VIDEO: The Famous Debating Monks of Tibet

They lunged, red robes flying and prayer beads swinging. They clapped hands loudly in the faces of their partners. Forefingers shook in front of noses and voices were raised. This sea of red-robed monks were gathered in a courtyard of Sera Monastery for a daily ritual known as the Tibetan monastic debate.

They worked in pairs, one standing and the other seated on the ground. The standing monk hurled a question at his seated partner, challenging him to dig deep into Buddhist philosophy for an answer. At times the seated monks, unable to produce satisfactory answers, seemed frustrated or even angry. Certainly, they were arguing, and some looked more than a little unhappy. I was flabbergasted! This was very un-monk-like behavior.

Buddhist monks debating the philosophy of Buddhism at Sera Monastery in Lhasa,Tibet
Tibetan monastic debate at Sera Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet

The tradition of the Tibetan monastic debate can be traced back to the Historical Buddha, whom we know as Shakyamuni. In the beginning, the Buddha taught only those who were interested in his doctrine of non-attachment. He shied away from criticism of other belief systems. In latter years, however, he became a master of debate, converting so many followers that he was said to have magical powers. Gradually, debating became a normal part of monastic life. Today, debates play an important part in winning intellectuals over to Buddhism and the practice is also used to resolve disagreements within the Buddhist community of monks, nuns, novices, and laity.

Author’s note: After many years of trying to visit Tibet, I was finally successful with the assistance of Himalaya Journey, a company that specializes in small group tours. Seeing the debating monks of Tibet had long been at the top of my wish list. Not only did Himalaya Journey grant this wish, they made it possible to attended debates at three different monasteries across Tibet!

VIDEO: The Famous Debating Monks of TibetVIDEO: The Famous Debating Monks of Tibet

6 thoughts on “VIDEO: The Famous Debating Monks of Tibet”

  1. Barbara,
    Out of curiosity does the hand slapping magnify the anger supposedly or is it unrelated? Seems to me like they do it to insure the attention of the monk they are arguing with. Just curious young lady. Thanks.

    • Hi Mike: I don’t think the monks who are being grilled are actually angry. It’s probably more frustration than anything, because there doesn’t seem to be much let-up throughout the debate. I’ve also read that the clap is a signal that the monk is done asking the question and it is now the other monk’s turn to answer. And…the whole process was slightly different in each of the monasteries where I witnessed it. In places where the monks were clapping strenuously, it almost seemed to me they were trying to startle their partners into digging for deeper answers, but that’s just my guess.

  2. WOW…this was very interesting, Barbara! I didn’t know about this ritual. Your video made it feel like the viewer is right there…loved it!

    • Thanks so much Crystal! I’ve wanted to see these debates for year. Sometimes, when I anticipate things for so long they turn out to be unimpressive when I finally get to see them. But in this case, the experience was so much more than I had ever imagined it would be.


Leave a Comment