To debate or not to debate: That is the question
The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk
Massimo Corona: Many people believe that debate is a type of group discussion after a teaching, where everyone sits down and exchanges views and queries about topics. But in your book, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, you make the very clear distinction that this is dialectical debate, which respects certain rules.
Georges Dreyfus: Yes, in the book I explain the general procedures in the Tibetan Buddhist way of studying: On one hand, you study both your teacher’s oral commentaries as well as the written commentaries of your tradition. That’s the first part. The second part is debate, and in my experience it’s pretty clear that the two go together to provide the full range of training.
By studying the commentaries, you receive the appropriate tradition. You are taught what the world is like, what the path is like, and so on. There is no question that you can learn by this method.
But in order really to understand, you cannot just repeat what has been told to you. Western thinkers like Hans-Georg Gadamer say that to understand is to be able to question. You can learn things and you can repeat things, but as long as you are not able to raise questions you are little more than a parrot, just repeating what you’ve been taught. You must go further and question and raise doubts. This is the sign of mature understanding.
This can be very difficult, because there are no rules for questioning. When you are confronted with a statement, there is no way to tell where, and how, to question. It’s a matter of insight – the person either recognizes that there is something questionable there or not. So mastering the art of debate provides the training and develops habits of thinking that allows us to question insightfully.
One person sets forth a number of teasers, and the second person tries to oblige the first person by contradicting him. Training in debate is really training in learning how to see the weak points in contradiction.
MC: I remember from my short year studying debate in Rikon, Switzerland, that the questioner was saying, “If you continue to hold that position, it really means such and such, and that is an absurdity and an impossible consequence.”
GD: That depends on what you mean by consequence. Debate in the Tibetan tradition proceeds mostly by consequences. The goal of the questioner is to oblige the defender to contradict himself or herself. If you practice this repeatedly, you will develop a frame of mind, which looks for difficulties and weak points. In the Tibetan tradition, it is a very important frame of mind, which leads the student, ultimately, to the Madhyamaka view.
MC: I felt that the faculties of my mind got somewhat sharper after a year of studying debate. Not only that – my ability to understand any type of reasoning in a quick way increased more and more. So is debate like yoga for the mind?
GD: Yes, it is a kind of discipline of the mind that aims to develop logical abilities. But also, importantly, it develops the ability to question, and for me, that is the most important thing because most of us have the tendency, when confronted by a text, a statement, and so on, either simply to accept it or to refute it out of hand because it contradicts our belief. That’s not a very good attitude for understanding the Madhyamaka perspective …