In the opening commentary to the Spring 2023 issue of Buddhadharma, Barry Boyce shares why Nalanda’s spirit of open inquiry is just what’s needed to keep Buddhism alive and vibrant in each generation.
Around the time I was sixteen, I started exploring lots of different philosophical systems and practices: Samkhya, Advaita Vedanta, Kriya, Hatha, and Bhakti yoga, Sufism, Jainism, Chris- tian mysticism, Kabbalah, you name it. Prior to that time, any exploration of reality or truth had come in the form of indoctri- nation. I was told what to believe.
When I finally landed on Buddhism, therefore, I was concerned I’d be required to become a doctrinal true believer (and
I have indeed become that at various points in my so-called Buddhist career, causing me to eventually reach for the air sick- ness bag each time). Early on, though, I had the good fortune to hear about the magnificent Nalanda University—purportedly the oldest institution of higher learning on Earth, a vast complex in ancient India, drawing students from far and wide. It was a monastic institution, one of the great Mahaviharas, like its less famous but perhaps no less illustrious sisters, Vikramasila and Odantapuri. The spirit of Nalanda, as I was taught, was to invite in whatever systems of thought and spiritual practice were abroad at the time. If what Buddhism has to offer was of great value, it would stand up to the test of exposure and exchange with other ways of thinking and practicing, and in fact, might even be innovated as a result of the interaction. (Still equally true today.) It’s easy to imagine that much of the great learning and practice that came out of Nalanda resulted from lively back-and-forths rather than pedantry.
I found this prospect so inviting in the world I was seeing then and see now—one where individuals, communities, religions, and nations battle to establish who is the smartest one in the room. Truth can’t simply be enforced by authority, coercion, or diktat. It must stand on its own two feet. It has to survive in the public square, and be borne out in experience and leavened by engagement with others in the world, who bring diverse perspectives to the exchange.
Nalanda was not about establishing the primacy of Buddhism as the one true faith, but—as Jan Westerhoff makes clear in his opening essay—to discover what works and what is beneficial by fostering a contemplative atmosphere that combines spiritual practice; mindful attention to the rituals of daily life; study; and debate.
If this activity goes by the name philosophy, it is philosophy in the original meaning of that term: love of wisdom. As Francesca Fremantle writes in Luminous Emptiness, “Buddhist philosophy is always practical and relates directly to experience, so it often seems to be more a spiritual psychology than a philosophy.” Her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, spoke of studying the dharma as being like pouring water into a sieve. While you engage with it, it can guide you, but it doesn’t give you a doctrinal final answer that will fill your cup for good so you can carry it around as your prized possession.
He also spoke of the dharma as tasty fresh baked bread. The recipes for this bread stretch back into the mists of time, and some of them were cooked up at Nalanda. We follow these recipes to this day and continue to enjoy the freshness and nourishment of the bread as it takes new forms and shapes. All of the teachers and scholars in this issue embody this spirit of bring- ing forth newborn insight from our ancient inheritance. They convey not simply content, but an attitude of a humble merging of study and practice and application in the world of suffering beings. That’s the spirit of Nalanda we celebrate here.