Great Indo-Tibetan Buddhist institutions of higher learning such as Nālandā in India and our namesake, Samye, offered training in the “five major sciences”. These five primary divisions of study are also known as the five “classic sciences”.
In addition, students also were offered instruction in the “five minor sciences” known as the “ordinary sciences”. These included
Prosody (metre and sound)
Lexicography (compiling of dictionaries, the study of synonyms)
Why were these topics considered important? The Sūtra of Great Skillful Means Repaying (The Buddha) with Gratitude (Thabs mkhas pa drin lan bsab pa’i mdo) addresses each aspect of study in turn. 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. Bodhisattvas studied the five ordinary sciences so that they could perfect and attain pristine cognition (ye shes kyi tshogs).
Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (Kong-sprul Blo-gros-mthaʼ-yas) wrote
“Grammar and logic eradicate wrong understandings of word and meaning. Fine arts and medicine bring into the fold [students] seeking both general and particular [skills]. The inner science [Buddhist philosophy] brings about an understanding of all aspects of the path to omniscience”.
With that vision, Samye Institute seeks to present the five classic sciences so as to fulfil the mission Kongtrul describes of
Eradicating wrong understanding
Bringing seekers into the fold
Teaching that through which one attains omniscience.