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Discipline and Debate

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

Michael Lempert
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 238
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  • Book Info
    Discipline and Debate
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95201-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiii)
    (pp. xiv-xix)
  6. Introduction: Liberal Sympathies
    (pp. 1-16)

    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...


    • 1 Dissensus by Design
      (pp. 19-43)

      How could fierce, stylized wrangling about centuries-old religious doctrine—by monks, no less—seem as if it involves the exercise of an autonomous, critical rationality, a faculty akin to the one celebrated in the European Enlightenment? To appreciate how debate can exhibit attributes of the liberal subject and become a diasporic pedagogy—a means by which Tibetan refugees can avoid blind faith and protect their religious patrimony from the challenges of exile—we must first appreciate what debate does within the confines of a monastery. At Sera Monastery in India, debate’s drama, where the defendant tries to save Buddhist doctrine...

    • 2 Debate as a Rite of Institution
      (pp. 44-79)

      Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), founder of what would crystallize into the Geluk sect, is reported to have had repeated visionary encounters with Mañjuśri, a deity who embodies Buddha’s insight into the nature of reality and who, on a more mundane plane, is associated with intelligence, learning, and skill in speech and composition. So close was Tsongkhapa to Mañjuśri that he could quiz him on thorny matters of doctrine. Mañjuśri had become his tutor, and Tsongkhapa, in turn, came to be deferred to by the faithful as Mañjuśri incarnate. Sightings are reported in the hagiographical literature, like the tale of a lama...

    • 3 Debate as a Diasporic Pedagogy
      (pp. 80-104)

      For a half century the Dalai Lama has exhorted Tibetan refugees to hold fast to their religious patrimony and never waver in political resolve. For the exile community, “change” has been an unsettling word, especially in the domain of religion. Asked whether debate has changed in exile, the monks I spoke with often seemed uncomfortable, as if I had just scratched at the patina and questioned the authenticity of a whole way of life. Debate has remained ‘the same’ (gcig pa), most responded—save for the admission of certain minor ‘stylistic’ (lab stangs) mutations often attributed to life in India,...


    • 4 Public Reprimand Is Serious Theatre
      (pp. 107-126)

      I had originally come to Sera to see how monks wrangle, but when I returned for extended fieldwork I found Geshe-la, the senior monk I befriended two years before, transformed. He had become, his assistant informed me, the college’s ‘disciplinarian’ (dge bskos / dge skos), a high-ranking monastic office second only to the abbot. In public, Geshe-la parted crowds. All, save for the infirmand the unsocialized, now scattered upon seeing him, as I discovered during walks with him around Sera’s premises. Monks in visual range took cover, colliding with each other as they ducked into restaurants or phone centers or...

    • 5 Affected Signs, Sincere Subjects
      (pp. 127-152)

      With what emotion and tactics should monks reform the moral dispositions of others? For some Tibetan monks in India, this is a live and at times vexing question. In a range of male socialization practices in the monastery—public reprimand, courtyard debate, the meting out of corporal punishment—Sera monks are asked to exhibit a kind of anger. But this affective state must itself be affected. It exists under the strictures of amorally inflected dramaturgy summarized well by the aphorism that contrasts outer wrath with inner benevolence, “dark,” menacing, rocky mountains with “white,” snow-covered ones. Distinguished from vulgar, worldly anger...

    • Conclusion: The Liberal Subject, in Pieces
      (pp. 153-168)

      How liberal is this liberal subject that encroaches on Sera, an Indian avatar of a fifteenth-century Tibetan monastery, and sweeps through the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, a place nearly as monastic and just as devoted to centuries-old philosophical texts? Remember: These are places populated by men who wear robes, in principle renounce the world, and spend their days poring over Buddha’s teachings. In such places the liberal subject looks uncanny, and deliberately so. Buddhism’s specificity—all the things that make it different—should obtrude and break up the impression of this subject’s identity, for this is no act of replication....

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 169-192)
    (pp. 193-206)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 207-216)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 217-217)