The Nalanda Tradition
This entry to the Great Masters series kicks off a series within a series that looks at the great Buddhist center of learning at Nalanda in India and what are known as the Seventeen Panditas of Nalanda, a grouping conceived by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as they are the core group of masters whose works further articulate the teachings of the Buddha and which form the basis of Buddhist philosophy we have today. This group begins with Nagarjuna and ends with Atisha.
This article will frame the stories of these masters by briefly giving a history of Nalanda and why it was so important. The next article will briefly sketch each of the seventeen, and subsequent ones will go into more depth on each of them, with a focus on their works that have been handed down to us.
The Brief History of Nalanda
Our knowledge about many aspects of Nalanda is fragmented, as much was lost to the sands of time as well as to the fire and sword of the Mughal invaders in the 12th century. However, there are several primary and secondary sources on Nalanda that together form the composite that is our understanding today. Some of what we know is surmised from what the sources do not say as much as from what they do say.
There were many intrepid travelers who came by land and sea from China and Korea to Nalanda in search of the Buddhist teachings.
The earliest firsthand account still extant was by the Chinese monk and pilgrim Faxian (337 – c. 422 CE). Another primary source is the extensive and fascinating account of the monk Xuanzang (c. 602–664), who spent 16 years traveling through China, Central Asia, present day Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. Later pilgrims include Itsing (Yijing) (635-713), who left for India from China in 671 and spent 10 years at Nalanda. There are very dated translations of these in English, though a new one of Xuanzang is forthcoming.
Of the Tibetan accounts, in Butön’s History of Buddhism in India and Its Spread to Tibet, Butön Rinchen Drup (1290-1364) briefly discusses the impact of twelve of the seventeen pandits. Much of his telling is based on accounts by Tibetan pilgrims and scholars as well as Indians who arrived in Tibet after fleeing the Mughal onslaught that more or less wiped Buddhism from the map of India.
Another important account is that recorded by Taranatha (1575-1634), the Tibetan master of the Jonang tradition, in his History of Buddhism in India. He received his information from one of the later Indian siddhas who came to Tibet, Buddhaguptanatha. This fascinating figure, who before becoming Buddhist was one of the wandering Nath sadhus, traveled by foot from India to Iran and through Central Asia, as well as by boat to Indonesia and possibly Thailand and Madagascar. He related to Taranatha much of what appears in his oft-quoted history.
Nalanda has a long history in Buddhism. It is said that in a previous life while still a bodhisattva, the future Buddha was a charitable king who made his capital at the site of the future Nalanda. Shariputra, the Buddha’s first disciple, was born there, attained the level of arhat there (along with many others), and died there as well. The remains of Shariputra’s stupa may still be seen at Nalanda today.
There are several sutras that recount how the Buddha paused there on his numerous trips in the area – Rajgir and Vulture Peak are about 10 miles away on foot. Xuanzang tells of how 500 merchants bought a plot of land there and offered it to the Buddha.
It was an important place for other reasons as well – during the time of the Buddha, the founder of Jainism, Mahavira, spent 40 rainy seasons there.
In the third century BCE, the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka is said to have visited Nalanda and made offerings at Shariputra’s stupa and erected a vihara there, the first on the site. It is likely that there may not have been a continuous presence of monks there from this point, as Faxian did not mention anything other than a stupa when he passed through 650 years later.
The first record of Nalanda becoming a repository of texts and teachings seems to be in the second century when King Lakshasva, based in western India, funded a set of monasteries and collection of Mahayana sutras totaling 100,000,000 verses (shloka) on Mount Abu on the Gujarat/Rajasthan border. Taranatha records that these texts were brought to Nalanda. He, and later Jamgön Kongtrul in his Treasury of Knowledge, talk about two brahmin brothers, Udbhatasiddhisvamin and Shamkarapati, who built eight temples there to house all the sutras.
Around the same time, Rahulabhadra, said by some to be the mahasiddha Saraha as well as the teacher of Nagarjuna, also did a lot to establish the doctrine at Nalanda. Chronology, names, and relationships vary quite a bit across accounts here and the details of the early history of Nalanda are few.
Xuanzang describes the main gate opening up on the great college as well as eight other halls with towers and turrets rising high above the morning mist. He depicts the complex as surrounded by ponds and flowers, courtyards and multi-level residence halls with long eaves, bright red columns, highly ornamented balustrades, and tiled roofs reflecting the light in an incredible manner.
One of the more interesting aspects of Xuanzang’s account is that there were monks from both the Shravakayana and Mahayana all living and practicing together. Good food for thought in these days where even subsects of subsects can take issue with each other. Tantric Buddhism was prevalent there for much of its history as well. Some accounts talk about it from the time of Nagarjuna onwards, other accounts relate how it became visible, at least in the physical record as evaluated by modern day archaeologists, only in the 8th century.
It was most active between the sixth and tweflth centuries and at its peak had over 10,000 monks and 1,500 teachers, from all over the Buddhist world. There was for example, a separate vihara just for Tibetans. The library, housed in a nine-story building, had hundreds of thousands of manuscripts.
There appear to have been multiple study programs which makes sense given the heterogeneous makeup of the population—teachings from Sarvastivada, Abhidharma, Yogacara, Madhyamaka, Tantra, and presumably Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions were all taught there. These of course were in addition to the “outer sciences” like grammar, medicine, astrology, math, logic, etc. And given the multiplicity of religious views, there was also training in the philosophies of the hindu thinkers, many of which were often challenging the views of the Buddhists.
In 1192, Nalanda was sacked by Bakhtiyar Khilji during which the library was burned. For the next two centuries, there were a few efforts to rebuild and repopulate it, but by 1400 it was gone.
It should be mentioned that there were other important—and at times larger—centers of Buddhist learning and monasticism in India between which texts, teachings, and scholars would flow. The great Buddhist center at Taxila—whose sprawling remains outside of Islamabad are still incredible to visit—was more exposed to invaders and had already been in decline as Nalanda rose in prominence.
Vikramshila was founded in the late 8th century and, being located about 150 miles east of Nalanda, had frequent interaction and also became the model later for Tibetan monasteries. At its height in the 10th century, it had over 10,000 monks. Atisha was one of the many great scholars there.
A few miles away from Nalanda lay Odantapuri, founded by the first Pala king in the late 7th century and at its height in 8th century had up to 12,000 monks.
In Bengal, present day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, there were two important centers. Sompura was founded by the Pala kings in the 9th century and while smaller, was another important hub in this network of Buddhism. It was also visited by Atisha. Jagaddala was founded in the 10th century and its remoteness allowed it to last well after the sacking of Nalanda, Vikramashila, and Odantapuri.
Today visitors to the sprawling Nalanda site can come and walk through the ruins and imagine what it might have been like. I once had a tour guide point out (with great if unwarranted confidence) a certain monastic cell which he said was the on Xuanzang had resided. Archeological work, which began in the 19th century and continues today, has uncovered and revealed a lot of what went on there. Comparing what is visible now to Xuanzang’s description, only a small part of what was there has been excavated thus far. So we can look forward to more discoveries that can fill in the gaps of our knowledge about this incredible time of the blossoming of humanity’s potential for spiritual evolution and liberation.
Nearby to Nalanda, the Indian government in cooperation with several other governments and organizations has funded the creation of Nalanda University. The aspirations are high for this and while Buddhist Studies are a planned program of study, that curriculum will not be part of the first wave of classes that begin in September of 2014.
Read an article on the Seventeen Panditas here