Intimate connection between Buddhism and learning | Sunday Observer

Intimate connection between Buddhism and learning

10 September, 2023
Abhayagiri Vihara, a centre of leaning in the Anuradhapura period
Abhayagiri Vihara, a centre of leaning in the Anuradhapura period

APEW Research Centre global survey conducted in 2016 found that Buddhists were slightly above the global average in their levels of educational attainment. This is substantially because there has been an intimate connection between Buddhism and learning from the earliest times to the present day.

First the findings of the survey: According to it, Buddhists had 7.9 years of schooling, on average, compared with the global average of 7.7 years for all groups. Twelve percent of Buddhists had earned post-secondary qualifications, compared with 14 percent of all adults globally. Ninety percent of Buddhist adults above 25 had received at least some basic schooling, compared with a global average of 81 percent for all groups.

Buddhist women made strong educational gains in recent times, helping to close the gender gap in primary schooling as well as higher education. Among the youngest generation of Buddhists, men and women had nearly identical educational profiles across all measures of attainment.

Of course, country-wise, the attainment was uneven because of varying economic conditions. In Japan and Singapore, a third or more of Buddhist adults had received higher education. But in Thailand, India and China, it was much lower, with roughly one-in-ten or fewer Buddhist adults holding post-secondary degrees.

In Sri Lanka, school education was universal, but university education was available only to a small percentage, partly because of the stringent admission policy and a limited number of degree giving institutions.  

The Buddhists had scored above the other religious groups in the US and UK too. In the US, Buddhists had an average of 13.4 years of schooling and more than half (53 percent) had post-secondary degrees, compared with an average of 12.9 years of schooling and 39 percent with higher education among non-Buddhists.

In the UK, Buddhists were more likely than the rest of the population to have had higher education by 20 percentage points (52 percent vs. 32 percent).

Across generations, gender gaps in Buddhist educational attainment had shrunk as Buddhist women had made larger gains than Buddhist men. Among those in the middle generation, and continuing among the youngest, Buddhist women had caught up to men and largely closed the gender gap in average years of schooling. Globally, the youngest Buddhist women had an average of 9.6 years of schooling, while the youngest Buddhist men average 9.8 years.

The Asia-Pacific region is home to 99 percent of the world’s Buddhists. But within the region, Buddhists had a wide range of educational attainment across countries, particularly when it came to higher education. In one group of countries – including China, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – roughly one-in-ten or fewer Buddhists had post-secondary degrees, while slightly larger shares in Malaysia and Indonesia had higher education (12 percent each).

But in several other countries, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Mongolia, higher education was much more common among Buddhists, ranging from 24 percent in South Korea with post-secondary degrees to 44 percent in New Zealand. In Japan, which is home to nearly 46 million Buddhists (9.4 percent of the global Buddhist population), one-third of Buddhists had post-secondary degrees.

Roots in the past

The Buddhists’ connection with education has its roots in ancient history. The ancient Buddhist universities in India such as Takshashila (7th Century BC to 460 AD) and Nalanda (450 AD to 1193 AD) were essentially Buddhist, though Hindu thought was also imparted. Sri Lanka had ancient Buddhist centres of learning such as the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri Vihara Pirivenas in the Kingdom of Anuradhapura (337 BC to 1017 AD).

The Buddha himself was a renowned teacher. And his approach to education was akin to the modern-day approach. Per Buddhist thought, education has to be secular, non-dogmatic, questioning, and evidence-based. Modern education should be this, ideally. Equally importantly, the Buddha required education to have social relevance as indeed modern learning requires it to be.

The Buddha considered education not just as a noble cause to be pursued, but a tool to be used in one’s life. Education had to be useful to the learner as well as his society. The Buddha advised his son, Rahula, to learn only such matters that would be for the betterment of himself and society.

According to the Ariyapariyesana Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (a collection of middle-length discourses) the goal of education is the well-being of all living creatures. This utilitarian view of education gave it social relevance and increased its social appeal, enabling its spread.

The ancient universities in India and Sri Lanka not only taught the precepts of Buddhism but all the arts and crafts, including medicine and astrology.

Buddhism’s aim is awakening to the truth, that is, “the understanding of things as they really are.” It seeks wisdom from an unattached, unbounded angle, motivated by a compassionate regard for all living creatures. A search for knowledge without compassion or concern for the well-being of the world, would be fraught with danger. The importance of this dictum is acutely felt in the contemporary world.   


Non-dogmatism is a hallmark of Buddhist education, which is also a hallmark of modern education. As one writer put it, “Education is accomplished not by filling students’ minds with a prescribed body of knowledge and beliefs, but by providing them the tools with which they gain self-knowledge and activate their own inherent potential. This accords with the actual meaning of ‘education’ (educere) - to draw out, to question, think, and create.”

A classical Buddhist education is a process rather than a product and a modern university education has to be precisely that. Ancient Buddhist education was a long process, beginning at childhood. In Myanmar and Thailand, young boys are initiated into monkhood for a few years so that they would get a grounding in the basics of Buddhist thought at an impressionable age, before corrupt influences invade their domain.

In the ancient Indian Buddhist universities of Thakshasila and Nalanda, students were admitted at the age of 16. They stayed on till they learned the subjects to the satisfaction of their teacher bhikkhus. They could leave if they were not up to it or could be expelled if they were not up to the mark.

There were no classrooms as such. Teaching was done in the bhikkhus’ or the teachers’ abodes with the students staying with them. They could pay if they were able to afford or they could work for the teacher with labour being treated as payment. Buddhist education is based on close and constant teacher-student interaction, or the tutorial system found in some present-day universities.  

Another very modern aspect of ancient Buddhist education was its socially open admission policy. Buddhism was totally opposed to caste-based or class-based policies in every field including education.

This was in sharp contrast to Hindu education, where knowledge or the pursuit of knowledge was confined to the upper castes, particularly Brahmins. Buddhists were the first in the South Asian region to push for universal education from the lowest to the highest levels. There was no monopoly of knowledge or monopoly of access to knowledge in the Buddhist world.

Buddhism places great emphasis on mindfulness and meditation as means to cultivate present-moment awareness. By practising mindfulness and meditation, persons can develop insight into the nature of their minds, thoughts and emotions, transcending the barriers of the material world.

Mindfulness improves attention, enables emotion control, promotes compassion/empathy, improves interpersonal relationships; and reduces aggression. Integrating these insights into present-day education can lead to stress reduction, the development of ethical values and responsible citizenship.

In his work, Buddhism in Education (published in July 2023) Indian scholar Mubashwer Mahabub Mandal said that Buddhist education is not meant for Buddhists only, but for all. However, implementing it at present requires that it shed the propagation of Buddhist beliefs that are not universal, but peculiar to Buddhism. Caution in this matter will help counter the expected opposition from other faith groups, he said.