With in the six months of class time, we have gone through a series of studies that traditionally took two years or so complete. The study of the course called Collected Topics (bsdus grwa) includes within it the Presentation of Collected Topics (bsdus grwa’i rnam gzhag) text itself which is divided into introductory, intermediate and advance presentations, The Presentation of Knowledge and Awareness (blo rig gi rnam gzhag), and the Presentation of Signs and Reasonings (rtags rigs kyi rnam gzhag). In the three gigantic Gelukpa monasteries of Tibet: Sera, Drepung, and Ganden, it took a total of 3 to 4 years to complete the study of the Collected Topics curriculum. Here at Sarah/IBD it is concluded within one year. Due to the shortened period that we have for studying, many of the lessons are just blown right on by us and a feeling of a definite grasp of the material is not achieved. I know that many of us are overwhelmed by speed in which we go through the lessons. Especially of those like me who do not process a natural inborn ability for logic and reasoning.
Regardless, the difference between our class and those who have studied at the great monasteries relocated in South India after finishing the Presentation of Collected Topics is noticeable. Since the starting of the Advanced Hindi Teacher’s Training Course here at Sarah, a few of the monks from that class, who have studied in South India, have been coming to our regularly to our evening debates. I know that I have mentioned this before. From these interactions, I have come to believe that their first three years of training and drilling the debates found within the Collected Topic curriculum gave them a solid foundation, whereas that cannot be said for many of us within these six months. We are still missing many essential points that are supposed to be learnt during this introductory course in debate. But still despite this, Gen la tells us not to worry that eventually we will all get it, some faster than others.
The during the pass two weeks Gen la has rushed through three very important topics, last of which being the Presentation of Subject and Object (yul yul can), which is an introductory topic to the Presentation of Knowledge and Awareness. As Gen la taught this topic the heavy ambience of non-comprehension mushroomed throughout the classroom. This is due to the fact that in order to understand this topic the previous 2 topics must be understood with a fair sense of certainty. But that has not been achieved by many us because only a few days were allowed to study them. I do know from talking to some of the students from the higher-up class that these topics are so important that they will come up again and again throughout ones study. All we can do is our best, though it makes me feel incompetent because I do not process a natural talent for dialectics and most of the times I feel like I am barely floating by.
To add more spice to the curry, since this Friday was the Friday before second Saturday (we get the 2nd Saturday of each month off), meant that on Friday night we will be having an all-night debate (tshad med dam bca’). On Monday, Gen la said that since we are finishing the Presentation of Collected Topics this week and will be starting the Presentation of Signs and Reasonings on this coming Monday, in which we need to memorize 20 pages of texts, that he had invited the monks from the Advanced Hindi Teacher’s Training course to sit as defenders (dam bca’ ba) while each of our three groups are to make two debates each and stand as challengers (rigs lam pa).We are to use all the topics that we have learnt from the beginning up until now and we are to create a query that encompasses them all. As soon as he said this all of us started to feel a bit shaky and uncomfortable. We know that those monks and nuns are very experienced in debate and that Geshes are included within their class. After I taught about it a bit, it seems that we are like the neophyte chess student who from study knows how to move the pieces and knows some points of tactics and strategy is to be pitted up against a Grandmaster. Those prospects were not sounding too good to us. We tried to protest a bit but too no avail. The match has already been set up Gen la said. He had already asked them and they have agreed to it, so it was on.
We had a couple of days to prepare, each of our groups got together and started discussions as to what hell are we as the newbies are going to debate with these ole’ skoolers. The general talk was that no matter what we ask they will give us the exact answer that would be difficult to counter. They have years of debate experience, duh! I was thinking along the lines of the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” and, “that you can never con a con man”, they guys know every trick in the book supposedly. Also in Tibetan there is the saying “Don’t debate with a Geshe, Don’t bang your head against a pillar” (dge bshes lags dang rtsod pa ma rgyag/ ka ba lags dang brdung ka ma rgyag//), but Gen la had already set us up just for that, to have us banging our heads against a pillar trying to con a con man.
Nonetheless, our group had quite the difficult time coming up with something; we have three strong students but no leader types. Our strongest student is also the most disinterested of them, he has studied at Ganden monastery down South and it was quite unfortunate that he pretty much left us hanging when we could have used his experience in developing a solid debate with us and how to go about the debating format as it is done down there. So though by the end of week we had met twice for two hours we only had a vague idea on what we were to debate with these monks, pretty much we knew the main query but none of the finer internal points to pay attention for. To top it off, our group was to debate first. Process of coming up with a debate is still a phantom to me and I have been thinking and searching for an appropriate method. I have gotten many ideas from my international classmates which I feel is leading me in the right direction.
In any case, Friday night arrived with a bright waxing moon in the sky and it was time for the main event. As I walked through the temple entrance, dead center on the far side sat two monks on a double stack of mattresses wearing thick monastic cloaks (zla gam). One of them has been the one who has been tearing into us for the pass couple weeks. I thought, well at least this is a time where we can ask him some questions. Perpendicular to them on the left was a row of monks from their class sitting in order of rank. The first monk, if I remember correctly is a Geshe Lharampa from Spiti and below him I assumed that the rest were Geshes of varying degrees on down to regular ole’ monks. On the right side sat some nuns from their class. I have chatted with one of the nuns; I know that she was good in debate. Behind both of these rows on both sides of the temple sat our classmates and other Sarah students. The right corner sat Gen la. With debates like all-night debates one person from the group starts off and the rest of the group is suppose to join in. Also anyone present who knows what is going on can join in.
At the beginning our main questioning monk was having some trouble getting the words out of his mouth, which was quite unusual since his is the fastest speaker in our class who can twist consequences inside out and upside down with daunting quickness, for obviously the cat caught his tongue pretty bad: stage fright gets the best of all of us. After several attempts, he almost tried to runaway a few times, he got it out. The moment was very tense. As we got started we were able to draw some contradictions out of them just through either their shear forgetfulness and/or non-familiarity with a certain passage of text that was presented. Other students from the other groups also joined. I had figured that a row full of Geshes and advance debaters would not be able to keep their tongues resting for too long and that was definitely the case. The Spitian Geshe Lharampa spoke up from his seat and drew out consequences from the defenders like a bully stealing candy from a baby. Then different monks from the row followed suit. At one point our group was standing in the middle of temple observing all this going on without saying word. Someone in our group during this period tried to build up our courage to intervene between this barrage of side queries and to bring the focus back to us.
These kinds of debates take a certain aggressive spirit, it is normal in the tradition to cut another person off, even physically. When some is taking the stage and not giving you a chance to get your point across you have to just take it. Which sounds weird, I know! I have not seen this spirit so much in my class so far, but I remember from going to all-night debates during my first years here, watching two monks pretty much wrestling each other to get the chance to hurl consequences at the defenders. At first I found it rather unbecoming of monks to be acting in such a fashion. But I realized that it quite accepted and that normally no hard feelings are held. The monks from down South definitely have this spirit. In some ways too, it was embarrassing for to be standing there with no good way to bring things back, but we know that we are the new kids on the dialectical block and that we still have some ways to go; I was regardless of that scenario glad that see how the ole’ skool did their thang. Eventually our group’s time was exhausted, whew!
Pretty much the same type of situation happened with all of our groups. This was quite a challenging event for all of us, even for our talented students. When the third group came up to bat, the other class had swapped defenders, but they only got one volunteer and so one of our guys had to sit in but he did not say much though he usually has tons to say. The monk that they chose was quite a riot for his mannerism and his way of answering was goofy yet steady. His answers carried serious weight but at the same time made you want to laugh your ass off. Eventually the monk who had just sat defender got up and tore into the swapped defenders. One of the nuns also got a couple of good side licks in for good measure. We were trying to get her to sit as defender but she was apparently shy. None of our nuns got up with their group when it was their turn which was surprising for they are very good. I was wondering if it was because there was some high monks within our presence for our nuns are definitely not shy.
Afterwards we had a meal of Tibetan vegetable noodle stew and a creamy fruit desert. The atmosphere relaxed tremendously throughout this period as we all ate together. This is always my favorite part of all-night debates just sitting, chatting, and enjoying everyone’s company. But we had to get back to it and this time Gen la changed the format since time was short, he had each group debate each other leaving the other class from having to sit as defenders. Since we were to first to start the debate we were the first to sit as defenders. Five of us sat and luckily we were not there for too long. The topic was one of the recent topics that was taught really briefly and none of us knew it well. After we had finished the previous challengers then sat as defenders. At this point many of the monks from the Hindi course had done split and many of us were relieved.
One of our nuns got up with her group to challenge. By the time it was all said and done, 12:30am to be exact. The final smack down came from Gen la. He told us that we had none quite a horrible job in preparing our debates as a group. We need to learn when doing damjas how to ask questions as a unit, as a group. That was very true, with all of our groups only the strong students asked questions while the rest of us just being there clapping and stomping. Gen la said that there is no point if only one or two people are asking the questions and while the rest of the group stands silent. I think we all knew that we stunk that night and Gen just enforced that we have long ways to go as aspiring dialecticians. It was done though, we all made it. We got roughed up pretty good, but we weren’t a total pushover. I don’t know if this encounter hurts Sarah reputation in the debating world or not, but the most important thing is that it expanded our debate experience beyond our small group and allowed us to see what else is out there, what the possibilities are and how others do their thing. This might be one of the reasons why Gen la had asked them to sit as defenders.