Debates of Wisdom on the Roof of the World

- through Henry Oudin

Published on

Dive into the heart of a Tibetan western, where we practice verbal jousting.

I have just arrived in Alexandra David Neel's “Country of Gentleman Brigands”, of Michel Peissel's “Kham Cavaliers”. Eastern Tibet, Kham, which today belongs to the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Barely arrived in the village of Tagong, the gateway to this region from Chengdu, I find myself in the middle of a Tibetan western. Most of the Khampas (inhabitants of Kham), nomads, still wear their chuba (large coat of sheep's wool), a sword or a knife in their belt, and have a braid wrapped around their head with woolen thread or of red cotton. They look great when riding their horses or motorcycles.

Most of the monasteries in the region have been rebuilt and now host thousands of monks and nuns. Dzogchen, Yarchen, Pelpung, Kathok, Pelyul, Dzongsar, Degué to name a few.

Discovery of Buddhist dialectical debates

After having surveyed this region up and down, I find myself in the village of Dzongsar. The monastery belongs to the Sakyapa school, I guess it has striped walls of white, red and blue. Passing near a courtyard surrounded by a low wall too high for me to see what is happening there, I hear an astonishing hubbub, a cacophony of words, cries and slaps, which arise at very short intervals. There is rhythm! I did not expect to find such a "belligerent" atmosphere in a monastery, it arouses my curiosity. I enter the enclosure, an astonishing spectacle presents itself to me: dozens of monks of all ages stand in pairs and confront each other verbally.

Hand claps to spread the word

The Kenpo (master of philosophy) Tenzin Dawa explains to me, in English: "Every day, monks of all levels and all ages meet in this courtyard to compare their knowledge and their understanding of the texts they have just learn ". The questioner is standing up and ends his sentence with a big slap of his two hands stretched out towards the questioned person who is seated. The latter must then respond as quickly as possible by, in turn, clapping his hands in the direction of the person standing and asking him, if possible, another question. "It's impressive, but it allows you to get used to staying focused and knowing who has the floor in the verbal contest", specifies Kenpo.

"Every day, monks of all levels and all ages meet in this courtyard to confront their knowledge and understanding of the texts they have just learned in verbal contests". Kenpo Tenzin Dawa

I learn that these philosophical debates are an integral part of teaching and are not new. Even before the existence of Vajrayana, Himalayan Buddhism, Indian Buddhist universities like Nalanda were already using this practice. Later, the kings of Tibet like Trisong Detsen or Songsten Gampo adopted it in turn and frequently brought together the greatest scholars of the region and neighboring countries for philosophical debates or to help them make decisions on matters of importance. religious. If the questions of the young novices are of the order of recitation and relate to basic teachings - what is the nature of the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path - on the other hand, the debates between scholars (for example those who pass their Kenpo exam) are of an extremely complex level. The texts having several levels of comprehension, twelve years of study of Buddhist philosophy are not too much to integrate the subtleties of teachings.

The Infinite Knowledge of Buddhist Philosophers

Suddenly, I realize that this experience has broadened my vision of Buddhism: it is not limited to silent meditation or mantra recitation. I close my eyes and listen to what is only a cacophony for me, but which is, in reality, a rich and necessary exchange to advance on the path of Dharma. For a few moments, I imagine being in Samye near Lhasa in the XNUMXth century when the king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, invited the best scholars of Chinese and Indian Buddhist traditions to decide in full knowledge which one to adopt for his country. Having chosen Indian Buddhism, he then formalized his decision in the presence of padmasambhava and Shantarakshita. This event called the Council of Lhasa was the beginning of Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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