Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Tibetan Monastic Education
by Georges Dreyfus
January 1, 2001
Section 4 of 7

Debate

Procedures and Rules of Debate

Tibetan debates involve two parties: a defender (damchawadam bca’ ba), who answers, and a questioner (riklamparigs lams pa). The roles of defender and questioner imply very different commitments, as Daniel Perdue explains: “The defender puts forth assertions for which he is held accountable. The challenger raises qualms to the defender’s assertions and is not subject to reprisal for the questions he raises.”37 The responsibility of the defender is to put forth a true thesis and to defend it. Hence, the defender is accountable for the truth of his assertions. The questioner, on the contrary, is responsible only for the questions he puts forth. His questions must be well-articulated, must logically follow from the points already made, and must be relevant to defeating the defender. Their truth content is irrelevant, however, for his task is not to establish a thesis but to oblige the defender to contradict either previous statements or common sense.

The debate starts with a ritual invocation of Mañjuśrī, the celestial bodhisattva patron of wisdom: dhīḥ ji ltar chos can (pronounced “dhi jitar chöchen”). This invocation can be translated as “dhīḥ [the seed syllable of Mañjuśrī]; in just the way the subject.” Obviously, this statement is rather unclear and hence offers ample scope for various creative interpretations, as is often the case with ritual. Some scholars take the statement to mean “dhīḥ; in just the way [Mañjuśrī investigated] the subject.”38 Others, myself included, read it more simply as “dhīḥ; in just the way the subject [is investigated].” This invocation, however, also plays on the homophonic similarities of the syllable dhīḥ and this (di’di). Thus, the statement can also be heard as meaning “This is the way the subject is,” a statement that can be taken as having deeper implications (an explanation offered by Lati RinpochéBla ti rin po che). The subject, this, then refers to conventional objects and the predicate, is the subject, to the empty way in which they exist.

After this ritual invocation, the questioner proposes the topic of the debate in the form of a question, which seeks to elicit the defender’s thesis. The defender answers, stating his position. The questioner may then immediately begin the debate, or he may first seek auxiliary explanations to clarify the position of his adversary. The point of this crucial preparatory phase (jorwasbyor ba) is to establish a starting point for the debate, an area of agreement between the two parties. This may be one of the most delicate phases of an argument, especially if the two parties do not belong to the same tradition or monastery.

Such conflictual situations have long existed in the Buddhist tradition. In ancient India, debates pitched orthodox Hindu thinkers against their heterodox opponents (materialist, Jain, Ājīvika, or Buddhist). These debates, which had political ramifications, were often witnessed by the local authorities, and the stakes could be the conversion of one group to the views of the other. In Tibet, a similar debate is supposed to have taken place at the end of the eighth century when Kamalaśīla is said to have defeated the Chinese Chan monk Mo He Yan, thereby establishing the primacy of the Indian tradition.39 More recently, the young KhedrupMkhas grub is said to have debated and, according to GelukDge lugs accounts, defeated RongtönRong ston. Nowadays, such confrontations between scholars from different traditions are rare; they have been replaced among GelukpaDge lugs pas by debates between monasteries. Most debates take place within a single monastery, where the agreement between parties is easier to establish. Even then, however, fashioning that agreement is crucial and requires great skill. The questioner must dissimulate his real point and the defender must try to guess where his opponent wants to lead him.

Once the two parties believe that they agree on the understanding of the terms of the debate, the main part (ngözhidngos gzhi) can unfold through questions and answers.40 The questions are meant to draw out the consequences of the defender’s statements in order to oblige him to contradict himself or to take a blatantly absurd position. To succeed, the questioner must be able to take apart his opponent’s statements to draw out unwanted consequences. His opponent, the defender, must for his part attempt to block these contradictions by making further distinctions. In doing so, he must give one of the three allowable answers:41

  1. I accept (’dod).
  2. The reason is not established (ta madruprtags ma grub).
  3. There is no pervasion (khyappa majungkhyab pa ma byung).

These three answers derive from the link (or lack thereof) of the reason with the subject and the pseudo-predicate. The defender can say “I accept,” if he thinks that the consequence supports his position. Or he can say “the reason is not established,” when the reason does not correspond to the subject. For example, the consequence “It follows that all dogs are intelligent because they are primates” is faulty because dogs are not primates. Hence, the reason is not established. Or he can say “there is no pervasion” when the reason does not entail the pseudo-predicate as in the consequence “It follows that all dogs are primates because they are mammals.” In such a consequence, the reason is established but does not entail the pseudo-predicate. Or, to put it more literally, there is no pervasion.

As SapenSapaṇ noticed, these three answers differ from the Indian model. Most clearly a Tibetan invention is the third answer (there is no pervasion), which does not exist in Dharmakīrti’s debating tradition. There, defenders must make explicit whether the reason is contrary (gelwa’gal ba) or just uncertain (mangepama nges pa), that is, inconclusive. Thus defenders have four answers to choose from and need to make their response more specific.42 This difference illustrates the originality of Tibetan practices, which go beyond imitating Indian models in responding to the Tibetan context. Moreover, the failure of non-GelukDge lugs institutions to follow SapenSapaṇ’s recommendations regarding these answers shows again the domination of the SangpuGsang phu tradition of debate throughout the Tibetan world.

One of the three allowable answers must be given to all well-formed consequences. In order to be well-formed (like the examples above), a statement should contain three terms: a subject, a pseudo-predicate, and a reason. It should also avoid ambiguity. For example, if the questioner asks whether humans have male or female sexual organs, the defender will not be able to answer without disambiguating the subject (human). At that point, the defender must state his objection. In addition, consequences should not lead defenders into paradoxes (so judged by the rules of conversation). For example, consider the following question: “Did you bring back the computer you stole?” Such a statement cannot be answered straightforwardly without implying an admission of guilt. In all these cases, the defender should point to such a faulty formulation by saying, “the subject is faulty” (chöchen kyönchenchos can skyon can). But absent such faults, the defender has no choice. The ability to give one of the three allowable answers while making meaningful statements is a sign of a good defender. In difficult situations, defenders often try to muddle the situation and break the flow of consequences by saying, “What I really mean is. . .” These explanations are not accepted and reflect poorly on the defender. The questioner may reply, “No need to say much; just give one of the three answers.” Or he may mock the defender, pretending that his adversary is a great teacher about to give a sermon. In most cases, defenders are brought back, more or less gently, to the three answers.

Another element in debate is that defenders must answer quickly. Whenever a defender delays his answer, the questioner urges him on with rhythmic triple handclaps punctuated by the words “chirphyir, chirphyir, chirphyir” (i.e., chi chirci’i phyir, “why”). If this is a formal debate, the audience joins in, thus increasing the pressure on the defender. If the defender still does not answer, the questioner and the audience may start to tease him: “Are you here or are you absorbed in meditation?” If still nothing is forthcoming, the questioner either provides the required information himself or recasts his point in a simpler form. In this way, the debate is made so clear that the defender must answer. If he still cannot, a member of the audience is likely to step in and answer in his place. Such an outcome is humiliating for the defender, a sign that he is not up to the task.

It is in this framework that the debate unfolds strategically. The questioner tries to force his opponent either to contradict himself or to contradict common sense. To do so, he must be able to break down complex arguments into simple elements that can be expressed in a chain of well-formed consequences that follow each other logically. He must also keep track of the position of his adversary and where he wants to take him. The defender must figure out the questioner’s strategy and thwart his efforts, using only the three answers.

Let us take the example of a debate about the definition of impermanence, which is “that which is momentary.”43 The debate starts by delineating the agreement between both parties. The questioner may ask for further clarification, with such questions as “What does moment mean in this definition?” “Does it refer to a brief moment or to a longer one?” The defender may answer that the moment implied by momentary is brief. The questioner then proceeds to draw consequences, thinking that he has enough to go on. He may start, “It follows that things last only for a short moment since they are momentary.” This statement is framed to embody the defender’s answer concerning the meaning of momentariness and is considered the root consequence (tsawé telgyurrtsa ba’i thal ’gyur), which derives from the root thesis (tsawé damchartsa ba’i dam bca’) that the defender must be made to contradict.

The questioner proceeds by drawing out unwanted consequences intended to force the defender to give the no-pervasion answer that contradicts his explanation of the meaning of momentariness. For if the meaning of momentariness is to last only for a short moment, then being momentary must entail lasting for a short moment. To deny this and hold that there is no pervasion is thus tantamount to directly contradicting the thesis. Presented with the root consequence that embodies his view of the meaning of momentariness, the defender must try to thwart the questioner’s attempts by choosing the answer that he can defend and does not contradict his earlier point. In this example, he has one obvious choice: to assent to the consequence. The other possibility, the rejection of the reason as being not established, is less defensible, since it contradicts the fundamental Buddhist view that all things are momentary. And, as noted, saying that there is no pervasion would contradict his thesis concerning the meaning of momentariness. Hence, he will assent to the question, thereby agreeing with a classical interpretation of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. The questioner’s task is then to oblige the defender to back off from his acceptance of the root statement, forcing him to make the no-pervasion answer that contradicts his main thesis. To do so, the questioner will draw unwanted consequences from the defender’s position, pushing him to make counterintuitive statements until he reaches the point of absurdity. For example, the questioner will point to a mountain and state: “It follows that this mountain also lasts for a short moment since it is momentary.” If the defender still agrees, the questioner may point to the fact that it cannot exist just for a short moment since the mountain has been there for millions of years. He may also try to oblige his opponent to agree with blatantly counterintuitive statements. For example, he can ask: “Have you never seen any object lasting more than a moment? Have you never seen any object older than a moment? Have you never seen any person older than a moment?”44

Obliging the defender to make ridiculous statements is one of the ways for the questioner to gain the upper hand, forcing a reductio ad absurdum that can be seen as tantamount to a defeat of the defender. But although this way of ending the debate can be quite fun, it is not favored, for it is difficult to distinguish a blatant absurdity from an apparently counterintuitive but valid point. Hence, debaters prefer to end with their opponents’ self-contradiction. In our example, the defender may try to back away from the counterintuitive consequences that the questioner has drawn. He may agree that there are objects older than a moment. At this point, the questioner must take the defender back to his root statement and oblige him to contradict himself. He may state: “It follows that the mountain lasts for more than one moment, since it is older than a moment.” The questioner will try to resist; for example, he might attempt to make distinctions between “being older than” and “lasting for more than.” The defender must then try to block these attempts. If he succeeds, he will be able to take the defender back to his root statement, which he will restate: “It follows that things last only for a short moment since they are momentary.” At that point, the defender has an unenviable choice between two answers: reason not established and no-pervasion. The former implies the rejection of the fundamental Buddhistview that things are momentary. If he chooses this answer, a whole new debate starts. The questioner may try a rhetorical jab: “I thought you were a Buddhist!” But such a move can also backfire. The defender can turn the tables on the questioner, taunting him to establish this fundamental tenet: “I know what great masters such as Dharmakīrti would say. But let us see what you can do!” The questioner will then have to mount a new attack to oblige the defender to retract his rejection of this Buddhist tenet. If the questioner succeeds, the defender will have no other choice than to give the answer that here dooms him: “There is no pervasion.” This is the moment of triumph for the questioner, who will express his victory by saying: “the root thesis is finished (tsawé damcha tsarrtsa ba’i dam bca’ tshar)” or, more briefly, “oh, it’s finished (o tsaro’ tshar)”.45

This is the end of this debate, with the clear victory of the questioner. This victory is due to a direct contradiction between two statements and hence is easily detectable. Such clarity of outcome may explain why there is no formal role for a witness in Tibetan debates. Unlike Indian debates, which proceeded according to formal argumentative criteria on which a witness could adjudicate, Tibetan debates proceed through consequences aimed at exposing direct contradictions in the views of the defender. Detecting such contradictions does not require any special skills and hence the presence of a witness is not necessary.

Not all debates end in a defeat for the defender. Sometimes the questioner is unable to force the defender into contradicting himself and the debate ends in a stalemate. At other times, the defender gives an answer that establishes his view as being well-founded. In our example, the defender may succeed in maintaining that not all things are impermanent and hence escape contradicting himself. He might end his successful defense with a little rhetorical dig, marking his understanding that he has contradicted a basic Buddhist tenet for the sake of argument: “Fortunately, Dharmakīrti was smarter than you. If all Buddhists were like you, we would have long ago ceased to be Buddhist!” This is a clear victory for the defender, especially if he succeeds in making some good points in the process. Sometimes the debate ends abruptly when the questioner’s debate breaks down (taksel chértags bsal chad) and he is left without anything to say. When this happens in an individual debate, the embarrassment is minimal. But in a formal debate (damchadam bca’) the experience can be quite humiliating. The questioner may be left standing speechless in the midst of a large audience for a couple of extraordinarily painful minutes, until the abbot or the disciplinarian rescues him by bringing the debate to a merciful end. The defender may then make matters worse with a few unpleasant comments—for example, “You used to brag so much! Where is your debate now?” Most questioners manage to assert, often stammeringly, a few random consequences. However, it is clear to everyone that their debate has broken down and that they are just trying to avoid humiliation.

In the cases of such a victory or of a stalemate, there are no formal criteria according to which the debate can be adjudicated. For example, if the defender is ridiculed, there are no formal ways to determine what is ridiculous and what is not. The same is also true when the questioner’s debate simply fades away. In these cases, the outcome cannot be determined formally and hence there is little role for a witness. The outcome is left to the often conflicting opinions of participants and listeners. It is only in the case of a direct contradiction on the defender’s part that the outcome can be formally decided, a remarkable feature of Tibetan debates.

The Physicality of Tibetan Debates

One of the striking features of Tibetan debates is that they are quite physical. They are marked by emphatic gestures, such as the clapping used by the questioner to punctuate each question . The questioner holds his right hand above his right shoulder—a little over the head—and stretches his left hand forward, its palm turned upward. Then he strikes the palm of the left hand with the palm of his right and immediately crosses his arms before starting the movement all over again for the next question. These gestures are thought to have great symbolic value.46 The putting forward of the left hand symbolizes closing the doors of the lower states of rebirth. The coming together of the two hands symbolizes the union of the two aspects of the path, wisdom and method (i.e., compassionate actions). Drawing back the right hand marks one’s wish to liberate all sentient beings. Debaters are rarely aware of such symbolic meanings, however. For them, the gestures function primarily to stage debates, bringing them a clarity and a decisiveness that can help mobilize the intellectual capacities of the debaters and capture the attention of the audience.

There are also gestures used at more particular occasions. For example, when a respondent gives an answer that the questioner holds to be false, the latter must circle his opponent’s head three times with his right hand while screaming in a loud and shrill voice, “These are the three circles” (di khor sum’di ’khor gsum).47 In more formal settings, the whole crowd joins in with the questioner, thus subjecting the respondent to further psychological pressure. During geshédge bshes exams, when the respondent wears a hat to mark the solemnity of the occasion, the questioner can grab his opponent’s hat and circle the latter’s head with it three times to emphasize the mistake.48

Debate also involves prescribed modes of behavior. The debate starts, as I mentioned earlier, with a ritual invocation of Mañjuśrī (dhi jitar chöchendhīḥ ji ltar chos can) in a loud and high-pitched tone. The debater then puts his questions in a very low voice barely audible to the audience. During this initial phase, he also wears his upper robe (zengzan) in the usual way (covering the left shoulder and leaving the right bare). His gestures are contained and he often bends forward toward the defender, as a sign of humility and respect. For the parties to successfully engage with differing points of view, they must respect each other. But these gestures are also elements in the skillful strategy that debate requires. A good debater does not show his hand and does not raise expectations. Hence, he should start in a low key, masking his intentions and inducing a false sense of security in his adversary. It is only when the victim is trapped that he reveals his plan and ups the intensity. Then the initial show of respect takes on a retrospective irony, as is appropriate to this ludic and agonistic enterprise. When the questioner feels that the basis for the debate has been laid down and that he has enough material to demonstrate his opponent’s mistake, he wraps his upper robe around his waist, a sign of his understanding and control. Instead of bending forward, he stands tall and makes broad and forceful gestures, clapping his hands loudly to stress the power and decisiveness of his arguments. At that point, any pretense to humility is gone, replaced with self-assurance and self-confidence.

This decisiveness also involves some aggression. In its milder manifestations, it takes the form of loud clapping and vigorous verbal exchanges. Sometimes, however, things escalate and one party may start to taunt the other: “Come on, answer; you think you know so much, don’t you?” Things can get even more heated, and ridicule may follow. A skilled rhetorician can be devastatingly effective in a large public gathering, hurling a clever name that may stick to a person for the rest of his life. It is hard not to fall apart when one is ridiculed in front of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of scholars and students. Shoving matches are also common, when several people attempt to put their questions to the defender. Noisy demonstrations of victory and sarcasm to humiliate one’s opponents are often observed, particularly when the questioner has obliged the defender to contradict his basic point and expresses his victory by saying, “The root thesis is finished.” While saying this, he slaps his hand in a particular way. Instead of hitting one palm against the other, as in the usual accompaniment to every statement, he hits the back of the right hand against the left palm to signify that the defender has contradicted himself. In this psychologically intense moment, the questioner expresses his glee at crushing his adversary. Some take a sadistic pleasure in repeating “The root thesis is finished” several times, with sweeping gestures and humiliating comments. Stein describes a particularly colorful and graphic expression of victory: “The winner of the debate is borne in triumph on his colleagues’ shoulders, sometimes, it seems, humiliating the loser (in Sikkim, the loser has been known to get on all fours, with the winner riding on his back and spurring him on with his heels).”49 I have heard but never observed that on extremely rare occasions, respondents completely fall apart, disintegrating under the onslaught and sobbing out of control. At other times, people get really angry or vicious, creating enmity that can last a lifetime and poison the atmosphere around them. There are even reports of monks coming to blows.

How can Buddhist monks, who are supposed to be peaceful and detached, behave like this? Don’t such actions show that the soteriological claims of the tradition are merely pretense? As the earlier discussion of commentary has already shown, answering such questions is not a simple matter. The relation between soteriology and intellectual activities is complex and fraught with tension—but it is clearly not oppositional. Hence, explanations such as Sierskma’s thesis of “a conflict between Tibetan tradition and Buddhist religion” will not do.50

The Tibetan tradition is quite aware of the dangers of debate but sees them as counterbalanced by its benefits. Because debates are intensely physical, participants can give vent to considerable energy. Their exertions are heightened further by the performance involved in the debate, the theatrics of the respondent’s emphatic gestures (some people are very good at making fun of their opponents by their gestures), and occasional pokes and sharp words. Such performances enable debates to be appreciated by laypeople and uninformed monks, who take delight in the spectacle, despite their inability to follow the verbal parrying. Debaters make outrageous comments or look angry while debating, with the understanding that they are putting on a good show. As Sierskma’s informant explains, “We look angry when we are debating, but we are not angry. It is our custom. When one is only a beginner, one thinks that the snga-rgol (the questioners) are very, very angry and one is very, very ashamed. But when one has become a debater oneself, one knows that they are not angry and that it is a custom.”51 This performative aspect leads to intense emotional involvement—mere intellect is not powerful enough. As one scholar commented, the questions that debates deal with are so technical that it is not always possible to feel excited about their content alone. A little staging is helpful in producing enthusiasm and allowing participants to mobilize intellectual resources that otherwise would not be available. This intense physical and emotional involvement explains why Tibetan scholars love debate so much. They become excited when they talk about it and miss it once their training is finished. Older scholars often advise students to savor their times as debaters: “This is the best time in the life of a scholar. After this, all fades in comparison.”

Yet such intensity also can be dangerous. There are clear cases of monks using debate for the sole purpose of settling old scores or advancing their own ambitions. In twelve years of practicing debates, I have sometimes seen abuses committed. I have seen people attempting to wound and humiliate their adversaries or becoming genuinely angry. These cases are rare, however, and most debates reflect an honest interest in intellectual exchange.52 I have never seen blows exchanged or witnessed any of the other outrageous behaviors reported in the literature.53 But I have often heard teachers deploring these excesses and urging their students not to forget the real purpose of the exercise. The teachers also regretted the monks’ tendency to be too invested in immediate results. “Take the whole thing as an exercise, be open to being shown wrong, and you will learn,” was their unanimous advice. Although that advice was not always strictly followed, the overall tone of the debates showed that the attitude it reflected was dominant. As one of my teachers marveled, “Isn’t it great to have all these people displaying such engagement and even aggression within such a peaceful atmosphere? Isn’t this what the practice of Buddhism is all about?” I am not sure what to make of this last comment, for his description also captures the essence of good sporting competitions. But it does convey the overall atmosphere of debates, which are veritable intellectual sports.

The vigorous cultivation of a sharp mind also has other risks, such as encouraging pride and an inability to use the teaching for anything but self-aggrandizement. Mindful of these dangers, teachers often admonish their students to check and correct their motivations.54 Nevertheless, they are generally confident that the final result of this practice, the knowledge and insight developed by many students, will offset whatever real dangers and temptations accompany it. The teachers see no reason why something that is intellectually useful cannot be fun. One of their great accomplishments is to give life to a demanding intellectual inquiry into highly technical topics. Debate is for them “a mental sport [that] has the advantage of being most useful and delightful.”55 The enthusiastic responses of those, myself included, who have been privileged to have sufficient exposure to this discipline to understand it seem to support their confidence and testify to their pedagogical successes.

From this brief and necessarily simplified discussion, we can draw several conclusions. First, the character of debate is clearly dialogical. The course of this exchange between two parties is not determined in advance, for it depends on the choices of the participants. Second, debate is a game that is oriented toward winning an argument. The goal of the questioner is to draw the defender into contradicting either himself or common sense. Similarly, the goal of the defender is to ward off unwanted consequences, thereby escaping the questioner’s line of argument. Third, like other games, debate is intensely strategic. Each party must try to take his adversary along, either by the power of the arguments used or by lawful tricks. Good debaters keep in mind their target, remembering the starting point and the intermediary arguments. Fourth, debate is complex and instructive. Because it involves making and remembering many choices and distinctions, it requires intense concentration. It is also intellectually challenging, demanding clarity of mind and strong analytical skills. Participants and audience often learn something new from the debate. One of the marks of a good defender is his ability to provide insights into his topic without compromising the strength of his positions. Fifth, debate is performative and fun, because the discussion is enlivened by physical gestures, the intensity and rhetorical skills of the participants, and the influence of the audience. A good debate is akin to a theatrical event. It is full of surprises, with either party apt to outdo the other and escape from seemingly hopeless situations by making new and more subtle distinctions. It is indeed a thrilling intellectual sport, highly appreciated by students, established scholars, and even laypeople. And finally, a Tibetan debate is (at least ideally) impressive for its orderliness and clarity. questioner and defender have clear roles, and the alternation of questions and answers is easy to follow. This clarity is greatly enhanced by the very strict rules that a debate must follow. For, like any other game, debate follows rules that determine its nature. These rules limit rather narrowly the participants’ moves and provide standards for appraising arguments. They also impose order, enabling debate to avoid the confusion that often mars ordinary arguments. But this clarity has its limits, for the practice of debate cannot be fully captured by any formula.

The Schedule of Debating Institutions

The importance of debate in the GelukDge lugs tradition should by now be quite clear. Our investigation is far from complete, however, for we have yet to examine its practical modalities—the schedule that structures such a practice and the ways it was organized. In discussing the schedule of the three GelukDge lugs seats [GandenDga’ ldan, SeraSe ra and Drepung’Bras spungs, JIC], we need to recognize the differences between premodern Tibet and exile. The fundamental distinction drawn in Tibet between debate sessions (chötokchos thog) and debate breaks (chötsamchos mtshams) is less marked in exile. In Tibet, there were eight debate sessions in the year, which alternated with eight breaks.56 During the sessions, students debated; during the breaks, they memorized and studied commentaries with their teachers. Five sessions would last one month, and three a fortnight, while seven of the eight breaks lasted from five to fifteen days; the great debate break during summer retreat lasted a month and a half. The rest of the time was apportioned to a variety of celebrations, such as the New Year and the Great Prayer festival. Each of the debate sessions had prescribed topics that students had to cover.57

An exact pre-1959 schedule is hard to reconstruct, for few Tibetan monks then had watches. Hence, accounts tend to be vague. Moreover, the precise times of activities may have also been influenced by various circumstances (the season, festivities, etc.). Nevertheless, Geshé Rabten offers the following schedule for debate sessions in the Byes monastery of SeraSe ra:58

5:30-7:00 General assembly
7:00-10:00 Morning debate
10:00-11:00 Monastery assembly
11:00-13:00 Noon debate
13:00-13:30 Lunch
14:00-16:00 Afternoon debate
16:00-17:00 Evening assembly
17:00-19:00 Evening prayer and short debate
19:00-20:00 Teaching
20:30-21:30 Night debate
22:00-23:00 Recitation

Though the schedule in other monasteries was probably slightly different, its rhythm was similar, as debate alternated with ritual. Monks would start the day with the morning prayer in the great assembly hall (tsokchentshogs chen) of the monastic seat (here SeraSe ra), where they would pray and receive tea (hence the name of this prayer, mangjadmangs ja: i.e., “common tea”). Rich sponsors might provide food and money. After that, they alternated debates and more prayer sessions. At noon, they would go to the assembly hall of the monastery (here Byes). There they were given tea—and perhaps food and money, if the donor was generous. If there was a sponsor, an assembly would be held in the evening. Otherwise, monks had to provide for their own evening tea and food (if they ate).59 After the evening assembly, the evening prayer took place. This ritual usually lasted at least two hours, as long as or even longer than the evening debates. The night then went on with debate, classes, and recitations.60

Examinations and the Organization of Debate

The practical organization of debate in exile has undergone changes, though its overall structure has remained the same. Debate is still carried on in the courtyard, where monks confront each other in two ways:

In the individual debate (tsödartsod zla; lit., “debate with a partner”), monks pair with each other, one standing and playing the role of the questioner, and the other sitting down and playing the role of the defender. Before ending the encounter, they may switch roles. If the debate goes well, it can last for a while and attract other monks who have finished their individual debates. As the debate continues (sometimes for hours), the surrounding circle grows. Some observers may jump in on one side or the other. This is a time of high excitement for the debating pair who find themselves enveloped by tens and sometimes hundreds of monks listening attentively.

In the formal debate (damchadam bca’; lit., “defense”), the entire group focuses on a single debate. One or two students sit as defenders while the others sit in rows facing the empty space in front of the answerer(s). A student stands, moves into this empty space, and starts the debate, knowing that the whole group will support him. If he gets stuck, those in the audience can jump in and help him. Thus, in a formal debate, all who are present can question one or two defenders, who must stand alone. As we will see, this exercise is quite difficult when a large crowd is involved, as during the geshédge bshes exam. On such occasions, the candidate’s ability as a defender is tested to its limit.

Monks move through such practices in an organized and systematic fashion. They follow a prescribed curriculum in a set order, the studies being organized by classes, or cohorts. When a student starts his studies, he enters into a class of students, who study a set number of topics per year. They start together with the Collected Topics and move on to the study of the five texts, each topic being studied at the prescribed time by all the members of the class. Each year, the class moves ahead with all of its members. In Sera JéSe ra byes, there are fifteen classes:

Classes 1-3 Collected Topics (beginning, intermediate, and advanced; i.e., düchungbsdus chung, düdringbsdus ’bring, and düchenbsdus chen)
Classes 4-8 The Ornament61
Classes 9-10 Madhyamaka (beginning and advanced)
Classes 11-12 Vinaya (beginning and advanced)
Class 13 Abhidharma
Class 14 Karambka’ rams (review of both Vinaya and Abhidharma)
Class 15 Lharamlha rams (review of the whole curriculum in preparation for the geshédge bshes exam)

Each class chooses a reciting leader (kyorpönskyor dpon), who is responsible for organizing collective debates and memorizing the prescribed texts at ritual occasions.62 This reciting leader also ensures that students debate the designated subject at the proper time. Because students of the same class debate with each other every day, they spend a great deal of time with members of their cohort. For example, every day of the debate session (discussed above), monks debate collectively with their classmates, as each class engages in one formal debate. Larger collective debates involving the whole monastery or even the whole seat are done only on formal occasions, usually at examination time. When students debate individually, often young monks will seek older students to test their skills. It is considered poor form for a senior to refuse to answer a younger monk.

A given class does not share the same teacher, for each student may choose his own. This diversity is a good thing for the class, as different teachers express conflicting views, which give rise to further debate. It also drives home the point that the teachers’ opinions cannot be taken as authoritative. In a debate, saying “This is so because my teacher said so” is considered tantamount to admitting that one lacks any ability to think for oneself. Reasonings or texts, not people, are held to be definitive.

Tibetan scholars permit the quotation of texts in debate, if a questioner is unable to make his point purely on the strength of his arguments. He may say, for instance, that compassion is the loving attitude that wishes sentient beings to be free from suffering because this is stated by such-and-such an authoritative thinker (usually the author of the manual of the monastery, or TsongkhapaTsong kha pa and his disciples). Such an argument is allowed and used quite frequently in debates, even though it blatantly violates a basic rule of Buddhist logic: a citation cannot be used to prove a fact that can be established otherwise…

Although Tibetan scholars accept the use of quotes in debate on all topics, they disagree on the value of such a move. This disagreement parallels their different understandings of the role of debate. Some scholars see debate mostly as a pedagogical tool useful for internalizing the content of the great texts. For them, the use of a quote is perfectly legitimate in that it helps students commit the tradition to memory. Others see debate as a means of intellectual inquiry in its own right. Hence, they prefer an argument to a quote, as the use of the quote reveals the weakness of the debater’s position. Moreover, using a quote in a debate is not as strong a move as one may think, for it is often possible for the defender to interpret away the quote by providing a convenient gloss.

In pre-1959 Tibet, scholastic studies were optional and reserved for those who were really committed.63 Beginners could expect to start with several hundred students in their cohort. By the end, ten or fifteen would be left. Every year, many students would leave, either going back to their native province or settling for the more leisurely life of a nonscholar monk. On the other hand, monks who were interested in studying could expect to be able to continue if they were reasonably diligent—particularly since most examinations precluded the possibility of failure. A student might never reach a given examination, but once he did he was assured of a positive outcome, regardless of his performance.

There was no system of yearly examinations and the assessment of knowledge was not very effective. Students would be promoted regardless of their scholarly progress. Only at certain crucial junctures would they be examined. These examinations differed among the monasteries, according to the customs of each institution. The student’s first examination demonstrated that his memorization of his monastery’s prescribed ritual texts had qualified him to start his scholastic study. The next trial came several years later, at the end of the studies of the Collected Topics, when he would sit in a formal debate in front of his regional house. But as was often the case in examinations, there was no question of failing. Not every student would be examined; and when a candidate did poorly, more seasoned scholars would answer for him, suggesting that the main point was not to demonstrate possession of knowledge but to signify a ritual passage from one stage of study to the next.

When the student was well into the study of the Ornament, he would again be examined in ways that varied among different monasteries. At Sera JéSe ra byes, for instance, students were tested on their memorization and examined through debates while studying the Ornament in the second class devoted to this text.64 The better students would then be given the opportunity to take part in a special ceremonial debate in front of the whole monastery called the small reasoning (rikchungrigs chung). During this debate, for which they prepared with great care, students would be paired, one debating and the other answering. The debate was preceded by preliminary examinations in the form of formal debates in the different regional houses. Other monasteries, including GomangSgo mang and LosellingBlo gsal gling, emphasized the Small Reasoning less and debate between classes more. The main exam concerning the Ornament would consist of debates between the classes studying this text. On this formal occasion, the debate would be started by the recitation leader, who oversaw the whole procedure. But here again, not every student was examined. Many would sit through these proceedings without saying very much, leaving the task of dealing with the other class to their more active colleagues.65

In exile, the trend has been toward a more rationalized system in which the progress of individuals can be more tightly monitored. Unlike in premodern Tibet, where even in the great monastic seats only a minority of monks would study, in exile most now study. Accordingly, students are tested yearly on their memorization and their debates. A written examination, which is taking on increasing importance, has also been instituted. Students can be and are failed, although that outcome is still relatively rare. A similar system also exists at the Buddhist School of Dialectics and other smaller institutions, where students are examined on a regular basis. Even Tibetan monks find it difficult to escape the iron cage of modernity!


[37] Perdue, Debate in Tibetan Buddhism, 28.
[38] So Perdue puts it: “dhīḥ! The subject, in just the way [mañjuśrī debated]” (Debate in Tibetan Buddhism, 103).
[39] See D. S. Ruegg, Buddha-nature, Mind, and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective: On the Transmission and Reception of Buddhism in India and Tibet (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1989).
[40] SapenSapaṇ differentiates three phases in debate: a preparation (jorwasbyor ba) in which the two proponents seek a common basis, the main part (ngözhidngos gzhi) of the debate, and the conclusion (jukmjug) during which the witness summarizes the argument and establishes the winner (C. Beckwith, “The Medieval Scholastic Method in Tibet and in the West,” in Reflections on Tibetan Culture: Essays in Memory of Turrell V. Wylie, ed. L. Epstein and R. Sherburne [Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellon Press, 1990], 307-13). In actual Tibetan debates, the third element is absent since there is no witness.
[41] The three answers concern complete statements containing three terms (subject, pseudo-predicate, and reason). In the GelukDge lugs tradition, an incomplete consequence is allowable. Consider this statement: “It follows that the subject, a mountain, lasts only for a short instant.” Such a statement has only two parts, but is nonetheless considered well-formed since it allows a straightforward answer. An incomplete statement can be answered in two ways: either by accepting (’dod; lit., “[I] accept”) or by refusing (ci’i phyirci’i phyir; lit., “why”) it. In our example, these answers mean: I accept that the mountain lasts only for a short instant; or, I do not accept that the mountain lasts only for a short instant. If the latter answer is given, the rigs lams pa can immediately state the incomplete consequence: “It follows that the subject, the mountain, does not last only for a short instant.” The only possible answer to such a consequence is positive; any other is considered a breach of rules of rational discourse. Because other traditions have reconstituted their practice of debate by imitating GelukDge lugs practices, they follow this usage. Shākya ChokdenShākya mchog ldan seems to disagree with this practice, however, arguing that only three-part consequences should be used.
[42] David P. Jackson, Entrance Gate for the Wise (Section III) (Wien: Arbeitskreis für tibetische und buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 1987), 361.
[43] Perdue, Debate in Tibetan Buddhism, 275.
[44] The defender is in a difficult position in this debate. Non-GelukDge lugs scholars would answer such a claim, which is often presented by GelukDge lugs scholars as a refutation of their views, by making a quasi-Humean distinction between the domain of reality, where duration does not exist, and the conceptual domain, where duration is necessary. In reality, there is no duration—only a succession of similar moments that create the false but useful impression that things last. True to their moderate realism, the GelukDge lugs tradition understands momentariness in a more commonsensical way. For them, a phenomenon is momentary not because it lasts only a moment but because it is composed of temporal parts and hence is in constant transformation. On these differences in the understanding of the concepts of impermanence and momentariness, see Dreyfus, Recognizing Reality, 63-65, 106-16.
[45] The exact meaning of the statement o tsaro’ tshar is not easy to establish. I have it as “Oh, it’s finished,” where oo’ is taken as an interjection. It could also be taken as directed at the opponent
[46] For a description of the symbolism of monastic gestures, see Geshe Rabten, The Life and Teaching of Geshé Rabten: A Tibetan Lama’s Search for Truth, trans. and ed. B. A. Wallace (London: Allen and Unwin, 1980), 12-24.
[47] The “three circles” refer to three conditions that the consequence must satisfy to checkmate the respondent. In the example “It follows that the subject, the sound, is not produced since it is permanent,” such a consequence is appropriate only to a person who fulfills three conditions: he admits that the sound is permanent, holds that whatever is permanent is not produced, and holds that the sound is produced. Such a person has completed the three circles and hence cannot give a correct answer without contradicting himself. In practice, the expression is used to signal any mistake in the respondent’s answer and not just the ones that satisfy these three criteria.
[48] Rules govern how the respondent wears his hat. When the topic is introduced, the respondent takes his hat off out of respect for the debater, holding it until the basis for the debate has been laid out. He then puts the hat on again, a sign that he has mastered the topic and is ready to answer. Should he lose, however, the respondent has to take his hat off, admitting his defeat. If he does not do so, the questioner may grab the hat himself.
[49] R.A. Stein, Tibetan Civilization, trans. by J.E. Stapleton Driver (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972), 161.
[50] Sierskma, F., “rTsod pa: The Monachal Disputation in Tibet,” Indo-Iranian Journal 8 (1964), 141.
[51] Sierskma, “rTsod pa,” 140. Unfortunately, Sierskma does not take his informants’ comments seriously; he elaborates his own far-fetched theory of debate as a non-Buddhist element in Tibetan culture, ignoring the rich Indian dialectical tradition.
[52] One hesitates to call the motives of debaters “pure.” Monks, like most people, act for complex reasons. Serious intellectual and religious interests do not exclude personal dislikes and ambitions. Knowing this, teachers do not object to ambition as long as it does not become a student’s main preoccupation.
[53] Sierskma, “rTsod pa,” 139-41.
[54] Motivation is obviously important, but it is also highly individual and volatile. Some students remain driven throughout their studies by personal ambitions. This was particularly common in Tibet, where a title of geshédge bshes could lead to considerable power. Others lose such worldly ambitions during their studies, while still others acquire them at the monastery. Lati RinpochéBla ti rin po che used to comment on how the exile changed the perspective of many. Some who were good scholars lost interest in studying, perhaps realizing that their ambitions had become unattainable or perhaps becoming interested in the new possibilities of the modern world. Conversely, others became much better scholars in exile, realizing the fragilities of worldly goods. In any case, we must recognize both the importance and the complexity of motivation.
[55] Sierskma, “rTsod pa,” 140. Sierskma is here quoting an informant, not expressing his own opinion.
[56] Lozang GyatsoBlo bzang rgya mtsho gives the following yearly schedule (in Tibetan dates) for LosellingBlo gsal gling (Gyatso, Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama, trans. and ed. G. Sparham [Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1998], 84):
1.1-1.4 New Year
1.5-1.25 Great Prayer
1.26-1.30 Break
2.1-2.15 Debate
2.16-2.20 Break
2.21-2.30 Small Prayer (TsokchöTshogs chos)
3.1-3.30 Break and Great Spring Debate Session (Chichö ChenmoDpyid chos chen mo)
4.1-4.10 Break
4.11-4.30 Debate
5.1-5.15 Break
5.16-6.15 Great Summer Debate Session (Yarchö ChenmoDbyar chos chen mo)
6.16-8.1 Summer Retreat
8.2-9.1 Fall Debate Session (TönchöSton chos)
9.2-9.15 Break
9.16-9.30 Debate
10.1-10.15 Break
10.16-10.30 Debate
11.1-11.15 Break
11.16-12.15 Winter Debate at Jang (Jang Dünchö’Jang gdun chos)
12.22-12.30 Maitreya Prayer (JamchöByams mchod)

This is only, however, the skeleton in which many other events were integrated. For example, the Great Summer Debate Session at Sera JéSe ra byes would last from 5.16 to 6.15. During this time, many events took place:

5.16-17 Formal debates during the period of wood begging (shinglongshing slong; i.e., the period during which monks would have been allowed to leave the monastery to beg for wood and other necessities)
5.20-21 Examination for geshédge bsheslingségling bsre
5.22-23 Examination for geshédge bshesrikramrigs rams
5.24 Recitation of the Constitution (Tsoktam Chenmotshogs gtam chen mo)
5.25 Reading of the Canon in the morning
5.30 Special Ritual Day
6.2-3 Ceremonial Recitation
6.15 Special Ritual Day
6.16 End of the Summer Session and Beginning of Break

As one can see, monks kept quite busy! See Byang chub lam rim chen mo dang ’brel ba’i ser byes mkhas

[57] For example, Welmang Könchok GyeltsenDbal mang dkon mchog rgyal mtshan explains the schedule of his monastery, Amchok Ganden Chönkhor LingA mchog dga’ ldan chos ’khor gling, in Dga’ ldan chos ’khor gling gi mtshan nyid grwa tshad (tshang?) thos bsam gling gi rtsod pa byed tshul legs par bshad pa, in Collected Works (Delhi: Gyaltan Gelek Namgyal, 1974), 7: 586: “At first, one studies the Prajñā pāramitā literature in this way: During the winter session of the first year one achieves the Homage [of the Ornament] and begins [the chapter on] the Charioteers. During the first spring session one finishes [the chapter on] the Charioteers. During the second spring session one finishes [the presentation of] of the inferior and middling persons.”
thog mar phar phyin la slob gnyer byed tshul ni lo dang po’i dgun chos la mchod brjod rdzogs nas shing rta’i srol byed tshugs dpyid chos dang po la shing rta’i srol byed rdzogs dpyid chos gnyis pa la skyes bu chung ’bring rdzogs
[58] Rabten, The Life and Teaching, 50.
[59] Buddhist monks are not supposed to eat in the evening, but most Tibetan monks ignore this rule.
[60] Gen Lozang GyatsoRgan Blo bzang rgya mtsho suggests this schedule for LosellingBlo gsal gling (Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama, 70-72):
6:00-8:00 General Assembly
8:00-8:45 Morning monastery assembly
9:00-11:00 Regional house assembly where at least tea would be provided
11:00-13:00 Pause for study in one’s room or with teacher
13:00-16:00 Afternoon debate
16:00-17:00 Evening assembly
17:00-18:00 Break for study in one’s room or with teacher
18:00-20:00 Evening prayer
20:00-23:00 Night debate or recitation for younger monks not yet allowed to debate
[61] The four classes on the Ornament are beginning and advanced treatises (zhung sarnyinggzhung gsar rnying), and beginning and advanced separate topics (zurkö sarnyingzur bkod gsar rnying). See Rabten, The Life and Teaching, 38, and Chatrim ChenmoBca’ khrims chen mo, 83-84.
[62] The name “reciting leader” comes from the function of this class leader during the recitations (tsipzhakrtsib bzhag): the abbot recites by heart the appropriate passages from the monastery’s manuals, and the reciting leader must then repeat each passage. This recitation is nowadays purely ceremonial, a reminder of the times when the manuals were not codified and the abbot would give his own commentary. Then, the reciting leader would have received this teaching and shared it with his classmates.
[63] Gyatso, Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama, 88.
[64] The second class devoted to the Ornament is called zhungnyinggzhung rnying (lit., “Old Treatise”).
[65] Blo gros, ’Bras spungs chos ’byung, 245.
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Tibetan Monastic Education, by Georges Dreyfus