Places of Buddhist Pilgrimage
by Jeremy Russell
- Site of the great Monastic University
- "'What do you think, householder? Is this town of Nalanda successful and
prosperous, is it populous and crowded with people?'
- "'Yes, venerable sir, it is.'"
- (Upali Sutra)
Although Nalanda is one of the places distinguished as having been blessed by the
presence of the Buddha, it later became particularly renowned as the site of the great
monastic university of the same name, which was to become the crown jewel of the
development of Buddhism in India. The name may derive from one of Shakyamuni's former
births, when he was a king whose capital was here. Nalanda was one of his epithets meaning
"insatiable in giving."
Shakyamuni stayed here on a number of occasions, for a mango grove had been offered to
him by 500 merchants. Hsuan Chwang mentions a number of temples and stupas marking places
where Buddha had taught. On one visit he preached to men and gods for three months, and a
stupa containing his hair and nail clippings of that period was erected. A remarkable tree
that had been miraculously produced from a discarded tooth stick of the Buddha stood in
this area. Next to a water tank, a stupa marked the place where a non-buddhist, holding a
bird in his hand, had challenged the Buddha to divine whether it was alive or dead. The
Buddha declined to answer him. Another stupa commemorated the occasion that a foreign monk
had prostrated himself before the Buddha, praying for a rebirth as a universal monarch.
Shakyamuni sadly told his followers that this monk possessed such vast merit that he might
have become a buddha, but because of this action he would be reborn as a universal monarch
as many times as there were atoms of earth beneath his prostrate body.
The sitting place of Shakyamuni and the buddhas who had come before him was marked by a
stupa, as was the spot nearby where Bimbisara first came to greet the Buddha. In two
neighbouring villages, Ashoka built temples and stupas where Sariputra and Maudgalyayana
were born and also entered parinirvana.
During his stay at Nalanda, Hsuan Chwang saw a number of temples in and around the
monastery. Some contained images of the Buddha, others of Avalokiteshvara and also Arya
Tara, whom he describes as having been a popular object of devotion at that time. He
also mentions the great temple erected by King Baladitya, which was similar to but
slightly larger than the Mahabodhi Temple. The ruins of this are now prominent on the
Modern historians have tentatively dated the founding of a monastery at Nalanda as
being in the fifth century. However, this may not be accurate. For example, the standard
biographies of the teacher Nagarjuna, believed by most historians to have been born around
150 AD, are quite specific about his having received ordination at Nalanda monastery when
he was seven years old. Further, his teacher Rahulabhadra is said to have lived there for
some time before that. We may infer, then, that there were a monastery or monasteries at
Nalanda long before the foundation of the later Great Mahavihara.
It is recorded that Kumaragupta the First, an early Gupta monarch who reigned between
415 and 456 AD, built a monastery. In the century following this his various successors
each built a further monastery. Between the years 530 and 535 a king of central India,
perhaps Yashodharman, added another, and by building an encircling wall around them all
created a mahavihara.
At the time Hsuan Chwang stayed at Nalanda and studied with the abbot Shilabhadra, it
was already a flourishing centre of learning. In many ways it seems to have been like a
modern university. There was a rigorous oral entry examination conducted by erudite
gatekeepers, and many students were turned away. To study or to have studied at Nalanda
was a matter of great prestige. However, no degree was granted nor was a specific period
of study required.
The monks' time, measured by a water clock, was divided between study and religious
rites and practice. There were schools of study in which students received explanations by
discourse, and there were also schools of debate, where the mediocre were often humbled,
and the conspicuously talented distinguished. Accordingly, the elected abbot was generally
the most learned man of the time.
The libraries were vast and widely renowned, although there is a legend of a malicious
fire in which many of the texts were destroyed and irrevocably lost. The fire is said to
have eventually been put out by a flood of water that poured from the texts on highest
yoga tantra, kept in the topmost story.
During the Gupta age the practice and study of the mahayana, especially the madhyamaka,
flourished. However, from 750 AD, in the Pala age, there was an increase in the study and
propagation of the tantric teachings. This is evidenced by the famous pandit
Abhayakaragupta, a renowned tantric practitioner who was simultaneously abbot of the
Mahabodhi, Nalanda and Vikramashila monasteries. Also Naropa, later so important to the
tantric lineages of the Tibetan traditions, was abbot of Nalanda in the years 1049- 57.
Much of the tradition of Nalanda had been carried into Tibet by the time of the muslim
invasions of the twelfth century. While the monasteries of Odantapuri and Vikramashila
were then destroyed, the buildings at Nalanda do not seem to have suffered extensive
damage at that time, although most of the monks fled before the desecrating armies. In
1235 the Tibetan pilgrim Chag Lotsawa found a ninety-year- old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra,
with a class of seventy students. Rahula Shribhadra managed to survive through the support
of a local brahmin and did not leave until he had completed educating his last Tibetan
Nalanda was perhaps most important for its mahayana activities. Under the guidance of
Nagarjuna, formulator of the middle way, it eclipsed even the monastery at Bodhgaya.
Aryadeva, Nagarjuna's principal disciple, held his famous debate with Maitrichita at
Nalanda. Two further disciples of Nagarjuna to attain great fame in India were
Chandrakirti and Shantideva, both students of Nalanda.
Arya Asanga, father of the lineage of extensive teachings and formulator of the
mind-only school, also spent twelve years at Nalanda. His brother Vasubandhu, introduced
to the mahayana by Asanga, became abbot after Asanga retired and taught to thousands. The
great mahayana logician Dignaga, author of the Pramanasamuccaya, was another abbot
at Nalanda. His excellent successor Dharmakirti, who defeated the renowned hindu scholar
Shankaracharya in debate, also received his training at Nalanda. Also of this lineage,
Kamalashila wrote most of his works at Nalanda. He and Shantiraksita, another renowned
scholar of Nalanda, were among the very first teachers to carry the Dharma to Tibet.
A pilgrim to Nalanda today finds vast and well-excavated ruins, many of which are more
substantial than the mere foundations remaining in other places. It is easier here to
imagine the former glory of the monasteries and temples described by Hsuan Chwang. An
adjacent museum houses many buddhist and hindu images from different ages, as well as
other findings from the site. Nearby is the Nalanda Institute of Pali Studies, where a
number of ordained and lay students have re-established a tradition of buddhist knowledge.
While the range of study at this Institute is broader than its name might imply, it would
be most appropriate if in the future the present holders of the direct traditions of
Nalanda were able to reintroduce them there.