensely wealthy from royal patronage, especially during the Pala era, and students soon forsook Buddhist studies and the religious life for careers in court and government. Also, Brahmanism made inroads in the curriculum, diluting Buddhist teachings until began to resemble Hinduism.

Thus Nalanda was already in steep decline, at least from a religious and intellectual point of view, when Islamic armies invaded India at the beginning of the 1190s. After the second battle of Tarain in 1192 when the forces of Islam were victorious there was nothing to keep them from invading the so-called Middle Land where Nalanda was located. In 1193 Mohammad Bakhtyar and his armies swept across the Gangetic Plain destroying all Buddhist temples and institutions he found and killing Buddhist monks who fell into his hands. Nalanda was almost completely plundered, but a few monks who had managed to survive the onslaught returned and attempted to revive the institution. A second attack by the Moslems followed and this time Nalanda was destroyed for good. The abandoned ruins of the once great monastery slowly sank into the plains of Bihar.

The now restored ruins cover an area perhaps half a mile long and a little less than a quarter of a mile wide, and even this is thought to be only one-tenth of the original size of Nalanda.
Restored structures at Nalanda
Along one side of a walkway running lengthwise through the site are the brick remains of eight different monastic compounds. The compounds, arranged in a perfectly straight row, are all similar. Each is about one hundred and fifty feet square and consists of small monastic cells, ten or twelve on each of the four sides, opening onto a central courtyard.
Monks' Quarters
In the courtyard of some of them is a platform where a teacher lectured to the assembled monks and other students. Some of the cells contain beds and bookcases built into the brick walls.
On the other side of the central are the remains of four brick temples in various states of restoration. The most dramatic of these is the massive pyramidal structure at southern end of the museum complex.
Main Temple at Nalanda
One of the oldest remaining buildings at Nalanda, it was built in at least seven stages, one on top of another. The staircases leading to the top built during the fifth, sixth, and seventh phases of the construction can still be seen. Around the structure are dozens of stupas in varying states of repair, the best preserved containing original Pala statuary. I overhead a tour guide here saying that this temple was built on the site of the stupa originally built in the Nalanda area by Ashoka, although neither a nearby sign post describing the structure or any guidebooks I have say anything about this.

I spend two or three hours wandering around the monastic compounds and temples. Most of the Indian families have retreated to the shade of the snack shop just outside the entryway, but a few Tibetan pilgrims still dutifully plod among the ruins. Some of them pick up pebbles and pinches of dust and put them in small ziploc plastic bags, souvenirs of the hallowed ground where Padmasambhava, Santarakshita, and Kamalasila once trod. I stop briefly to listen to a group of Tibetan monks reading in unison a sutra in front of one of the temple ruins. They are from a monastery in south India, established by Tibetan refugees who fled after the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Thus by the vicissitudes of twentieth-century ideologies and politics has Tibetan Buddhism returned to India, from whence it originally had sprung.