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Sunday, July 23, 2006

That's Debatable

The Role of Debate in Chinese Buddhism

I used to work with a lot of bright people in Japan, people who spoke near-native English. So every now and then, I was caught off guard when one of them had a small gap or misunderstanding in his or her knowledge of English.

Once I was talking with a friend and I said, "That's debatable." She replied, "You think that's debatable. Have you ever tried talking with S____? All she wants to do is argue!"

He's malleable. You're reliable. She's debatable. Why not?

I couldn't help but think of this every time the monk Hui Jing said an adamant "No!" I began to realize that this response was part of a tradition, the manifestation of a culture of debate that stretched back to India. This was not being argumentative; this was a teaching (and, perhaps, learning) technique. I've used it myself, and often.

When you're hanging with monks, there are no simple questions. I came up with a proverb this week: "Ask one monk, get an answer; ask two, and forget about it." You ask, they start arguing, and you're into other things before they come close to a conclusion.

I have a hunch this may have been the cause of the breadth of Buddhist traditions, even in one area; monks dispute, come to different conclusions, and ultimately found a "school" or a "sect." Once this process has settled in, though, I think that debate becomes an effect of having disparate traditions. I mean, much of the debate that happens now may be in defense of the "received tradition."

In the car on the way to Ningde and, ultimately, the Fuzhou airport, I had a chance to discuss the various sects with Venerable Dun Chao. One thing that he said intrigued me. He reminded me that, in the early days, one temple would be composed of monks (or nuns) of one sect. "This is a Chan (Zen) temple; that is a Pure Land temple." But monastics moved around so much that, ultimately, the schools "blended" within each temple. So, at Hua Yan Temple, we chanted "Amitofo" and sat Chan in the same one-hour ceremony. Venerables Dun Chao and Hui Jing are both Chan monks, but one is Linji (Rinzai) and the other Caodong (Soto) sect. And so it goes.

Sometimes the distinctions are within a culture; but sometimes they are between cultures. A typical example is what happens when I say "The Buddha." When I asked students what they thought I meant by these words, they answered in unison, "Amitofo!"--the Amitabha Buddha. Of course, when a Westerner uses these words, he means the Shakyamuni Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, the historical know, THE Buddha.

A major East/West distinction in thinking can be attributed to one man (sort of). Joseph Campbell used to talk about how Japan had never "known the fall" of Adam and Eve. I say, they and their brothers and sisters in East Asia have never known Aristotle! For us, "A is A, and A is never not A." They live with multiplicity in ways that are unimaginable to us. "Either/or" seldom manifests itself for long; most conversations end in "both/and."

But they don't start that way. The evening we were dining outside at the hermitage, I mentioned to Venerable Hui Jing that some Japanese "monks" are married. After thinking for a moment, he provoked a major debate by stating (in a categorical manner): "Well, then, there are only two gems in Japan!" The Buddhist "Triple Gem" is made up of the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (his followers). He contended that the Sangha only includes ordained monastics (and most commentators support his point of view). Our debate included my assertions that (a) there are celibate monks and nuns in Japan, usually the greatest teachers, and (b) just for fun, I thought I'd insist that laypeople are an essential part of the sangha. When the cook came out of the kitchen to ask how our dinner had been, I used her as an example. "Who's more important," I asked, "Master Ji Qun or this woman?" I was really putting Hui Jing on the spot, with her standing there; nevertheless, he said that what Ji Qun offered was timeless, whereas her food was for the body. I countered that the Buddha, when seeking enlightenment, had declared that extreme asceticism interfered with practice; if you're weak with hunger, you can't meditate properly. Hui Jing liked that; the cook liked it so much that she invited us back for lunch the next day!

Anyway, Venerable Hui Jing's question was clearly meant to provoke debate, and we both engaged in it in a spirit of fun and learning.

How do I know? Well, through it all, we were calm and smiling. But poor Diego, our translator, at the tender age of eighteen, would get hot! I often had to pause to calm him down.

Venerable Hui Jing's calmness, though, was never the calmness of a man who says "I'm unshakably right"; rather, it was the calmness of "I am grasping my point lightly, and enjoying the enhanced perspective that comes from this kind of discussion." It was a wonderful lesson for me in "how things are done."

Later, I discussed my theory directly with Venerables Dun Chao and Hui Jing, and they agreed that yes, it was a bit of an "intellectual game" that leads to improvement. I quoted the Book of Proverbs to them: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." They countered with another metaphor. They said to clean freshly-dug sweet potatoes, you put them in a vat of water and stir them. As they tumble against each other, they wash each other clean. It's a marvelous image, and it describes exactly the process I took part in this week.

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