The place where we spend the most of our time in the Buddhist philosophy course is in the debating courtyard (chos ra). At Sarah’s campus our debating courtyard is in front of the main administrative building at the center of campus where the various offices, a computer lab, library, temple and our classroom are located. We spend a minimum of 6 hours day in the debating courtyard, during the morning debates (8am until 9:30am) under the cool shadows of the trees and during the nights debates (7:15pm until 9pm) under the starry night sky, these days usually clear. Gen la said that the debating courtyard for philosophy students is what the laboratory is for scientist. There is where we do our work of analyzing and testing what we are hearing and reading, exploring and clearing our doubts. I am not so sure as to how I feel about that statement right now because our goal ultimately has a soteriological purpose, where I am not sure that that holds true for scientists.
Our class is extremely tiny, with fewer than 40 students, as compared to the three great Gelukpa monasteries (Sera, Ganden and Drepung) in Lhasa back in their heyday, when the populations of those monasteries included thousands of monks. In exile these monasteries have been set up in South India, where the monk population though still rather large doesn’t compare to what it was back in the day. So in the debating courtyard of these monasteries for starters, each class probably had several hundred monks in them and when debating time came all those monks along with the monks from other classes, higher or lower, will match their wits in the debating courtyard.
If you have never seen this before, then at first sight one might wonder, WTF are they doing? Are they pissed at each other? And what are they so pissed about? One will see the courtyard just packed full of monks in groups of two or three with one monk standing clapping his hands and stomping his feet and one or two monks sitting on the ground responding to the standing monk’s inquiries. One has to remember that all these pairs of monks are doing this all at the same time and thus it turns out to be a quite loud and cacophonous affair.
One tends to see some very un-monk like behavior like pushing and shoving. The typical images of Buddhist monks walking around slowly with joyous solemn faces of meditative beatitude are thrown out the window here. It is quite common to see several groups come together and in union challenge a defender or two. I remember one incident in the summer of 2006 when my friend Jason Fults from college had come to visit me when I lived in McLeod Ganj to attend some teachings that the HHDL was giving.
Jason, James from England, and I went to the temple the night before the teachings around 9pm to reserve our spots, and as we were getting closer and closer to the temple, the sounds of clapping and yelling got louder and louder. Then when we ascended the staircase that leads up to the courtyard in front of the temple which is on the second floor, we saw the strangest thing for us: three standing monks clapping, stomping and asking in loud voices questions in rhythmic unison to one monk screaming at the top of his lungs in one section and several other similar situations all throughout the courtyard. As we walked to one of the staircases that led up to the second storey where the teaching area was located, we just stared in awe on what was going on before of our eyes. Jason asked me if I know what was going on and besides telling him that they were debating Buddhist philosophy I could not saying anything else.
After we had finished reserving our spots by taping cardboard with our names written on it to the floor beside of the temple where the HHDL was to teach, we looked on from the second floor down to the courtyard where all the action was happening. From our bird’s eye view we saw one lay Korean lady (that was back in the day when they allowed lay women to join the course) sitting on the floor surrounded by standing monks. Some of the monks in front of her were pushing and shoving trying to get a chance to make their point. Many were carrying cushions in their hands and proceeded to give each other several whacks upside each others heads with the cushions. When that had subsided, they again resumed their contest with the Korean lady who seems very adamant to hold her point to the teeth.
As we left the temple, I told Jason, “Man, we were looking for a party to kick it at in the wrong spot for it seems that those monks had there party going on”. It was not until I came to Sarah that I found out what that was all about. It is called a damja (dam ‘ca) and it literally means thesis but in this context it means a certain debate format where a class will divide itself up in groups. Each group will then send two people to the other group to answer questions. Any person in those groups can ask questions to them and when they can not answer the whole group will yell a certain cheer in unison three times. So far we have had 4 or 5 of these damjas since I have started.
The person standing up is called the challenger (rigs lam pa) and the person on the ground is called the defender (dam ‘ca ba). Generally the challenger is not required to hold a particular point of view and can ask the most ridiculous of questions depending on how the defender answers. The defender is generally restricted to only four replies depending on how the questions are asked. Only if the defender is asked by the challenger to posit a reason that he is allowed to explicate beyond the four types of answers. In class when Gen la debates with us and some one goes on arguing outside of the set format; Genla will say , “drung shay mu go” “I don’t want all that lip” “You have to learn how to defend your assertions within the format, you can say all that you want within it”. It is not always followed on the courtyard especially at the beginning where one can hide their lack of understanding behind eloquently forceful words. Depending on the text that we study, the position that the defender must hold is called our own position (rang lugs) the philosophical stance of that text and especially at the beginning it is essential to ones training that one holds to that position. Once one has mastered this then one will gain the skills needed to develop a quite thorough position of one’s own.
To the general Tibetan audience debate must be very odd and bemusing. Many colloquial Tibetan words are used in such a different and technical way that many might feel that the exercise is ridiculous. Daniel Purdue recounts a story he had heard for Lati Rinpoche and one that I have also heard here at Sarah from one of the my teachers when I was in Tsamjor. It states:
“At the time of the Great Prayer Festival (smon lam chen mo) traditionally held in Hla-sa at the beginning of the Tibetan New Year, around February 20, the monks and nuns of all the great Ge-luk-ba monasteries gather for several days of community prayer, celebration, and the Hla-ram-ba Ge-shay examinations. During this time, even the monks who were not taking their examinations would naturally find opportunities for practicing debate. A layman who encountered two monks in heated disputation understood that they were arguing about a gold pot but nothing else about what was being said. Not understanding their debate, he worried about these two monks’ arguing over material possessions.
The next year at the Great Prayer Festival when he again encountered these same two monks in disputation about a gold pot, he moved to intercede. Reprimanding them he said, ‘Last year I saw you’re here arguing about a gold pot, and now this year you are here arguing about it again. Please stop arguing about this thing! I will give you each a gold pot if you just stop arguing’”
A pot (bum pa) and it various manifestations gold, copper, silver etc and a pillar (ka ba) are used as classic examples in debate, so these words are heard frequently.
While I was once visiting H.H. Sakya Trizin’s residence in Dehra Dun, one of his attendants (who was from Sakya,Tibet) told me about the first time he had gone to Lhasa along with His Holiness and saw a debate there. He said that at first he was rather confused because to him it seemed that the monks were arguing over a tobacco pipe. He said that he taught that these monks must have been the worst monks of the monastery to be arguing over something as immoral as a tobacco pipe since monks are not allowed to take any type of intoxicants. It wasn’t until later that he realized or was told that the word used for pipe in Sakya “gang zag” is the word same word used for person “gang zag” in philosophy. I couldn’t keep myself from laughing at one.
There are so many such mistakes that can be perceived by the unknowing ear. For example, the word for you “khyöd” is used very similar to how the variable “x” functions in mathematics. Also khyöd is not the most particularly polite way to address someone unless they are a close friend or a child, very similar to tu and tum in Hindi. When hearing monks screaming this word, one might think that monks are just über mal-mannered. Another one that I am fond of is “one (gcig)” and “different (tha dad)”. One is something that is only itself and different is its obvious opposite. A traditional example is pillar (ka ba) because only pillar is one with pillar in both name and meaning, the word for “and” and “with” is the same in Tibetan “dang”. So this can be strung out like hippie beads for as long as one wants where one might hear, one with one with pillar, ka ba dang gcig dang gcig. The only thing that is one with one with pillar is one with pillar. The same applies to one with one, gcig dang gcig, the only thing that is one with one is one. This previous phrase in particular can be turned on its head if one hears “dang” not as “with” but as an “and”. In which case someone could say gcig dang gcig chos can gnyis yin par thal, regarding that subject one and one, it follows that it is two. Once in class Gen la asked us to posit something that is one with one and we all said one. He then said the regarding the subject one rupee and one rupee, it follows that it is not two rupees. These things just crack me up all the time.
Having a hard palate can be a huge obstacle when it comes to debating in Tibetan. Though my pronunciation is no where near perfect some of our international students are struggling with it. One case is our Korean monk, Tenzin Kunzig, who after attending one of the best universities in Korea for bio-engineering and being a genetic engineer until the age of 25, decided to become a monk and has been one for 20 years now with 4 or 5 of those years under Tibetan ordination. One can tell that he is a really sharp guy but his tongue really limits him at this point. I have been told and I now believe it after being around Korean students that in the Korean language there is not the ra or r-sound and it tends to be perceived as a la or l-sound. One common example of a non-existent is the horns of a rabbit (ri bong rwa) pronounced more like ri bong ra. Our Korean friend here can only say li bong la, which had me rolling the first time I debated with him; the defining characteristics (mtshan nyid) for a consciousness (shes pa) is that which is clear and knowing (gsal zhing rig pa) pronounced like sel shing rig pa. Now with the r-sound being replaced with the I-sound one gets sel shing lig pa which in Tibetan lig pa means dick and I am not talking about the short form for Richard. So I was thinking that sel shing lig pa could then be translated as clear and dick or more correctly as clear and penile? The other monks are just having a field day with him, but one monk is actually trying to teach him how to pronounce the r-sound, but so far to no avail, “you can take a man out of the woods but you can’t take the woods out of a man”.
Lastly, yesterday, a second Saturday, I gave a visit to my host family in McLeod Ganj after a long time not seeing them and found out at my little host sister Chöyang who is about 11 now has learning elementary Buddhist reasoning in her curriculum for the pass month and it seems that she has some interest in it, which I think is awesome. The HHDL has been an advocate to spread at least this kind of elementary Buddhist reasoning to the Tibetan schools. I debated with her for a little bit and many of the examples she used were totally meant for kids her age, instead of comparing a form source sphere and that which being it is not possible they would compare bull and animal or Lotus flower and the waters it grows from. I really think that this could build a young child mind to tackle various other subjects that they will encounter in their lives, it wouldn’t have to be done at the intensity that we are doing here at Sarah, but it is great for the young inquisitive mind of an 11 year old.
Once this pass autumn there was an inter-collegiate debating competition at the lower Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) campus in Dharamshala and before the competition was to commence two groups of TCV students, one from Bylakuppe TCV from South India and an another from Gopalpur TCV about 1 hour from Sarah came to Sarah College to practice debate with the philosophy class students and with the 1st year BA Buddhist dialectics class that I was attending at the time. These kids where all between the age of 13 and 14 and man they were really good, both the guys and the girls were tearing it up. These particular students were sent because they were some of the better debaters from their respective institution. Out of the Gopalpur TCV students a few of them were my students from the 10 day English camp that I volunteered to teach at last summer and I was happy to have seen them. That was one of those experiences that will stay with me.