Monks’ Debate

SYNOPSIS:  About a monastic kitchen, religious books, and a monastic debate. 

Two of the most important Gelugpa monasteries are just a stone’s-throw from Lhasa and can be reached in on a day’s trip:  Drepung and Sera Monastery.  They were on our program for today.

Drepung Monastery is perched up on a hill and follows in its structure the typical monastic layout with dormitories for the monks in residence, various temples dedicated to deities particularly worshipped at this monastery, and at least one if not more multi-pillered assembly halls.  Photography was, as usually, limited to the exterior of the buildings.  It was a cold, gray, and drizzly day.  The clouds practically hung right over the monastery and it took a few hours before the sun broke through.

The most fascinating feature of this place was a huge kitchen, the first I have seen of this size.  At the nunnery in Lhasa, I had a glimpse of their kitchen, but it was small, almost household size.  This one, on the other hand, once served hundreds of monks, and never in my life have I seen cooking pots of this size!  How on earth would they be moved?  Or perhaps, they never would be moved once in place?  For cleaning purposes, a person could literally climb inside and scrub them.  There was no stove, but a stone platform of about 10 meters square.  That platform held four humongous iron kettles, completely blackened from use over time.  An opening below the kettles connected by shafts to the edge of the platform, allowed for fuel to be shoveled in to keep the fires beneath the kettles going.  The entire kitchen was blackened from the soot of time. 

Barley is a staple food around here for monks and the general population alike.  A filling meal can be prepared by taking barley flower, mixed with sugar, milk or water, and stirring it into a paste of any desired consistency:  relatively dry, or quite watery.  This mix is known as tsampa, locally and eaten almost daily the way we might eat cereals in the morning. It has a slightly yeasty taste.  Monks would be served tsampa and tea a lot. There are a variety of typical Tibetan teas:  One is the sweetened milk tea, another one is mixed with some yak butter and then there is the ultimate butter tea.  So far I have not had any.  Something about it does not sound appealing to me and I don’t want to risk any accidents. 

One of the oldest, yet smallest temples on the site is dedicated to some “natural images” believed to have been created miraculously by themselves.

After a delicious vegetarian buffet lunch, we headed to Sera Monastery.  It is known for several interesting things:  First, it operates one of the oldest and biggest printing presses for religious literature.  Book printing in the Tibetan tradition is based on woodblock prints.  Shelf upon shelf is stacked with wooden plates measuring about 3-4 inches in width and about 1-2 feet in length.  Each wooden plate is engraved with one page of a particular text.  Depending on the length of the text, 20 to several hundred wooden plates are needed to print one book.  These days, simple paper covers are put on top and bottom of the text and a string holds it all together.  In the monasteries one sees the more typical way:  Top and bottom of a stack of paper text are wooden plates, engraved themselves with beautiful imagery, and at times painted.  The pack of paper sheets is wrapped in a silk cloth (yellow or red), and placed between the wooden covers.  The silk wrapping has two or three small embroidered “flaps” hanging out from the side, in between which the name of the text is written on a piece of cotton.  Most monasteries house their library right behind the assembly halls, as those double up as classrooms and debate halls.  Most of the time these days, the library is housed behind glass. Only in one monastery have I seen them in open shelves. 

The second feature that makes Sera monastery famous is the ability of some of its monks to cure kids with chronic, psychic illnesses such as nightmares, insomnia, or anxieties.  Children are brought here from near and far in hope for a cure.  The monks diagnose and bless these kids, and put a charcoal mark on their noses.  We saw several kids walking around with these marks, impossible to photograph.  But I was lucky enough to come upon two boys who had sat down and unbeknownst to them, I was able to zoom them in and take their picture.

But the highlight of the day was to witness a public debate by monks in the courtyard of Sera monastery.  Debates are an essential part of a monk’s training no matter which field of study he embarks on.  The typical fields taught at the larger monasteries are theology, tantrism, philosophy, and medicine.  These debates are unlike anything that would happen in a Western-style debate.  They feel more like a chaotic, competitive dance performance, influenced by tai-chi or karate.  It is a spectacle unique in the world.

About a hundred red-robed monks had congregated in a shady courtyard of the monastery dotted with trees.  Debates happen between a pair of monks.  Fifty or more debates can go on simultaneously, adding to the sense of chaos.  One monk is seated on a cushion.  He is the one receiving questions.  He has to contemplate them and come up with answers.  The other monk is standing, dancing around his partner, posing questions and following each question with slapping his hands and a loud sound of… joy?  Or perhaps something like:  There you have it!  Depending on the personality of the questioner, this dance and his body language can take on a near sadistic feel as he seems to take great pleasure in bombarding his opponent with questions he is unable to answer.  There seems to be a distinctly unequal playing field.  The monk receiving the question is sitting either smiling, trying to answer, or with his head down, as if defeated.  Or is he?  Perhaps, he is just contemplating and will snap back at his tormentor with the perfect answer, which might end this round of the debate?  In between the bombardment of questions, the standing monk might bend down and gently touch the shoulder or the head of the seated one, as if to make amends for his gleeful attacks. 

I could have watched this debate for hours as I found this endlessly fascinating, but  Tenzin urged us to move on.  He explained that these debates can go on for hours.  Eventually, places are switched and roles reversed. 

Funny enough, photography was forbidden at the debate, cell phones excepted!  What?  I was very grateful for this rule even though once again, this made absolutely no sense to me.  The debate court was lined with tourists who not only recorded some of this spectacle, but took selfies on big long selfie sticks with their cell phones.  How could this be better than taking pictures with a normal camera?

Anyhow, this was the highlight of the day for me.  Sera seems to be the only monastery which holds these debates publicly and allows visitors.   

If you are ever in Tibet, don’t miss it!