Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

Synopsis

The Dalai Lama has represented Buddhism as a religion of non-violence, compassion, and world peace, but this does not reflect how monks learn their vocation. This book shows how monasteries use harsh methods to make monks of men, and how this tradition is changing as modernist reformers--like the Dalai Lama--adopt liberal and democratic ideals, such as natural rights and individual autonomy. In the first in-depth account of disciplinary practices at a Tibetan monastery in India, Michael Lempert looks closely at everyday education rites--from debate to reprimand and corporal punishment. His analysis explores how the idioms of violence inscribed in these socialization rites help produce educated, moral persons but in ways that trouble Tibetans who aspire to modernity. Bringing the study of language and social interaction to our understanding of Buddhism for the first time, Lempert shows and why liberal ideals are being acted out by monks in India, offering a provocative alternative view of liberalism as a globalizing discourse.

Excerpt

Buddhist ‘debate’ (rtsod pa), a twice-daily form of argumentation through which Tibetan monks learn philosophical doctrine, is loud and brash and agonistic. Monks who inhabit the challenger role punctuate their points with foot-stomps and piercing open-palmed hand-claps that explode in the direction of the seated defendant’s face. I was curious about the fate of this martial idiom in which monks wrangle, curious especially about its apparent disregard for ideals like nonviolence, compassion, and rights that Tibetans like the Dalai Lama have promoted. I came to Sera Monastery in India to study debate because Sera is one of the largest exile monasteries of the dominant Geluk sect and is renowned for its rigorous debate-based education. Founded in the early 1970s in Bylakuppe, some fifty miles west of Mysore in Karnataka State, South India, Sera presents itself as an avatar of its namesake in Tibet, the “original” Sera founded in 1419 and still in existence. India’s Sera expanded from a community of a few hundred Sera monks who had fled Tibetin to a massive settlement housing several thousand.

I had just settled in at Sera Mey, one of Sera’s two monastic colleges, when Geshela, a senior Mey monk and frequent interlocutor of mine, told me what debate’s centrality reveals about Buddhism as a whole. “Just belief, that’s Christianity,” he quipped. He uttered this uncharitable caption for Christianity in English, a language he used rarely. a frozen form, a shibboleth, the expression needed no explanation, and Geshe-la offered none. the point was obvious: Buddhism is unique among religions for its commitment to reason, a commitment he presumed I shared.

I nodded, sure that I had struck the edge of a familiar discourse about Tibet’s religion. Following his dramatic flight from Lhasa to India in March 1959, the young, exiled Dalai Lama fashioned Tibetan Buddhism into a “modern” world religion . . .

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