Great Indo-Tibetan Buddhist institutions of higher learning such as Nālandā and Vikramaśilā in India offered broad curriculums and thereby attracted students interested in a wide range of subject matter. Although the main focus of the training was Buddhist philosophy, both sutra and tantra, other subjects were valued for their importance in producing a well-rounded intellectual who could communicate his learning to others.
These universities specialized in the classical Indic system of learning (Skt: pañcavidyāsthāna) known in Tibetan as rikné nga (rig gnas lnga), or “five sciences.” From its founding in Tibet, our namesake, Samye, offered training in the “five major sciences”. These five primary divisions of study are also known as the five “classic sciences”.
The Five Major Sciences
Tibetan thinkers usually group the first four sciences as “outer” or conventional (tha snyad) subjects while Buddhist philosophy is known as the ‘”inner” (nang) subject.
- Buddhist Arts
- Medicine & Wellness
The Five Minor Sciences
In addition, students also were offered instruction in the “five minor sciences” known as the “ordinary sciences”. Bodhisattvas were trained in these five ordinary sciences so that they could perfect and attain pristine cognition (ye shes kyi tshogs).
- Prosody (meter and sound)
- Lexicography (compiling of dictionaries, the study of synonyms)
- Dramatical Composition
Bodhisattva Training in the Sciences
Sangye Desi Gyatso, (1653–1705) was the regent of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama who founded the School of Medicine and Astrology called Men-Tsee-Khang. He wrote a foundational text on Tibetan medicine, the Blue Beryl in which he quotes a number of early texts that emphasize the five sciences.
The bodhisattva seeks out a Dharma. What does he seek out? How does he search? Why does he search? In brief, the bodhisattva seeks out the bodhisattva canon, the śrāvaka canon, the treatises of the outsiders, and the arts and crafts of the world…The treatises of the outsiders are of three types: those on logic, those on language, and those on medicine. The arts and crafts of the world are many and varied. They include, for example, the crafts of goldsmiths, blacksmiths, and jewelers. All this knowledge can be classified under the five sciences, which are inner science, logic, language, medicine, and arts and crafts. Whatever the bodhisattva seeks is contained within these five sciences. Therefore, he seeks out all sciences.Asaṅga, Stages of the Bodhisattva from Stages of the Yogacaryā, quoted in The Mirror of Beryl: A Historical Introduction to Tibetan Medicine by Sangye Desi Gyatso, p. 42-3.
Why Study the Sciences?
Why were these topics considered important? The Sūtra of Great Skillful Means Repaying with Gratitude (Thabs mkhas pa drin lan bsab pa’i mdo) addresses each aspect of study in turn. From the text, we can understand that these sciences were not selected to simply create scholars and clever intellectuals. Instead, great adepts acknowledged that these fields of study would help the bodhisattva develop more skills for the benefit of all beings.
For example, according to the sūtra, bodhisattvas studied logic so that they could refute the criticism of others in debate.
Moreover, a strong grasp of logic meant they could inspire faith in followers. By studying philosophy, of course, the bodhisattvas gained mastery of the Dharma and could then explain authentically to all beings.
The sūtra explains that bodhisattvas should study grammar so that they could express themselves elegantly, and inspire confidence in their listeners. They also were expected to understand and be able to explain subtle differences of meaning in terminology.
Moreover, bodhisattvas studied medicine so that they could alleviate suffering and benefit beings according to their vow. Tibetan medicine, known as “Sowa Rigpa” was considered essential and has practically benefited the Tibetans and Himalayan people for centuries. The library of Tibetan medical knowledge includes thousands of Tibetan texts. Primary among them are the four medical tantras, or ‘rYud-bzhi’. These Four Medical Tantras are the foundational texts for training Tibetan physicians from ancient times to the present.
Throughout Tibetan history, prominent thinkers and practitioners advocated the study of the five sciences. The thirteenth-century scholar Sakya Paṇḍita ( 1182-1251) was a prime example of a scholar-practitioner who underlined the need for broad knowledge. Sakya Paṇḍita cited Maitreya’s position in the Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra (Ornament of the Mahāyāna Sūtra) when he reminded students:
Without becoming a scholar in the five sciences
Not even the supreme sage can become omniscient.