The Buddha's instructions on debating

Hi friends and Venerables
Beyond Right Peach did the Buddha offer guidelines for having a debate or discussing controversial topics?

It seems like something he would have spoken on, but I can’t recall any or find anything obvious in the search function except this Chinese fragment t1670b2.2

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Perhaps somewhere here is relevant:

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For repeat offenders:

“Here, Bhaddāli, some bhikkhu is a constant offender with many offences. When he is corrected by the bhikkhus, he prevaricates, leads the talk aside, shows disturbance, hate, and bitterness; he does not proceed rightly, he does not comply, he does not clear himself, he does not say: ‘Let me so act that the Sangha will be satisfied.’ Bhikkhus, taking account of this matter, think: ‘It would be good if the venerable ones examine this bhikkhu in such a way that this litigation against him is not settled too quickly.’ MN65

That is, stern action is required.

Then there are others who are good at heart:

“Here some bhikkhu progresses by a measure of faith and love. In this case bhikkhus consider thus: ‘Friends, this bhikkhu progresses by a measure of faith and love. Let him not lose that measure of faith and love, as he may if we take action against him by repeatedly admonishing him.’ Suppose a man had only one eye; then his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, would guard his eye, thinking: ‘Let him not lose his one eye.’ So too, some bhikkhu progresses by a measure of faith and love…‘Let him not lose that measure of faith and love, as he may if we take action against him by repeatedly admonishing him.’ MN65

Carrying out these rules and approaches seem essential for the continuation of the sasana:

'That is how it is, Bhaddāli. When beings are deteriorating and the true Dhamma is disappearing, then there are more training rules and fewer bhikkhus become established in final knowledge. The Teacher does not make known the training rule for disciples until certain things that are the basis for taints become manifest here in the Sangha.; but when certain things that are the basis for taints become manifest here in the Sangha, then the Teacher makes known the training rule for disciples in order to ward off those things that are the basis for taints. MN65

with metta

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The Araṇa-Vibhaṅga Sutta (MN 139) has some interesting points to the topic:

“One should not pursue sensual pleasure, which is low, vulgar, coarse, ignoble, and unbeneficial; and one should not pursue self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and unbeneficial. The Middle Way discovered by the Tathāgata avoids both extremes; giving vision, giving knowledge, it leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. One should know what it is to extol and what it is to disparage, and knowing both, one should neither extol nor disparage but should teach only the Dhamma. One should know how to define pleasure, and knowing that; one should pursue pleasure within oneself. One should not utter covert speech, and one should not utter overt sharp speech~ One should speak unhurriedly, not hurriedly. One should not insist on local language, and one should not override normal usage. This is the summary of the exposition of non-conflict.

“‘One should know what it is to extol and what it is to disparage, and knowing both, one should neither extol nor disparage but should teach only the Dhamma.’ So it was said. And with reference to what was this said?

“How, bhikkhus, does there come to be extolling and disparaging and failure to teach only the Dhamma? When one says: ‘All those engaged in the pursuit of the enjoyment of one whose pleasure is linked to sensual desires, low … and unbeneficial, are beset by suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and they have entered upon the wrong way,’ one thus disparages some. When one says: ‘All those disengaged from the pursuit of the enjoyment of one whose pleasure is linked to sensual desires , low … and unbeneficial, are without suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and they have entered upon the right way,’ one thus extols some.

“When one says: ‘All those engaged in the pursuit of self-mortification, painful, ignoble, and unbeneficial, are beset by suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and they have entered upon the wrong way,’ one thus disparages some. When one says: ‘All those disengaged from the pursuit of self-mortification, painful, ignoble, and unbeneficial, are without suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and they have entered upon the right way,’ one thus extols some.

“When one says: ‘All those who have not abandoned the fetter of being are beset by suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and they have entered upon the wrong way,’ one thus disparages some. When one says: ‘All those who have abandoned the fetter of being are without suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and they have entered upon the right way,’ one thus extols some. This is how there comes to be extolling and disparaging and failure to teach only the Dhamma.

“And how, bhikkhus, does there come to be neither extolling nor disparaging but teaching only the Dhamma? When one does not say: ‘All those engaged in the pursuit of the enjoyment of one whose pleasure is linked to sensual desires … have entered upon the wrong way,’ but says instead: ‘The pursuit is a state beset by suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and it is the wrong way,’ then one teaches only the Dhamma. When one does not say: I All those disengaged from the pursuit of the enjoyment of one whose pleasure is linked to sensual desires … have entered upon the right way,’ but says instead: ‘The disengagement is a state without suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and it is the right way,’ then one teaches only the Dhamma.

“When one does not say: ‘All those engaged in the pursuit of self-mortification … have entered upon the wrong way,’ but says instead: ‘The pursuit is a state beset by suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and it is the wrong way,’ then one teaches only the Dhamma. When one does not say: ‘All those disengaged from the pursuit of self-mortification … have entered upon the right way,’ but says instead: ‘The disengagement is a state without suffering, vexation, despair, and fever, and it is the right way,’ then one teaches only the Dhamma.

“When one does not say: ‘All those who have not abandoned the fetter of being … have entered upon the wrong way,’ but says instead: ‘As long as the fetter of being is unabandoned, being too is unabandoned,’ then one teaches only the Dhamma.

When one does not say: ‘All those who have abandoned the fetter of being … have entered upon the right way,’ but says instead: ‘When the fetter of being is abandoned, being also is abandoned,’ then one teaches only the Dhamma.

“So it was with reference to this that it was said: ‘One should know what it is to extol and what it is to disparage, and knowing both, one should neither extol nor disparage but should teach only the Dhamma.’

“‘One should not utter covert speech, and one should not utter overt sharp speech.’ So it was said. And with reference to what was this said?

“Here, bhikkhus, when one knows covert speech to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, one should on no account utter it. When one knows covert speech to be true, correct, and unbeneficial, one should try not to utter it. But when one knows covert speech to be true, correct, and beneficial, one may utter it, knowing the time to do so.

“Here, bhikkhus, when one knows overt sharp speech to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, one should on no account utter it. When one knows overt sharp speech to be true, correct, and unbeneficial, one should try not to utter it. But when one knows overt sharp speech to be true, correct, and beneficial, one may utter it, knowing the time to do so.

“So it was with reference to this that it was said: ‘One should not utter covert speech, and one should not utter overt sharp speech.’

“‘One should speak unhurriedly, not hurriedly.’ So it was said. And with reference to what was this said?

“Here, bhikkhus, when one speaks hurriedly, one’s body grows tired and one’s mind becomes excited, one’s voice is strained and one’s throat becomes hoarse, and the speech of one who speaks hurriedly is indistinct and hard to understand.

“Here, bhikkhus, when one speaks unhurriedly, one’s body does not grow tired nor does one’s mind become excited, one’s voice is not strained nor does one’s throat become hoarse, and the speech of one who speaks unhurriedly is distinct and easy to understand.

“So it was with reference to this that it was said: ‘One should speak unhurriedly, not hurriedly.’

“‘One should not insist on local language, and one should not override normal usage.’ So it was said. And with reference to what was this said?

“How, bhikkhus, does there come to be insistence on local language and overriding of normal usage? Here, bhikkhus, in different localities they call the same thing a ‘dish’ [pāti], a ‘bowl’ [patta], a ‘vessel’ [vittha], a ‘saucer’ [sarāva], a ‘pan’ [dhāropa], a ‘pot’ [poṇa], a ‘mug’ [hana] or a ‘basin’ [pisīla]. So whatever they call it in such and such a locality, one speaks accordingly, firmly adhering [to that expression] and insisting: ‘Only this is correct; anything else is wrong.’ This is how there comes to be insistence on local language and overriding normal usage.

“And how, bhikkhus, does there come to be non-insistence on local language and non-overriding of normal usage? Here, bhikkhus, in different localities they call the same thing a ‘dish’ … or a ‘basin.’ So whatever they call it in such and such a locality, without adhering [to that expression] one speaks accordingly, thinking: ‘These venerable ones, it seems, are speaking with reference to this.’ This is how there comes to be non-insistence on local language and non-overriding of normal usage.

“So it was with reference to this that it was said: ‘One should not insist on local language, and one should not override normal usage.’

“Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We shall know the state with conflict and we shall know the state without conflict, and knowing these, we shall enter upon the way without conflict.’ Now, bhikkhus, Subhuti is a clansman who has entered upon the way without conflict.”

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Thank you all.
Hopefully this is beneficial to discussion on SC too!

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I think checking this topic may be helpful:

:anjal:

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We have a duty to point out wrong views at the appropriate times, and it’s bad kamma (sutta says generates demerit) to not point it out:

excerpt from AN 4.3, bodhi

14(1) “Having investigated and scrutinized, he speaks dispraise of one who deserves dispraise. (2) Having investigated and scrutinized, he speaks praise of one who deserves praise. (3) Having investigated and scrutinized, he is suspicious about a matter that merits suspicion. (4) Having investigated and scrutinized, he believes a matter that merits belief. Possessing these four qualities, the wise, competent, good person preserves himself unmaimed and uninjured; he is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise; and he generates much merit.”

In the AN, don’t know which one off hand, there’s a similar theme with speech and criticizing, and the protagonists are bhikkhunis.

AN 4.3 to me sums up how buddhism became corrupt in the present age. People who knew right from wrong, but in the interest of preserving harmony in the sangha, didn’t speak up and set things right.

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Thanks for the wonderful question @Pasanna.

I very much take and value your broader point, but I do think the “at the appropriate time” bit is possibly the most important - and also tricky to assess - aspect of that. Lacking sufficient wisdom, I think in most cases I’d err on the side of caution.

I was always very taken by the example set in MN18 where the Buddha tells Dandapani the Sakyan:

“Friend, I assert and proclaim [my teaching] in such a way that one does not quarrel with anyone in the world with its gods, its Māras, and its Brahmās, in this generation with its recluses and brahmins, its princes and its people; in such a way that perceptions no more underlie that brahmin who abides detached from sensual pleasures, without perplexity, shorn of worry, free from craving for any kind of being.”

I’m hoping it’s not too much of an interpretative stretch to take from this that it is best to leave alone debates that more than likely won’t lead to someone’s spiritual development (the listeners receptivity being one of a number of factors on the list to be balanced) and are just for the sake of debating.

There’s also, perhaps a bunch of related teachings to be found in the Aṭṭhaka Vagga.

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Especially SN 4.11, 4.12 and 4.13.

https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/KN/StNp/index_StNp.html

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Also SN 4.5:

4:5
The Supreme Octet

When dwelling on views
as “supreme,”
a person makes them
the utmost thing in the world,
&, from that, calls
all others inferior
and so he’s not gone beyond disputes.
When he sees his own advantage
in what’s seen, heard, sensed,
or in habits & practices,
seizing it there
he sees all else, all others,
as inferior.

That, too, say the skilled,
is a binding knot: that
in dependence on which
you regard another
as inferior.
So a monk shouldn’t be dependent
on what’s seen, heard, or sensed,
or on habits & practices;
nor should he theorize a view in the world
in connection with knowledge
or habits & practices;
shouldn’t take himself
to be “equal”;
shouldn’t think himself
inferior or superlative.

Abandoning what he’d embraced,
not clinging,
he doesn’t make himself dependent
even in connection with knowledge;
doesn’t follow a faction
among those who are split;
doesn’t fall back
on any view whatsoever.

One who isn’t inclined
toward either side
—becoming or not-,
here or beyond—
who has no entrenchment
when considering what’s grasped among doctrines,
hasn’t the least
theorized perception
with regard to what’s seen, heard, or sensed.
By whom, with what,
should he be pigeonholed
here in the world?
—this brahman
who hasn’t adopted views.

They don’t theorize, don’t yearn,
don’t adhere even to doctrines.
A brahman not led
by habits or practices,
gone to the beyond
—Such—
doesn’t fall back.

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I just realise that the text I referenced didn’t work. So here was what I found. Thanks @Gabriel_L
https://suttacentral.net/en/t1670b2.2

“What does it mean to ‘discuss as a wise man’?”
.
When the wise converses, they question one another, solve problems together, agree on and turn down a point together. Winners or losers, they know right and wrong, and they themselves know what is right and what is wrong. That is the highest wisdom. The wise would never have anger or hate. Thus do wise men discuss.”

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The problem is that our arguments are conditioned by our views, opinions, situational frustrations etc. The ideal of a calm, tempered discussion driven by an earnest search for truth seems almost impossible in this age - one always ends up stepping on _someone’s_toes. :slight_smile:

Maybe the Bodhisatta’s silence and disinterest in arguments (apart from a few encounters where he basically just walked away, dissatisfied) until he attained perfect knowledge and Awakening could also be used a guide…

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Yes. I think you are probably right.
I was listening to a monastic talk from Ajahn Brahm last night where he was talking about the vipulessas and the distortions we have until we are a noble one.
There’s so much risk of conceit in a debate.

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Are you saying that it’s “almost impossible in this age” BUT maybe wasn’t in Buddha’s time and place?

This organization has thought long and hard about how our thinking is conditioned by views. Here is how they deal with the challenge on their blog:

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Instructions on debating ? Western buddhism of today is dominated by the english culture which is highly anti-debate. It’s probably the most anti-debate culture in the world. Proof for this is the almost complete lack of any meaningful debate between western buddhist monks. Another proof is the fact that many western buddhist hold the opinion that debates are bad and should not happen at all: EBTs’ take on debates

Ancient India was a place with a highly pro-debate culture, they even had a “debating hall” in every village where buddhist monks were encouraged to go in order to get more people towards right view. People would constantly debate and the loser would lose all his disciples to the winning side. This is why buddhism managed to become the dominant religion in most of India in just 150 years. Buddha encouraged monks to engage in debates many times in the suttas. He said they should periodically refute those who have wrong views. That is the biggest favor you can do to a person. There is no gift bigger than the gift of dhamma.

The problem with the anti-debate english culture is the incredible clinging to views people have in today times if they are from the english-speaking world. It’s a totally different attitude than people had in ancient India. Back then, people were eager to debate and change their views if they were defeated, being super-happy that they found the truth and will progress faster on their spiritual path. A very open and honest attitude that made progress very easy.

Every culture has good characteristics and bad characteristics. There is no culture that is perfect. The downside of english culture is being in the uttermost extreme of politeness and anti-debating, very different from continental europeans to say nothing of ancient India. And western buddhism is dominated by it. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a debate between 2 western buddhist monks.

If we will look through the sutta-quotes I posted in that topic: EBTs' take on debates
We will notice Buddha was anything but an englishman

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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.

We see this was a highly, highly pro-debate culture. This is probably why so many english-speaking people are surprised when reading the suttas and consider Buddha to be rude and just can’t understand it. English even consider germans (who are nr 2 most polite culture after them) to be super rude, to say nothing of other continental europeans.

Debating is useful, bringing people to right view is the biggest gift we can ever make. Life is short, there is no time to lose getting stuck in “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views”. That jungle of views needs to be traversed fast. We might die at any moment and lose this big chance that we have.

Sometimes people try to justify this anti-debate cultural conditioning that they have, they try to twist Buddha words into saying he was anti-debate. That is really not the case. Buddha main concern was not pampering other people egos, his main concern was helping them.

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Seeing that we are now not in the Buddha’s time and we are all from this century I think it is appropriate we should stick to current cultural norms of what is acceptable to Buddhists and more particularly the participants here. I don’t think it will change anytime soon.

With metta