Academic studies in Buddhism and universities in Sri Lanka
Part I of this article was published in Buddhist spectrum on November 21, 2007
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 it 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.”