Remarks by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at a Nitartha Summer Institute Debate Performance.
Twenty years ago in 1994 I went from Vancouver to Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia to establish the Nitartha Shedra and teach Buddhist philosophical texts. When I got to the Abbey, I was prepared to teach Madhyamaka. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche was at the Abbey and asked me, “What are you going to teach?” I said, “I am going to teach Madhyamaka, the Middle Way philosophy from Chandrakirti, based on Chandrakirti’s commentary.” Then Rinpoche said, “No, no, no, you are not going to teach that. You should teach Lorik, the classifications of mind, and introduce debate.” I told Rinpoche “No, no, no. That is not going to work. I am going to teach Madhyamaka. I don’t think that logic, epistemology, debate, and all this technical language is going to work, Rinpoche.” He said “No, no, no, you are going to teach Lorik.” So I said, “Ok”.
The classifications of mind as the basis for debate
That is when we started teaching Lorik, the classifications of mind. I taught Lorik for the whole semester. We started debate, and it was horrible, as I predicted. It did not work at all. Sometimes everyone enjoyed it and was laughing, but most of the time we were irritated, including myself. We all suffered. That was a very wonderful beginning to debate. I wasn’t prepared to teach Lorik. We didn’t have a text, not even a Tibetan text, let alone any translations. We had to scramble to get everything, which meant it was really a very spontaneous debate teaching. But, at the end of the month, I really felt it was something we could do. I felt the blessing of the lineage. It was great guidance from the lineage masters that led us up to that point. And since Acharya Lama Tenpa Gyaltsen joined Nitartha Institute, he has been taking care of a lot of the technical debate teachings and giving guidance on the debate courses.
One thing debate really helps us to do is to condense, gather and synthesize our thoughts. It really helps us to actually focus our thought processes and our mind. Usually we have these logical minds, we have these wonderful intellects, but our thought process is scattered all over. When we are freely thinking and reasoning, there is no sense of concentration; there is no sense of gathering or precision. Sometimes we use logic and reasonings to convince ourselves of something, but then our mind can go crazy with justifications here and there. This is logical thinking of course, but it has gone wild.
The discipline of debate is a discipline of logic
When we train in debate, logic, and epistemology, all of these scattered thoughts and intentions are gathered or bundled together into one direction. There is a sense of container and discipline. The discipline of debate is actually a discipline of logic. It is not like religious discipline or moral discipline, but it is a discipline of logic and reasoning, and of clear thinking.
It not only results in our mind being sharp, clear, and precise and directed towards the object that we are analyzing, but we also can actually develop to a point that we can predict the answer. That is how I felt when I was debating in the monastery. Lama Tenpa and I were debate partners many times and we had a lot of fun. At the end of all of the debate training, I felt I could see very clearly that there are two possible answers or questions, and then there are other possible answers from the opponent’s side and then there are also other possible attacks or questions. Later on I found out it is a little bit like a lawyer’s thinking process. They have to think of all the worst case scenarios, right?
From my personal experience, the benefit of debate is that it actually is a great training in karma, cause and effect. If you say this, then you have to anticipate what the result is. And when the result comes, you also know what the answer is. And then there is another result right? So you can see cause and effect clearly. So through this, you can see how some sense of mindfulness can be developed, like clear thinking and clear mindfulness within the thought processes in debate.
Debate is training in mindfulness
When you are really actively debating or learning the debate process, your mindfulness is almost automatic. Your awareness of cause and effect is automatic. It comes naturally. Before you say something, you know what result it could bring. From that perspective, debate is really a great training. Not only does it make our mind precise, clear, logical and focused, but there is also a great sense of mindfulness, awareness, and, most importantly, you can predict the future result of your words. Isn’t that nice? At least we can predict one thing, the result of your words.
I think that training in debate could appear or be experienced at times as tedious, too detail-oriented or too precise, like some social anthropology studies. When I was at Columbia, I had to study social anthropology texts and I really hated it. Like Clifford Geertz’s book called “Thick Description”. It is really thick. It is amazing, so much detail, like what winking means in each culture. Really amazing. I got lost in those social anthropology studies. Debate can appear like that sometimes. You get lost in the details and it feels like “What is the point here? Why do we use this form, this format, the whole training altogether?” But actually, if you train well and practice well, it is a great tool for great mindfulness, awareness, precision and clarity of your thinking.
Therefore it is good to try. Just give it a shot. See what debate does for you.