Nalanda For The Information Age

The "ancient seat of Buddhist learning" may be your ergonomic chair.

Caitlin Van Dusen

In the Fifth Century C.E., Buddhist scholars from around the world trekked vast distances to attend Nalanda University, where they studied logic, medicine, astronomy, and classical texts. Today, that journey can be accomplished with the swish of a wrist across a mousepad. Thanks to the efforts of Stuart Carduner, a dharma practitioner and computer-based learning consultant, today’s aspiring scholars can be electronically transported to www.ashokaedu.net, where they may “attend” courses such as “Liberating the Heart: The Brahma-Viharas,” “Taming the Mind,” or “The Practice of Everyday Life: Dogen’s Genjo Koan”—all from the comfort of their own zafu.

Carduner intends Ashoka’s curriculum to serve as a bridge between reading about Buddhism and putting its teachings into practice. Guided meditations, an integral part of most courses, will be offered via online audio files so students can meditate without having to read from the computer screen. The mission of integrating theory and practice—and the opportunities afforded by the Internet in facilitating an “interactive learning environment”—is, indeed, the founding vision of Ashoka University.

In the spirit of the site’s namesake, the third-century emperor Ashoka, who instigated a dharma-centered education system throughout the Indian empire, Carduner aspires to make the 2,500-year-old Buddhist curriculum accessible to all. He explains his inspiration as follows: “I was living in a place where there were no teachers, no dharma centers, and I was looking for a way to learn more. One of the problems with the dharma in America right now is you have to know where you want to go in order to find what there is to find. So there may be wonderful teachings by So-and-So Roshi, but if you don’t know where they are—or even what a roshi is—you need a place where you can get the basic lay of the land.”

In fact, Carduner initially debated whether or not to associate the word “Buddhism” with Ashoka at all, concerned that it would discourage students hesitant to identify themselves as Buddhists. So Buddhism at Ashoka is presented as “a transformational educational system” rather than a religion. “The dharma is not just for people who become Buddhists,” he insists.

Although one of its primary goals is to connect students with teachers, Ashoka is not intended exclusively for those new to the dharma. Carduner plans to offer courses aimed at students of all levels of experience and interest. Therefore, a beginning practitioner interested in establishing a daily sitting practice might select a “basics” course such as “On Zen Practice: Body, Breath and Mind”; a more scholarly student might opt for “Prajnaparamita: Reflecting on the Heart Sutra”; someone with a literary bent might explore “The Poetry of Zen”; and an aspiring social reformer might try “Peacemaker Institute Training.” Ashoka’s diverse consortium of teachers currently includes Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts; Traleg Rinpoche, of the E-Vam Buddhist Institute in New York; and Michael Wenger, of San Francisco Zen Center.

The online university opened its virtual doors in April of this year, and the students are just beginning to surf in, spurred by Google searches and word-of-mouth publicity. And what does the Ashoka classroom look like? Courses fall into two categories: “self-paced” and “teacher-led.” Teacher-led courses, to be offered in the near future, are distinguished by ongoing interaction with a teacher, and accept about fifteen students and run eight to ten weeks, the length of a typical academic semester. Self-paced courses do not provide teacher feedback, but they can be pursued according to the student’s schedule and interest level—from a few days to a few months. All courses incorporate threaded discussion boards, chat rooms, audio and video footage, guided reflections and meditations, and an online journal, in which students are encouraged to record their thoughts on the teachings and respond to assignments. The fees charged for courses will depend on the success of fund-raising efforts, but put off by the prohibitive expense of many online universities, Carduner is committed to “removing the obstacle of cost” from access to the dharma.

What would the Buddha make of an “eDharma University”? “You know what they say about the Buddha: he taught different people in different ways,” Carduner replies. “I hope he would consider it upaya—skillful means.” Indeed, in the information age, the path to liberation may be across the Himalayas, or across the desktop—whatever works for you.

For more information, please visit www.ashokaedu.net.

Caitlin Van Dusen is the senior editor at Tricycle.

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