By Shyamal Sinha
Nālandā (Hindi/Sanskrit/Pali: नालंदा) is the name of an ancient center of higher learning inBihar, India. The site of Nalanda is located in the Indian state of Bihar, about 55 miles south east of Patna, and was a Buddhist center of learning from 427 to 1197 CE. It has been called “one of the first great universities in recorded history. Some buildings were constructed by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great (i.e. Raja Asoka: 273–232 BCE) which is an indication of an early establishment of the Buddhist learning center Nalanda. TheGupta Empire also patronized some monasteries. According to historians, Nalanda flourished between the reign of the Gupta king Śakrāditya (also known as Kumāragupta, reigned 415-55) and 1197 CE, supported by patronage from Buddhist emperors like Harsha as well as later emperors from the Pala Empire. The complex was built with red bricks and its ruins occupy an area of 14 hectares. At its peak, the university attracted scholars and students from as far away as China, Greece, and Persia. Nalanda was sacked by Turkic Muslim invaders underBakhtiyar Khalji in 1193, a milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India. The great library of Nalanda University was so vast that it is reported to have burned for three months after the Mughals set fire to it, sacked and destroyed the monasteries, and drove the monks from the site. In 2006, Singapore, India, Japan, China and other nations, announced a proposed plan to restore and revive the ancient site as Nalanda International University.
China has quietly launched its own Nalanda University, dubbed Nanhai Buddhism Academy, in Hainan Province. Plans for the university were kept secret until last month, when the Ministry of Education announced that prospective students could enroll for programs scheduled to commence in September 2017.
The launch of the university is a prime example of China’s renewed interest Buddhism as a tool for “soft” international diplomacy. The institute bypasses Nalanda University in Bihar, India, which has been slow to find its feet are a high-profile launch. Plans to revive Nalanda University in India, near the site of the original ancient Buddhist university, began almost a decade ago. Construction, however, has yet to start. Laden with controversy, the university opened its doors in 2014 with just 14 students and 11 faculty members. China has used this opportunity to fill the void of Buddhist education by founding Nanhai Buddhism Academy, which is scheduled to open its doors in September with 220 students.
The campus of Nanhai Buddhism Academy was designed by internationally acclaimed architect Yao Renxi, spanning 250 hectares, and encompassing lecture halls, libraries, sports facilities, international exchange centers, hospitals, and other amenities, as well as various monastic and temple structures. The academy is located in the Nanshan Mountains, close to the city of Sanya and a new 108-meter statue of Avalokiteshwara. The coastal area surrounding the university has been designated “Brahma Pure Land,” a concept from Mahayana Buddhism and India’s ancient Yoga Vashistha text.
Nanhai Buddhism Academy is officially authorized to host a four-year undergraduate program by government authorities, including the State Administration of Religious Affairs, Hainan Provincial People’s Committee, and Hainan Provincial Buddhist Association.
The academy will offer various programs on Buddhist Studies, divided into six departments, such as: Chinese Buddhism, Temple Administration and Management, Buddhism and Life Sciences, Social Work and Charity Management, Meditation and Tea, Buddhist Art, and Buddhist Architectural Design and Preservation. In addition, students can follow courses in three languages: Chinese, Pali, and Tibetan. The academy is circumventing Sanskrit—the language which is usually taught in Buddhist studies programs—and replacing it with Chinese.
In order to lay a scholarly and managerial foundation for the academy, renowned scholars, professors, and senior teachers from the Buddhist community have been invited to join the academic staff. Reverend Yin Shun, the abbot of Zhong Hua Buddhist temple in Lumbini, president of Hainan Provincial Buddhist Association, and vice president of the Buddhist Association of China, has been appointed as dean of the university.
Sources have noted that China intends to connect Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal, which China is promoting as a pilgrimage site to rival India’s main pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, with Hainan, the site of the reinvented Nalanda University, and Wuxi, the headquarters of the World Buddhist Forum, through Yin Shun and the government’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
An ardent supporter of the One Belt, One Road initiative, Yin Shun has worked with Thailand and Nepal to create a Buddhist interpretation, and he has noted that the academy is also intended to strengthen relations with nations in the South China Sea and to promote Buddhist cultural exchange. The academy has already won the backing of Buddhist centers in Cambobdia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries.
Although construction of the academy is scheduled to continue until December 2018, the lecture halls, dormitory, and main building are expected to be completed in July, allowing the first class of prospective students to commence their studies in September. Student registration is open until 31 July 2017.