The Winter Debates in Bodhgaya
19th December – Bodhgaya.
The sixteenth session of the Winter Debates began this year on November 23 at Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya, India. The daily schedule included debates during the morning and in the afternoon, the Karmapa’s teaching on a text by the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje, called The One Hundred Short Instructions. Throughout his presentation, the Karmapa emphasized the importance of balancing study with practice, of tempering intellectual pursuit with realization arising from experience. In the Tibetan tradition, debating is an integral part of intellectual and experiential training. Its purpose is to probe an individual’s knowledge of Dharma, to remove doubts, and to elucidate what is not clear. Debating helps to ensure that understanding does not stay at the level of words, but goes deeper into the meaning. It also allows a great number of topics to be explored in a short time and to be retained more easily.
The custom of debating entered into the Kagyu tradition through the great scholar, Chapa Chökyi Senge, a Kadampa who was a teacher of the First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193). Marpa also brought the tradition of debate to Tibet, however it was Je Tsongkhapa who developed extensively the practice of debate along with the collected topics of logic so that they became a special trait of the Gelukpa tradition. The Winter Debates originated at the Geluk monastery of Ratö located in the Jang area of Central Tibet. Then in 1997, Chöje Lama Phuntsok of Lekshey Ling Shedra suggested that it would be excellent to start a tradition of Winter Debates for the Kagyu shedras, so the first session was inaugurated and they have continued regularly up to the present.
In previous years, the debates were conducted with judges from within the Kagyu tradition, and the atmosphere was more relaxed, as the monks enjoyed getting to know each other and exchanging ideas. To enliven the monks’ interest and raise the esteem for the debates within the Kagyu monasteries, the Karmapa decided to change their format and add an element of competition.
The first major change was an historic one: never before in the history of Tibet had judges from all four traditions been invited to evaluate Kagyu debates. This year, there were scholars from the Nyingma, Sakya, Geluk, and from within the Kagyu, the Drikung and Drukpa lineages. There were none from the Karmapa’s own lineage, the Karma Kamtsang, so the judges could not be accused of partiality. Further, they stayed in Tergar and the head judge rotated every day.
People often pay lip-service to the ideals of non-sectarianism. But knowing of the ultimate benefit, the Karmapa, lion-hearted, boldly invited all the lineages into the heart of the Kamtsang shedras. It took considerable courage to invite other traditions to judge the debates. One might hesitate for fear of revealing one’s special techniques or of exposing one’s weaknesses to the world. For their part, the judges appreciated his openness, and from their side, they worked very hard for over two weeks, attending not only the central debates but also the additional sessions.
Of the ten shedras present for the Winter Debates, eight were participating in the main debates, held during the morning in the main shrine hall at Tergar Monastery.* In the afternoon and evening, additional debate sessions took place in the Monlam Pavilion, so day and night the sound of challenging voices and clapping hands could be heard. And the monks continued to discuss matters as they circumambulated the shrine hall and walked back and forth to their rooms or meals.
The Karmapa’s second innovation was to structure the debates like a tournament with prizes at the end. Half of the points were awarded to the monasteries for the monks’ performances as the defender of a thesis and half were awarded to the questioning opponent’s monastery. The subjects for debate covered three areas: the collected topics of the logic texts, the classifications of mind, and the classifications of reasons. From within these, especially difficult questions were chosen, such as the presentation of uncommon contradictions or the difference between what is direct and valid and what is spurious. The basis for all of these exchanges was were the major treatises that the monks study in the shedras.
Over twelve days, the eight teams were reduced by a process of elimination to two each for the three topics. In the first rounds, four teams were eliminated; in the second, they were narrowed to two teams for each of the three topics, and on the last day, these winning teams debated the three topics to decide the winners and runners up for the three categories as well as the overall winner of the debates.
On December 13th, the final debate on classifications of the mind was shifted to the evening in the Monlam Pavilion so that everyone could easily see the event. On the steps rising behind the main platform, the Karmapa, Jamgön Rinpoche, and Gyaltsap Rinpoche sat on brocade covered chairs behind ornately carved wooden tables. Below them were the five judges, and further down on the apron of the stage were two smaller thrones for the defenders from Bokar Rinpoche’s Thösam Norling Gatsal. Some twenty feet back, stood two microphones for the ten questioners from Jamgön Kongtrul’s Rigpe Dorje Institute. The defender’s position is actually the most difficult as they are vigorously challenged by a group of lively monks at the mics who often move in perfect unison, tuning into the same point with the same words.
To begin the final debate, the two defending monks came forward and made three bows in the direction of the Karmapa and then took their seats, wrapping themselves in their maroon cloaks and setting beside them the yellow cockade hat they would wear when quoting texts to back up their arguments. As with all the debates, the session lasted forty minutes, which were which were counted down on digital clocks displayed over two screens on either side of the stage. The element of passing time added to the heightened intensity of the evening, as the monks waited to see who would win the coveted prizes. At the end of the debate, one monk, walking in slow circles in front of the others, gave an elegant summary, making the traditional dedication of merit and expressing everyone’s wishes for auspiciousness to spread throughout the world.
The MC for the evening was from Sherab Ling and served this year as the head discipline master. He introduced the debate and announced the prizes at the end. A table on stage right was set with seven trophies, with certificates for the winners, and a stack of large, rectangular replicas of the checks to be given. Alongside these were three new mobile phones. The prizes were awarded on the basis of three criteria: the monks’ ability to stay on topic; their use of quotations that were relevant and within their own tradition; and finally, their conduct in maintaining decorum and respect for others.
As the debate ended and the award ceremony began, the Karmapa came down the steps to the front of the platform to give out the prizes. The first award of a Wisdom Text trophy along with a certificate and a check of 25, 000 Indian rupees for their monastery went to Sherab Ling, the runner up in the debates on the collected topics. The same prizes for the runner up in the second and third categories of the classifications of mind and of reasons were both awarded to Rigpe Dorje Institute. The top winners in these same three categories—Rigpe Dorje for the first two, and Sherab Ling for the last one—each received an elegant and transparent, smaller Sword of Wisdom, certificates, and a check of 50,000 for their monastery. The top prize, which was the greater Sword of Wisdom, certificate, and check of 100,000 for the monastery, was awarded to Bokar Rinpoche’s shedra for the best performance over the whole period of the Winter Debates.
The final three prizes went to three individual monks. The top award of a new iPhone 5 was given to a monk from Sherab Ling for being consistently diligent. The next prize, the newest Samsung Galaxy, went to another monk from Sherab Ling for being the best defender. The final trophy of an HTC mobile went to a monk from Tergar monastery for being the best questioner.
As the excitement from the award ceremony subsided, the judges took turns speaking about their experience and the practice of debate in general. All five mentioned how impressed they were by the Karmapa’s wisdom and learning, his qualities as a spiritual leader and human being, and his great humility. One judge remarked that although all five came from different traditions, when they compared the marks they had assigned to the debaters, their numbers were very similar, so there was a natural consensus on what constitutes good debating. Another judge spoke of the blessings of the lineage that can be received through debate. Yet another judge emphasized the importance of studying Dharma, the highest form of education. He also said that all the monks won prizes, as each one had the opportunity to deepen his understanding of the definitive Dharma.
The Karmapa cautioned the monks not to let the awards go to their heads or focus on personal achievement but to remember a wholesome pride in the Dharma and all its qualities and to let the awards be an inspiration to study even harder. He mentioned that debates belong to the practice of integrating experience and study and remain an important vehicle for training in the Dharma.
In his advice to his winning monks from Bokar Rinpoche’s shedra, Khenpo Dönyö echoed the Karmapa’s way of thinking when he said that it is thanks to the Karmapa, the lineage lamas, and their teachers that the monks had the benefit of this special opportunity. Performing with excellence is the best offering that they could make.
The Winter Debates concluded with four days of presenting papers and discussing three aspects of the vinaya (monastic discipline): the ceremony of restitution and purification; the summer retreat; and the ceremony to end the summer retreat. At the conclusion of the seminar on December 19, the Karmapa received feedback from the monks on all aspects of the Winter Debates and on how to improve them. He also spoke of instituting in the future a Winter Debate session for the nuns, which would be a wonderful revolution.
On the evening of December 19, the Karmapa gave extensive thanks to everyone, from the monks who participated, through the monks in the administrations of Tsurphu and Tergar, all the way up to the government of Bihar. He also prayed that people would seek to help each other and create peace in the world. He concluded that when good deeds are done, it is important to dedicate them for the benefit of others and to make aspiration prayers as well. With these good wishes for the teachings to expand, and in particular, for the tradition of discussion and debate to flourish, he concluded the Sixteenth Winter Debates.
* The eight were: 1) Karma Shri Nalanda Institute from the Karma’s seat in Rumtek; 2) Lungrik Jampal Ling from Situ Rinpoche’s Sherab Ling Monastery; 3) Rigpe Dorje Institute from Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche’s monastery in Lava; 4) Benchen Nangten Tösam Ling from Tenga Rinpoche’s monastery; 5) Lekshey Ling, Chöje Lama Phuntsok’s Shedra; 6) Thösam Norling Gatsal, Bokar Rinpoche’s shedra; 7) Tergar Ösel Ling from Mingyur Rinpoche’s monastery; and 8) Zurmang Shedra Lungtok Norbu Gatsal Ling from Garwang Rinpoche’s monastery. Two shedras were present but did not participate in the formal debates: Nedo Tashi Chöling from Karma Chakme’s monastery and Drodön Kunkhyab Chöde from Kalu Rinpoche’s monastery.