A virtual Nalanda for our times?

One of the things which has impressed me in recent years is how some Buddhist traditions have successfully engaged with the age of the internet to such a degree that many excellent opportunities for studying Buddhist view and practice online has become available. This obviously makes Buddhism so much more available for serious, systematic study than it used to be, but interestingly it also makes it easier for people to be much better prepared and informed about Buddhism before they commit themselves to any particular method of practice or to any particular lineage of transmission. Also, it can ensure that  people are able to learn enough to be confident  in studying and practising entirely by themselves if they wish, although I suspect the need to engage with sangha face-to-face from time to time will, for most people, always be necessary to some extent. Below, I offer just a small sample of those online opportunities that I have so far discovered, or that I have some small knowledge of.

The Buddhanet website has been going a long time, is very well managed, and has a vast range of materials on it. It has a range of online study materials, all free. See: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/guide.htm

Rangjung Yeshe Institute, an international centre for Buddhist Studies, offers courses in Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan, Sanskrit and Nepali languages. The courses combine traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings with a modern Buddhist Studies perspective. All classes are held in the unique setting of a Tibetan monastery in Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal. Students can earn BA and MA degrees in Buddhist Studies and Himalayan Languages or study for shorter, intensive periods. For visiting students, study-abroad programs in Buddhist philosophy and language as well as a range of intensive summer programs in Buddhist philosophy and related languages are offered.  It has an online learning programme, but there are fees for this. See: http://www.shedra.org/

The Triratna Community, formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, has a fantastic site full of excellent study materials, which are free and don’t require a prior commitment to the Triratna community, but which is a great preliminary for eventually making that commitment if one wanted to. Much of the material will be familiar to those who have studied already within the Tibetan tradition, but much will also be unfamiliar, as the study approach is very broad and encompasses materials from other Buddhist traditions. See: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/study/

The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition now has a very well organised set of online study programmes which appear to be excellent for those who are particularly keen to study and practice Buddhism within the Tibetan tradition descended from Je Tsongkhapa. Some of the study content is free but much of it is only accessible after choosing a level of membership of Friends of the FPMT where a financial contribution is expected, but the rates appear very reasonable for the amount and quality of study materials that become accessible. See: http://onlinelearning.fpmt.org/

For those who want to go the whole hog and do an in-depth academic study of Buddhism, the University of Wales, Newport, does a distance e-learning course that leads to an MA/PG Diploma/PG Certificate in Buddhist Studies. I have myself successfully completed tow years of this course when exactly the same course was offered previously at the University of Sunderland, and as a result I achieved the PG Diploma. I can certainly vouch for the excellent quality of the course, which certainly gives one a thorough overview of the whole of Buddhism as it is practised in various ways throughout the world, and it hives one a very solid grounding in basic Buddhist philosophy. The course is not free. It costs £1,200 the first year, £2,400 for two years, or if you did the whole 3 years would cost £3,200 for 3 years. This is incredibly reasonable for a proper university course! See: http://www.newport.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/courses/Pages/BuddhistStudies.aspx


Just do a Google search for online Buddhist study courses. You’ll be amazed at what you find! I’ve learnt enough now to realise that no one single Buddhist tradition or lineage can justifiably claim to contain within it all the richness and potential of what the Buddha taught. An openess to, and willingness to engage with, many Buddhist traditions appears to me to be so much more creative and rewarding than confining oneself to just studying within one tradition only. I would claim that knowing more about traditions other than one’s own practice tradition makes one, at the very least, more aware of the nature and context of one’s own tradition and more appreciative of what unique gifts different traditions bring to the Buddhist table. Indeed, the internet age may be instrumental in creating a golden age of Buddhist study and practice, in which a virtual Nalanda and Vikramashila arises as the Buddhist university of our time.



4 Comments on “A virtual Nalanda for our times?”

  1. John Swainson says:

    I agree with all of the above.

    But, I am reminded of the content of a letter dated 5th August 2010 from the NKT.

    ‘Dear Administrative Directors.

    Because of the potential for great spiritual confusion both now and in the future, we advise and request that NKT Centres, teachers, managers, and residents do not get involved with the activities of any Tibetan Buddhist groups, teachers or their students….
    ….The main reason for this request is to help NKT practitioners to avoid mixing spiritual traditions…’

    John Swainson

    • andydharma says:

      Yes, you put your finger on a very sensitive area here, which I feel more and more is at the heart of so much of what has happened within the NKT over the last few years. Because how you interpret the words you quote seems to be absolutely critical. Firstly, it is physically impossible not to get involved at some level with the activities of other Tibetan Buddhist groups, teachers, or their students, even if you try your hardest, because just talking to them or being with them in a meeting or at an event, or just reading about them, will be some kind of involvement, even if only subconsciously. The NKT itself is a member of the Network of Buddhist Organisations, so presumably NKT representatives have some contact with members of other Buddhist organisations, some of whom are no doubt Tibetan Buddhist to some degree. Is that not part of the meaning of “getting involved with the activities of any Tibetan Buddhist groups”? If not, what does the phrase mean? Who decides what getting involved really means, and who decides which activities will lead to spiritual confusion and which don’t? And anyway, what about the need for NKT students to develop an inner strength and resilience in their practice that protects them by giving them the wisdom to decide if a particular kind of involvement will lead to a danger of spiritual confusion?

      Besides, could some forms of involvement actually be positive in the sense of enhancing, and even clarifying one’s practice rather than leading to spiritual confusion? Geshe Kelsang himself relates the story in Joyful Path of Good Fortune about a famous scholar monk who studied lots of other Buddhist systems but ended up coming to a much deeper appreciation of, and enthusiasm for, Tsongkhapa’s works as a result. If Kadam Dharma is so clear and easy to understand, and so intellectually coherent, surely a Kadam practitioner has nothing to fear from any kind of involvement with other Tibetan Buddhist groups, teachings, or students and, in fact, that practitioner might have a lot to gain from being able to compare and contrast Kadam Dharma with other presentations of Dharma and from seeing how Kadam Dharma fits within the context of the wider Buddhist universe of discourse?

      Perhaps spiritual confusion will happen anyway even if there is no involvement with other Buddhist groups at all, because of the particular karma of an individual NKT practitioner? I sometimes meet NKT practitioners who clearly have no clue about the real meaning of much of what Geshe-la has taught even after years of studying and meditating, because they are not quite the full ticket anyway, or they have deep-seated psychological or emotional problems that interfere with their dharma practice. And the real danger is that the request not to get involved can be interpreted so severely that it becomes a command to hermetically seal the NKT off from any meaningful contact with the rest of the Buddhist world and foster a paranoia about the risk of contamination from non-NKT sources, a fear of becoming impure by any kind of involvement with non-NKT Buddhists. Perhaps the current obsession amongst some NKT practitioners about preserving doctrinal or institutional ‘purity’ is itself a symptom of ‘spiritual confusion’?

  2. george says:

    Exuse me are there some courses leading to bachelor or master degrees in Buddhist studies from accredited universities around the world that you can apply for them with high school diploma and that they are taking fully online via distance learning?

  3. Padma says:

    It’s not online but Viswa Bharati University in West Bengal, India, offers courses in Tibetan language and buddhist studies. Classes are small, tuition and living is cheap. They offer a 1-year casual course, BA, MA, and PhD. There’s a few tibetans around but not too many.

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