Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Great Debaters

(at Asia Society)

A random piece I wrote a while ago reflecting on Geshe Thupten Jinpa’s and Daniel Purdue’s talk at Asia Society on the Tibetan Debate Tradition. It’s incomplete but as it’s just languishing on my laptop, I figured it’s better to just put it up as it is.

On April 29, 2011, Geshe Thupten Jinpa, official interpreter for His Holiness and the founder and president of Institute of Tibetan Classics in Montreal, and Daniel Purdue, the author of Debate in Tibetan Buddhism, gave a talk on the Tibetan debate tradition at Asia Society. It was fascinating and my friends and I just sat thrilled through the whole talk. I just didn’t know much about this tradition at all, except that it’s a Socratic system where you try to arrive at the truth through reasoning and that the person on the ground, answering to his opponent’s questions, only has a choice of four answers. And it seemed particularly poor not to know much about the debate tradition, because it is the primary mode of critical inquiry in the primary institutions of learning in Tibet – the monasteries.

So apparently the Tibetan debate tradition came from the Indian. In fact, it was really just constructed by one man, Charpa Choje, in the 12th century at Sangpu Monastery, who took Dharmakirti’s Pramanavartika and extracted and adapted the form of debate, including the very specific debating language.

And I don’t know because the speakers didn’t directly speak about this, but it seemed to me like since then there really hasn’t been many upgrades to this form and it has sort of carried on, this very structured, arcane language, without many changes which is one big reason that I certainly can’t understand any debate that goes on in a debating courtyard. Another of course is that a lot of the debating is done by Kham and Amdo monks whose unfamiliar accent is coupled with the specific debate language, and they might as well be speaking Esperanto.

Actually seeing Thupten Jinpa with Daniel Purdue (after the talks and before the Q&A, they staged a display of debate in English!), that was the first that I have ever been able to see the process, and I was awed and amazed because it is really $%##&(*@ awesome! It was like the Socratic dialogues, which usually start with Socrates picking a poor guy, asking a simple harmless question, asking a follow-up question to his answer, probing deeper into his answer and gradually just taking this guy apart in the most reasonable, mild and brilliant display of intelligence - well that was what Thupten Jinpa’s debate with Daniel Purdue was like.

They decided for Thupten Jinpa to take the challenger’s position and so he asked Daniel Purdue if compassion and justice were the same. DP said, no, not necessarily and it went on from there. I wish I remembered the specific twists and turns and counter turns in the argument but my memory fails.
It was like chess, but with words instead of chess pieces, so that much more challenging. Imagine if Gary Kasparov had to announce his moves instead of actually making them, where they can be tracked, on the chess board. It’s the ultimate mental exercise.

It was just wonderful. And I was seeing this debate conducted in English, not in the home tongue of the Tibetan debate, Tibetan, in which the arguments would flow that much smoother, being assisted by built-in linguistic props and tools. A fierce debate in Tibetan must be that much more intimidating and awe-inspiring.

* An info sheet prepared by Daniel Purdue on Tibetan debate can be found here