Tossing the Medicine Ball-On Debating Buddhism


Last month I became engaged in a number of comment debates at various forums. While the particular issues have been pretty much settled, …well as much as things get settled on the Internet, I am left considering the utility and tone such debates take.

Debate is something I have always enjoyed. Not necessarily to be right (although once in a while…!) but to get out all the aspects of the point of contention and examine them. Hidden agendas and logic traps are not really my forte as I tend to be rather direct in what I say and mean it.

Debating to learn something and to clarify one’s own viewpoint with the assistance of others is a valuable activity. I enjoy the valid points that other people make and if my arguments are demonstrated to be invalid then the benefit is to me. Debating ideas, issues and viewpoints is one thing,  but debating personalities or non-related matters is something else. And in these forums it makes very little difference who “wins” or “loses”.  There is so much material out there that these things are usually quickly forgotten.

That doesn’t make it a useless activity however. I find that by viewing or participating in these issues that I can refine my viewpoint and get to know where I stand in relation to others. Sometimes the issue is rather significant. Sometimes it involves a little sweat to bring it to attention and work through it. And even with all the material out there, some of it rather innocuous and some of it injurious, to make available well thought out reasoned points contributes to increasing the quality of discussion even to a very minor degree.  That is one of my motivations it seems. Another is to share whatever knowledge and experience I have with anyone who finds it useful-even as a point of debate. And I take from it the opportunity to be challenged by different viewpoints and to learn whatever is available to learn in any given situation.  My view is generally one of a win-win situation.

Many people confuse debate with angry argument. Argument is usually a venting about some unrelated issue and tends to lack any sort of rational control. In argument people don’t generally bother to listen and take in the points made by others. Gloating is common and nothing is off limits in anger arguments. I am not always successful in keeping anger out of things. Most people aren’t.

As an aside it seems some folks mistake my debating style for anger. And even in this blog when I make strong statements it seems that may be interpreted as anger. There’s not much I can do about people’s interpretations of what I write or say. But I can say when I am talking about strong topics I am not sitting at the keyboard with steam coming out of my ears and just seething with rage.  As far as I can recall I’ve only vented anger twice in this blog-once at the arrogance of Paul McCartney telling HHDL what to have for dinner and again at someone who left a non-comment on the blog.  I am not an anger junkie just because I have a strong opinion on some stuff and state that opinion.

Debate and even spirited debate is a valuable tool for self-control, mental discipline and clear thinking. It gets to the crux of the issue and if not resolving differences at least respects them.

I learned this approach in martial arts practice many years ago. In karate we would often practice with another Karate group that had a slightly different style. They were taught to acknowledge any point of the opponent by bowing to the opponent. It was not only a point in the sense of a score but a point made in learning one’s own limitations and weaknesses and providing a humbling moment. There will always be someone with more “points” in some area.

Since I am on the topic of debate it might be pertinent to discuss some things about Tibetan Buddhist Debate which has been an interest of mine for the past few years.


On Tibetan Buddhist Debate

Part of the curriculum in the education of Tibetan Buddhist monks involves debate. It is a somewhat involved process that includes verbal and physical actions in a well defined format. It’s purpose is to expand the mind, gain clarity, increase mental and analytical capacity.  One is required to think on one’s feet.

When I first became interested in Tibetan style debate it reminded me a little of Toastmaster’s clubs but to an nth degree and always within a specific subject area. Toastmasters are clubs for the purpose of improving public speaking and confidence. At their meetings it is often a  requirement for members to stand up and give scripted or impromptu speeches on diverse topics.

In the Tibetan debates there is a defender and a questioner. The questioner is usually one with experience in debate while the defender will be a novice or less experienced.

The debate usually begins with a ritual invocation of Manjrushri, the boddhisattva of wisdom.

Then the questioner, who is standing, begins the debate. He will speak gently to the defender, who sits, as a sign of humility and respect. The questioner wears his robe in the customary style initially, with the left shoulder covered, and the right shoulder bare. The gentle introduction is part of a strategy designed to bring about a false sense of security in his opponent.

The defender will then present his thesis. The questioner begins to raise doubts. The  exchange of questions and answers will rise and fall in intensity and with the points made.

The debate will often continue for several hours as these points are clarified and errors corrected. If the questioner spots errors or contradictions he will step back and make strong gestures and often wrap his robe around his waist to demonstrate his control of the topic. Hand clapping will stress the definitive points of argument.

Part of the reason for this form of debate is that it helps to make learning Buddhist philosophy, sometimes a rather dry subject, more interesting and as opposed to simply reading a text it makes both participants really think deeply about the subject. It also helps to encourage the morale of the monastic sangha and reinforce the idea of interdependence in everything including learning.

A scholarly work by Daniel Perdue explains the form of logic involved in these debates. The title of the paper  is The Tibetan Buddhist Syllogistic Form (pdf).

Here is a video with some demonstration of the debating style.  The short explanation given in this video is that the  hand clapping motions involved are  symbolic for:

Close the house

Touch the earth

Liberate all human beings from suffering

A more detailed explanation

  • Extending the left hand forward symbolizes closing the doors to the lower states of rebirth.
  • Clapping the hands represents the union of the two aspects of the path. The left hand symbolizes wisdom and the right hand method.
  • Deliberately and slowly the right hand is drawn back to signify the wish to liberate all sentient beings.  Sometimes one also sees the right hand being turned in the “touch the earth” gesture at the same time.

Other gestures involved in the debate:

  • The questioner will circle the opponent’s head three times with the right hand, while saying , “These are the three circles.” (di khor gsum) which shows the defender has made a mistake or a false argument.
  • The wrapping of the upper robe around the waist is a sign of understanding and being in control of the topic.

A young student of this Tibetan debate style has made a short movie to illustrate how it works using simple constructs.  The logic is rather strict and the method a little repetitive but it demonstrates the pattern in this particular debate style.

And a Bit of Comedy?  Cultural Appropriation? Disrespect?

Someone has decided to take video of monk debates and chanting and add their own script in the form of subtitles.  In the YouTube comments some people find it funny and some are offended. I’ll leave that decision to you.

2 comments on “Tossing the Medicine Ball-On Debating Buddhism

  1. NellaLou – I very much enjoyed our debate about traditional Buddhism, it was quite spirited and I think very informative. I agree, there is a lot of ego that goes into debating sometimes, and it usually just ends up muddying the waters. Discussing important issues is very important, but only in so far at it remains honest, open and civil.

    You write very well, and your points are very well taken!

    Be Well,

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