Why NORBU could be a Game Changer in Buddhist Learning

by Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, 20 August 2023

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Around the 5th to 12th centuries, in the ancient Indian university of Nalanda at Bihar, India, every day students and monks could be heard engaged in rigorous debates and Dharma discussions. These two learning methods played a central role in the educational approach at Nalanda.

Students engaged in rigorous debates served as a means of intellectual inquiry and sharpening their analytical and critical thinking skills. Debates were not just about winning arguments, but rather about exploring ideas, testing one's understanding and refining one's knowledge through the process of logical reasoning and counterargument.

Dharma discussions were also highly valued in the Nalanda tradition. Dharma refers to the teachings of Buddha and the principles of Buddhist philosophy. In Nalanda, scholars and students would engage in in-depth discussions about these teachings, exploring their meanings, interpretations and implications.

Both debate and dharma discussions were seen as methods for arriving at a deeper comprehension of truth, encouraging critical thinking and refining one's understanding of complex subjects. The Nalanda tradition emphasized the importance of active engagement with knowledge rather than passive absorption. This approach not only contributed to the intellectual development of scholars but also facilitated the preservation and advancement of knowledge over generations.

Unfortunately, since the demise of the Nalanda university in the 12th century, these learning traditions have mainly been lost, saved perhaps only by its fortunate reincarnated form of Tibetan Buddhism. Losing the Nalanda tradition has fostered a "dark age" in terms of Dharma learning. The Buddhism of today is more of an expression of faith, with a vast majority happy to participate in its rituals, of learning basic Dharma instead of being intellectually engaged.

Without rigorous discussions and exchange of ideas, how could time tested Buddhist teachings be able to help its current adherents cope with changes and stresses of modern life? While replicating the exact historical context might not be feasible, one can draw inspiration from the tradition's core values and adapt them to contemporary educational and cultural contexts.

Bringing back the Nalanda tradition in modern times involves reviving its key principles of rigorous intellectual inquiry, debate and holistic education. Here are some steps that could be considered:

1) Emphasize Debate and Discussion: Incorporate regular debates and discussions into a platform (online forum, chat etc). Encourage students to engage in constructive debates where they defend and challenge ideas. This promotes critical thinking, effective communication, and a deeper understanding of subjects.

2) Cultivate Critical Thinking: Design a platform that focus on developing critical thinking skills. Encourage students to question assumptions, analyse different viewpoints, and arrive at well-reasoned conclusions.

3) Interdisciplinary Learning: Foster an environment where students can explore multiple fields of knowledge. Encourage them to see connections between seemingly unrelated subjects, promoting holistic learning.

4) Ethical and Moral Education: Include teachings on ethics, morality, and compassion in the curriculum. The Nalanda tradition emphasized not only intellectual growth but also personal and ethical development.

5) Engage with Traditional Texts: Incorporate study and interpretation of traditional texts from various Buddhist schools, cultures and philosophies. This encourages a deeper understanding of historical wisdom while fostering critical engagement.

6) Promote Research: Encourage students and scholars to conduct research that contributes to the advancement of knowledge. This could involve both theoretical research and practical applications.

7) Borderless Collaboration: Nalanda was a melting pot of cultures and knowledge from around the world. Provide a platform to foster collaborations and exchanges to create a diverse learning environment.

8) Community Engagement: Encourage students to actively engage with their local communities. This promotes the application of knowledge for the betterment of society, aligning with the Nalanda tradition's emphasis on service.

9) Digital Learning: Leverage technology to facilitate learning, discussions and debates beyond physical boundaries. Online platforms can help spread the principles of the Nalanda tradition to a wider audience.

10) Cultural Integration: Incorporate cultural elements and practices that resonate with the spirit of the Nalanda tradition, creating a unique and immersive learning experience.

Looking at these 10 suggestions, it would seem that a Buddhist trained AI Chat Bot, such as NORBU (Neural Omniscient Robotic-Being for Buddhist Understanding) -  which can be accessed at https://norbu-ai.org - could be the very game changer that could be the catalyst to revive the Nalanda Tradition. Combining the NORBU bot with an online community such as a Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/norbuchatbot/) basically reactivates all the building blocks required to re-establish this famed ancient Buddhist school.

Since its launch on 22 July 2023, NORBU has broken certain important grounds. For instance, it has been able to provide students with access to expert knowledge and interpretation of the texts and integrate it with horizontal learning methods. By doing so, it has gotten learners to encourage critical thinking and independent inquiry by questioning and exploring the texts for themselves, promote a sense of community and shared learning and helping learners to discuss and debate religious ideas.

In addition to the benefits mentioned above, the expert source data used to train the bot and horizontal learning nature of the platform has also helped learners to develop problem-solving skills. As they work together to make sense of the texts, it fostered creativity and innovation, as they come up with new ways to interpret the texts.

Checking through the sample of conversations stored at the bot's backend reveals a treasure trove of roles NORBU has played while interacting with users. Among the roles NORBU had undertaken are: consultant / admin assistant, sharer of interesting facts, clarifier, counselor, philosopher, commentator on social issues, psychologist, teacher, creative adviser, travel planner and as a meditation guide. And the bot had accomplished all these while staying true to its application of Buddhist knowledge. This was truly ground breaking, a situation never seen before the bot's advent.

While it is early days to declare if a Buddhist bot like NORBU could ever bring back the Nalanda tradition, it still looks like a very promising breakthrough. Nevertheless, reviving the tradition requires more than the genius of an AI bot, it should also involve a concerted effort from teaching monks and nuns, educators and students. While adapting to the modern context, the focus should remain on nurturing intellectual curiosity, ethical development and a holistic approach to knowledge that goes beyond mere information acquisition. Wisely used, NORBU could be that catalyst.
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One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

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For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

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Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/norbuchatbot. Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
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