By Kalinga Seneviratne
RAJGIR, India (IDN) – Participants at a conference convened in this historic capital of the Magadha kingdom of the Buddha’s time by the Nava Nalanda Mahavihare (NNM) shared the view that, for humanity to survive, science, ethics and Buddhism’s mind-centric approach to understanding nature and society could help.
Funded by the Indian government, the March 17-19 conference brought together Buddhist leaders, scholars and scientists to discuss the role of Buddhism in addressing the challenges of the 21st century and, ignoring protests from China, the Indian government invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to give the inaugural address and also launch NNM’s new Department of Buddhist Sciences.
In his address to over 1000 Indian and foreign delegates, the Tibetan spiritual leader emphasised that while people may be prone to violence these days, it is also in human nature that they have inbuilt compassion in them.
Saying that the negative emotions generated within us keep us “plagued and diseased”, the Dalai Lama recommended that the way to purify our minds is through the Vipassana Meditation path that the Buddha taught over 2500 years ago and which has today become a fad in the West known as Mindfulness.
“We are experiencing joy and spiritual bliss today in this hall. However, at this very time, people are dying of violence in the name of religion in parts of the world. Religion should be a source of happiness and contentment, not violence,” the Dalai Lama lamented, calling on India to take a more active role internationally to promote the unique message of open-mindedness and religious harmony that Buddhism contains.
After unwittingly referring to Indians as “we”, the Dalai Lama clarified that he was describing himself as a “son of India” who sustains himself on Indian food and had been educated with the rich ancient knowledge of India. He paid tributes to Indian masters and lauded India’s effort to revive its Buddhist culture.
Arguing that modern education needs a strong sense of values and ethics, he said, “As someone who has studied ancient Indian knowledge for the last sixty years, I feel that modern education is not sufficient to bring genuine happiness. We should pay more attention to ancient Indian knowledge to solve the emotional crisis prevailing in the world.”
Therefore, he asserted, “Buddhism is highly relevant in the 21 century and we should start teaching it as an academic subject rather than just treating it as a religion.”
Later, visiting the NNM campus, he told students from India and many parts of Asia that “no matter how small the university is at the moment, you carry the name of Nalanda. Therefore, you have an immense responsibility to revive the heritage of this historic university”. He added, that “in the years to come, this university would regain its lost historic significance and become the primary seat of Buddhist learning and knowledge worldwide”.
Nalanda University was one of the first universities in the world, founded in the 5th century BCE. At its peak in the 7th century CE, Nalanda held some 10,000 students and 2000 teachers. It was burned to the ground by Turkic-Muslim invaders led by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193.
In 1951, the first President of independent India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, revived the Nalanda University by establishing the NNM, which is today regarded as a “Deemed University”, allowed to confer degrees and funded by the Ministry of Culture.
However, in 2010, through an act of the Indian Parliament, a new Nalanda University was established which was later endorsed by the East Asia Summit. It still has to build its campus and the project has met with fierce opposition from Buddhists across Asia because they have been largely ignored in its planning and implementation.
Dalai Lama and the Tibetans have been left out of this project on Chinese government insistence in return for Chinese funds. In presentations at the conference, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhist scholars stressed the fact that the Nalanda education tradition has been maintained and nurtured by the Tibetans.
In plenaries and panel discussions over the three days of the conference, major themes that came up included whether the mindfulness fad sweeping the West need to be injected with spiritual ethics from Buddhism, why Buddhists need to do more to be engaged with the community – what is known as ‘socially engaged Buddhism’ – and how science and Buddhist philosophy can interact to create a better environment and a peaceful world.
Venerable Prof Ittademaliye Indasara of the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka noted that the Buddha taught how the mental behaviour of man could have a direct impact on the environment and that when thoughts are purified, the living environment becomes a place conducive for living.
He pointed out that the Buddha clearly explained the merit one gains to be born in a good environment if forests are protected, parks and bridges built, and shady places established. “It is unfortunate that man has not been able to understand the fact that misuse of natural resources is a crime,” he argued.
The need to manufacture and store armaments was questioned by Dr Ram Nakshatra, Pali Professor at NNM, in a paper presented to the conference. He pointed out that at the end of a war both sides lose and have to rebuild.
“It always results in damage of wealth, health, environment, mental status and its consequences reach up to the next generation” he argued, adding that behind all these situations are the three poisons of Buddhism – greed, hatred and delusion. “All the misdeeds are being executed first in our wicked mind. So we have to first remove all the unwholesome thoughts from our minds”.
This was a theme touched on by the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, in his speech at the closing session of the conference. He argued that today we are witnessing a “wanton destruction of human civilisation” and no part of the world is free from this culture of violence.
“It is wanton destruction of the values, of the heritage that have been built up over centuries through generations,” noted Mukherjee. “When the Gandhara architecture at Bamiyan was bombarded by Taliban [in 2000], it was not just an expression of violence against idolatry expressions, but a violence against world heritage”.
He said that the big question is how to combat this mindset and it is universities and educational institutions that need to address it with an open mind. “Universities are places for open minds, free discussions, raising questions and finding answers to satisfy curiosity,” he argued.
“Education means development of mind, which requires constant interaction with teachers, fellow students and others. The atmosphere must be free from prejudice, intolerance and violence and be conducive to free flow of ideas to make the world a better place.”
“While recognising traditions, we need to recognise social needs and not attached to old ways of practice or teaching, and we need to open up and embrace changes,” Dr Christie Chang, President of the International Lay Buddhist Forum told IDN.
She emphasised that while Buddhism face threats in Asia, “we need to stay positive and follow up on networking here … it is good to meet such loving compassionate Buddhists … we need to form alliances … we need to match proposals with funding and see how Buddhists can form a voice”.
While calling on Buddhists to be peaceful and socially engaged, the Nalanda Declaration read out in the presence of President Mukherjee stressed the importance of an ongoing dialogue between science and Buddhism.
“Sciences have explored the outer world and Buddhism has explored the inner world,” the Declaration noted, adding, “in contemporary times these two traditions of exploration are meeting and discovering that instead of being contradictory they are in fact complementary with one another.
“With exposure to Buddhist thoughts, scientists have begun to study the workings of the mind with ground-breaking results. Ongoing dialogue between science and Buddhism is bound to open many avenues of scientific research and its application to betterment of humanity.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 March 2017]