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.
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!