When Myth and Reality Meet

Bob Thurman

The other day I blogged about the importance of dialogue, quoting a very fine book by Noble laureate Amartya Sen. Then I learned through an interview with Robert Thurman in the Times of India, that Sen, as head of a project to restore Nalanda, the ancient Buddhist university, has excluded Tibetan Buddhists and especially the Dalai Lama, from being part of the project. Why should the Tibetans be included? Only because they’ve been the ones keeping the Nalanda tradition alive since it was destroyed in the 12th century by Turkic Afghan invaders.

The objection to Tibetan participation apparently comes from Singapore and its because of some “deference” to China, who as we all know, has no love for the Dalai Lama.

In the interview, Thurman says,

He is out for the moment. He is happy being kept out as he is having a jolly time resigning from everything. But it’s ironic that Tibetan Buddhists are being kept out of the project. Amartya Sen (who heads the project) and company see the Dalai Lama as some kind of pope or something. They have not read any of his books. They don’t know what a great scholar he is.

My first thought was that sounded as if they need to have some meaningful dialogue, and it seemed surprising that someone who wrote such a wonderful account of the Indian tradition of open, public discussion would sign off on such an exclusionary move. But, I think this remark made by Sen to journalists questions about the Dalai Lama clues us in to what is really going on: “being religiously active may not be the same as (being) an appropriate person for religious studies.”

I think the key word here is “appropriate.” I get the impression that everyone is acting out of deference to China, which is no friend to Buddhism. Like Robert Thurman, I consider the Dalai Lama to be a great scholar and can’t imagine anyone else more appropriate to be assigned a role in this project. Many other scholars consider Tibetan Buddhism to be the only form of Buddhism in the world today that reflects the state of Indian Mahayana as it was before it was wiped off the face of the Indian subcontinent those hundreds of years ago.

Nalanda ruins, India via Prince Roy

I also saw some similarities between this situation and a story about Shantideva, one of the most famous students of Nalanda who lived in the 8th century. According to legend, when  Shantideva was a student at Nalanda, he was not well liked. The officials and students thought he was lazy and no-good. All he did was sleep and eat and use the toilet (later revealed to be Shantideva’s “three Perfections”), while everyone else was busy studying and practicing. In fact, they wanted to kick him out. However, they decided that Shantideva should at least give one teaching before they expelled him. So one day they came up and demanded that he give a teaching, and 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. They actually planned 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 they requested 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.” The legend has it that when he got to the 34th verse of the ninth chapter he rose into the sky and  finished the rest of the teaching from atop a cloud.

After that, Shantideva disappeared and everyone immediately regretted their attitude towards him because now, of course, they realized he was a great scholar. 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.

So I thought it was  interesting how this story parallels the situation with the Nalanda project and the Dalai Lama, considering how Robert Thurman described it: “They don’t know what a great scholar he is” and “resigning from everything”, which could be considered a sort of disappearing act. Maybe Bob had the Shantideva story in mind when he gave the interview.

One thing I have learned is that most of the stories like this had a purpose beyond merely mythologizing a great figure, and Shantideva was certainly that. Many of these tales were not meant to be taken literally but rather they were used a devices to illustrate a point of dharma. To be honest, I don’t know what the symbolism behind this one is, but I suspect it has something to do with that 34th verse.

In any case, you can read the Thurman interview here, and the controversy over the Nalanda project here, and learn about the ancient center for Buddhist study at Nalanda here.

And here’s the 34 th verse of the Ninth Chapter from the Crosby-Skilton translation of the Bodhicharyavatara:

When neither entity nor non-entity remains before the mind, since there is no other mode of operation, grasping no objects, it becomes tranquil.


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