Heated Debates at Sera Monastery, Tibet

In the afternoon of our second full day in Lhasa we visited the same monastery which Don Ippolito Desideri, the Jesuit from Pistoia mentioned in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/a-morning-in-lhasa/ , stayed at back at the start of the eighteenth century and, indeed, where he was given his own chapel by the chief Lama to practise his devotions.

Sera is one of Tibet’s three great teaching monastic universities, the other two being Drepung and Ganden (which we did not visit) and is situated on the slopes of Wangput mountain a little outside Lhasa at a height of 13,000 feet. The mountain slopes also contain nineteen hermitages where those monks seeking greater seclusion towards their search for enlightenment may stay, and four nunneries too.  (It should be stated that Tibetan nuns, recognised by their very short hair, have played a leading role in the Tibetan resistance movement.)

The word ‘Sera’ in Tibetan means wild rose and, indeed, the site is still surrounded by wild roses. The original monastery was founded by Jamchen Chojey of the great Gelugpa (yellow hat) order in 1419 and houses a little over five hundred monks.

As sadly with so many other monasteries in Tibet Sera suffered grievously during the Cultural Revolution with widespread destruction of its colleges and an untold number of monks (ranging into the hundreds) slaughtered.

As a result of this massacre many monks fled south into India and established a parallel Sera monastery at Bylakuppe near Mysore. This Sera mark-two monastery houses around six thousand monks, nearly six times the number at the original site in Tibet. I must visit it next time I’m in the sub-continent.

Fortunately there is little visual evidence of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution at Sera, Tibet. We found the monastery a very serene place filled with happy pilgrims and monks. The buildings looked very well cared for and intact and there was some work taking place to replace the drainage system in parts. I do feel the Chinese want to draw a curtain, as much as the rest of us, over what was going on in Tibet during those critical years between 1966 and 1976.

Sera has some fine buildings including a large assembly hall but it is particularly famous for two things.

First, is its fine collection of wood blocks used for printing books. In the workshop I was able to obtain a copy of that masterpiece of Tibetan literature, the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead. To have my copy of it from Sera monastic University was indeed tremendous. All I’ve got to do now is to learn Tibetan (although I do have the Evans-Wentz translation.)

(My copy of the Bardo Thodol – liberation through hearing – from Sera Monastery)

Second, is the monastic university’s debate sessions. We were in time for the afternoon one and came across yet another of those extraordinary sights one encounters in the mountain kingdom. In the debating courtyard I noticed around a hundred pairs of monks, one sitting meekly on the ground the other striding around him and outstretching both hands clapping them and wildly twirling his auspicious rosary of 108 beads.

What did all this noise and kafuffle mean I wondered? Translation please!

Actually, each pair of monks represents a question-and-answer session. The standing monk or teacher questions the sitting monk or pupil. The arm gestures and clappings signify the beginning and the end of each question. If the teacher is annoyed by the student he circles around him (clockwise of course) three times.

If anyone thought of Sera debates as something on the lines of the Oxford Union then think again. The ‘debate’ is, in fact, a religious quiz. Questions are generally closed ones by nature of the replies the novice is allowed to give and the subjects could relate to the relationship between Dharma and Karma, the nature of Samsara, truths about a Bodhisattva, even if a yak can be enlightened, the four noble truths established by Gautama etc, etc. I do wish more could have been explained to me about the questions asked but they are all on doctrinal matters.

Afterwards I discovered that the Tibetan argument takes two forms to defeat wrong ideas and clarify understanding. The first type of argument proposed by a teacher is that of a syllogism made up of a thesis and a reason stated together in one sentence. The second is that of a consequence, similar to a syllogism but an expansion of the pupil’s answer.

Let’s try to give a ‘western’ example:

Listening to Beethoven’s fifth symphony is a transient experience because the sound starts and then after just over half-an-hour it stops. It is thus a product. The minor premise is that music is impermanent because it is a product of instruments starting and ending to play.

The major premise is that all products are transient. Everything (and everyone) has a birth and a death. It follows from the major premise, too, that sound is transient

The pupil can thus answer in one of at least three ways at the premises launched to him by the teacher.

(1) “The reason is not established,” = denying a minor premise;

(2) “There is no pervasion,” = denying the major premise;

(3) “I accept it,” = accepting the argument and the conclusion.

They then may have to take the ‘consequence’.

The session did look and sound an odd way to question novices on their knowledge of the Dharma and Buddhist doctrinal matters. I would have been truly scared to be a novice at Sera! It was, however, fascinating to watch. But when I thought of the debate as a combat sport, spiritual rather than physical, it began to make more sense to me.

Two main rules had to be observed by those non-monastic spectators attending the debate: one was to keep silent – this was pretty easy as nothing could be heard above the general discussion mayhem; the other was that photos could only be taken using a cell phone. I think this second rule was a desperate one since it’s quite rare to find a Chinese or even a Tibetan person without one of these items of technology in their hands (that includes monks as well) and it just seems natural to take a picture of this astonishing event…

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Actually, this system of debate, or ‘closed dialectic’ as I’d rather prefer to term it, goes back a long way. It originated in India several thousands of years ago and apparently there was a similar thing going on among the Greek philosophical schools.

Developing one’s awareness of the ultimate Truth and opening the doors of perception is indeed a systematic ritual. Whether, to outsiders, the ritual looks like the next thing to a pub argument is irrelevant for behind it all there are strict rules of procedure which both the teacher and pupil must observe.

Incidentally, the system continues in Italian schools where oral examinations are as important as written ones and certainly in other religions although the rules of engagement may differ. I suppose in England the dreaded interview is the closest one gets to it.

The word ‘argument’ also needs clarification. In English ‘to have an argument’ is usually taken to mean having an often rough disagreement between two (or more) persons. One can also use the word in the context ‘My argument for the existence of the yeti is etc.’ Argument or ‘argomento’ in Italian means something quite different than its usual English use, ‘L’argomento dell’Opera è’ means ‘the ‘plot of the opera is’ – argomento is never used in the context of a rough exchange as in English. It generally means a discussion or ‘point’.

Certainly the debating sessions, for which Sera is particularly famous, seemed to me to draw a fine line between ‘litigare’ and ‘discutere’. I’m sure, however, that the novices, quickly learnt where they went wrong! Everyone, anyway, left on good terms.

Sera Monastery has a big festival called Sera Bengqin on the 27th day of the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar (which is around February). It’s one of the coldest parts of the year but I’m sure that the crowds of pilgrims will do much to warm one up.

It was great to see something of the monks’ daily routine at Sera but we were raring to see more of the country outside Lhasa. Our wish was to be satisfied, for next day we would be travelling through some of the most spectacular country I’ve ever seen and surmount three mountain passes, two of which would approach 17,000 feet in height.

Swine before Pearls?

On our first full day at Zhongdian (AKA Shangri-La) we took a journey in the surrounding environs to visit Gyalthang Ringha monastery, a sweet little temple with a multiplicity of prayer flags surrounding it.

Since prayer flags are such a universal item in Tibetan, Nepalese and Mongolian culture it may be useful to say something about them here.

Prayer flags are largely hung up at temple and mountain passes and their main purpose is to bless the countryside around them. Their use predates Buddhism and is associated with the primeval Bon religion.

Prayer flags are usually printed with wood blocks and their different colours relate to aspects of the universe.  The colours, arranged from left to right, are blue, symbolising sky and space, white standing for air and wind, red representing fire, green standing for water and yellow denoting the earth. These are the five universal elements, or pure lights, of life itself.  In Tibetan alchemy it’s the balance of the five elements which produce health and harmony in one.

But what’s written on the flags themselves? There are prayers and mantras transmitted by the gods or devas containing important formulae to protect one against the demons or asuras which permeate our universe. Truly our lives are a battle between good and evil – such is the nature of the primal force which creates and destroys the universe – the arcane dialectic between life and death.

Prayer flags also assist the souls of the dead to reach the sphere of the gods. Indeed, on many of them there’s a horse galloping in an upward direction which symbolises carrying the spirits of the dead, Pegasus-like, to the higher regions and escape from the relentless wheel of samsara or reincarnation.

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This quadruped is called a wind-horse or ’lung ta’ (strong horse). It bears three jewels on its back representing represent the Buddha, the Dharma (or divine law) and the Sangha (or Buddhist community). If you are suffering bad luck then hanging a prayer flag with a lung ta can change your bad times to good fortune. It’s truly worth trying, I’m sure. Just hanging up a prayer flag will bless you with good fortune. (Incidentally, the animals on the corner of a prayer flag are known as the four dignities and they are the dragon, the garuda – or heavenly  eagle -, the tiger and the snow lion).

As prayer flags fade they become part of the universe and add their little quota of peace and accord to the cosmos.

I often think how different the significant of flags are between those in the part of the world we were visiting and which stand for peace, and those in the west which so often represent nationalism and all the partitions of humankind that that word brings – war and devastation. Nothing could be further apart than the evil black flags carried by terrorist groups and the harmonious colours of the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the high places of a country which so singly has sought those things which are really of the highest matter to us – reconciliation, amity and divine love.

There is so much to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and I have just scratched the surface. Imagine what it must be like for a protestant (or indeed someone of any other religious persuasion) to enter into a Catholic shrine and try to make sense of it all. It’s because religion is itself a metaphor for all those aims that we would ideally wish life to be and metaphor is itself dependent on the environment which surrounds one, whether it be high snowy mountains, vast rocky deserts, icy expanses, infinite oceans or impenetrable forests.

Anyway, to get back to more earthly concerns. During our visit the Gyaltang Ringha monastery had also inmates which were not strictly admitted to it. Some pigs had wandered into its confines, perhaps to seek more earthly nourishment. We helped one of the monks to let the swine out in the surrounding woods where I’m sure they’d find plenty of food to scavenge for.

Like the monks and our adorable Tibetan guide, Anna, we burnt pine incense needles in one of the big braziers as an offering to the gods :

Gyalthang Ringha was an unassuming temple monastery but one which was little-known and largely free from sight-seers. It was truly a place to fill one’s ambiance with serenity and joy. We felt very happy there….