Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

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

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.


[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.
#!essay=/dreyfus/drepung/monasticed/
Tibetan Monastic Education, by Georges Dreyfus