Debate in Tibetan Buddhism: The Practice and Theory of Introductory Buddhist Logic and Epistemology

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The practice and theory of Tibetan Buddhist logic and epistemology is the focus of this clear and thorough exposition. Debate is the investigative technique used in Tibetan education to sharpen analytical capacities and convey philosophical concepts, so it is essential to master its procedure. Using a debate manual by Pur-bu-jok Jam-ba-gya-tso (1825–1901) as his basis, Daniel Perdue covers elementary debate and demonstrates its application to a variety of secular and religious educational contexts.

The translation is supplied with annotations on procedure and content drawn from Tibetan teachers expert in debate.

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Chapter One

The Place of Reasoning

Sentient beings (sems can, sattva) suffer continuously in the prison of cyclic existence ('khor ba, samsara) due to the force of ignorance (ma rig pa, avidya). There is no possibility for sentient beings to escape the repeated round of birth, aging, sickness, and death without actualizing in their own continuums the realizations that destroy ignorance. Buddha said:

Buddhas neither wash sins away with water,
Nor remove beings' sufferings with their hands,
Nor transfer their realisations to others; beings
Are freed through the teachings of the truth, the
nature of things.

Buddhas cannot grant liberation to suffering sentient beings. Rather, they teach them the nature of phenomena and thereby enable them to escape the suffering of cyclic existence by their own attainment of wisdom (shes rab, prajna). Ignorance is the root cause of all suffering, and wisdom is the antidote to ignorance. Through learning one eventually becomes established in wisdom. "Putting far away ... a foolish doctrine which pleases laziness, one ought to do at first, as well as one can, an extensive learning of the doctrine." Ashvaghosha's Garland of the Life Tales (jatakamala) says:

Learning is like a lamp for eliminating the darkness of ignorance.

Just as a lamp illumines a house so that one can see colors and shapes, so learning and wisdom enable one to see the nature of phenomena. According to Lati Rinbochay, "There is nophenomenon which cannot be understood. There is no doctrine which, if studied well, cannot be learned, and there is no person who, if he or she studies well, cannot become wise."

    The essence of Buddha's doctrine and the source of all monastic studies is the four noble truths. The first of these is true sufferings (sdug bsngal bden pa, duhkha-satya), that all sentient beings are constantly beset by suffering. Padmasambhava, a great Indian Buddhist scholar and adept, said that life in cyclic existence is like living on the point of a needle. No matter which way one turns within cyclic existence there is no relief of suffering and no happiness. The second truth is true origins (kun 'byung bden pa, samudaya-satya) which is ignorance, the root cause of suffering. Ignorance is not merely not knowing something, but is an active misconception. Third is true cessations ('gog bden, nirodha-satya), the fact that there is an utter eradication of suffering. The fourth is true paths (lam bden, marga-satya), the wisdom knowing the opposite of what ignorance conceives, which leads one to the cessation of suffering.

    The religious practitioner is compared to a patient and Buddha to a doctor. Buddha administers the medicine of doctrine (chos, dharma) to sentient beings who suffer the illness of ignorance. The purpose for debate and all Buddhist practice directed toward one's own liberation is to abandon the first two truths, suffering and origin, and to attain the latter two, cessation and path.

    Specifically, in the system of the Proponents of Sutra Following Reasoning, the point of view from which the Collected Topics literature is written, the subtle ignorance that is the cause of sentient beings' suffering is identified as the conception of oneself as a self-sufficient (rang rkya ba) or substantially existent (rdzas su yod pa, dravya-sat) person. This is the view of the person as like a lord and master who controls the subjects, mind and body. The lack of being a serf-sufficient or substantially existent person is a selflessness of persons (gang zag gi bdag med, pudgala-nairatmya).

    In the view put forth in this system, sentient beings under the influence of this root ignorance are drawn into contaminated (zag bcas, sasrava) actions and afflictions and powerlessly impelled again and again into birth, aging, sickness, and death. Just as a cattleman can lead a strong bull by a nose-ring, so sentient beings are lead into suffering by the nose-ring of ignorance.

    The medicine for the illness of ignorance is wisdom, the knowledge that persons lack the nature of being self-sufficient or substantially existent. Wisdom is the actual antidote to ignorance and the cure for suffering. One can temporarily suppress hatred by cultivating a loving attitude, desire by seeing the faults of the object of desire, and so forth, but in order to break the continuous cycle of suffering one must utterly destroy the root cause, ignorance. All of the study in debate is directed toward this goal, the eradication of ignorance. Depending upon one's motivation, one's efforts at debate and learning may be directed toward just one's own liberation or, for those more capable, toward the liberation of all sentient beings, oneself and others.

     Ignorance and the afflictive emotions of desire and hatred which it induces are not inherent in the nature of the mind. Rather, the essential nature of the mind is pure, though for sentient beings it is stained with defilements. Just as clouds block the sun but the sky remains free of obstructions, so the defilements stain the mind but the mind remains essentially pure. Cyclic existence did not begin as the sport of a deity or by an originally pure mind's becoming impure, for the cause of cyclic existence is beginningless ignorance. Once ignorance is removed, cyclic existence vanishes.


The central purposes of Tibetan monastic debate are to defeat misconceptions, to establish the correct view, and to clear away objections to that view. To these ends, with great effort, the Ge-luk-ba monks engage in debate diligently seeking to learn well the words and to understand fully the meaning of the Buddhist doctrine.

    Within this context, in the greater Tibetan monasteries the principal means of learning is debate. The monastery is the center of the Buddha's doctrine and a gathering place for those seeking inward peace and spiritual growth. In the monastery the sole purpose for study is to put the Buddha's teachings into practice in order to attain enlightenment, Great emphasis is placed on the knowledge to be gained through debate. Debate for the monks of Tibet is not mere academics but a way of using direct implications from the obvious in order to generate an inference of the non-obvious state of phenomena. The diligent debaters are seeking to understand the nature of reality through careful analysis of the state of existence of ordinary phenomena, the bases of reality. This is the essential purpose for religious debate. As renunciates of worldly paths, having abandoned that which will not help, the monks seek to attain an incontrovertible understanding. Religious practitioners must be like bees gathering honey, taking only the essential and leaving the rest.

    All Buddhist practices are based on the trilogy of hearing (thos pa, shruta) the teaching of the doctrine, thinking (bsam pa, chinta) about its meaning, and meditating (sgom pa, bhavana) on it. Philosophical debate fits into all three of these levels of practice, but is mainly included in the level of thinking. One hears teaching on the topics of debate, this teaching often being given in the debating form. Then one reads the texts, memorizes the definitions and divisions, and on one's own thinks about the meaning of what one is studying. After this preparation one is able to debate the topic with others. One puts forth one's own view or understanding of a point of doctrine, and others raise objections to that view. Similarly, one raises objections to others' interpretations or understandings. This debating of the points of doctrine with others is included in the level of thinking. Further, the debating process may be utilized in the level of meditation as when one is pursuing analytical meditation and raising qualms as if one were debating with oneself. Analytical meditation is the main type of meditation, and debate is able to help this process by sharpening the reasoning capacities and providing one with a procedure for orderly investigation and analysis. Thus, debate may be included in all three practices of hearing, thinking, and meditating.

    His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the religious and secular leader of Tibet, affirms that the real significance of monastic training, including debate, is in its usefulness in helping one to extinguish all faults and to attain all auspicious attributes, including the generation of Buddhahood itself. If we apply his more general advice to the topic at hand, the immediate purpose for philosophical debate is practical application of the knowledge, not mere learnedness. If one can have both learnedness and a sense of practical application, then that is best. But if one were to have to choose, then: "A sense of practical application would be more important, for one who has this will receive the full benefit of whatever he knows." It is better to apply thoroughly even just one stanza of the excellent doctrine than to learn merely the words of the great texts and not to understand them. Mere learnedness is not sufficient and may be detrimental if one uses his knowledge of the words to defeat others and not to help them, but practical application and thorough understanding together will only help. It will help oneself, it will help others.

    In a series of private meetings during February of 1975, Geshe Lobsang Tharchin, a Tibetan scholar of the highest rank, discussed his view on the purpose and application of monastic debate. After many years of study and debate at Se-ra monastery near Hla-sa in Tibet he earned the title of Hla-ram-ba Ge-shay, the highest of four rankings of the Geshay degree. "Ge-shay" (dge bshes, kalyana-mitra), meaning "virtuous friend" or "spiritual guide", is a title earned much as a Doctorate of Philosophy and indicates a high order of proficiency in religious debate as well as an extensive and thorough knowledge of central Buddhist doctrines in the sutra systems. Here are summarized Geshe Lobsang Tharchin's remarks on Tibetan monastic debate as translated into English by Artemus B. Engle:

The purpose for debate is not to defeat and embarrass a mistaken opponent, thereby gaining some victory for oneself; rather, the purpose is to help the opponent overcome his wrong view. The real meaning of debate, its true significance, has three parts. The first lies in the refutation of mistaken conceptions or invalid reasoning. It is the nature of things that mistaken conceptions are prevalent; so, the first purpose for debate is to dispel wrong views. Such views are not to be given place. This is the predominant usage of debate, for usually the reasoning is used to overcome fallacies and misunderstandings.

The second significance of debate is that of positing the correct view. Debate is not merely a means of refutation, but also serves to present the unmistaken. The third significance is that of clearing up uncertainties about the validity of the position which has been stated. If there is an apparent inconsistency in the correct view that was posited, then that must be resolved. This consists of being able to defend successfully one's own correct position from any possible inappropriate criticism. Formal debate has these three aspects, and the subject of debate has these three areas.
Primarily one uses debate to overcome the abundant misconceptions in one's own and other's thought. The most outstanding feature of non-Buddhist beliefs is the acceptance of an entity which is permanent in nature and yet an entity which performs a function. Such a view is radically unacceptable to the Buddhists. The Buddhists define a permanent phenomenon as something which exists but is not of an instantaneous nature. Such a phenomenon is not something which is created, abides, and disintegrates. It is not acceptable for a thing which performs a function to be permanent. As a permanent phenomenon, it would have to be something which remained in existence for more than an instant. The basic criticism of the non-Buddhist view that there could be a permanent functioning thing is that if that creative principle produced all other phenomena, then it would have to have either produced the phenomena all at the same moment or at different moments. There is no third possibility. If they were all produced in the same moment, then they would by necessity have existed for all time in the same manner or they would have never come into being at all. But it is obvious from experience that phenomena do exist and that they have not always existed in the same way. If phenomena were produced at different moments, then the creator of phenomena would be something which performed one function in one instant and another function at another instant; therefore, the creator would be changing and impermanent. Thus, the Buddhists conclude that a phenomenon which is both permanent and functioning cannot exist.
A thing which performs a function must by its very nature exist at one time and not exist at another time. This is the way that impermanent phenomena are defined. They come into being when the causes which produce them converge and they disappear when those causes are no longer present. Just so, the imperfections of the mind, the afflictions, are said to be removed by virtue of the fact that the causes and conditions which produced them can be removed. Then those afflictions will likewise disappear. But this theory of cause and effect, fundamental to the Buddhists, is not held to be so by the non-Buddhists.


Excerpted from Debate in Tibetan Buddhism by Daniel E. Perdue. Copyright © 1992 by Daniel E. Perdue. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Technical Note ix
Preface xiii
1 The Place of Reasoning 3
2 Syllogisms and Consequences 33
3 Definitions and Definienda 61
4 The Subjects 75
5 The Procedure in Debate 99
6 The Comparison of Phenomena 133
7 Translation Introduction 169
8 Colors and So Forth 185
9 Established Bases 267
10 Identifying Isolates 411
11 Opposite-From-Being-Something and
Opposite-From-Not-Being-Something 481
12 The Introductory Presentation of Causes and Effects 531
13 Generalities and Instances 617
14 Substantial and Isolate Phenomena 695
15 Conclusion 775
Glossary 861
Bibliography 893
Index 901
TibetanText of "The Introductory Path of
Reasoning" in Pur-bu-jok Jam-ba-gya-tso's The 939
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