The School Break that Lasted 800 Years and The 34th Verse

Normally, school breaks are 2-3 weeks at the most, except for the summer break, which when I was growing up was a glorious full 3 months. Some breaks coincide with holidays, like Christmas and Easter, the latter famous as “Spring Break” in the U.S. Today’s post concerns a school break that lasted 800 years, but it wasn’t a planned break and there was no holiday involved, more like a holocaust.

Nalanda ruins
Nalanda ruins

Nalanda University was an ancient center of learning near Bihar in India, thought to have been in operation from the fifth century CE until 1193 when the army of Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkic Muslim, laid siege to the place and destroyed it.

Last week, after a lengthy break of some 8 centuries, Nalanda began a new academic session, albeit with a mere 15 students, but nonetheless, like a phoenix this legendary institution is slowly but surely rising from the ashes.

The school has a website and the newly established campus at Rajgir is the result of an effort by the Government of India, which formed a Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG) in 2007 under the Chairmanship of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen charged with the task of reviving the school. The project was not without some controversy. Earlier this year Sen threatened to resign after the Indian finance ministry raised questions about the project’s financial management. And as I reported in 2011, Sen excluded Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama from being part of the project. The reason for the exclusion was a case of giving in to Chinese pressure. As we all know, the Chinese authorities have an abnormal obsession about the Dalai Lama.

Nalanda was founded sometime in the 5th century during the Gupta Dynasty, an ancient Indian empire noted for establishing peace and prosperity throughout its domain as well as promoting math, science, medicine, arts and literature among its people. Nalanda was not really a university but rather a Buddhist monastic center. However, it’s recorded that at one time 2,000 Teachers and 10,000 Students from all corners of the Buddhist world lived and studied there, and that its library was so vast that it took three months to burn to the ground after the Muslim forces set fire to it.

Two of the most famous residents of Nalanda are said to have been Nagarjuna and Shantideva. Legend has it that the former was abbot of Nalanda and that during his tenure he defeated 500 non-Buddhists in debate and expelled over 8,000 monks who did not properly observe the precepts. Modern scholars doubt Nagarjuna was ever there since archaeological evidence suggests that the site was not occupied until sometime after the 4th century (Nagarjuna lived in the 2nd or 3rd century) and as noted above, the university was not even established until the 5th century.

While it is easier to believe that Shantideva studied at Nalanda during the 8th century, the famous account about his stay at the center is almost certainly fantasy. According to the story, Shantideva was not very well liked. The officials and students thought he was lazy and no-good. When everyone else was busy studying and practicing, all he did was sleep and eat and use the toilet (later called Shantideva’s “Three Perfections”). They wanted to kick Shantideva out of Nalanda. However, they decided that he should be compelled to give at least one teaching before they expelled him. So one day they came up and demanded that he give a teaching. Shantideva had never given one before so he was hesitant, but eventually he said okay, let’s do it.

They gathered a large group of monks together and erected a very high throne for Shantideva to sit in. What the teachers and students had in mind was to embarrass Shantideva because they figured that he wouldn’t know how to get up into the throne. But when Shantideva merely touched the throne, it shrank to normal size. He sat down and the group demanded he present a teaching that had never been given by anyone before.

Nalanda ruins

Shantideva then recited the Bodhicharyavatara or “A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” in its entirety, all ten chapters, and when he got to the 34th verse of the 9th chapter he rose into the sky and finished the rest of the teaching from atop a cloud.

Shantideva soon left and everyone was immediately bummed and regretted their attitude towards him because by then, of course, they realized he was a great and wise teacher. According to one version of the story, officials from Nalanda finally caught up with Shantideva and begged him to return, but he refused to come back, although he did clarify some of his teaching for them.

It may be that this famous Buddhist text was part of some oral transmission, but it is doubtful that it was created as the result of a spontaneous recitation. As the Dalai Lama notes in his book, A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night, Shantideva’s work was written “in the form of an inner dialogue. [Shantideva] turned his own weapons upon himself, doing battle with his negative emotions.” So, in this way, the work was “composed,” from a process of considerable deliberation and contemplation.

Shantideva’s Guide is essentially a text about bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. In the 9th chapter, “Transcendental Wisdom,” he discusses the Madhyamaka (Middle Way school founded by Nagarjuna) view of the concept of sunyata or emptiness. Verse 34, the verse that caused Shantideva to ascend to the sky, reads:

When the mind encounters an entity or a non-entity, since there are no possible alternatives, and having no objects, it becomes peaceful.


Nagarjuna and The Exilir of Gold

nagarjuna-drawing3It is thought that the great Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, was probably born in Southern India and that he came from Brahman (priestly) stock. His time is estimated somewhere between 150–250 CE. There are no historical facts about his parents, his upbringing, education, career, and so on. But there are stories . . .

One of the legends says that his parents had long desired children but had been unable to produce any. One night, his father had a dream that caused him to pray fervently to 100 Brahmans for a son. 10 months later, a son was born. The boy was taken to a soothsayer who told the parents that he was destined to die in 7 days. The soothsayer advised them that the only thing that could be done was to give a feast for 100 persons. That would allow the boy 7 more days of life. But if they also gave a feast to 100 monks, he would live for 7 years. That, however, would be the end of it. There was no way to prolong his life further.

Naturally, his parents gave these feasts, and thus, extended Nagarjuna’s life. But as the 7th year drew near, his mother and father felt they would not be able to bear the sight of their son’s corpse, so they sent him on a journey, accompanied by a number of servants. After some traveling, he reached Magadha, where the great monastic university called Nalanda was located. There he met a teacher named Saraha, who gave him a special mantra that would allow him to overcome the destiny of a short life. 

Interaction with Saraha inspired Nagarjuna to become ordained as a monk. After his ordination, he mastered all the Buddhist teachings, and Saraha initiated him into the secrets of Mantrayana.

This is Interesting, considering Nagarjuna’s alleged tantric connections, as there was a monk named Saraha in the 8th century who is considered to be the founder of Tantra. Whether the Saraha in the Nagarjuna story is supposed to be the same person is anyone’s guess.

Another account of Nagarjuna’s early life has him abandoning worldly life by taking the Buddhist vows of renunciation at the age of 8. According to Bu-ston (1290–1364), a Tibetan historian, after studying with Saraha, he studied with the abbot of Nalanda, Rhaulabhadra. Another source, however, says that Nagarjuna first studied Sarvastivada, an early Buddhist school that held to the theory “all dharmas exist.” At a later date, Nagarjuna asked Saraha to give him instruction in the esoteric Guhya Samaja practice, considered to be the supreme tantric teaching. The legends also say that he received teachings from Ratna Mati, a bodhisattva who was a manifestation of Manjusri Buddha.

Nalanda ruins

One story says that there came a time when Magadha was hit with a severe famine lasting 12 years. Because food was scarce, the prices were very high, more than the poor Nalanda monks could afford. Nagarjuna is said to have kept them alive through his knowledge of alchemy. By reciting special mantras over two sandalwood leaves, Nagarjuna gained the power to teleport, to materialize wherever he wished. Just like in Star Trek.

He placed one sandalwood leaf in the sole of his sandal, and held the other in his hand, and traveled to a distant island where he met a Brahmin who knew how to concoct an elixir that transformed common metals into gold. Nagarjuna asked the Brahmin to teach him how to prepare the elixir. The Brahmin, who was no dope and a bit shady, realized that Nagarjuna must have reached the island through some technique of magic or alchemy. He said, “I will teach you my technique, if you will share with me the method you used to come across the water.” Nagarjuna agreed. He gave the Brahmin the leaf he held in his hand.

Now, the Brahmin really didn’t want to share his secret of the elixir. However, he assumed that since he now had possession of the leaf, Nagarjuna would never be able to leave the island. So, thinking he had nothing to lose, he showed Nagarjuna how to prepare the gold-making elixir.

But, of course, Nagarjuna had the second leaf hidden in his sandal, and used it to leave the island and return to Nalanda. He made the elixir to transform iron into gold and was able to provide the monks with the means to purchase the food they so desperately needed.

It’s told that Nagarjuna eventually became abbot of Nalanda, that he defeated five hundred non-Buddhists in debate, and once expelled over 8,000 monks who were amoral and did not properly observe the precepts.

Modern scholars do not believe Nagarjuna ever studied at Nalanda. There is archaeological evidence that the site was not occupied until sometime after the 4th century (remember Nagarjuna lived in the 2nd or 3rd century) and further, that the university was not even established until the 5th century.

Evidently, many of Nagarjuna’s myth-makers decided there was no reason to let a few facts get in the way of a good story.