If you miraculously knew someone was planning to kill 500 people by sinking a ferry, would it be right to kill them before they committed murder?
The Buddha thought it would be, according to the Jataka Tales, a major text of the faith that seeks to instill lessons via stories about the Buddha’s former lives both as a person and animal.
Answering the above question isn’t easy, obviously. Nor is understanding why the Buddha might have made such a choice on his way to enlightenment.
So, monks in the Labrang Monastery and other centers of the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism in central China debate such questions in public, open-air confrontations designed to hone their faith and analytical skills.
It’s a tradition that contradicts popular American perceptions of Buddhists as serene meditators, suggesting that a friendly disagreement is often the best way to articulate one’s point of view (or, in Buddhist parlance, discipline one’s monkey mind.)
Caixin Online, a Chinese news service, explains how the ritualized debate works:
Beginner debaters will ask questions on ontology. Kunchol [a young monk] said many of the debates revolve around the nature of the Buddha. The challenger stands, and presents an argument. A defender will volunteer in the form of a reply, and through the course of the debate, other monks will either support or defend the argument presented.
In an article for the Asia Society, Daniel Perdue, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor, explains how the debates aren’t about proving one’s opponent wrong — though monks lose when they contradict themselves. They’re about people helping each other understand the nature of things.
Buddhism is a “wisdom tradition,” meaning that it is based on the realizations or insights of the historical Buddha and that it holds that all suffering and even the suffering of death are related to a failure of wisdom. They hold that one is freed by wisdom, by seeing the nature of things. Philosophical debate is part of this effort.
The highly formalized ritual involves clapping, raising one’s arms and stomping one’s feet according to a system where the left side of the human body represents feminine wisdom and the right denotes masculine reason. The system keeps the debate fluid and helps the monks keep their focus, Perdue writes.
Think of it as Robert’s Rules of Order for the soul.