The gift that the world needs from India: A Nalanda renaissance

The Dalai Lama displays the honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Jamia Millia Islamia University
The Dalai Lama displays the honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Jamia Millia Islamia University
You should not become dogmatic. As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it (on a piece of touchstone), so are you to accept my words only after examining them and not merely out of regard for me.”

Thus spoke Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago.

In an era when religions tend to divide people, with each believer quoting his own dogma or sacred scripture, the Dalai Lama is a firm believer that all the religious traditions and texts need to be ‘tested’. It is why the Tibetan leader initiated a dialogue between science and spirituality last week in Delhi.

The Contemplative Science Conference was organised by the Mind & Life Institute from the United States and the Foundation of Universal Responsibility based in Delhi/ The National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, and the Central Tibetan University, Sarnath also participated.

The main theme of the Conference was ”the emerging field of Contemplative Science which can investigate the effects of contemplative practice on human biology and behaviour”.

But what exactly is Contemplative Science?

While presenting the Conference the organizers explained: ”The natural sciences and contemplation are distinct disciplines. The first is devoted to the study of the external objective world, the second to the study of the internal subjective world. Once we agree that both contemplation and science have special roles in production of knowledge, we can start exploring the ‘why Contemplative Science?’ question in some detail. Contemplative Science is an exciting new possibility for exploring the human world and an important step towards engaging with the problems of the 21st century.”

The entire initiative is the brain child of the Dalai Lama who has been meeting reputed scientists for the past 25 years to see if the effects of meditative practices can be corroborated by modern science.

The Dalai Lama believes that it is important for the rest of humanity to realise that exercises such as yoga or meditation can bring peace of mind and ultimately a better life for those practicing it. He sees it as a gift from India and Tibet to the world.

Of course the actual practitioners do not need any such confirmation but for sceptical westerners and ”educated” Indians, a validation process remains important.

Though modern science is in its infancy compared to the inner sciences of India or Tibet, this is a fascinating process. The fact that the modern religion called ‘science’ has agreed to investigate the powers and complexities of the mind (and the body) is a great step forward for humanity and one should be grateful to the Dalai Lama for instigating this initiative. The Tibetan leader repeatedly appealed to Indian scientists, philosophers or yogis to take the lead on the old new path.

During the conference, the Dalai Lama mentioned the Nalanda tradition several times. At a time when the government of India plans to revive the great Vihara under a political appointee who unfortunately does not have the vision to give a lead to this project, this conference was like the first step towards a new Nalanda – a holistic and ‘secular’ learning centre par excellence.

In his opening speech the Dalai Lama explained: ”[In Nalanda], there was an emphasis on investigation. Great masters like Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti, Aryadeva, Chandrakirti and others were great teachers of Nalanda monastic [university]. They followed Buddha’s word, they investigated whether ”the content of this verse is acceptable or not” and in the end everything was decided by analysis and reasoning.

These great teachers, like the Buddha before them, always emphasised that ‘the readers should not accept right away what the text says’. To conclude, he quoted Buddha again: ”My followers should not accept my teachings out of faith and devotion, but after investigation and experimentation.”

At a time when intolerance generates conflict and terrorism all over the planet, the message of Nalanda is all the more crucial. If each religion could be convinced that ‘their’ truth, ‘their’ scripture need to be investigated before starting a war to defend them, the world would be more peaceful.

It was a great privilege for this writer to listen to eminent scientists, monks, scholars and yogis dreaming of a confluence of science and spirituality. Only the Dalai Lama has today the moral authority to initiate such a fascinating and futuristic process.

Many today in India believe that beating the Chinese at the GDP game is the ultimate objective of the nation. But if the spirit of Nalanda could blow again over Asia and the West a much more radical step could be taken.

As Sri Aurobindo saw a vision for India in 1914: ”The recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and fullness is its first, most essential work. The flowing of this spirituality into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge is the second. An original dealing with modern problems in the light of Indian spirit and the endeavour to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualized society is the third and most difficult.”

Dalai Lama to retire?

Recently the Dalai Lama declared that ”he was contemplating retirement within months”. He however quickly added that the ”final decision will be taken after consultations with the [Tibetan] political leadership and Parliament-in-exile”.

He later explained: ”I want to inform them about my intention although I briefly mentioned (about it) already.” When requested to give a date, he said: ”I do not know; may be next few months.” The Indian (and foreign media) also immediately titled: “The Dalai Lama to retire soon”.

China immediately reacted. A Communist Party scholar Zhao Gancheng of the South Asia Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, confided to The Global Times: ”The Dalai Lama just wants to manipulate the choosing of the next Dalai Lama so as to find one who he believes could take over his separatist activities.”

This is of course pure propaganda. Is it not strange that Communist China which has always considered religion as a poison, now claims skill in locating reincarnations of senior Lamas?

The truth is elswhere. Spiritually, the Dalai Lamas are the incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion and Saint-Patron of Tibet. Ages ago, these beings took the vow:

For as long as space endures

And for as long as living beings remain,

Until then may I too abide

To dispel the misery of the world

If the Tibetan leader is planning to scale down some of his ‘political’ activities, there is another reason.

He once told me that he was constantly hammering his officials: ”You should carry full responsibility as if there was no Dalai Lama. If the Tibetan people take responsibility, I will have more energy and time to do some other work that you cannot do.”

Born in France, Claude Arpi’s quest began 36 years ago with a journey to the Himalayas. Since then he has been a student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. He is the author of numerous English and French books. His book, Tibet: the Lost Frontier (Lancers Publishers) was released recently.