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Academic studies in Buddhism and the universities in Sri Lanka

Convocation address by Emeritus Professor Y. Karunadasa of University of Kelaniya at the BMICH on November 14, 2007.

As you are perhaps aware, today the age-old traditional approach to religious studies has been supplemented with another. This is what is known as the academic approach to religious studies. According to the traditional approach a religion is usually (but not necessarily) studied in order to follow it as one's own personal faith.

Whereas according to the modern academic approach a religion can also be studied without any commitment either to accept or reject its doctrinal tenets, but purely as part of a liberal education.

This has enabled Buddhist studies to transcend its traditional boundaries and to establish itself as an academic discipline attracting the attention of scholars, both of the East and of the West, Buddhist as well as non-Buddhist.

The net result of all this is that today Buddhist studies is no more the monopoly and concern of the Buddhists only. In point of fact, with the possible exception of Japan the West now leads the world in Buddhist scholarship.

Three major Buddhist traditions

What was the historical background to this situation? As you are aware, in the continent of Asia today there are three major Buddhist traditions which coincide with three major geographical regions. The first is the region which includes Sri Lanka and four countries in South East Asia: Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

The Buddhism that prevails in all these countries is called Theravada or Southern Buddhism. It is also called Pali Buddhism because both its canonical and exegetical scriptures are written in Pali, which is a Middle Indian dialect.

What makes Theravada Buddhism different from all other schools of Buddhist thought is that it seeks to interpret the Word of the Buddha in the light of its own Abhidhamma.

In passing it may be noted that both in preserving and disseminating the Theravada version of Buddhism it was our country that played the leading role.

For as you all know, it was in Sri Lanka that the oral transmission of the Theravada Buddhist Canon was committed to writing and it was also here in Sri Lanka that all the commentaries, subcommentaries, compendiums, and other expository works related to the Pali Canon were compiled before they found their way to the neighbouring Buddhist countries in South East Asia.

Tibetan Buddhism

The second geographical zone which corresponds to another major Buddhist tradition is the Himalayan Region (Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim) and Mongolia.

The Buddhism that developed in this region could be called Tibetan Buddhism because it is mainly based on the teachings embodied in the Tibetan Tripitaka, the Mongolian version of the Tripitaka being a rendering from the Tibetan.

Tibetan Buddhism is much different from the Buddhism that prevails in Sri Lanka and South East Asia. Though somewhat eclectic it is more oriented towards Yogacara, the Idealistic School of Buddhism and also to Tantrayana or Esoteric Buddhism, which is a further extension of the Mahayana.

The Tibetan Tripitaka too is very much unlike ours, for it contains the teachings of more than one school of Buddhist thought. It is true that much of it is a rendition from Sanskrit and Middle Indian vernaculars.

However, the indigenous Buddhist literature that developed in the wake of translations is equally considerable. What is unique about the Tibetan Buddhist traditional is that more than any other it has preserved to us the full richness of esoteric (Tantric) doctrines and practices, when in most other Asian countries Esoteric Buddhism (Tantrayana) declined in the past.

Buddhism in East Asia

The third geographical region which corresponds to yet another great Buddhist tradition is East Asia: China, Korea and Japan. Buddhism in East Asia is not a uniform phenomenon as Buddhism in South East Asia.

It represents a wide spectrum of Buddhist doctrines and practices, mostly coming under Mahayana. However, the primary literary basis of all East Asian Buddhism is the Chinese Tripitaka.

Unlike the Pali Tripitaka with which we are familiar, the Chinese Tripitaka embraces all ages and schools wherein translations of the most diverse Indian Buddhist works are supplemented by original compositions in Chinese.

According to the well-known catalogue prepared by Bunyui Nanjio (Oxford 1883) the collection contains some 1662 works classified into four main divisions: Sutra, Vinaya, Abhidharma and the Miscellaneous. What is unique about the Chinese Tripitaka is that while embodying the doctrines of almost all schools of Buddhist thought, its compilers represent a large number of ethnic groups in the continent of Asia.

For, among those who translated Buddhist works into Chinese were not only Indians. According to Nanjio's Catalogue of the Chinese Tripitaka among those who translated Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese during the period from 420-550 four were from Sri Lanka.

In this regard the best known Sri Lankan was Amoghavajra who came to China in 724 and translated a large number of Buddhist texts into Chinese, to one of which a preface was written by the Emperor Tai-tsung.

It must also be recorded here that two Buddhist works compiled in Sri Lanka during the Anuradhapura period, namely, Samantapasadika which is the commentary to the Vinaya, and Vimuttimagga, a work belonging to the Abhayagiri Fraternity, are also included in the Chinese Tripitaka.

What I have said so far amounts to a brief introduction to the three major Buddhist traditions which developed in three major regions in the continent of Asia, namely (1) Sri Lanka and South East Asia, (2) the Himalayan region together with Mongolia, and (3) East Asia comprising China, Korea and Japan. Each tradition, as we saw, had its own literary basis in a classical language such as Pali, Tibetan and Chinese. Interaction and mutual influence between these Buddhist traditions, one cannot completely rule out.

However, it would not be incorrect to say that until modern times they developed in comparative isolation. What we call modern academic studies in Buddhism can be said to begin when this isolationism broke down and the literary sources belonging to the major Buddhist traditions in Asia came to the attention of modern scholars.

The process began in the first quarter of the 19th century when literary works of each tradition came to be discovered one after the other.

Sanskrit Buddhist Literature

Among those literary sources the first that came to the attention of modern scholars were Sanskrit works belonging to the Mahayana. This was made possible by the distribution in the libraries of Calcutta, London and Paris of a large number of manuscripts which were collected from Nepal by B. H. Hodgson, the British resident of the country, during the years of 1821-1841.

Among these manuscripts were some of the most important Mahayana Sutras, such as Karandavyuha, Vajrasuci, Lankavatara, Saddharmapundarika and many versions of the Prajnaparamita Sutras.

One of the earliest to do research on these materials was Eugene Burnouf from France. His "Lotus de la Bonne Loi," the French translation of the Saddharmapundarika published in 1852 was the first rendering into a European language of a Buddhist literary work.

It was some seven years earliest that Eugene Burnouf wrote his well-known History of Indian Buddhism, which secured his place as the founder of modern Buddhist scholarship in the West.

The Nepalese manuscripts which thus led to the beginning of modern studies in Buddhism came to the attention of the Indian scholars as well. In the 1870's Rajendra Lal Mitra and Hara Prasad Sastri made a catalogue of the Buddhist manuscripts in the libraries in Nepal and this helped to bring out critical editions and annotated translations of a large number of Mahayana works.

The field of Sanskrit Buddhist studies became further enlarged by the discovery in Central Asia of no less than twenty six texts of the Central Asian Sanskrit Buddhist Canon and manuscript remains of many other Buddhist works.

Along with this must be mentioned the Gilgit Manuscripts discovered by Nalinaksha Dutt and which he published in eight volumes.

Two of the most important works in this collection are the Samadhiraja Sutra and the Vinayavastu of the Mulasarvastivada School of Buddhism, which has a close correspondence to the Pali Vinaya Pitaka.

Pali Buddhist Literature

It was in the second quarter of the 19th century that the Pali literary works were brought to the notice of scholars outside the Theravada countries and in this connection Sri Lanka was able to make a notable contribution.

For, those who pioneered Pali studies in Europe, India and Japan, such as Professor Rhys Davids, Satish Chandra Vidyabhusan, the Venerable Dhammananda Kosambi and Chizen Akanuma were closely associated with the scholar monks of Sri Lanka.

Notable among them were Venerable Hikkaduve Sumangala Maha Thera, Venerable Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti Maha Thera and Venerable Mahagoda Maha Thera Nanissara Maha Thera.

The translation of the Mahavamsa into English by George Turnour in 1837 and the translation, ten years later, of the Dhammpada into Latin by Fausboll were the first important attempts by European scholars to introduce Pali literature to the West.

However, it was some ten years earlier that Eugene Burnouf and Christian Lassen published their famous introduction to Pali, "Un Essay sur le Palie", which paved the way for Pali studies in Europe and America.

Particularly in the last quarter of the last century great strides were made in Pali studies.

The establishment of the Pali Text Society in London in 1895 and the Buddhist Text Society in Calcutta in 1898 played a major role in this regard. Now both canonical and post-canonical Pali Buddhist texts have Romanized editions and translations into English, French and German.

The Pali Canon, in its entirety, has also been translated into Japanese and it contains some sixty five volumes. Together with this must be mentioned the Royal Thai Edition (Thailand), the Chattha Mhasangayana Edition (Myanmar), the Nava Nalanda Edition (India) and the Buddha Jayanti Edition (Sri Lanka) of the Pali Tipitaka.

Tibetan Buddhist Literature

The credit of pioneering modern studies in Tibetan Buddhism should go to Csoma de Koros, a native of Transylvania. For it was his Analysis of the Kanjur published in Asiatic Researches, Vol. 20, 1936 that drew the attention of modern scholars to Tibetan Buddhism.

It is against this background that we have to consider the position of Buddhist studies in Sri Lanka today, particularly in its universities and other institutions of higher learning. As we all know in five of our national universities today there are departments of Pali and Buddhist Studies.

Buddhist studies in Sri Lanka

We also have a postgraduate institute and two universities entirely devoted to Buddhist Studies. The fact that they all have "Pali and Buddhist" as part of their designation shows that their Buddhist studies programmes are oriented towards Theravada Buddhism, for all literary works in Pali relate only to Theravada Buddhism. Therefore, the question that arises here is whether this orientation of Sri Lanka Buddhist studies to one particular school of Buddhist thought and that too based on a single Buddhist scriptural langauge is justifiable.

This situation has of course been determined by our own history. Ever since the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka our country has played the leading role not only in preserving and disseminating the Theravada version of Buddhism but also in the matter of developing its exegetical tradition which found its way to neighbouring Buddhist countries.

Among the Buddhist countries in the world what is unique to Sri Lanka is its pre-eminent position as the stronghold of the Theravada Buddhist literary tradition. Therefore, if our present Buddhist studies are oriented more towards Theravada Buddhism this has to be understood as a continuation of a well-established historical tradition.

The vision of our departments of Buddhist Studies in the Universities in Sri Lanka should be to develop as international centres of excellence for Theravada Buddhist Studies. However, what is most important to remember here is that we cannot achieve this goal by isolating ourselves from the many other parallel Buddhist tradition, which evolved in other parts of Asia.

For our claim to specialize in Theravada Buddhist studies will have no credibility unless they are supplemented by studies in parallel Buddhist traditions. For it is against the background of such studies that the significance of Theravada Buddhist doctrines can be brought into relief. In this connection I would like to cite two instances.

The first relates to the Pali Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka, which we make use of as the earliest extant literary sources of Buddhism. Four of these Nikayas, it may be noted here, have their corresponding versions in the Chinese Tripitaka where they are called Agamas.

Again, sections corresponding to Pali Nikayas have also been found in the manuscript remains of the Central Asian Buddhist Canon discovered in Eastern Turkestan. This circumstance should show that whatever textual and doctrinal studies we do on the Pali Nikayas remain incomplete unless we take into consideration their parallel versions mentioned here.

The same situation is true when it comes to studies in the Theravada Abhidhamma. It is a well-known fact that there had been other versions of the Abhidharma particularly among pre-Mahayana schools of Buddhist Thought.

While most of them have been irretrievably lost, at least four version of the Abhidharma are found preserved in the Chinese Tripitaka, the most famous being the one belonging to the Sarvastivada School of Buddhism.

These different versions of the Abhidharma have to be taken into consideration if we are to understand the Theravada Abhidharma in this proper doctrinal and historical perspective.

For we cannot overlook the obvious fact that the various schools of Abhidharma grew, not in comparative isolation, but in interacting and mutually influencing one another.

At least the two instances I have cited above should show that if our universities are to serve as international centers of excellence for Theravada Buddhist Studies it is not only desirable but absolutely necessary to broad-base our study programmes to include parallel Buddhist traditions as well.

The initial requirement for such a project would be to broaden the linguistic equipment of our students to include not only a knowledge of Pali but a knowledge of other Buddhist scriptural languages, such as Sanskrit (both Classical and Hybrid), Classical Tibetan, and "Buddhist" Chinese.

Asian culture, Buddhist culture

In concluding these observations on the academic study of Buddhism it is necessary to mention here that the subject of Buddhism occupies a very central place in relation to many other academic disciplines.

This is particularly true of all Sri Lankan studies whether they relate to Humanities or Social Sciences. No university in Sri Lanka can afford to dispense with Buddhist Studies if it is to carry on successfully its academic programmes in historical, cultural, and sociological studies.

This situation is not confined to Sri Lanka but is true of many other Asian countries. For Asian culture is, as a whole, Buddhist culture. In this connection I can do no better than quote D. T. Suzuki, the celebrated Japanese scholar.

"If the East is one, and there is something that differentiates it from the West, the differentiation must be sought in the thought that is embodied in Buddhism. For it is in Buddhist thought and in no other that India, China and Japan representing the East could be united as one.

Each nationality has its own characteristic modes of adapting the thought to its environmental needs, but when the East as a unity is made to confront the West, Buddhism supplies the bond."

source: http://www.dailynews.lk/2007/11/21/fea06.asp
source: http://www.dailynews.lk/2007/11/24/fea15.asp

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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.