Debate Tibetan Style – 2019

The shady courtyard of Sera Monastery hums with energy as dozens of maroon-robed monks pair off in philosophical debate. One defends a proposition calmly, seated cross-legged on the ground. The other stands; challenging animatedly, concluding each argument with a dramatic sweep of the arms and a stamp of a foot. It looks like some sort of exotic scholastic Tai Chi, and perhaps in some ways it is. But it also has lessons to offer on critical thinking in a world awash with digitally-proliferated information misinformation, disinformation, opinion and downright lies.

Rulers and Religion
The Chinese Communist rulers tolerate such traditional Buddhist practices as harmless tourist attractions, presenting an aura of tolerance to the outside world. But humourless autocrats can be amusing when they fail to recognize irony, and the old men leading the Communist Party are no exception. Although the Dalai Lama, for example, has been stating since the 1970s that he accepts Tibet being an “Autonomous Region” within China as long as the autonomy is genuine, the Party fears his influence, quick wit and deep thinking. He is vilified as a “splittist” and even his picture is banned. He is barred from ever returning to Tibet, whether in this life or the next so, as a precaution, forward-thinking bureaucrats of the officially atheist Party have established “Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas” (State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, 18 July 2007). Honestly, you just couldn’t make that up! Fortunately there is common ground between rulers and ruled in the concept of dialectic (“testing of truth by discussion; logical disputation or argument”), which is a pillar of Communist Party theory as well as of Tibetan monastic practice.

The Debates
Although the choreography of these debates may appear strange to an outsider, there is deep wisdom in it. The aim for the seated defender is to maintain a placid mind and give logical, consistent responses to a challenger. The challenger remains on his (or her) feet – nuns practice this too – pressing home each conclusion with a smooth combination of a clap of the hands, stamp of a foot, thrust of an arm toward the defender and swoop of a garland (mala) of beads around the left arm. The debate continues until either the defender or challenger contradict themselves. It’s a fascinating dialectical exercise in both rigorous logic, quick thinking and maintaining equanimity in dispute.

The gestures are all symbolic and the process highly structured. A proposition is to be debated (‘if’, therefore ‘that’). The challenger must follow prescribed patterns of logic and gestures. The right hand represents ‘method’ and the left hand represents ‘wisdom’, so clapping them together signifies that the two have been joined by that line of reasoning. Stamping the left foot on the ground at the same time symbolizes slamming shut the door that leads to reincarnation at lower levels of existence, while thrusting an arm forward signifies keeping it firmly shut. A final sweeping of beads around the left shoulder is a reminder of the compassionate effort required to free all living beings from the constant round of rebirth. The defender must respond in a similarly structured reply: either accepting the point or else demanding a reason, arguing that the reason is ‘not established’ or showing that the thesis doesn’t follow from it.

Tibetan public monastic debate is more than just an interesting cultural performance. It has something to teach about building confidence and honing habits of quick, critical, logical thinking. Perhaps it might be fun to introduce it as an educational game in Canadian schools. Better yet, wouldn’t it be an enlightening way to stage future political leadership debates. It would make a refreshing change from candidates standing woodenly behind podiums, pretending not to be checking briefing notes while reciting well-rehearsed talking points. Imagine the scene – “Humans have been pumping excessive CO2 into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, therefore your party’s policy platform is irresponsible in failing to address climate change!” – clap, stomp, point, toss beads over the shoulder and await a reasoned response. It would certainly make for better TV.

Tibetan monks debating at Sera monastery.
Photo courtesy of Wikemidia Commons. Feature photo at the top by Eve McDermott