Debates between western buddhist monks?

The art of debate was of big importance during Buddha time:

In ancient India, Greece and Tibet, the art of argumentation was an extremely important (and prestigious) activity. To win a formal debate was to demonstrate the truth of one’s school of thought or spiritual faith. The Buddha was a potent and charismatic debater who threatened the intellectual complacency of many Brahmins. The famous consequence of losing a debate in India was to lose one’s students, who would all convert to the winning school of thought. In Buddhist Tibet, monastic universities still put heavy emphasis on training students for debate, which is an essential part of the monastery curriculum.

Though debate, a person is able to traverse “the jungle of views, the thicket of views, the wilderness of views” and eventually arrive at right view. There are suttas where Buddha praised bhikkhus for admonishing wanderers of other sects and proving how they were wrong through debate. There is even a sutta where Buddha criticizes some bhikkhus who did not know how to debate. Those bhikkhus actually won the debate but that was because the wanderers did not know how to debate either. We even have a sutta called “The debating hall”.

Today, because of most western buddhist been from USA or other english-culture countries, we do not have debates anymore. Every culture has advantages and disadvantages. English and northern cultures in particular have very low levels of corruption, are much more nice and calm than other people and are very hard working. But every culture has it’s weaknesses. The weakness of english people is narcissism and having an anti-debate mentality. It is the second that is what I have a problem with. In the english world, discussion or circle-talking is favored in front of debates. Some even consider debates to be something rude that only evil people engage in. On top of this, postmodernism that somehow got to be a mainstream view in USA is officially an anti-debate view. It is responsible for ideas such as “we strongly disagree but neither of one is wrong it’s just that different things work for different people”. So there is no purpose for debates with such a mentality.

English (EN/US/AU/CA) are know to be in the uttermost extreme of politeness. English world people even consider germans to be extremely rude, witch are nr 2 most puritan culture in europe after the english. To say nothing about how they view people from latin europe. (france, italy, spain, portugal, romania). People speak with each other like you speak with Kim Jhong Un and if you do not speak like that, it means you’re evil and want to harm them. If you want to debate, that means you’re a fundamentalist zealot trying to push his beliefs down their thought, violating their constitutional rights to believe in unicorns without ever been contradicted by anybody out there.

All cultures have disadvantages and what is terrible from a buddhist point of view is that the disadvantage of english culture is having probably the most anti-debate mentality in the world after Thai and Japanese. It’s bad from a buddhist point of view because this makes it difficult to traverse the jungle of views. Been hard working, not corrupt, very calm might help with practice but not with arriving at right view.


Because of this, debates between famous bhikkhus are almost non-existent in the west. Only 1 on 1 “live” debate that I’ve ever seen was waged on skype between B.Sujato and B.Bodhi. Other than that, there have been another 3 debates that were not live but waged over articles. One person writes an article and the other one responds in another article. From these, I can only remember B.Bodhi vs Thanissaro on war.

This has been posted on DW as well and has raised a lot of curiosity but nobody was able to provide link. Many have tried finding these debates but were unable to. I myself could not even find the B.Sujato vs B.Bodhi debate that I’ve read sometime in the past, I just don’t know how to google it.

So it would be interesting if we could post in this topic these few debates that have happened in the west. Most people have never seen a debate between 2 western bhikkhus. As I’ve said, I personally have read only 2. If you happen to know more it would be great if you could post links.

Maybe one day, there could even appear an “online debating hall” between famous bhikkhus where they can debate different topics. But that is quite some wishful thinking when we have just 1 “real time, standard” debate that ever happened and another 3-4 “long distance debates”. And in all of these 4-5 debates, one of the debaters is always B.Bodhi or B.Suajato vs somebody else, not 8-10 people in total in 4-5 debates. But who knows ? Maybe a modern “Debating hall” would gather a lot of audience giving the interest these few debates that exist have sparked on DW. Maybe with time, more and more would dare to step out of their bubble and venture into debates. Imagine this: A site with the name “buddhist-debates.com” where you can go and check debates on different points between western bhikkhus. Every buddhist out there would visit the site.

Until then, I would be happy with somebody here posting the links to those few debates that have taken place already. Unfortunately only 1-2 of these debates are on dhamma points, the rest on social matters. This means that in Buddha time, there were more famous bhikkhus debates in a single day than there have been in decades of Buddhism in the west.

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another one is between Ven Brahmali and Stephen Batchelor
although it’s rather an exchange of opinions than a head-on debate

Ven Brahmali & Stephen Batchelor debate

YouTube

what you propose is debates between the Buddhists but in the examples from the suttas you adduce Buddhists debated adherents of other teachings, not each other, in the suttas dialogues between the Buddhists usually bear the pattern of Q&A plus a few suttas speak against or unfavorably of participation in debates

Bhikkhus, this spiritual life is not lived for the sake of deceiving people and cajoling them; nor for the benefit of gain, honor, and praise; nor for the benefit of winning in debates; nor with the thought: ‘Let the people know me thus.’ But rather, this spiritual life is lived for the sake of restraint, abandoning, dispassion, and cessation

AN 4.25

not sure how these two are irreconcilable, isn’t arriving at the Right View a part of the practice?

debates might help intellectual understanding but this is not how the genuine Right View is achieved in my opinion, i believe it’s achieved through personal experience, only then it can become firmly established and strike root

as far as cultural differences in communication are concerned, coming from a Russian speaking milieu i’ve come to prefer the style you attribute to the Anglo-Saxon culture, communication on Russian forums even those dedicated to the Buddhism feels overly crass and inconsiderate or arrogant and snobby and even aggressive
it’s a good polishing stone for equanimity and self-effacement but there’s little in the way of enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment from such kind of socialization

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Right view does not come out of nowhere or out of sitting. That is a Zen attitude. That is like staring at an engine to understand how it works, like a dog staring at a calendar. In my opinion, that is not how right views are achieved. If what you say is correct, then Buddha and his monks would not have spent such a long time debating with other wanderers and would have just waited for them to attain good understanding by themselves. And all nice people from mahayana or christianity or islam of today would achieve right view out of just been a nice person. All ascetics and nice people from Buddha times would have done the same.

You have a point about the english, but you have to agree english-speeking buddhist in general have a problem with clinging to views. People in the english world don’t change views like normal people. I don’t know about russia but over here, when there is a debate, there has to be a conclusion. After a debate, somebody is going to change his views. And debates are much more furious than in the english world, with a lot of pressure put on the one that is obviously wrong to accept that he is wrong. This is seen as something positive because you are doing a favor to the person by changing his views. In the english world, this is seen as been rude or been a zealot or simply wanting to hurt their feelings with no good intentions behind it. Over here there is even a saying “let us know so we don’t die stupid”. When a person says he disagrees with something, other people are genuinely curious knowing that improving their understanding might benefit them. When changing views, there is 1 negative side and 1 positive side. The positive side is that your new understanding will benefit you. The negative side is the thought of “this means I have been stupid all this time”. I feel that non-english people focus much more on the positive side than the english. In USA , there is even an attitude of “everybody is right. There are just different things that work for different people”. Such an attitude is not found in continental europe, eastern europe in particular been considered much more “absolutist” (I hate the term, I prefer “normal people”) compared to “relativistic” USA.

You have to agree that just as they have stenghts, the english also have weaknesses. And those weaknesses are narcissism and been one of the most anti-debate cultures in the world. And I believe this map has a little to do with it too:

image

Could you give the link please?
Thanks

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the purpose for which Buddha and his disciples engaged in debates with other ascetics groups was in my view winning over potential lay donors to maximize support for the Sangha and thus its sustainability and viability, as a political tool and not as a tool of spiritual cultivation, so in this respect i could understand debates with proponents of other religious beliefs but not between Buddhists themselves, what do the latter have to debate about? the basic concepts and the constituents of the Right View are explicitly stated in the suttas. what’s vague or indecisive does get discussed but in these discussions there could not be winners or losers because all debating sides express their personal interpretation of the those vague concepts or passages with no authority to back it up, therefore views based on these interpretations are neither wrong or right

i haven’t come across suttas which praise debating as a means of gaining Right View, if you can quote some, i’ll be obliged

in my view winning over potential lay donors to maximize support for the Sangha and thus its sustainability and viability, as a political tool and not as a tool of spiritual cultivation
On the contrary, most debates were about wining more adepts and saving more people from samsara. As my first quote shows, in ancient India, the loser of a debate would lose all his disciples who would joint the wining school of thought. There is also a case where Buddha defeats Bahia in a debate and his 1000 followers convert. That is how Buddhism became the dominant religion in most of india in just 2 centuries after Buddha death. By the time Asoka came along, it was already the dominant religion.

but not between Buddhists themselves, what do the latter have to debate about?

Absolutely nothing. Mahasi Zen-style understanding, Nanananda existentialist/solipsist understanding, Visudimagga where jhana of infinity of space is achieved through contemplating a shirt with a whole in it, etc. etc. etc. all are the same and there is nothing to debate about. As a matter of fact, even mahayana or tibetan are all the same. Cristians and muslims too are the same. All are good. All have right view.

what’s vague or indecisive does get discussed but in these discussions there could not be winners or losers because all debating sides express their personal interpretation of the those vague concepts or passages with no authority to back it up, therefore views based on these interpretations are neither wrong or right

There is the authority of logic and reason. The authority of the suttas, etc. If one starts making a case for Buddha predicting the coming of Jesus, does this mean there is no chance finding the truth because “they all have their interpretation and things are too vague to know for sure” ?

i haven’t come across suttas which praise debating as a means of gaining Right View, if you can quote some, i’ll be obliged

Right view in general is very praised and considered essential on the Buddhist path. About suttas that praise debating, there are the 2 that I’ve mentioned already. The one where Buddha praises a monk for admonishing a wanderer of another in a debate. He says something like "good good. See this bhikkhus ? From time to time, it is good to admonish those wanderers of other sects in the way this bhikkhu had done. " And there is the one where Buddha criticizes some young monks for not knowing how to debate. (the one containing the simile of the baby) I am sure there are more but I had not read the whole suta pitaka yet. And I don’t think there is any debate about weather Buddha himself engaged in debates.

Unfortunately not, that’s why I have created this topic. I searched for it but could not find it. That is the only thuff 1 on 1 real time debate about dhamma points that I knew of. At the time of reading, I did not have a good understanding of buddhism because I had not started reading the sutta pitaka so I understood close to nothing from the debate. All I remember is that it was a pretty thuff one, with B.Sujato going hard on B.Bodhi but B.Bodhi resisting. Now that I have a better understanding I am even more curious to re-read the debate.

I remember there were talks about insight meditation and about commentary and abbhidhamma. So it was a pretty thuff one

in these suttas are debates really a means of gaining the Right View? and how do these suttas stack up against those which disapprove of debates? do you think we should debate on this?

Yes, gaining mundane right view and straightening your view in general. Even a stream enterer who poseses right view can be wrong on some points. This is why we see Ananda been told by Sariputta that he is asking stupid questions in one sutta. Or Buddha telling the same thing to Ananda a couple of times. (speaking of witch, Ananda spent so much time in proximity to the Buddha and achieved arahanthip only after Buddha had passed away. He never was too advanced, just good at memorization)

About suttas that are anti-debates, there are no such suttas. Suttas you have quoted are the usual ones people quote to make a case for Buddha having a Zen attitude of “shut up and sit”. Those suttas speak about how not to engage in debates in a wrong way.

For example one can engage in a debate for the sole purpose of helping other straighten their views. “The gift of dhamma is the best gift one can give to somebody”. Another might engage for the pleasure of crushing others in debates, for the pleasure of feeling smart etc. Usually it’s a combination of these good and bad factors. Those suttas you have quoted are about this wrong way of engaging in debates.

When somebody engages englishman in a debate, they usually feels it is the second case and can not even comprehend been the first or been a combination of the 2. When one does not even understand what good could a debate bring to him, how else could he see the problem ?

maybe there’s a need to redefine the word ‘debate’, because up until now the act of ‘sharing the Dhamma’ hasn’t had connotations of strife and contest to me

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Is that what you understand debating to be ? Nothing more than some evil people throwing verbal stabs at each other ?

  • Debate means a contradictory conversation between 2 people. Egos get hurt because changing ones view is always difficult. The bigger the ego, the more difficult it will be for him to endure been wrong on a point in a debate. The bigger the ego, the bigger clinging to views is.
  • Discussion means a conversation between people who share the same views and have nothing that they disagree upon. So egos are safe.

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That strikes me as as a relatively unpleasant place to be, and one I would not particularly like to visit.

I was an professional academic philosopher for 18 years, and am still active in scholarship, both with writing and conferences. Certainly the culture of my field maintains a vigorous debating culture, on just about every philosophical conception or theory that has ever been considered. In my personal experience, most of it has little little to do with spiritual progress of any kind along the path to the cessation of suffering. That includes the debates drawn from the traditional areas of Indian Buddhist philosophy - such as Yogacara and Madhyamaka. Any time I was ever able to make any spiritual progress, in my estimation, it was always because I was able to let something go, not because I acquired or accumulated something - even an improved philosophical view on some matter.

The Buddha was a spiritual master and teacher. Not surprisingly, very few of his followers were either. Many were instead obsessive canonizers, scholastics, text accumulators and disputatious intellectuals. We can be grateful to them for preserving discourses to the best of their ability - since those are the gateway to the path - and providing some conceptual clarification. But intellectuals of all traditions and all cultures have always had inherent difficulty grasping a spiritual path. Their minds are raging sandstorms of words and concepts, whose turbulent winds they attempt to quell by throwing even more sand into the storm. Since attachment to conceptual thought and linguistic structures is the crutch or security blanket they use to achieve some sense of control over a frightening world, it is very hard for them to simply stop, shut up, pacify and empty their minds.

I agree that certain confused or wrong-headed philosophical views can be an impediment to bringing an end to suffering, especially if they are an object of strong attachment. But improved philosophical views can also be an impediment if they are also objects of strong attachment. The dhamma can only be grasped inwardly. And it is mute. It only reveals itself when conceptual thought and volitional or emotional formations - including the emotional formations involved in theoretical argumentation and wrangling - drop away.

There are actually relatively few suttas that depict debate. Instead, most of them consist of simple teachings to bhikkhus or lay followers, or of inspired utterances, or of narratives of spiritual progress. The ones that deal with debate are relatively rare, and the debate is generally instigated by a wanderer from another sect.

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Any time I was ever able to make any spiritual progress, in my estimation, it was always because I was able to let something go, not because I acquired or accumulated something - even an improved philosophical view on some matter.

Can I ask a personal question ? Have you ever changed your main views about the world in your life ? If so, what views did you change and what views have you replaced them with ? And how did this happen ? Because of what did this happen ?

That is a very good point. It is worth coming up with a high level percentage of the occurrences of debates in suttas. I believe it will be small - and that tells us something about Buddha’s preference or not for debates.

The very concept of gradual teaching points towards that direction as well - the Buddha was always skillful in introducing little by little the pieces of what will become right view in the mind of those at his audience.

It is worth as well highlighting that some contemporary theories of dialogue see as a more interesting alternative to the extreme of raw debate the more constructive possibilities of skillful discussion and conversations.

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Yes, my views have changed many times. The views I had 40 years ago on the nature of morality, on the nature of time and space, on the fundamental principals of metaphysics and on the self are very different than the views I have now. My views were changed gradually over time by my engagement with philosophical writing and debate. I think the views I have now are substantial improvements over the ones I had earlier in my life.

But none of those improvements in my views really helped alleviate my suffering. The new and improved views didn’t - as far as I’m aware - make me less angry, less arrogant, less frustrated, less addicted to sensory pleasure, less sad, or less worried about the future. But I do think following the Buddhist path of practice and meditation has helped with those things. Those latter changes, and my reflections on them, have led to further changes in my views about many things. But the new changes in the views came from the changes in my way of life - not the other way around.

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Would you practice the buddhist path if you had not changed your views to buddhist views using this method ? :

My views were changed gradually over time by my engagement with philosophical writing and debate.

What if the views you have now can be further changed by debating and good old “thinking and pondering/contemplation” like they have been changed in the past ? What makes you think that now they are unchangable through this method anymore ?

I don’t think they are unchangeable. In fact, I’m sure they will continue to change. I’m just skeptical that the changes will help me get any closer to where I really need to go .

I think I’ve found it. I don’t know if this is the one I’ve been speaking about, I’m reading it right now:

Bhikkhu Bodhi , Ajahn Brahmali , Bhante Sujato

Can someone provide the link of the ajahn sujato/bhikku bodhi debate??? There must have been many cuts and bruises? Did the loser convert to the views of the winner - like in India in the good old days?

Debating is an interesting process and it definitely helps one ascertain his or her own views.

However it’s not always that conducive to reaching the goals of the path. Here’s a short story to better explain this point…

"A fair few month ago I saw a documentary about a Buddhist monastery in a far place in the Russian Federation [1].

One of the monk there was the raining champion of a debating contest in India. And he was talking about the pressure to keep up with this and how this should be contrasted with the goals of monastic life.

However later in the documentary a lady came for counselling and she told him her difficulties in life with her husband, kids, family etc.

The monk then proceeded to advise her to take a holiday or go do some shopping, adding to that all he could do himself when he was feeling down or sad was to enjoy a pleasant meal."

I can’t help but wondering how worth all the work put into winning debates really is, if one cannot talk the dhamma when a lay person comes for help and if one gone forth admits to taking refuge in food instead of the triple gem when the going gets tough?

[1] It was in French on Arte or France5, but I couldn’t find any references to it on the TV channel I think I saw it, so I can’t source it here or find reference to the location.

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