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Buddhist Studies in SL needs improvement: Academic don

  • Notes insufficient linguistic/philosophical/logical tools for objective study

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

One of the deficits in the present system of teaching Buddhist Studies in Sri Lanka is that it is not sufficiently equipped with linguistic, philosophical, and logical tools for the objective study of Buddhism as an academic subject, observed Emeritus Professor of Buddhist Studies Asanga Tilakaratne.

In this regard, he opined that Sri Lanka lags behind in comparison to many other traditionally non-Buddhist countries that offer Buddhist Studies as an academic subject, noting that, therefore, if Buddhist Studies is to remain competitive, Sri Lankan practitioners should equip themselves with linguistic, logical, and philosophical tools to compete with other foreign scholars on an equal level.

These observations were made by Prof. Tilakaratne, who is attached to the Colombo University’s Pali and Buddhist Studies Department, in an article titled “The Study of Buddhism in Sri Lanka: Issues, Challenges and Prospects”, which was published in the Colombo University Review (Series III) Vol.2 No.1 on 1 May 2021.

As Prof. Tilakaratne explained, the study of the teachings of the Buddha from which the academic discipline of Buddhist Studies developed, has since the beginning, placed an equal emphasis on both theoretical and practical aspects, where if theory without practice was considered empty, practice without theory was deemed blind. The main element in this tradition was the study of texts on what the Buddha taught. However, for leading Sri Lankan monks of scholarly erudition who received their education from monastic teachers within monastic settings, the study of texts was a way of life, as opposed to solely being an academic pursuit. Today however, Prof. Tilakaratne noted, within the university education system, Buddhist Studies is another subject, with an emphasis on knowledge gathering including not just postgraduate studies but early education in school, but devoid for the most part of any existential meaning and relevance to life.

It is Prof. Tilakaratne’s view that while education as a means of livelihood is a practical need and cannot be ignored, a subject like Buddhist Studies however, should not be just another subject as it has to be taught in such a way that its essence is not lost. In support of this perspective, he cited philosopher Prof. Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke to the effect that “the philosophy of the Buddha presents a challenge to the modern mind and therefore it should be a primary function and duty of modern philosophers to examine its solutions to basic questions”. According to Prof. Tilakaratne, the issue is not with traditional studies of Buddhism or modern studies of Buddhism. He explained that in order to be a modern day Buddhist scholar, one that is capable of meeting the challenges of a globalised world, he/she needs to be equipped with both traditional languages such as Pali and Sanskrit (similar to the manner in which Latin and Greek were taught at western universities), modern languages of both the East and the West, and with Buddhist philosophy and other Eastern and Western philosophies.

Prof. Tilakaratne’s next concern pertained to the quality of Buddhist Studies in Sri Lanka. Despite having an international reputation as a centre for Theravada Buddhist Studies – possessing Departments in major State universities such as the Colombo, Peradeniya, Kelaniya, Sri Jayewardenepura, and Ruhuna Universities, the Bhiksu University of Sri Lanka (solely for monks), the Kelaniya University’s Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, and the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka does not, as per Prof. Tilakaratne, “seem to have an equally corresponding picture of quality”. The Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy and the Nagananda International Institute for Buddhist Studies are private higher academic institutes specialising in Buddhist studies.

“What is needed therefore, is not only the factual or objective study but also interpretive studies, which locate the philosophy of Buddhism in the context of human life in particular, and existence in general, including nature and the environment with all its forms of life,” he noted.

In terms of national religions, approximately 70% of the country’s population are Buddhists. In Sri Lanka, Buddhism is taught as a subject from elementary school to secondary school, for a period of 13 years. Additionally, there are around 10,000 dhamma (doctrine of the Buddha) schools, located generally within Buddhist monasteries, which function during the weekends, and are attended by roughly 2 million students. These schools, according to Prof. Tilakaratne, appear to do good work in imparting subject knowledge as assessed through examination scores, but there is no objective method to measure the influence of this learning on the lives of the participants. Furthermore, there are around 700 pirivenas (monastic education centres) meant for novice Buddhist monks and a smaller number of lay students, where Buddhism is the main subject.

In the higher education field, major Sri Lankan universities teach Buddhist Studies (including Buddhist civilisation, culture, and philosophy) and related subjects for undergraduates. There are also several private colleges specialising in various aspects of the Buddhist Studies discipline. These universities have postgraduate programmes for students, both local and foreign (mostly from South East Asian and East Asian countries). As described by Prof. Tilakaratne, each of these programmes has their own issues and challenges, along with questions on the practical value of Buddhist Studies education.

In relation to modern Buddhist Studies, Prof. Tilakaratne explained that knowledge gained through textual study was taught through formal teaching, through the delivery of dhamma sermons or the imparting of instructions with regard to meditation.

The only way to study Pali, Prof. Tilakaratne noted, is through Buddhist texts, and he added that these days, Pali is taught as a subject in universities for a general or honours degree, which is composed of a Buddhist conceptual and philosophical aspect coupled with linguistic and literary approaches, with most of the students being Buddhist monks.

The study of the Sanskrit language (containing the literature of the Mahayana and other Buddhist schools) is also taught at universities, from the elementary level to an advanced level. In this case too, the majority of the students are monks. 

Prof. Tilakaratne further explained another aspect of Buddhist/Pali Studies, which includes courses on what is termed Abhidhamma/Abhidharma (the definition, analysis, classification, and categorisation of the dhammas), which is described as the higher doctrine or philosophy, and is contained in the Pali canon. However, Prof. Tilakaratne pointed out that when compared to the practice of the same in Myanmar, where Abhidhamma takes centre stage in the curriculum and is memorised and studied in a traditional manner whilst consulting commentaries and sub-commentaries, studies of the same in Sri Lankan universities remain at the introductory level, noting that again, unlike the case in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka there is no widespread tradition of monastic Abhidhamma studies.

Yet another discipline under which Buddhist Studies is taught, Prof. Tilakaratne added, is philosophy, taught in Departments of Philosophy.

In the local universities, the Buddhist Studies subject is taught as a three-year general and four-year special/honours degree programme, where the streams that the students can choose from include Buddhist Culture and Buddhist Philosophy (which includes courses on subjects related to Buddhist logic, epistemology, and ethics, while survey courses on Indian and Western philosophies are also offered).

At the Bhiksu University of Sri Lanka and the Buddhist and Pali University, graduate studies in Buddhism are conducted in both English and Sinhala in all the departments while the Kelaniya University’s Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies specialises in Buddhist Studies, including Buddhist textual, cultural, and philosophical studies at the graduate level. Graduate studies are conducted as a coursework-based master’s degree of one or two years’ duration, while research-based master of philosophy degrees and doctorates take longer.

The typical undergraduate student who chooses Buddhist Studies is in most cases a Buddhist monk or a lay student who studies Buddhism as one of his/her three first-year subjects. Prof. Tilakaratne observed that those who opt for or qualify to follow a four-year degree in Buddhist Studies are few, with the majority again being young Buddhist monks. With a few exceptions, most of those who study Pali and Sanskrit are all monks. Subsequent to the completion of the three-year degree, most are absorbed as teachers into the Government school system, where religion is a compulsory subject, while a few who followed the four-year programme in Buddhist Studies may find openings as lecturers in the university system.

The master’s degree programmes in Buddhist Studies which involve course-based work, and are conducted in Sinhala at universities, are quite popular, Prof. Tilakaratne noted, among Government school teachers, while English-medium master’s degree programmes via coursework are popular among foreign students, especially those from South East Asian countries and Buddhist monastic students from Myanmar. Additionally, there are, Prof. Tilakaratne added, mature students from various professions and walks of life who choose to study Buddhism, not necessarily for professional requirements, but for the sake of knowledge and/or interest in religion with a sizable number of such candidates following courses in English. However, of this category of students, those who go on to conduct research in Buddhist Studies are few. An exception to this situation is seen at the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, where foreign students, mostly monks, follow higher research-related degrees together with a small number of local students.

With regard to competition, Prof. Tilakaratne emphasised that academic career opportunities for students in the field are limited and therefore extremely competitive. Those who are successful and hired, pursue graduate studies in India (chosen for financial and academic reasons) or China (chosen for the monetary support being made available and provided for studies), while some go to the UK, Canada, or Australia. It is also noted that since graduate studies in Japan, Hong Kong, and European countries depend almost entirely on financial assistance, and since such assistance is hard to come by, the number of students going to these countries is decreasing.

“During the last Century (20th), Sri Lankan Buddhist scholars had a reputation for comparative philosophical knowledge because they had their training in Western philosophical or religious departments. The fact that most of them completed their undergraduate studies in the English medium was helpful for their further study in different academic environments. Today, one cannot say the same about the English proficiency of would-be university teachers in Buddhist studies, which is another reason as to why they look for opportunities in non-English speaking countries. Owing to this shift in the location of their studies, however, they adopt different approaches to Buddhist Studies and have expertise in different areas of the subject. These changes are neither good nor bad in themselves as much depends not on what they study, but how they pursue their study of Buddhism,” Prof. Tilakaratne concluded.