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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Debating Monks

One of the most interesting things we saw in Tibet was what they called a "debate" at a Buddhist monastery.

We arrived at the monastery in time to see the afternoon prayer session, the elder monks chanting deep in their throats while a few hundred monks followed along. Well - most of them, anyway. Some of the younger monks on the peripheries were distracted by all the tourists who had come to watch.

After prayer, several monks came into the hall carrying huge cauldrons of cooked rice & beans, & doled out a handful to each of the men. Some monks had wooden bowls & spoons, but most simply used a small plastic grocery bag to eat out of.

The debate was supposed to start at 3:00. While we waited for the monks to gather in the courtyard, our guide told us that they would be debating the doctrines of the religious texts they were studying - an exercise in free thinking.

As they entered the courtyard, the monks paired up, one sitting on a cushion, & the other standing in front of him. According to our guide, the standing monk would pose questions about their studies to his seated partner, & the other would answer.

Of course, we couldn't understand the details of the debate since it was in Tibetan, but the monks were all very animated in their discussions. The standing monk would raise one leg as he asked the question, & stomp it down as he clapped his hands together enthusiastically. The courtyard was alive with the murmer of discussion.

Painted on the wall at one of the temples, we found what our guide called the circle of life. An evil-looking monster grabs at the circle from the outside, while humans go about their daily life on the inside. At the center are three animals: a snake, a chicken and a pig.

The three animals represent the three negative characteristics that humans must transcend if they are to reach nirvana. Our guide couldn't remember the English words for them, but we pieced together his descriptions, & decided on ignorance, jealousy & desire. This debate that we witnessed was the monks' attempt at overcoming their ignorance, bringing them one step closer to enlightenment.

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