A short ride from Rajgir, one arrives at Nalanda, where is found the vast red brick ruins of a great Buddhist university, and one of the first institutions of higher learning in the world, dating back to 400 AD. Flourishing under Emperor Harsha in the 600’s, Nalanda received a visit from the Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang who reported that several thousand students of many nationalities were in attendance. Nalanda, taken from one of the Buddha’s names meaning ‘insatiable in giving,’ enjoyed a reputation around the world. Well known was the strict gatekeeper who administered a test right at the entrance denying admission to 80% of applicants.
By this time, Buddhism was already in decline in India, and was found concentrated in only a few places where there were powerful patrons. Many differing philosophical schools of Buddhism were at variance, the lively yet peaceful debates were like “contending utterances rising like the angry waves of the sea,” noted the pilgrim. Even within the Mahayana, there were multiple factions, and some that took on the character of Tantricism. Mathematics, astrology, and medicine were among the many secular subjects studied as well.
The main stupa at Nalanda, its shape more square than round, rises high above the ruins of the residential cells and famous for a wide processional stairway instead of a circumambulatory path. In fact, the original stupa was of the normal circular variety, and the massive structure seen today fit neatly inside of it. Four smaller stupas surrounded the large one, and the fine carvings and Buddha images on several of these can still be enjoyed in-situ. Nargarjuna studied here, and the enlightenment of Sariputra, the most learned of Buddha’s disciples, took place nearby.
Beyond the main stupa and set in a lovely green park, are manifold numbers of cells, meeting halls, and smaller temples the true extent of which spreads far beyond the existing borders of the archeological park, to a full ten times the present site. Once throned in one of the University temples, a large black Buddha, colored by the application of ghee (butter) by worshipers for over a thousand years, can be seen sitting in the neighboring village, and is regarded by the locals as one of the Hindu gods.
Beautiful stone steles of Buddhas and Tantric gods and goddesses once decorating classroom buildings now reside imbedded in the floors, or walls of homes in about sixty villages. The small museum across from the archeological park is a special treat and must not be missed. Large stone Buddha’s and 6th century sculptured panels, are joined by myriad delicate bronzes of Bodhisattvas and Hindu gods. The building is small and breezy so museum fatigue is not an issue.
The great Nalanda University came to a fiery end in the 1300’s when invading Moslems destroyed the buildings, torched the main library- known to have hundreds of thousands of texts- and killed all the monks.
A short ride from Nalanda is the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, a new residential university established in 1951 for higher studies in Pali and Buddhism with students from Mongolia, Tibet, China, Japan, and other nations. The new school has completed publication, in 41 volumes, of a critical edition of the entire Pali Tipitaka in Devanagari script.
Nava Nalanda Mahavihara also confers the degree of Vidya-Varidhi Honoris Causa to eminent scholars and social workers who have devoted their lives to the cause of Pali or Buddhist studies and culture, and today was Thich Nhat Hanh’s turn.
A stage was set up at a nearby pavilion built in honor of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang, and after when seemed like an interminable preamble, the Governor of Bihar, an office renown for corruption, mumbled some ghost written speech and discordant music was played.
The whole affair seemed like a farce until Thay began to talk. “I am grateful for your trust, and I promise to practice well.” This expression of humility following an hour of continuous self-serving accolades was instantly medicinal. Thay identified the new discussion in science, in part inspired by the Buddha’s teachings regarding the question of whether the mind and the body have a separate existence. Thay explained that while the notion that there is a co-existent relationship between the perceiver and the object of perception was an observation made by the Buddha, the idea is just now getting into the mainstream of modern science. He extended this idea into the social-political realm– Want society to change? We must change. “The in-here is deeply connected to the out-there,” said Thay.
Following the ceremony, we were treated to an amazingly diverse lunch. For desert, one needs only to check out the small village of Nalanda, as well as in neighboring Rajgir, where there can still be found a baked delicacy from the days of Gupta Kings, called Khaja. It is sold in all the snack stalls, often a magnet for flies and dust. Similar but lighter than bhaklava, Khaja can also be found in more protected display cases, and sampling it with some Indian chai is been recommended for a thousand years. Also great fun are rides on the horsecarts so long as you have a price clearly agreed upon in advance.
On the return to Rajgir a number of us stopped at the Bamboo Grove (the Venuvana) to do walking meditation along the bamboo trees that remain along the outer edges of the park. A gift to the Buddha and his Sangha by then King Bimbasara, Buddha spent many rainy seasons there with his followers. It is fortunate that so many of us have maintained a practice for some years given how challenging it is to be meditative in the midst of Bollywood music blaring from just outside the gate, and park lighting that attracts oversize grasshoppers and mosquitos in breathtaking numbers. More fortunately, we were able to enjoy the last rays of the sunset through the bamboo leaves due to a power failure, when the park reverted to its peaceful demeanor so enjoyed by the Buddha.
The next morning, our last official outing of the pilgrimage, we piled in the buses at 4:30am for a pre-dawn arrival on Vulture Peak. Retreatants had the opportunity to spend most of the day on the mountain, enjoy the sunrise, take the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and have their lunch ‘on the rocks.’ At the end of the day, no vestige of our visit remained, not even one napkin or a plastic fork. But we did bring away something extra– that unmistakable meditative glow from a day on the magnificent Vulture Peak.
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