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Witness Sutra Debates among Tibetan Monks

Date: 2012.05.29 Editor: Evelyn Shi

One of the most famous religious activities among Tibetan monks will be the sutra debate in the Tibet Sera Monastery. The Sera Monastery in Lhasa is a temple of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which wins its fame by the routine sutra debate activities. The debate is set as a main course for monks studying in the Sera Monastery, and is held every day except Sunday.


The serenity of the Buddhist monastery prevailed in the courtyard amplifies the flapping of sparrows, and mutes the noise of tourists and pilgrims, who are waiting for an upcoming scripture debate. A bell struck 3 o'clock in the afternoon from the top of the main hall, urging monks to come to the arena in the woods, and announcing the beginning of the scripture debate of the day. Monks in red robes file in. After finding their own spots, a few of them take seat on the ground, cross-legged and mediate with their eyes closed, while others chat and laugh with the peers, waiting for the imminent debate.


The debates start after all the participants arrive. Student monks are divided into grades according to the level of their Buddhist study and practice, and the same grade will gather in circles before the debate begins. When the debates start, one of the monks raises a question about their Buddhist lessons they just have in the morning to his peer. If a monk cannot give an accurate answer, he will have to review the scriptures at night until he learns it by heart.


They are held in different ways between different groups. In some group, the pair of debating monks is standing face to face with the questioner standing and the responder sitting cross-legged; while other groups place the questioner in the center with the rest sitting in a semi-circle. The questioners kick off a round of debating with a clap, waving prayer beads with his arms. And then, the responders answer with confidence and grace. No matter how intense the questions are, the responders usually remain calm, giving his reply and breathing peacefully. They seem immune from the aggressive opponents.


With the monks' red robes flowing against the green trees in the afternoon sunshine, vigorous scripture debates are ongoing in the tranquil monastery, which remind the spectators of the secret of Tibetan Buddhism--an integration of the dynamic and the static. However, for those with no idea about Tibetan language or Buddhist theory, the charm of scripture debates lay in the debaters' dramatic movements and expressions.