MFA Press Release: Nalanda and the Asian Renaissance (by Minister George Yeo)

Nalanda and the Asian Renaissance
(by George Yeo, Singapore's Foreign Minister)

1 Last August, the Indian Parliament passed a Bill re-establishing Nalanda University as an international university. Nalanda was the world's
oldest university by far, flourishing for centuries before it was destroyed by Afghan invaders in the 12th century. When the Bill was debated in both the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, all political parties vied to give their support.

2 Nalanda is about the past and the future. At one level, it is a celebration of the Buddhist heritage that has contributed so much to the cultures of Asia. Whether consciously or not, Buddhist values and philosophy influence the daily lives of hundreds of millions of East Asians, helping to shape a persistent pattern of social interactions which makes East Asia an identifiable civilizational area.

3 Three great value systems undergird East Asian civilization - Confucianism, Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Confucius and Lao Zi lived at about the same time as the Buddha. Both Confucianism and Taoism were adopted very early by Korea and the Taoist yin yang symbol is at the centre of the Republic of Korea flag. During the Nara and Heian Periods, Confucianism from China took hold in Japan and its influence is still evident in Japanese society today. Mahayana Buddhism reached China about 2000 years ago but did not become widespread until it was thoroughly Sinicized, a process which took many centuries. Buddhism had first to become Chinese in its grammar, invocations and iconography. From China, the different Buddhist sects spread to Korea and Japan with relative ease. Chan Buddhism and Taoism melded in China, and it was that evolved form of Chan that became popular in Japan, giving Japanese Zen Buddhism its present character.

4 This is painting in broad strokes. But in the same way as one could identify the origins of Western civilization in Greece, Rome and Judeo-Christianity, so too could one trace the origins of East Asian civilization to the influence of Confucianism, Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism.

5 As Asia re-emerges on the world stage in this century, its civilizational origins will become a subject of intense study and debate. Asians are rediscovering their own past and deriving inspiration from it for the future. This inspiration covers all fields including governance, scientific inquiry, architecture, wellness and aesthetics. A tremendous burst of creative adaptation is increasingly evident across Asia. The Western world went through a similar phase as it emerged out of the medieval ages. Hence the word 'renaissance' has come to be applied to Asia's re-emergence today.

6 Just as Europe's past was partly retrieved through the Arab vehicle, for it was the Arabs who were fascinated by the civilization of the ancient Greeks and had its works translated into Arabic when Western Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Asia's past has been partly retrieved through the Western vehicle. Without the massive contribution of Western scholars, our knowledge of our own past in Asia would be much poorer today. I include here Alexander Cunningham's identification of Nalanda from an English translation of Xuan Zang's record of his journey to the West and Joseph Needham's encyclopaedic study of Science and Civilization in China. I say this only to remind Asians that we too stand on the shoulders of others.

The Buddhist Heritage

7 The recovery and celebration of the Buddhist heritage is an important part of the Asian renaissance. The revival of Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia is a big phenomenon. With the end of ideology, religion has become more important, most recently in China and Vietnam. Buddhist temples are once again flourishing in both these countries.

8 Buddhist pilgrimages are growing in popularity and proceeding farther afield. The interest in visiting the holy sites in India is bound to increase sharply in the coming decades. But, much more than tourism, renewed interest in a pan-Asian Buddhist heritage will facilitate the re-encounter of the two great civilizational areas of East and South Asia.

9 It is much easier emotionally to talk about the Buddhist heritage in Asia than it is to discuss the painful interactions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam over the centuries. For the children of Abraham, it has been a history of conflict. In the case of Buddhism, however, after the bloodbath in Kalinga which shocked Ashoka and set him off on a different path, the message is generally one of peace, compassion and acceptance. Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent. This reminds us not to be arrogant. Buddhism teaches us that every action has consequences. This reminds us to be good. The deep humanism in Buddhism is a value we need more than ever in a shrinking world where no religion, no ethnic group is in a majority.

Southeast Asia

10 In between East and South Asia is Southeast Asia where all the world's great religions and cultures meet and mingle. If we are not able to live with people who who are different from us in their core beliefs, there can be no peace or partnership. Beneath the trade winds, there has evolved in Southeast Asia cultures which enable diverse ethnic and religious groups to co-habitate. This softness has its roots in the Hinduism and Buddhism which came to our shores more than two thousand years ago. Many of the great monks like Fa Xian and Yi Jing who travelled between South and East Asia spent time in Southeast Asia especially in Sriwijaya, Sumatra. Syncretism is a way of life in Southeast Asia. In many Southeast Asian cities, it is not uncommon to find bustling mosques, temples and churches within short distances of one another, cheek by jowl. Are there problems? Yes, of course, every day! But the prevalent wisdom is to tolerate, accommodate and find ways to live together.

Islam and the West

11 In addition to the Buddhist heritage, the Islamic heritage and the Western heritage are also important unifying elements in Asia. Unlike Islam's historical contact with the West which was often unhappy, Islam's arrival in Southeast Asia was very different. It brought hygiene and a system of trust which facilitated trade. For a long time, the maritime silk route from the Mediterranean to China was dominated by Muslim traders. The Ottoman influence among Muslims in Southeast Asia was profound. The songkok which Southeast Asian Muslims wear is a relic of that influence. It was not only from the Middle East and India that Islam came to Southeast Asia. It was also from China. The great fleets from Ming China that sailed to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean 600 years ago were commanded by Muslim Admirals, the most famous being, of course, Zheng He. The Islamic heritage is therefore another theme in the Asian renaissance which should one day be taken up. We should not only be preoccupied with the dangers of Jihadist extremism. Though it will take many years, the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East bespeak a future that wants to be born.

12 The Asian renaissance is incomprehensible without taking into consideration the Western influence of the last 500 years. Although the Western dominance has receded, its impact on every aspect of life in Asia is obvious, enduring and ubiquitous. Any honest treatment of the Asian revival must acknowledge the many positive contributions of the West including the ideas of democracy, socialism and individual rights. The Christian influence in Asia is pervasive. Without Christian missionaries dedicating their lives to the education of millions of Asians, Asia's modernisation would have taken much longer to happen.

The Spirit of Nalanda

13. For over seven hundred years, the great university in Nalanda was a centre of learning for a wide range of subjects including philosophy, science, mathematics and public health. Nalanda is an icon of the Asian renaissance in the 21st century and should draw students and scholars from everywhere as it once did. It should be a centre of civilizational dialogue and inter-faith understanding as it once was. It should again make available for the common betterment of all human beings knowledge already existing in the world. In this way, the Nalanda project is not only a celebration of the past but also an inspiration for the future of Asia and the world. In a messy multipolar world, the Nalanda spirit of man living in harmony with man, of man living in harmony with nature and of man living as part of nature should be our common spirit.

10 March 2011

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