The Monks Debate-Sera Monastery, Tibet


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One of the most interesting things I witnessed in Tibet occurred at the Sera Monastery. Sera sits just outside of the city of Lhasa. It is considered to be one of the three great monasteries of the Gelug University Monasteries in the country. Founded in 1419 it was once a huge complex at which over 6,000 monks resided but during the 1959 revolt much of it was destroyed and hundreds of monks were killed.

One of the things that this particular monastery is well-known for is the monk debates. The debates occur between the monks and their teachers with a prescribed set of rules. The defender(student) is asked a question regarding Buddhist philosophy by the teacher. His job is make and defend his argument. Meanwhile, the teachers attempt to trap a student into following the wrong line of the argument by creating places in the argument which can confuse the defender. The students sit on the ground, wrapped in their red robes, while asked question after question for hours. The brain power that has to be used is immense and it drained my few working brain cells rather quickly.

This is a startling place because when a question is asked of the student a loud clap is made with the teacher striking his left palm with that of his right. When the question is answered correctly the teachers brings his right hand to his left palm while sliding it down with a slap. With an incorrect answer the palm goes down and slides into the air near the student encouraging him to try again. And all of this isn’t done in a stagnant manner. The teachers arch, sway, jump and make grand body movements as they question the student in an attempt to rattle him. The noise is incredible with the slapping sounds reverberating against the walls of the courtyard and the gravel crunching under kicking feet.

Here are my favorite pictures of our afternoon spent at Sera. This is one of those times that I think I should upgrade so I could show the video I made of this amazing debate. It was one of those once in a lifetime events that makes you happily question the meaning of life for yourself while being thankful that there is no one intimidating you by the slap of a hand.

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