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The Future of Buddhism in India: An Interview with Dr. Ravindra Panth

Dr. Panth speaks at the Fourth Sariputta World Peace Walk on 16th November, 2013. From Nalanda on the Move

“Buddhism never went extinct in India,” declares the Director of Nava Nalanda Mahavihara a Pali institute in Bihar. Dr. R. Panth is referring to one of the darkest periods of Indian Buddhist history: the medieval age, when Buddhism’s position was becoming increasingly challenged at the onset of Islamic rule. The upheavals in India at the turn of the modern era hindered any substantial attempt to revive Nalanda’s scholastic tradition. But it was only a matter of time before the country’s rapid economic development led to the resources and broader public support needed to preserve and promote a World Heritage Site.

Having spent fourteen years practicing with the modern Vipassana master Satya Narayan Goenka, Dr. Panth assumed directorship of the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara in 2000. To this day it remains one of India’s best establishments for Pali and Buddhist Studies. Founded by Ven. Jagdish Kashyap in 1951, the Mahavihara was the first to publish the entire Pali Tripitaka in Devanagari, which was a painstaking project initiated by none other than Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. India’s first Prime Minister was an admirer of Buddhism, and when the country celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana in 1956, there were straws in the wind of rebuilding Nalanda as a landmark to Buddhism’s (and by extension, India’s) past glory. Dr. Panth’s time with Goenka had inspired him to specialize in the Pali Abhidhamma long before his tenure at Nalanda Mahavihara. Mahavihara’s assistance in the construction of a new Nalanda University has come a long way to restoring the original ruins as a source of Buddhist pride.

Dr. Panth is right: It is hard to believe that an immense living tradition like Buddhism could vanish completely. Still, there is no more poignant symbol of the supposed extinction of Buddhism than the ruins of this “super-monastery” or mahavihara. For almost two centuries in Buddhist Studies, scholars saw the demise and decline of the first Nalanda as a representative turning point of Buddhism’s fortunes. It was a monastic, landholding and serf-owning college all in one. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang personally met a high abbot, Shilabhadra, sometime around 637. And it is thanks to the same monk’s travelogues that Indologists rediscovered the country’s Buddhist past, thus repaying China’s spiritual debt to India. But as it grew into a veritable fortress, other regions were slowly abandoning Buddhism in an age of Islamic conquest. Once the pride and joy of its founder and king, Sakraditya*, it now is on the verge of rebirth as a new Buddhist heartland.

“There are now three kinds of people in India who are interested in Buddhism,” points out Dr. Panth. “The first category comprises those who are born Buddhist. Then we have practicing Buddhists, who take meditation classes or attend Vipassana retreats. This is a very interesting, growing demographic. Finally, there are non-Buddhists who are nevertheless attracted to Buddhist art and architecture. I deeply hope to help more people understand the theory, practice the meditation, and experience the resulting blessings personally.”

Dr. Panth is extremely optimistic about progress on this matter because he is passionate about the benefits of Buddhism. “Read Charles Allen’s The Buddha and the Sahibs. The word ‘Buddhism’ is an English word coined during the British era in India and now only used for convenience,” he says. “The true word for Buddhism should actually be dhamma. There’s no superstition or any kind of –ism. It doesn’t just talk about what is obviously bad: it has much more profound parameters for suffering. Not even birth and desire escape its inquiry. We are talking about a philosophy that looks deeply, without pessimism, into the nature of suffering throughout life. Not just into phenomena like death or illness, but into birth and change itself, and the lack of a self. The Buddha’s Fire Sermon is amazing in this regard! There is a stereotype of Buddhism being fixated on suffering. But since Lord Buddha emphasized causality, his tradition actually offers practical solutions.” He refers me to the Butterfly Effect; an idea in physics that suggests the mere flap of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world can affect profound change on the other. “This,” he says proudly, “is the profundity of Buddhism.”

But how can Dr. Panth bring this richness and depth into the classroom and onto campus? “I always like to see it as three levels of understanding,” he tells me. “First, there’s pariyatti, which is theoretical knowledge as defined in Buddhism. In the modern world, we can possibly compare the acquisition of pariyatti to the courses and lectures the Mahavihara provides. The second is patipatti, which means the practice of the path –” here, Dr. Panth’s eyes light up, “– this means introducing meditation to our schools. I know the difference it can make thanks to my years with Goenka. This is a practical solution to the suffering of life.” The third and final level is pativedha, which according to Dr. Panth means direct experience and penetration or insight. “No longer do you see knowledge as books or even meditation. Knowledge simply becomes your experience.”

Along with the cultivation of moral values as outlined in Buddhist tradition (sila), Dr. Panth hopes his threefold model of learning will inspire a new generation of young people to gain awareness of the world, of their own potential, and of Buddhism’s immeasurable value. His goals accord with the earliest spirit of Nalanda’s ancient university, which is one of learning and spiritual maturity. Those haunting ruins still jut out from the grass on the World Heritage site. But while they may still be reminders of a painful era in history, they are now also a foretaste of the flourishing to come.  

* Sukumar Dutt (1962). Buddhist Monks And Monasteries of India: Their History And Contribution To Indian Culture. George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London. p. 329.  

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