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His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often said that Tibetan Buddhism is none other than the Buddhism of India in the tradition of Nalanda, the great center of Buddhist learning that was located in present-day Bihar, India.
Many of the greatest masters and scholars in Indian Buddhism resided-and often presided-at this monastic center of learning which in its heyday included thousands of monks, dozens of temples and an enormous library. While we do not know with certainty that all of the seventeen masters below physically stayed at Nalanda, there is no doubt that their teachings and impact became fully integrated into the teachings and presentations of Buddhist thought there.
Traditionally, Tibetans have referred to the Six Ornaments of India (Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, and Dharmakirti) and the Two Supreme Ones (Gunaprabha and Shakyaprabha).
The categorization of seventeen described below was put together by His Holiness and expands upon these eight. While it does not include some of the great Nalanda masters whose genius still resounds in Buddhist teachings throughout the world-Naropa, for example-it is an important list of the brilliant scholar-adepts whose innovations in explaining the truth that the Buddha revealed continue to benefit us today.
These seventeen masters are vitally important because their writings are all based on real meditative experience. Their legacy of texts and teachings that came out of this experience forms the very backbone of understanding that is the basis for establishing present day practitioners with the correct view that enables us to make progress on - and complete - the path to enlightenment.
Our Great Master's Series is a guide to the works of each master, with a focus on what is available from Shambhala and Snow Lion Publications, though we will include important works that our friends at Wisdom Publications, KTD, and others are publishing.
The order below has been changed from how it has been presented elsewhere to that of a more chronological one, which interestingly reveals how these great minds were often contemporaneous with each other and focused on very different areas of thought in Buddhist philosophy.
1. Nagarjuna is considered the first of the seventeen panditas of Nalanda. While Western scholars generally assume there were two Nagarjunas separated by several centuries, received tradition holds him as a long-lived master who was critical in revealing the Mahayana teachings and sutras, elucidating the meaning of emptiness and the Madhyamaka view in particular, and being a great master of tantra. His works are typically divided into three groups: his praises, his speeches, and works on reasoning. His most famous text is from the latter category; entitled Treatise on the Middle Way, it is translated in The Ornament of Reason.
2. Aryadeva (3rd century) was Nagarjuna's student and while many Western scholars once again identify two, the Tibetan tradition identifies him as a single master, active in the third century CE. At Nalanda, he was famous for converting many followers of brahminism to the Buddhist view. He is also said to be identical with one of the 84 mahasiddhas, Karnari. He is most famous for his Four Hundred Stanzas of the Middle Way which is a commentary on Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way that explains the paths associated with conventional truths.