The sound of 2 hands clapping: debating at Phajoding

Some of you may have read on Phajoding’s Facebook page that the monks recently had the great fortune of being taught the skill of debating by a close monastic friend of Lama Namgay who is studying at the famous Gelugpa University known as Sera Je in Southern India.

In Tibetan Buddhism there are four principle schools – Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu & Gelug. The State religion of Bhutan, Drukpa Kagyu, is a branch of the Kagyu lineage of which Phajoding Monastery forms a part. All the schools use debating to varying degrees as a tool to gain a deeper insight into the true nature of reality, however it is the Gelugpa lineage that places the most emphasis on this discipline.

History and context

The art of debating within Tibetan Buddhism dates back over 900 years. Marpa (one of the main founders of the Kagyu lineage) brought the tradition of debate to Tibet from India. However it was Lama Tsongkhapa (the founder of the Gelugpa school of Buddhism) who extensively developed the practice of debate along with detailed topics of logic, which became a defining characteristic of the Gelugpa tradition (of which HH Dalai Lama is the most recognizable figure).

Due to the contemplative nature of the lineage teachings of the Kagyu Masters such as Marpa and Milarepa, more focus was placed on meditation and yogic practice rather then academics within the Kagyu lineage, including the Drukpa Kagyu sect in Bhutan. Both Chimi Dorji (the Principal of Phajoding) and the head teacher (Lama Namgay) have completed their three-year meditation retreat – the highest level of formal study within the Drukpa Kagyu lineage. But that’s not to say that debating is excluded from the Kagyu lineage – it’s just not as important as meditative practice.

Recently, due to the generosity of an expert debater from Sera Je, the monks of Phajoding had a chance to try their hand (literally) at the art of debating.

For ease of understanding, Lama Namgay and Khenpo Chimi Dorji have provided the following answers to some questions about debating within a monastic context.

What is the purpose of debating?

The central purpose of monastic debating is to conquer the misconceptions of the mind in order to establish the correct view (the true nature of reality). The true nature of reality is reached through careful analysis of the state of existence of ordinary phenomena – the basis of our lived reality.

Debating allows one to understand a dharma topic more clearly which subsequently makes it easier to meditate upon it in the future. Additionally you don’t forget the topic easily and may even get realizations of the subject during the debate. So if you have the proper motivation then debating can be similar to an analytical meditation.

The ultimate aim of debating however is to assist in clearing away of a wrong conception within ones mind in order to become free of suffering.

Why is debating such an active exercise? Do the hand gestures mean anything?

To begin, the two monks engaging in the debate recite a ritual invocation of Manjushree, the Bodhisattva of wisdom in a loud high-pitched tone.

The challenger or questioner (who is standing) then bows to the responder (who is sitting) as a sign of respect. It is also seen as a strategy to instill in him a false sense of security.

The questioner asks the responder a question based on a dharma topic (e.g. the four noble truths *) and a series of back and forth exchanges ensue between the questioner and the responder. The questioner’s aim is to try to defeat the responder with logic and quotes from the scriptures.

As you can imagine and as the photos reveal, the debate becomes increasingly heated and physically intense, with plenty of forceful clapping and verbal exchanges.

An action-packed debate!

An action-packed debate!

All the movements within a debate have meaning. When the challenger is asking the responder a question, at the end of the question he claps his right hand down onto his left hand while stomping his left foot forward. (It is only the challenger who engages in the clapping).

The stomping of the left foot forward represents shutting the door on the cycle of death and re-birth (samsara). The right hand represents compassion and altruistic intention and the left hand represents wisdom and the bringing together of the two hands signifies that it’s through the combination of compassion and wisdom that one can eliminate the wrong view from one’s mind and realize Buddhahood.

Two debates going on at once

Two debates going on at once

The drawing up and lifting of the right hand after the clap symbolizes the intention of helping all sentient beings escape samsara and reach Buddhahood and the holding out of the left hand of wisdom (grasping some mala beads) symbolizes keeping the door to re-birth shut.

The monks learning the correct placement of the hands and mala beads.

The monks learning the correct placement of the hands and mala beads.

The aim of the responder is to give logical and consistent responses to the challenger’s questions without contradicting himself. If the challenger (through the use of logic and quotes) demonstrates that the responder has contradicted himself, the challenger wraps his shawl (zhen) around his waist to symbolize his understanding and to win. By shaming and embarrassing, the defeated monk is encouraged to study the dharma more diligently. Even the mattress that the defeated is sitting on is snatched from under him in an attempt to humiliate him into more intensive dharma study.

Though this action may seem harsh to the uninitiated, we need to bear in mind that the motivation of all these actions is to help one achieve the mind of enlightenment. In this way debating should not be viewed as a zero sum game but a reciprocal and altruistic activity with win-win outcomes.

Do the monks engaging in this practice focus their minds on winning the debate? Wouldn’t this environment bring out their competitive nature?

This is one of the challenges and dangers of the art of debating. It is easy for the challenger in particular to become proud and egotistical if he is winning the debate and also because he is assuming the dominant position. So during the debate it is important to have the intention of wanting to free others from delusions and suffering. If pride, anger or jealously do arise the debaters have to promptly put an end to these negative afflictions to avoid the creation of bad karma.


The benefits of debating are manifold. Not only does it acts a tool to dispel any wrong views but also enables the monks to increase their mental sharpness and inner clarity, develop their analytical capacity and their ability to clearly express ideas. Debating in this context can assist the monks in processing the increasing flood of information they are receiving from the modern world, placing them in an advantageous position of being able to make informed and intelligent choices.

So there you have it. Debating 101. We hope we’ve done the topic justice and apologize if there are still some unanswered questions. Please feel free to post any questions under this blog or on our Facebook page (

Those travelling to Phajoding in the future may now not only hear the sound of chanting but the sound of two hands clapping.

* The four noble truths are the essential truths that encapsulate Buddha’s teachings. They are: life is suffering (Dukkha), the cause of suffering is attachment (Samudaya), suffering can be stopped (Nirodha), there is a path that can stop suffering (Magga). This path is known as the eight-fold path or the middle way approach.