Nalanda — A Site of The Great Monastic University Part-02

    • Nalanda , Bihar, India

Nalanda — A Site of The Great Monastic University Part-02 Continue from Part-01

At the time Hsuan Chwang stayed at Nalanda and studied with the abbot Shilabhadra, it was already a flourishing centre of learning. In many ways it seems to have been like a modern university. There was a rigorous oral entry examination conducted by erudite gatekeepers, and many students were turned away. To study or to have studied at Nalanda was a matter of great prestige. However, no degree was granted nor was a specific period of study required.

The monks' time, measured by a water clock, was divided between study and religious rites and practice. There were schools of study in which students received explanations by discourse, and there were also schools of debate, where the mediocre were often humbled, and the conspicuously talented distinguished. Accordingly, the elected abbot was generally the most learned man of the time.

The libraries were vast and widely renowned, although there is a legend of a malicious fire in which many of the texts were destroyed and irrevocably lost. The fire is said to have eventually been put out by a flood of water that poured from the texts on highest yoga tantra, kept in the topmost story.

During the Gupta age the practice and study of the mahayana, especially the madhyamaka, flourished. However, from 750 AD, in the Pala age, there was an increase in the study and propagation of the tantric teachings. This is evidenced by the famous pandit Abhayakaragupta, a renowned tantric practitioner who was simultaneously abbot of the Mahabodhi, Nalanda and Vikramashila monasteries. Also Naropa, later so important to the tantric lineages of the Tibetan traditions, was abbot of Nalanda in the years 1049- 57.

Much of the tradition of Nalanda had been carried into Tibet by the time of the muslim invasions of the twelfth century. While the monasteries of Odantapuri and Vikramashila were then destroyed, the buildings at Nalanda do not seem to have suffered extensive damage at that time, although most of the monks fled before the desecrating armies. In 1235 the Tibetan pilgrim Chag Lotsawa found a ninety-year- old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, with a class of seventy students. Rahula Shribhadra managed to survive through the support of a local brahmin and did not leave until he had completed educating his last Tibetan student.

Nalanda was perhaps most important for its mahayana activities. Under the guidance of Nagarjuna, formulator of the middle way, it eclipsed even the monastery at Bodhgaya. Aryadeva, Nagarjuna's principal disciple, held his famous debate with Maitrichita at Nalanda. Two further disciples of Nagarjuna to attain great fame in India were Chandrakirti and Shantideva, both students of Nalanda.

Arya Asanga, father of the lineage of extensive teachings and formulator of the mind-only school, also spent twelve years at Nalanda. His brother Vasubandhu, introduced to the mahayana by Asanga, became abbot after Asanga retired and taught to thousands. The great mahayana logician Dignaga, author of the Pramanasamuccaya, was another abbot at Nalanda. His excellent successor Dharmakirti, who defeated the renowned hindu scholar Shankaracharya in debate, also received his training at Nalanda. Also of this lineage, Kamalashila wrote most of his works at Nalanda. He and Shantiraksita, another renowned scholar of Nalanda, were among the very first teachers to carry the Dharma to Tibet.

A pilgrim to Nalanda today finds vast and well-excavated ruins, many of which are more substantial than the mere foundations remaining in other places. It is easier here to imagine the former glory of the monasteries and temples described by Hsuan Chwang. An adjacent museum houses many buddhist and hindu images from different ages, as well as other findings from the site. Nearby is the Nalanda Institute of Pali Studies, where a number of ordained and lay students have re-established a tradition of buddhist knowledge. While the range of study at this Institute is broader than its name might imply, it would be most appropriate if in the future the present holders of the direct traditions of Nalanda were able to reintroduce them there.

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