Mind over matter

By Claude Arpi, The Pioneer, August 9, 2010

The Tibetan Buddhist tradition draws its root texts from the Nalanda masters and describes itself as a ‘science of the mind’. It is ironical, therefore, that an initiative to revive the Great Vihara of northern India should plan not to include its greatest champion — the Dalai Lama

New Delhi, India -- It is perplexing to discover that an Indian Nobel Laureate does not possess the insight to grasp what has been the hallmark of the Indian mind for millennia. I am speaking of Mr Amartya Sen, the chairman of the Mentor Group who is trying to revive the ancient Nalanda University. Mr Sen recently made a statement showing he is out of tune with the spirit of the ancient Indian viharas. This is rather worrying for the project. One can always argue that he is just a modern economist and can’t be expected to understand the subtleties of the ancient Indian mind.

The facts: When asked about the omission of the Dalai Lama’s name from the international project, Mr Sen stated that “religious studies could be imparted without involvement of religious leaders.” This is a flabbergasting statement. Does it mean that ‘religious studies’ should be disconnected from the practitioners?

It reminded me of the 1960s in Europe when the first Buddhist lamas were engaged as lecturers in universities, they were told not to interpret Buddhism as an ‘insider’, but remain an ‘outsider’. It is probably what Mr Sen means when he spoke about the Dalai Lama: “Being religiously active may not be the same as (being) an appropriate person for religious studies.”

These declarations from a supposedly eminent intellectual proves that Mr Sen has no knowledge of what once made Nalanda University the greatest knowledge center of the entire world. Does he know why the great viharas of Northern India attracted scholars and students from the Koreas, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia or Greece, at least till the day it was looted by Bakhtiyar Khalji’s Muslim troops in 1193?

Simply because the teachers, the gurus, the pandits taught what they had practised and experienced. It is during the 8th century that Trisong Detsen, the great Tibetan King invited Shantarakshita, the Abbot of Nalanda to introduce the Dharma to the Land of Snows and ordain the first monks. Since then, the lamas of Tibet have faithfully followed the masters of Nalanda.

During a recent encounter, the Dalai Lama explained: “I always describe Tibetan Buddhism as pure Buddhism from the Nalanda tradition. Nalanda had great masters such as Nagarjuna or Arya Asanga. During the 8th century, the Tibetan Emperor invited Shantarakshita. He was a famous, well-known scholar and master of Nalanda. He went to Tibet and spent the rest of his life there. He introduced Buddhism in Tibet. I myself studied the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism; first I learned by heart and memorised what we call the root texts. All these root texts have been written by Nalanda masters. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is the Nalanda tradition which combines the Sanskrit and the Pali traditions as well Buddhist Tantrayana. Masters like Nagarjuna, Aryadeva and Chandrakirti wrote tantric treatises in Sanskrit.”

After the Muslim invasions, the monasteries of Tibet became the last repositories of the ancient wisdom which had been virtually destroyed in India, its land of origin.

Mr Sen does not seem to understand that the Nalanda tradition is not a ‘religion’, but a ‘science of the mind’. The Dalai Lama recounted the story of Mr Raja Ramanna, the nuclear physicist, who told him that he was surprised to find the concept of quantum physics and relativity in a text of Nagarjuna. The Dalai Lama continued: “The West discovered these concepts at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century, when some Indian sages like Nagarjuna knew it nearly 2,000 years ago.” Nagarjuna’s concept of madhyamaka (the Middle Path) was very much a part of the Nalanda curriculum.

The Dalai Lama likes to speak about his contacts with Western scientists. They started 27 years ago: “We have had some serious discussions. We have been meeting annually; the interest is from both sides. In Buddhism, there is a lot of explanation about the mind, many categories of mind. Therefore, Buddhism should be considered as a ‘science of mind’.”

The Tibetan leader clearly differentiates between this ‘science of mind’ originating from Nalanda, Buddhist philosophy (like Buddhist relativity of things, he explains) and Buddhist religion. He said: “When I contact modern scientists, I don’t put them in contact with Buddhist religion, but with Buddhist science and to some extent to Buddhist philosophy.” And he adds: “It is important to understand that when we say ‘Buddhist science’, we mean science of the mind; it is something universal; it is not a religion. Buddhist religion is not universal, it is only for Buddhists.” The Nalanda project should be based on the ‘science of the mind’, not on Buddhist religion.

Unfortunately one has the feeling that Mr Sen would like to recreate a new Shantiniketan, an academic institution without its original spirit. How to lay the foundations of Nalanda International University without the spirit of Nalanda?

Some analysts tell me, “You are wrong, it is not a question of religion or science, but of politics. Mr Sen has to take care of Chinese susceptibilities. China wants to participate and does not want to hear about the Dalai Lama.” This is terribly ironic. Mr Sen is probably unaware of it, but the Chinese fought hard to impose their own system of Buddhism in Tibet, but finally it is the Nalanda path which prevailed.

The decision was taken after a long debate, the famous Samye debate which was held in Samye (Central Tibet) between the Chinese and Nalanda schools of Buddhism. Shantarakshita before dying had predicted that a dispute would arise between the two schools of Buddhism that had started spreading in Tibet. The first one — the Chinese school, influenced by Taoism — was of the opinion that enlightenment was an instantaneous revelation or realisation. This system of thought had spread throughout China.The second school, taught by the Indian pandits of Nalanda, known as the ‘gradual school’ — asserted that enlightenment was a gradual process, not an ‘instant one’, but requiring long study, practice and analysis. The Samye debate took two years (792-794 CE) to reach its conclusion. Hoshang, a Chinese monk, representing the ‘instant school’ was defeated by Kamalashila who defended the Indian view. At the end of the debate, the King issued a proclamation naming the Indian Path (from Nalanda) as the orthodox faith for Tibet.

Today, the Marxist rulers in Tibet seem to have forgotten these details; they want to participate in rebuilding the Great Vihara. Fine, but it is nonetheless strange that the main living proponent of the Nalanda tradition is kept out of the project. I am sure that the Dalai Lama does not mind, but it would certainly have been a blessing for the project to have him as a mentor (or Chancellor), like Shantarakshita had done for Tibet.

It is clear that it is the spirit of appeasement and not the spirit of Nalanda which will prevail in South Block today. Very sad.