The ancient Sera Thekchenling Monastery, situated on 28 acres, is one of the three great monasteries of Tibet. It’s not a place of worship, but a monastic university that provides religious education to monks until age seventy. At one time, more than 5,000 monks studied here.
We come to a set of red double doors with a sign overhead: DEBATING COURTYARD. The monastery is famous for the debates held in this enclosed yard every day at three o’clock. Inside, I encounter red-robed monks, both young and old, sitting in small groups under the trees and practicing traditional Tibetan debating. Rather like sparring matches, a senior monk stands up in front of a group of junior monks and fires off questions accentuated by hand gestures.
The purpose is to keep the young monks focused on Buddhist doctrine and philosophical concepts. During the debates they study a philosophical point and try to establish its validity through reasoning, and I have a front-row seat. Even though I can’t understand their lively exchanges, it’s fascinating to observe the monks’ debating choreography and expressive faces. With graceful movements, the senior monks drive their point home by rocking forward, lifting one leg, slapping their hands, and snapping their mala beads at the seated monks. These gestures force the seated monks to jerk back when the mala beads get too close to their faces as the senior monk pushes them for an answer. Although serious in nature, the courtyard is filled with laughter, energy, and enthusiasm. I want to be reincarnated as a monk teaching philosophy. I can see myself standing up in front of my class, posing a question, slapping my hands, and snapping my beads.
When the debate is over, I sit outside the courtyard and wait for Sherab to return from who knows where. I ask a local to explain more about the debating process. It can be either a Buddhist scripture or something like the example he gives me: “You are facing a house that has just been built. After you walk through the door, is it still a new house or is it an old house?”
After the monk presents the question, he clasps his left palm with his right hand and pulls the left hand backward. Each gesture has a specific meaning. The right hand pushing down in a clapping motion signifies a wrong answer, and the left hand raised in the clapping motion symbolizes a correct answer. Known as koans, these puzzles can be presented as a story, a question, or a statement. The meaning can’t be understood by rational thinking. Koans help one go beyond the thinking mind. Most people are familiar with the koan: two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand clapping?
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