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 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.
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.