My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Sunday, March 21, 2010


My first week of class is over and I sit here trying to digest the experiences and sensations from my previous week as a neophyte Buddhist philosophy student, potentially perspective “Smack Master”. Our first day of class was on Monday, the ides of March, the day of the infamous coup against Roman Empire Julius Caesar. All of the students were told to bring three khatas (Tibetan silk scarves used for offerings, welcoming, etc) and to go to the temple. Our teacher, Gen Lodoe la, had us offer the khatas, one on the throne of the HHDL and another one to the Shakyamuni Buddha. Then we all went to our classroom, which was the apartment of the HHDL, which he used only once when he inaugurated Sarah College back in the day. This classroom is on the top floor of the main office/temple/library building located in the center of campus.

Once situated, Gen Lodoe la proceeded to call roll asking where everyone was from. One thing that is apparent about our class is that there are only 4 Tibetans; most of the monks are from Ladakh, Spiti, and Arunachel Pradesh. Folks from the Arunacheli/ Tibetan border region are called Monpa. Gen Lodoe la would be calling out a monk’s name and he’ll say, “Are you Tibetan?” “No, I am Monpa, or Ladakhpa, etc”. Now the folks from these areas are Tibetan by race, their dialect is a Tibetan dialect and way back in the day they were a part of Tibet or had connections with Tibet. For example, the 6th Dalai Lama, Rinchen Tsang yang Gyatso was born in what is now Arunchel Pradesh. After talking with some of these monks, though they know their own dialect, many are not comfortable with speaking Central Tibetan dialect which is the dialect most widely spoken at Sarah College. Seems like most of them, following the traditional monastic way of learning, know how to perform various rituals, which require lots and lots of memorization. That is usually what a young monk learns first from childhood up until his late teens, and then after that, some learn philosophy. I have heard with the recent Chinese tightening of the Nepalese-Tibetan border since the protests in Lhasa and around other areas of Tibet in the spring of ’08 that not as many monks and nuns are escaping from Tibet. The three huge monastic seats in South India, Ganden, Sera and Drepung are accustomed to receiving each, several hundred monks a year, now the rumor is that they are struggling to scrape together even ten or twenty monks. I think that they are not the only monasteries facing this problem. Even the Tibetan Children Village, a primary modern educational school system for exile Tibetans, is not receiving nearly the amount of kids from Tibet that they have received in the past. These days Tibetan families who have been in exile for awhile are not willing to send their kids to the monasteries when then there is the option for their children to have a modern education. There are some monks who are totally born and bred in exile, but that is no way near enough to fill up a monastery.

Gen Lodoe la laid down the rule of the class, and our schedule. There are some things that are mandatory that everyone must do. He selected our class monitor who is in charged to make sure that everything gets done. We have cleaning duties on Saturday, which is always a half day unless it is a second Saturday which we have off. If we need to excuse ourselves from class for any other reasons besides medical and visiting the Foreign Registration Office, we need to have an official permission to be absent slip and even with that we are fined 10 rupees, without it then 20 rupees. Now it does seem that expensive but that is just not per day but for every event that we miss in a day. So our schedule is 8 to 9:30 am debate, 10:30am to 12:30pm lecture, 2 to 4pm mandatory study session, 6:30 to about 7:15pm initial prayers for evening debate, 7:15 to 9pm evening debate. So that is five events if missed with a permission slip is 50 rupees without one then is it 100 rupees. Minimum wage in India is round about 100 rupees a day so for the monks it is quite expensive.

The water bowl offerings for the temple, something like 50 or more metal bowls, must be done every morning and cleaned up every afternoon with the responsibility being divided up amongst the classmates. We all must do kitchen duty which is shared on a rotating basis every week with the other 5 fives classes. Gen Lodoe la also selected out the Umze “Chant Leader”. Since we have to do initial prayers before the evening debate session the Umze needs to learn the melodies all the chants. The preceding class had recorded the whole thing, so that we could learn them. Though Gen la, did teach some of our textual works for class, for our first two days we recited those evening prayers so that we could get used to them. One of the nuns brought her laptop to class and played the recording and with the prayer books we recited the prayers. The first day we did this for 4 hours and the second day we did this for 6 hours. Because one round of prayers last about 45 minutes we recited them twice, with our current Umze leading it on the twice though.

Since we are all beginners and the Gen la doesn’t expect us to have any experience in debate, he leads us through the lecture. So far we have three texts, our main text is a book that he wrote to teach debate, which is based on another book that we got called the Tutor’s Collected Topics. The Tutor is Purbujok Jamba Gyatso, tutor of the 13th Dalai Lama, who had written this book to instruct the then young Dalai Lama in debate. We also got the Ratöd Collected Topics, which is called the mother of all Collected Topic texts, because all other Collected Topic texts are based and/ or came after that one.

What is Collected Topics? First, Collected Topics are a kind of logical formulas, that in a way, help one understand a particular text written by the Indian Buddhist dialectician Dharmakirti, who wrote “The Commentary on Dignaga’s ‘Compendium of Valid Cognition’”, which is quite difficult to understand. So, many Collected Topics texts are called something like “That which opens the eyes towards understanding Valid Cognition” or “The Magical Key the opens one to the meaning of Valid Cognition”. Collected Topic texts are also kind of similar to those chess books that teach chess strategy, like the king’s gambit, queen’s gambit, fool’s mate, etc. It provides the students with lines of reasoning just like those chess books provides the appropriate move depending on how the other player has moved. I remember when I first started studying Buddhism in college the basics of Buddhism were taught, the four noble truths, eightfold path, dependent arising and so forth. And one might think that that will be the first thing that Tibetan monks learn in their philosophical education. But that is incorrect, at least for how it is taught here at Sarah which follows a Gelukpa curriculum. The first lesson is on color, the first topic. Ok, this is a debate course, right? Yep, totally on point. And you learn to debate colors? Yep! So one might ask what is there to debate about colors, and what is Buddhist about that debate?

Collected Topics are a pedagogical tool that helps the practitioner to develop reasoning skills primarily. Topics such as the above mentioned four noble truth, etc are studied years down the line and are very advanced and complicated topics. Gen Lodoe la said that Collected Topics are meant to develop rigs lam or the path of reasoning. The path of reasoning it is something that one can possess. Some have it naturally, but others need to train to acquire this skill, like me. Reasoning and analyst are central components to all forms of Tibetan Buddhism I believe. Even though not all systems will approve of a method such as used in Collected Topics, analyst of ones subject, no matter what it is, need to be investigated and analyze. Things are not to be taken on faith alone. The Collected Topics pedagogical method is one effective way of gaining that skill.

Thus comes the place for the first topic “Colors”. If you have any interest in learning about the experience and background of Tibetan Buddhist Debate, I recommend the great book, “The sound of two hands clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk” by Georges B.J. Drefyus, who became to the first Westerner (Switzerland) to gain a Geshe Degree (the equivalent to a PhD, post-doctorate and them some). Drefyus studied at the same institution where I am studying though 20 some odd years prior and I think him and our teacher Gen Lodoe La were classmates. Now for those of us you have a very strong bond to logic and philosophy and would rather prefer something more technical there is Daniel Purdue’s huge nearly 1,000 page book, “Debate in Tibetan Buddhism” which is a translation of the first section out of three of the Tutor Purbujok Jampa Gyatso’s Collected Topic text. The actual text in Tibetan is only 36 pages!

There are many lessons that need to be learned in order debate. In Tibetan the word mainly used for the study of debate is “tsan nyid”, which is a translation of the Sanskrit “lakshana”, meaning, characteristics. Tsan nyid has also been translated into English as definition, but tsan nyid gives one the defining characteristics of an object. For example, the tsan nyid for color is that which is suitable to be shown as a hue, which shows the characteristics of color being that it is suitable to be shown as a hue. If one search’s the word color in the Oxford Dictionary it says, “The property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or emits light” this is a proper definition of color as compared to the tsan nyid. The tsan nyid plays such a crucial roll in these studies that memorization and understanding of it is a must, for without it there could be no debate.

In Gen Lodoe la’s book that he teachings out of we memorize the paradigm debates that he has formulated. They are an outline of all the division and tsan nyids of the various Collected Topics and in class, Gen Lodoe la in a kind of drab sing-song-y voice says one line of the text and we repeat afterwards. He has written it in the debate question and answer format so that not only does one learn the division and tsan nyids but also the basic correct format of debate. Since debate is very formal, students need to have these formats down pat. For example, we are taught trilemmas and tetralemmas which compare two things or phenomenon. To analyze phenomenon that can be seen is a lot easier as compared to things that one cannot be seen like the impermanence and a mental consciousness. The easiest comparison is called in Tibetan mu sum, or in English a trilemma. Trilemmas are any two things that have three possibilities within themselves. For example, color and the color blue is a trilemma, the first possibility is that there are things that are both color and the color blue like a blue car. The second possibility seeks to find things that are color but not the color blue, here the color of a red flower. The third possibility seeks of find things that are neither, so the most popular example is the horns of a rabbit. According to this system of thought, the horn of a rabbit does not existence thus being neither a color nor the color blue.

Now in a tetralemma, mu shi in Tibetan, catushkoti in Sanskrit, which said to be particular to Tibetan and Indian Buddhism, seeks to find four possibilities between two things. The color green and the color of a cloth are said to be a tetralemma, firstly, there is something that is both: the color of a green cloth. Secondly, there is something that is green but that is not the color of cloth, the color of green house. Thirdly, there is something that is the color of a cloth but that is not the color green, color of a red cloth and lastly, there is something that is neither the color green nor the color of a cloth, the horns of a rabbit. With what we have seen above, all this is very common sense, but the format is what is important here, one is made to go through each of the possibilities in debate and providing the correct reason to each them. There are also two other ways to compare phenomenon: thing that are mutually exclusive are any two things that do not share a common locus, like apples and oranges. Mutually inclusive things are any two phenomenons that have the same meaning, like form and matter are said to be mutually inclusive in this system.

Many of the monks are having difficulty with the comparison of phenomenon, now for us who have received a modern western education, whether good or bad, we are thought basic reasoning indirectly, maybe some more directly than others. I have never studied logic in high school or in college. But the monks who have been in monasteries most of their lives might have maybe some basic arithmetic but nothing in comparison to what we would call education. For example, when I was debating with a monk yesterday, going through each of the individual trilemmas, I asked him to posit something that was a color but that was not the color red? In which afterwards the monk, who was sitting on the ground in front of me, with a very confused look on his face, shyly scratching the top of his bald monk head for a few moments, then said the color red . I just looked at him; we went through this same procedure over and over. So far, we have only debated 5 times, Wednesday morning being our first debate session, during which Gen Lodoe la walks kind of stoically around the grassy debate courtyard listening to our debates, which kind of reminds of a shepherd gently watching the flock, he is just there, chillin’ with a total ease and when you are going the wrong way he gives the correct advice to get you in the right direction without any force. My friend Jeremy who is in the Advanced philosophy course at the IBD campus in McLeod Ganj told me that Gan la reminds him of Morphesus from the Matrix. Gen la is a monk, obviously, and he has an eye condition so he is always wearing sunglasses, which also adds to his somewhat cool demeanor. After already coming by a first time he came back again by where monk and I were debating with me standing up asking questions and the monk answering on the ground. At one point Gen Lodoe la and I were laughing very hard, totally not dissin’ the monk, but at the responses that he gave. So this stuff is very difficult for all of us, for me because Tibetan not my first language and I am not in the habit of memorizing mass corpus of text, like the monks have.

If one has ever seen Tibetan monastic debate it can be quite a show. All of the Tibetan monastic traditions practice debate, there is a great video that I found on youtube of monks debating at the Dzongsar Monastery in the Kham province of Tibet. Here if you watch this video you will see some very aggressive behavior. There is a lot of clapping and stomping involved, but has with any thing Tibetan and/or Tibetan Buddhist every thing has a second and a profound meaning. In debate you will see one person standing who is the challenger, and his asks the question with the hand clapping and stomping business. Then there is the defender who is sitting in front of challenger. The defender is limited to four types of responses depended on how a questioned is asked. Syllogisms and consequences are the two main types of ways of ask questions, Tibetans place more emphasis on consequences above the syllogism, for with the use of the consequence a challenger can tease out a defender faulty assertions.

The main deity of debate is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom Mañjushri (see left corner photo). Every morning before prayers it is quite normal to hear folks reciting very rapidly, Om ah ra pa tsa dhi dhi dhi dhi dhi dhi, repeating the dhi as many times as one can in a single breath before they start over again. Dhiih: is the seed syllable of the mantra of the Bodhisattva Mañjushri. With debate seen as a path in which one can gain wisdom, the Bodhisattva Mañjushri plays a huge roll. Even the gestures of debate are said to have come from the iconographical representation of this Bodhisattva of Wisdom.

From Daniel Purdue’s “Debate in Tibetan Buddhism”,

At the opening of a session of debate, the standing Challenger claps his hands together and recites the seed syllable of Mañjushri, “Dhiih”. Mañjushri is the manifestation of the wisdom of all the Buddhas and as such is the special deity of debate. In debate, one must have a good motivation, the best of which is to conceive the special motivation of the Great Vehicle, the thought to establish all sentient beings in liberation. “But to fulfill this wish is not easy. You must have great knowledge and wisdom; and for this you recite ‘dhiih’, asking Mañjushri to pour down a torrent of wisdom upon you. …The seed syllable ‘dhiih’ has a very special effect upon Mañjushri,” (Geshe Rabten). Together with the seed syllable of Mañjushri the challenger begins the debate with the statement, “Dhiih! The subject, in just the way [Mañjushri debated] (dhiih ji ltar chos can).” According to Denma Lochö Rinpochay, the meaning of this statement is: “Just as Mañjushri stated subjects in order to overcome the wrong views and doubts of opponents, so I with good mind will do also.”

Upon first seeing a debate, the most striking characteristic is the hand gestures. When the Challenger first puts his question to the sitting Defender, his right hand is held above the shoulder at the level of his head and the left hand is stretched forward with the palm turned upward. At the end of his statement the Challenger punctuates by loudly clapping together his hands and simultaneously stomping his left foot. Then he immediately draws his right hand with the palm held upward and the same time holds forth his left hand with the palm turned downward. This motion of drawing back and clapping is done not in two sharp movements, but with the flow of a dancer’s movements.

Holding forth the left hand after clapping symbolizes closing the door to rebirth in the helpless state of cyclic existence. The drawing back and upraising of the right hand symbolizes one’s will to raise all sentient beings up out of cyclic existence and to establish them in the omniscience of Buddhahood. The left hand is able to overcome powerless cyclic existence, for the wisdom cognizing selflessness is the actual antidote to cyclic existence. The right hand represents method which for the Great Vehicle is the altruistic intention to become enlightened, called the “mind of enlightenment (byang chub kyi sems, bodhi-citta)”, motivated by great love and compassion for all sentient beings, The clap represents a union of method and wisdom. In dependence on the union of method and wisdom one is able to attain the auspicious rank of a Buddha.

On a side note quoted from Lati Rinbochay: The union of wisdom and method represented by the pressing together of the palms had to do with subtle wind channels of wisdom in the wrists which meet when the debater claps his hands together.

End quote.

So one can see, that these gestures do have another meaning behind them, unfortunately most people are unaware of them, which is why a decided put that quote up. Now that my first week is over, reflecting on the busyness of the schedule, and what has transpired, meeting by new classmates and so on, I take a huge sigh and say wooooo. This course is intense. The days goes by quick, before when I was in the Tsamjor it felt more spacious but now everything is on top on each other. I need to experiment with my schedule for since the course has started it has been hard to get to bed before midnight. But I like it so far. I think that this is a great thing for me. I know that I will have many difficulties as I progress, and I hope that I can deal with them with skill and understanding. All of my classmates are very nice and I hope for some good friendships to be built out of it regardless that we are so different from each other. I hope that this entry was not too long and boring to read, I have a small understanding of logic and philosophy and with explaining what I am experiencing and providing you with an idea of what I am experiencing as a difficult process, is daunting to me because the subject matter is very technical and is not of interest to many. So I need to think of a different approach to represent what is now a main part of my life. I hope that I can keep up with these regular posts, but seeing how time intensive this course is, it might not happen. Much Love.


1 comment:

Eero said...

Thank you for a great post, it's so great to hear first hand experiences of the buddhist studies. I visited Dharamsala 1,5 years ago for a short time, and had a strong feeling that I need to return for a longer stay, and so we are moving there this may.

I wish you all the best for your path and hope that you will keep writing here. Maybe we'll meet there someday :)