A Survey of Contemporary Buddhist Educational System in the Countries of Southeast Asia by Zhen Chan

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Part of this paper was extracted from a paper presented by the founder, Ven. Wei Wu, at The International Conference of Association of Theravāda Buddhist Universities held at International Theravāda Buddhist Missionary University, Yangon & Woodlands Hotel, Poppa Mountain Resort, Bagan, Myanmar, 9-12th March 2007.

Introduction

Buddhism in Malaysia Peninsula

International Buddhist College has an interesting cross-national link between two integral members of South-east Asia, namely Malaysia and Thailand. From historical accounts, it is not difficult to identify the unique geographical location that South-east Asia enjoys. Notably, a central role that South-east Asia plays as the melting pot for the three major traditions of Buddhism. For instance, according to I-tsing’s records of his long arduous journey from China to India (671-695AD),[1] I-tsing observed that the capital of Srībhoga, a powerful ancient Malay kingdom in the island of Sumatra, modern day Indonesia, was then a center of Buddhist learning in the islands of the Southern Sea which had more than a thousand members of the monastic order. When the Hinayāna tradition was prevalent then, the Mūlasarvāstivāda School took foremost prominence. Other than the Sammitīya School, two other schools also made their new appearance. A few Mahāyānists were found to be in Malayu.[2] It is also noteworthy that Tibetan Buddhism has also made its appearance in Sumatra. If we trace the history and biodata of Atiśa Dīpaṃkāra Śrījñāna (982-1054AD), who is a key archetype of the Tibetan school of Buddhism, set out from Tibet to Sumatra in search of his guru. At the age of thirty-one, the monk embarked on a long perilous journey, only to arrive at Sumatra after thirteen months in order to learn under the tutelage of the reputable Suvarnadvīpi Dharmakīrti, an esteemed master of bodhicitta, who is sometimes called Dharmarakśita and known in Tibetan as Serlingpa (Gser-gling-pa). Under the guidance of Dharmarakśita, Atiśa remained on the island of Sumatra for twelve years studying bodhicitta and exclusive mind training techniques.[3] Dharmaraksita is sometimes considered to be a student of Dharmakirti, he was also a teacher of Atisa.

Thus in Malaysia, it is easy to discern this unique element of the three major traditions of Buddhism flourishing harmoniously together to serve the spiritual needs of its followers. To add, Buddhism and Hinduism may have entered the Malay Peninsula during the early periods of the first five centuries CE in connection with Indian trading and colonization in the region. Such early contact can be attested by the names of several places from the peninsula that appeared in the Pali canon such as the Niddesa and the Milindapañha.[4]

Efforts of spreading Buddhist teachings in Malaysia might have begun as early as the 3rd century CE. The Buddhist Era 235 marked the movement of missionary activities in South-east Asia with the arrival of Maha Theras Sona and Uttara accompanied by Maha Thera Anuruddha, Maha Thera Tissagupta and Maha Thera Soneyya at Suvarnabhumi (Thaton).[5] Dharmapala may have visited the Malay Peninsula, followed by Dipankara Atisa around the same period. The journals of Fa-Hsien, a Chinese monk, recorded his sojourn in Java and Malaysia on his journey back from Sri Lanka to China in 413 CE.

A Brief History of International Buddhist College

The International Buddhist College is located in the Songkhla Province, south of Thailand. It is an all-embracing multi-traditional Buddhist institution of higher learning. The vision of establishing the non-sectarian multi-traditional International Buddhist College as we know it today originated at the Than Hsiang Buddhist Research Center (THBRC), Penang, Malaysia.

THBRC is affiliated to the Buddhist and Pali University (BAPU) of Sri Lanka. The center first conducted Diploma courses in 1992 and B.A. program in 1994. International acclaimed Buddhist scholars including Prof. Y. Karunadasa were invited to teach at THBRC. During one of these visits in 1996, Prof. Karunadasa was much impressed and amazed at the harmonious and colorful pluralistic society of Malaysia which is marked by its threefold uniqueness of multi-religious, multi-traditional and multicultural elements.

Inspired by this spirit of peace and harmony, Professor Karunadasa suggested to the Founder of IBC to establishment of a non-sectarian university encompassing the three major traditions of Buddhism, and thus IBC was born. This idea eventually grew to be a vision shared by many including the founder, Professor Karunadasa, Venerable Professor Anuruddha, Venerable Professor K.L. Dhammajoti and Dr Y H Lai. In 1999, the group met in Sri Lanka and the meeting entrusted the task of realizing the vision to the Founder. Thailand, a Southeast Asian Buddhist country that is supportive of Buddhist educational ventures was chosen to site the International Buddhist College. In the same year, Klintiendharm (Than Hsiang) Foundation in Thailand was set up to launch the project in earnest. More details of the early history are available at http://www.ibc.ac.th and elsewhere.[6]

Klintiendharm Foundation then began identifying suitable locations for establishing the College and filing application for the license to establish a tertiary institution with the Thai government. In 2003, the Foundation was eventually awarded the license. A piece of land of about 110 acres near the township of Khlong Ngae in the province of Songkhla was purchased for building the College. In October 2004, International Buddhist College started running with its first intake of students for its Bachelor of Arts Degree Program and Intensive English Language Training Program. Witnessed by an international gathering of over a thousand Sangha members and lay supporters, the Thai Vice-Minister of Education officially declared the College opened on July 17, 2005. It is a modern progressive academic research institution approved and recognized by the Thai Ministry of Education. In 2006, the College stepped up its academic growth and started offering Master of Arts Degree program in Buddhist Studies conducted in both English and Chinese languages. In 2007, the College launched the Doctor of Philosophy Program. In 2010, the College extended its Buddhist studies to the Education Center at Pak Tong Chai in Nakhon Ratchasima province, North-eastern Thailand. In the same year, the College also launched the Master of Arts Degree program in Early Childhood Education.

Than Hsiang Foundation

The founding organization of International Buddhist College is the Than Hsiang Foundation. The Than Hsiang Foundation is an international Buddhist organization based in Penang, Malaysia. It had its humble origin at the Than Hsiang Temple established in 1985 to serve the spiritual needs of the local community around Bayan Lepas in Penang and has grown to its present scale in Malaysia and Thailand. Its beginning and continuous development is guided by the following conviction in Buddhadharma work:

To create an environment for:

The Young to Learn,
The Strong and Healthy to Serve,
The Aged and Sick to be Cared for, and
The Departed to Find Spiritual Destination.

Than Hsiang Foundation sprung from the need for greater efficiency in its services and operational areas effected through re-organization and structural reform due to the rapid expansion in the first decade. It operates in three primary mutually interconnected and complementary fields of Buddhadharma namely, spiritual practice and cultivation, social-welfare work and Buddhist education.

With respect to Buddhist education, in planning and running its outreaching Buddhist educational programs, the contents and quality of the education takes primary focus. The education programs are formulated and structured to cater to the specific needs of diverse target groups of the society. In order to be pragmatic, progressive and in keeping with the purpose of spreading Buddhadharma to many, educational programs are conducted in both formal and informal settings, ranging from kindergarten levels to tertiary education for the members of the monastic order as well as lay Buddhists of different traditions and the general public who are keen pursuant of Buddhist teachings. Informal teaching is given during religious services, regular Dharma study groups, country-wide Dhammaduta tours and spiritual training retreats for the young and adults. Formal education starts at kindergarten levels and extends into Diploma, undergraduate and postgraduate programs.

The Founder

The founder, Ven. Wei Wu undertook the challenge of establishing the International Buddhist College driven by his altruistic universal vision for the education of the Buddhist Saṃgha. The author can recall the advice that his teacher and founder of IBC, Ven. Wei Wu, has always given to his students: “if in the future, you face difficulties in making a decision, I would like to share a remedy taught to me by one of my teachers, the Most Ven. Anuruddha when I have decided to enter monkhood --- “we can proceed with our decision if the decision benefits the Saṃgha and sentient beings. Since we are part of the Saṃgha, every single decision that we make must be beneficial to the welfare of the Saṃgha.” The author was also inspired by the farsighted insight of his teacher “Without Buddhist education, there is no hope for the future and development of Buddhism.”

The founder has also shared his insight on the importance of the spirit of a non-sectarian Saṃgha education. According to the founder, in a paper he presented in the International Buddhist Conference held in Yang Zhou, China in 2007,[7] he expressed emphatically that it is only through in depth understanding and systematic analysis of the essential teachings of each Buddhist tradition; that we can then begin to truly understand the essence of the Buddha's teaching. We can easily err or even fall prey to malpractices if we remain adamant on adhering to a single tradition and completely invalidate the teachings of other traditions. If we only glorify our own tradition, and strongly maintain that it is the best to the extent of denigrating the other traditions as inferior and insignificant, we will definitely fail to realize true Dharma.

Furthermore, he highlighted that nowadays, there are very few non-sectarian Buddhist institutes. Although the Theravadin Buddhist Countries emphasize Buddhist Education, very often it is circumscribed within the parameters of their own tradition, and often chooses to ignore other traditions like the Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist Traditions. This invariably leads to biases and prejudices towards these two traditions. This lopsided view, despite the essential teachings that are shared in common,[8] is due to the lack of communication between the different traditions.

With this mission of non-sectarian Saṃgha education in mind, the Founder added that the International Buddhist College in Thailand would strive to create the opportunity for Buddhists from various traditions to learn and exchange ideas and experiences together as a community.

Referent to the above, the spirit of universal Buddhist Saṃgha education as envisioned by the founder is apparent.

Vision and Objectives

The College aspires to be a modern non-sectarian center of Buddhist practice, learning and academic scholarship. The integration of a progressively modern and traditional monastic approach strives to ensure a quality well-rounded education in Buddhist scholarship and practice with appreciation and full awareness of current global issues that such academic and spiritual training acquired in the College can be employed to resolve. The College aims to successfully educate, train and equip Saṃgha members and laity with Buddhist scholarship, critical and practical skills and wisdom for successful Buddhadharma endeavours in resolution of conflicting issues at individual, societal or global scale.

Uniqueness of International Buddhist College

International Buddhist College is unique in several aspects as an institution of higher learning or a Buddhist institution. Firstly, it is non-sectarian, multi-traditional in philosophy, outlook and practices in spiritual training and running educational programs and administration. Secondly, its non-sectarian academic setting allows preservation of its own respective traditions while offering open opportunities to explore the horizons of other traditions. Thirdly, it is one of the few institutions of higher learning where the major focus rests upon Buddhist Studies and Practices conducted in both English and Chinese. Fourthly, it integrates the traditional Buddhist values and culture of monastic life with the present by offering a broad-based and all-rounded education that is progressive and relevant in meeting today’s needs and demands. Fifthly, being multi-traditional and proactive in integrating learning from all traditions, the College is richly diverse in tradition and culture of Buddhism both in its resident faculty and student community.

Moreover, the International Buddhist College integrates both the Monastic and Academic components in daily life that bring forth spiritual growth and wisdom which are key elements in developing intellectual scholarship and worldly knowledge. This approach requires skills in its integration of monastic training in daily life with the implementation of modern formal education programs. This spirit of spiritual praxis and theoretical knowledge as two inseparable wings that is upheld by the College echoes the epitome of the integration of spiritual development with higher learning as exemplified by the ancient Buddhist University of Nalanda. The Monastic component complete with Theravāda and Mahāyāna shrine halls, work towards nurturing and inculcating Buddhist values. The Academic component runs the academic programs with a progressive approach focusing on developing not only scholarship but also critical thinking and life-long learning skills.

The unique feature of integrating modern western educational system with monastic education represents an education that is well-balanced without swerving to either extreme of these two modes of education. The college not only serves as a center for Buddhist education but also a training ground for the Saṃgha who will in future be educators contributing to their respective communities and nation. This brings to mind the history of Thailand records the longstanding and important role of temples and Saṃgha as Buddhist education center. Here, it is noteworthy to share Phra Dhammapitaka’s (Prayudh Payutto) insight into the role of temples and Saṃgha in Thailand as Buddhist education centers which is indeed an eye-opener and most pertinent.[9] Perhaps, while the role of an education center and training of Saṃgha is shared between IBC and the temples in Thailand, the college being equipped with modern yet all-rounded education may render support or even offer a resolution to the current concerns expressed by Phra Dhammapitaka.

Monastic Training Program and Growth

The College is also a training ground for Saṃgha members and laity as the College believes in balancing spiritual cultivation with formal education as well as mental development with physical growth. This balance is essential so that graduates from the College will be wise and useful citizens contributing to the society. International Buddhist College is partially residential with a strong monastic component that incorporates spiritual cultivation in the daily life of its students and staff. The spiritual cultivation includes morning and evening chanting and meditation sessions, religious ceremonies and retreats. Saṃgha members are expected to conduct themselves according to the Vinaya. Dharma talks and discussions are organized in addition to the formal education given.

Academic Programs and Growth

The academic focus of International Buddhist College is upgrading Buddhist Studies, scholarship, training and practices underlain with a liberal arts component to assure a balanced spiritual and intellectual growth. This serves as helmsman for the future academic growth of the College. The College now offers Bachelor of Arts Program in Buddhist Studies, Master of Arts Program in Buddhist Studies and also Doctor of Philosophy Program in Buddhist Studies. The Master of Arts Program in Early Childhood Education is launched in mid 2010.

The college motto “For the good of the many” shaped the culture and program of the college that is committed to extending Buddhist teachings and scholarship to the many. The B.A. program is offered with a broad based curricula comprising of components such as arts and sciences with foundational courses on Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist cultures and history, basic Buddhist doctrines including courses on texts of Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism (See Appendix 1) and Buddhist scriptural languages like Pāli and Sanskrit.

The College began operation in October 2004, now the College offers Bachelor degree courses of 120 credit hours both in English and Chinese in the following fields:

  • Buddhist Studies (Department of Buddhist Studies, Faculty of Religious Studies);
  • Buddhist History and Culture (Department of Buddhist Studies, Faculty of Religious Studies);
  • Pāli and Sanskrit Language and Literature (Faculty of Liberal Arts).

By 2006, the College stepped up its academic growth and started offering a 36 credit hours Master of Arts Degree program in Buddhist Studies in both English and Chinese languages. With the adoption of the Chinese language as a medium of instruction at the College, Buddhist education offered by the College now became even more outreaching. Interestingly, although monks and nuns still formed the majority (60%) of the graduate students, lay students constituted quite a significant population compared to the undergraduate level.

There are two options of study for the M.A. program: (1) A full course work (33 credit hours) with a minor independent research project (3 credit hours); (2) Coursework (24 credit hours) with a thesis (12 credit hours). The curricula consist of three 3-credit hour compulsory courses – History of Indian Buddhism, Theravāda Buddhism and Mahāyāna Buddhism (Appendix 2). Electives include Buddhist canonical languages and literature in addition to courses on Buddhist Thought or Philosophy. Flexibility and diversity is added to the curriculum with the provision for special topics to be introduced as and when it is opportune to do so.

The teaching faculty with visiting lecturers of both Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions come from China, South Korea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Belgium, Canada, Russia, Czech, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, India and the United States. The diversity provides a multi-traditionally enriching living and broad-based learning experience.

Present Status, Future Plan

The College is still very much in its infancy stage with less than a hundred students including faculty members and support staff, however with strong support from well-wishers all over the world it will grow in quality and size. It is one of the few Buddhist educational institutions solely funded by donations from supporters for Buddhist education from all over the world.

With the hope to realize the outreaching visions of Buddhist education, there are plans to diversify and further expand the academic programs in the near future to offer professional diplomas and degree programs in Education, Nursing and Geriatric Care, Psychology & Counseling to meet the needs of Buddhist-trained professionals in this area.

IBC and Nordland

From an interesting article written by Titt Pruuli, the author learnt that the Father of Estonian Buddhism Karl Tonisson (1883-1962), and his disciple Friedrick Lustig wanted to seek audience with His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama in Tibet, but their earnest requests were denied by the British. In fact, they first set foot on Bangkok, Thailand on 31 December 1931 and resided there for a number of years before they depart for Myanmar.[10]

From the above account, we learn that Karl Tonisson’s ardent journey in search for His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama has made a connection with South-east Asia since the twentieth century, thus planting the seeds for future meetings of Buddhist or seekers of the dharma from countries in South East Asia.

Therefore there is room for mutual exchange of ideas and experience and cooperation between Nordland and International Buddhist College, a Buddhist higher learning institution from afar on the other side of the globe.

Conclusion

International Buddhist College is a unique institution of learning where practitioners of different Buddhist traditions and diverse cultural backgrounds congregate to share knowledge as well as to teach and learn from one another. It combines the rigours of traditional monastic living and training with a modern progressive approach in teaching and learning. Its curricula for both the B.A. and M.A programs are well balanced in terms of distribution of weightage on the teachings of both the Theravāda and Mahāyāna teachings, scriptural languages with a liberal dose of arts, humanities and sciences giving students a well-rounded education needed for a good understanding of today’s world and issues.

The college in its unique geographical location would one day take on an important role in the betterment of Buddhist education of tomorrow despite challenges that may lie ahead as envisioned by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso during a meeting with the founder of IBC and author in April 2004.

The College still in its infancy continues to work towards improving the quality and diversifying its academic programs to educate the Saṃgha members of all major traditions and Buddhist professionals for the Academics, missionary works and to help manage Buddhist-based organizations involved in social-welfare works. It continues to work towards becoming a great center of Buddhist learning, scholarship, practice and culture.

Acknowledgement

The writer would like to record his appreciation to the organizing committee for the invitation to participate and opportunity to share IBC’s humble educational endeavors for the good of the many in this conference.

References

  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 1780. Life of Atisha. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. 53.1004 Gift of Mrs. John Gardner Coolidge "John Gardner Coolidge Collection". http://camio.oclc.org/u?/BMF,13804.
  • Nyunt, K. M. (1998). The Arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar (commemorative issue). The Arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar
  • Phra Dhammapitaka (Prayudh Payutto), Buddhism and Thai Education, http://www.thaibuddhism.net/buded.htm, September 11, 2010.
  • Tansen Sen, The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing: Sources for Crosscultural Encounters Between Ancient China and Ancient India in Education About Asia (2006) Volume 11, Number 3
  • Titt Pruuli, “My Journey Goes with Karl Tonisson”, Buddhism and Nordland 2007, Estonia Nyingma.
  • Wei Wu, (2005). “For the good of many”. Eastern Horizon, August 2005 Issue no. 17: 4-10.
  • Wei Wu, (2007). http://www.ibc.ac.th/ch/node/36
  • Yeap, T. H., & Trembath, K. Buddhism In Malaysia. http://www.quangduc.com/English/WorldBuddhism/14malai.html
  • Yijing, & Takakusu, J. (1982). A record of Buddhist religion as practiced in India and the Maylay Archipelago (A.D. 671-695). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Footnotes

<references / >
  1. Tansen Sen, The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing: Sources for Crosscultural Encounters Between Ancient China and Ancient India in Education About Asia (2006) Volume 11, Number 3
  2. Yijing, & Takakusu, J. (1982). A record of Buddhist religion as practiced in India and the Maylay Archipelago (A.D. 671-695). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
  3. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. 53.1004 Gift of Mrs. John Gardner Coolidge "John Gardner Coolidge Collection". http://camio.oclc.org/u?/BMF,13804.
  4. Yeap, T. H., & Trembath, K. Buddhism In Malaysia. http://www.quangduc.com/English/WorldBuddhism/14malai.html
  5. Nyunt, K. M. (1998). The Arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar (commemorative issue). The Arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar
  6. Wei Wu, (2005). For the good of many. Eastern Horizon, August 2005 Issue no. 17: 4-10.
  7. Wei Wu, (2007). http://www.ibc.ac.th/ch/node/36
  8. Wei Wu, (2007). http://www.ibc.ac.th/ch/node/36
  9. Phra Dhammapitaka (Prayudh Payutto), Buddhism and Thai Education, http://www.thaibuddhism.net/buded.htm, September 11, 2010.
  10. Titt Pruuli, “My Journey Goes with Karl Tonisson”, Buddhism and Nordland 2007, Estonia Nyingma.