In the early 1900’s the Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi disguised himself and entered the forbidden land of Tibet. After arriving in Lhasa on his eventful journey Kawaguchi visited the debating courtyard of Sera Monastery, one of Tibet’s most important monasteries even to this day. The ritual he describes, which he witnessed shortly after the turn of the 20th century, has not changed much, apart from the number of visitors who now come to see it. Sera Monastery is about 5 kilometres from central Lhasa and retains the shady courtyard Kawaguchi describes in his “Three Years in Tibet”, which describes the journey he undertook between 1897 and 1903.
During the debate the inquisitor stands above his student and assails him with a stream of questions. Although the tone may start reasonably subdued, it quickly escalates in energy and frenzy with the questioner aggressively and threateningly clapping his hands above the head of the student while simultaneously stamping his foot on the ground. Kawaguchi explains that the teachers tell the monks: “… the foot must come down so strongly that the door of hell may be broken open, and the hands must make so great a noise that the voice of knowledge may frighten the devils all over the world …”. The debates remain good-humored, despite the apparent aggressiveness in the exchange with the verbal battle lasting around 3 hours on most afternoons.
Although the future of Tibet remains an open question, Tibetans hold tenaciously to traditions that have endured for centuries. One old monk in Lhasa told me many years ago: “We are the last, when we die Tibetan Buddhism, true Tibetan Buddhism, will die with us”. What I find amazing, is that 20 years after he told me this, despite the enormous and perhaps troubling changes that Tibet has undergone, many traditions remain, seemingly intact, at least for the moment.
Buddhist debates can be seen in many monasteries across the territory once held by Tibet, even in areas that have been part of Chinese territory since 1913, such as the great Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, in China’s Gansu Province. Wherever it is seen, the debate is a tradition that reaches back centuries to a time when the world, and Tibet, were very different places.