By Daniel Perdue, author of Debate in Tibetan Buddhism
Since the time of the early Buddhist kings, Tibet has enjoyed a rich history of philosophical enquiry and carries this heritage forth today. Buddhism is a "wisdom tradition," meaning that it is based on the realizations or insights of the historical Buddha and that it holds that all suffering and even the suffering of death are related to a failure of wisdom. They hold that one is freed by wisdom, by seeing the nature of things. Philosophical debate is part of this effort. In India, debate was so valued that, if you lost a debate with an opponent, you would have to convert to the view of that opponent. If you cannot defeat a view, then you are compelled to accept it.
The central purposes of Tibetan monastic debate are to defeat misconceptions, to establish a defensible view, and to clear away objections to that view. Debate for the monks of Tibet is not mere academics, but a way of using direct implications from the obvious in order to generate an inference of the non-obvious state of phenomena. The debaters are seeking to understand the nature of reality through careful analysis of the state of existence of ordinary phenomena, the basis of reality. This is the essential purpose for religious debate.
In practice, the usual form is a debate between a Challenger, standing and asking questions, and a Defender, sitting and answering those questions. The attitude is as if the Challenger is respectfully approaching the Defender with a quandary. The dramatic clapping is done by the standing Challenger only, and is used to punctuate the end of the "question," which is an argument in response to the Defender's answer.
In their understanding of the gesture, the right hand represents method, meaning especially the practice of compassion, and the left hand represents wisdom. Bringing the two hands together represents the joining of wisdom and method. At the moment of the clap, you hear the left foot stomp down and that represents slamming shut the door to rebirth in the lower levels. After the simultaneous clap and stomp, the Challenger holds out the left arm of wisdom to keep shut the door to all rebirth. Also, in that gesture, the Challenger uses his right hand to raise up his prayer beads around his left arm. This represents the fulfilment of the efforts of compassion, in lifting up all suffering beings out of the round of rebirth.
Next: The argument forms