Debate in Tibetan Monasteries

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.

Lati Rinpoche, then abbot of Ganden Shartse, watching the debate. At Ganden Shartse in Karnataka, India, in 1978
Drepung Loseling debate session, Karnataka India, 1979
At Drepung Loseling, 1989 
Tsona Rinpoche, from Loseling, debating in front of the first assembly hall. 1979
At Drepung Gomang, Karnataka, India, 2016 


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