Debate is in integral part of Tibetan Buddhist monastic education in many of the traditions that flourish in India and the Tibetan Plateau. Philosophical subjects are a core of monastic education and debate is designed to help assimilate the complexities they present. It is a form of mental gymnastics, to integrate concepts presented through texts and train the mind to delve deeper into their intricacies.
Debate is typically conducted on a daily basis, in a designated courtyard, tiled in flagstones and shaded by trees. The challenger, standing, throws a statement at his opponent, who is seated and is meant to refute it. A volley of exchange ensues, accompanied by clapping gestures on the part of the challengers, which can become extremely animated.
A good debater will look forward to the session like a football or basketball player to a match. He will thrive on the excitement, and other monks will watch the proceedings with great anticipation. My husband Kalsang, who was a Drepung monk for fifteen years, distinguished himself as an able debator. In the initial years in exile, which took place in the monk camp in Buxa, between 1959 and the time he left for Teacher’s Training in 1961, he thrived on the debate sessions that were recreated in the jungle of Assam, as part of the makeshift monasteries of Drepung, Sera, Ganden and Sakya. The excitement helped him forget the heat, malnutrition, rats and leeches, as well as the anxiety of being so far from home.
I first met them in 1978, the night we arrived in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod, in Northern Karnataka. After bumping around on winding roads for several hours, driving past bullocks and buffalos with extravagant horns and through thick jungle, we arrived in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod. It was dark by then, and we emerged from our white Ambassador to be greeted by a group of monks with white scarves, then ushered into an elongated mud brick house, proudly referred to as the just finished Nyare Khamtsen House, boasting an assembly hall, two guest rooms and the Khamtsen’s first ever bathroom, a cement cubicle with a single tap and with (what we call in France) a Turkish toilet. Smaller monks lurked behind their teachers, peeking at us through the door, taking turns to gawk, especially at me. Only then did I realized how close they were to Kalsang’s world, these monks with whom he had shared the few years he had spent at Drepung in Lhasa as Nyare Chunsel, the rank his parents had insisted he have, which afforded him the privilege accorded to lamas. After three years, he had escaped with them to Buthan, then India and settled for some years to life in Buxa, Assam, a former British internment camp where the monks pulled together a semblance of monastic life, a thousand monks from among the escapees of the three Monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden. Kalsang thrived there, though many died of TB and others succumbed to madness when they realized they was no turning back.
For two months, that summer of 1978, I bathed in these monk’s warmth and hospitality. They were Kalsang’s only family, his parents having remained in Lhasa where they passed away about the time we made this first visit to Mundgod.
This year, I visited Loseling in Mundgod after a hiatus of twenty one years. The monastery’s environment had drastically changed; It had become like a small town, full of trees and flowering bushes, the monks were more health conscious, finally adapting their diet and lifestyle to the tropical climate of the Deccan Plateau. They also lived comfortably in better houses. Time had taken its toll, though, with six out of twenty five Nyare Buxa monks remaining, the others having been claimed by cancer, diabetes, or other casualties. The youngest was seventy nine, the oldest eighty five.
I made a point of photographing these old friends in a group photo, then in their monk quarters, in the transplanted universe of a Tibetan Monastery in South India.