My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Conundrums

Bing bang boom, a second week of the course is done and we have already severed a casualty. Last week when our course started Gen Lodoe la had selected a class monitor to be responsible for the various doings that need to be done by the class. Well with reason known to no one or to a few who are unwilling to say, our class monitor done packed he bags and split. I was a bit sad that he had left; thus far he was a good disciplinarian, keeping our young monks in check. He had the correct demeanor one would expect out of such a figure. And so we had to elect another, who is a nice guy and I hope that he will prove himself but thus far he is a bit of a pushover. I have a feeling that another monk will come in the near future. We did gain a new lay student from Taiwan, poor guy has only been studying Tibetan for about less than two months and he seems very diligent, so I hope that he will be able to catch up. I do have my doubts though for many of us who have been studying Tibetan for 2 or more years are finding this course quite difficult. But that does not mean that it cannot be done, I have met and heard of folks who have done it, those who are diligent and have an affinity for brightness.

And thus, our second week has started and we can already see those students who have been showing the early signs of good reasoning powers. May be some of them have studied before but if they had then not that much but enough to cause one’s head to spin when engaged in debate with them. In class our Morpheus-like teacher who leads us down the rabbit hole of elementary Buddhist reasoning will set up the most difficult conundrums for us at of the most seemingly simple questions. Those students who are showing some talent in class are being shot down left and right by Gen la’s sharp yet relaxed analytical skill. There is a saying in Tibetan, arguing with a Geshe, here being Gen la, is like banging one’s head against a wooden board, thus meaning that you can just forget about winning that argument. Many of these conundrums have to do with making the distinction between the world of casual conversation and the world of logic. There are many paradigm debates that we run through; debates that I feel have been debated on for time immemorial in Tibet. These initial debates at this point have little if anything to do with Buddhist soteriology for the point is to train one’s reasoning skills to the point where these more difficult and abstract topics can be properly tackled.

And so, we have the white horse debate, in which we actually debate whether a white horse is white or not. The first time I heard that Tibetan monks spent hours debating this; I thought that this must be the silliest thing ever to debate about. It is like the joke we use to tell each other in elementary school, “What is the color of George Washington’s white horse?” and the not so bright one sits there wide-eyed trying to figure the color of George Washington’s white horse. It is quite a fun thing to debate about actually since it is not very deep and it helps one to run through the reasoning process. So what’s the gig then? Is it white or not? The proper answer is no! According to the Buddhist philosophical position (rang lugs) that we are studying, do de pa (mdo sde pa) in Tibetan/Sautrantika in Sanskrit, a white horse is not white because it is a person. Now a clarification needs to be mentioned here. It this system and probably in Buddhism in general a person is any “being who is imputed in dependence upon the any of the five aggregates” which is the tsan nyid (mtshan nyid), characteristics, of a person. The five aggregate that make up a person are the aggregates of form, feeling, cognition, formatives and consciousness. And so a human being, which we would have considered a person is also accompanied by animals, for though animal might not have cognition they probably have the rest and according to our tsan nyid then it is a person.

A person and a color are mutually exclusive being that there is nothing that “is” both. Here meaning that a horse “possesses” the color white but “is” not the color white. Color falls under a heading called form, and horse which is a person falls under non-associated compositional factors. Since these two shares no common locus, then white which falls under form, and horse which falls under non-associated compositional factors, are also mutually exclusive. It is proper to say that “the color” of a white horse is white, for then one is clearer in their assertions. One of the points of this kind of exercise it to train the student between the distinctions of everyday life, in which our colloquial speech serves different functions and purposes, and one of philosophical inquiry where the simple statement of a white horse being white does not hold true. Some students have been able to make this distinction very quickly while others are struggling with it. If I were to walk down a street in Manhattan and ask the first suit that I saw that a white horse is not white, he’ll probably laugh at me or think that I am some nutcase. Many such conundrums have been presented to us by Gen la that leaves our heads straining trying to figure out the answer.

I have noticed a slight improvement in my understanding, with a huge emphasis on slight. Gen la told us that it will take many of us awhile to get accustomed to this process, meaning years. Anyways, we had our first group debate last Friday, called a dam cha (dam bca’), literally meaning thesis. In a previous blog entry I had described a dam cha of the previous class that I had attended. Since we are beginners, we debate amongst ourselves and then later we will invite students from the upper class to debate with us. These dam chas pretty much puts all of us against each other and at first it is tough but has I have seen with the advanced students that after years and years of debating each other that no hard feelings are kept. As in contrast to what I have heard about Law school, where some pretty malicious happenings comes about due to the high level of competition placed on the students. It does not mean that things do not get out of hand, for they do, but supposedly these situations are few and far apart.

Our class was divided in three groups and each group had to send two defenders to another group and the group that they went to will then proceed to engage them in debate. Our group was not happening as compared to the other groups, many of us are shy or feeling that we do not know enough, so my group suffered due to shyness. But of course with time we will get better and probably all of us will have our egos smashed to bits when we have dam cha’s with the advanced students. Once again, I hope that due to the subject matter that this blog entry is not too horrendously boring.

Pax

1 comment:

Drew said...

Yo Wendell it's Drew from the Miami group, I just stumbled onto this while searching for stuff about Sarah and all that. Congratulations on getting into the Buddhism class man, I guess you'll be in Dharamsala for 6 more years or so then.

Excellent description of the white horse debate by the way, someone tried to explain that to me while I was there and I just thought, "well of course it's white". I get it now, good stuff.