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Buddhism Debate
by
Paul G. Hackett

Introduction

From the very inception of the tradition, debate has figured prominently in Buddhism. Perhaps as a result of the multireligious environment of India in which Buddhism developed, or as a natural outgrowth of the analytical emphasis found in its meditative techniques, critical inquiry into the beliefs and assertions of oneself and others resulted in numerous instances, types, and theories of debates over the long history of Buddhism both in India and in the countries to which the tradition migrated. Indeed, there exists a wide range of activities over time and cultures that could be described as “debate” within Buddhist traditions. From the earliest days of his teachings, the Buddha was both confronted by the other religious teachers of his day and often challenged to defend his religious teachings against his rivals. In later centuries, the role of philosophical debate in Buddhist traditions expanded, both as a procedure for disputation with non-Buddhist systems of thought and as a formal mechanism for resolving sectarian and monastic disagreements, as well as one’s own critical engagement with the Buddhist doctrines. Thus, with regard to debate in the Buddhist traditions, one can speak of three kinds: inter-religious debate, intra-religious debate, and pedagogical debate. Instances of the former two can be seen from the time of the Buddha himself up to the present day, while the latter appears to be a unique development of the later tradition, particularly in Tibet. The literature of the Buddhist tradition is rife with texts both recounting debates, as well as preparing Buddhist adherents for participation in them. While all forms are deployed on one level or another in service of the larger project of the Buddhist agenda, such debates have taken forms as loosely construed as outright contests between proponents employing magical skills as much as logical reasoning to highly formulaic exchanges in which a breach of form and etiquette was as much a failing as a display of faulty reasoning.

General Overviews

There exist a wide range of activities over time and cultures that could be described as “debate” within Buddhist traditions. More often than not, however, the subject of debate in Buddhism has often been subsumed within discussions of Buddhist epistemology in general. Viewed in this light, two works provide a good general overview of the broader subject. Although surpassed by other works on specific topics or authors, Vidyabhusana 1921 remains the most comprehensive history of epistemology, logic, and debate in Indian philosophy and contextualizes the works of Buddhist authors within the larger Indian religious and philosophical enterprise, while Dhirasekera 1961– offers an alternate perspective drawing on the Pali canon. Dreyfus 1997 offers a broad overview and analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of the works by the foundational figure in 1st-millennium Buddhist epistemology, Dharmakīrti, and subsequent divergent exegetical traditions both in India and Tibet.

The Time of the Buddha

From the earliest days of his teachings, the Buddha was both confronted by the other religious teachers of his day and often challenged to defend his religious teachings against his rivals. The Buddhist discourses (Sanskrit: sūtra; Pali: sutta) recount some of the more notable instances of these debates, as well as his responses to hypothetical challenges to the Buddhist doctrines raised by his disciples. The specific nature of these encounters and any protocols associated with them has been lost, and only general subjects of dispute and accounts of mythic proportion have survived. Nonetheless, sutras recount various encounters of the Buddha and his disciples with rival philosophies from which a general idea of these rivalries may be discerned. In some instances, these debates are by proxy with a disciple such as Ānanda instructing others on the incorrect views of other teachers, or refutation of positions of others when questioned by a visitor with the Buddha recorded as setting forth a number of arguments against the doctrines of the rival teachers of his day. At other times the Buddha is portrayed as directly confronting rival teachings. For instance, the Sandaka Sutta (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 1995c) recounts the Buddha’s disciple Ānanda instructing others on the incorrect views of other teachers, while in the Apaṇṇaka Sutta (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 1995a) the Buddha himself presents a number of arguments against rival doctrines. In other texts, there are records of challenges posed to the Buddha by rival teachers; but the accounts provide little in the way of what would be imagined as a debate. Rather, they recount the confrontation in terms of a contest of force through a display of magical powers, followed by instruction by the Buddha, such as in the Brahmanimantanika-sutta (also in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 1995b). The Dama-mūka-sūtra (Frye 1981) likewise recounts a confrontation between the Buddha and rival teachers in terms of a contest of force through a display of magical powers, followed by instruction by the Buddha. Although there is extensive mention of “miracles” being performed by Buddhist monks demonstrating their spiritual attainments, in the Kevaddha-sutta (Walshe 1995b), the Buddha expresses his dislike of the public display of “miracles” by Buddhist monks, advocating instead education in the Buddhist system of practice. The Brahmajāla-sutta (Walshe 1995a) demonstrates the principal mode of engagement by the Buddha with regard to rival teachers as not direct engagement, but rather instruction in an alternate viewpoint on the same subject. Consequently, although within the Buddhist community itself there were well-established protocols for resolving disputes between monks—often over issues of proper monastic discipline—there is no evidence that similar procedures were deployed in inter-religious debates.

  • Frye, Stanley. “Dama-mūka-sūtra.” In Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish. Translated by Frye, Stanley. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1981.

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    A collection of shorter works, the Dama-mūka-sūtra contains one account—“The Taming of the Six Heretic Teachers”—in which the Buddha responds in kind when challenged by rival teachers to a contest of magic.

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  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. “Apaṇṇaka Sutta.” In The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, 506–519. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995a.

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    An account of the Buddha refuting the positions of rival teachers. The arguments take the form of appeals to common sense and pragmatism rather than logical refutations.

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  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. “Brahmanimantanika-sutta.” In The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, 506–519. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995b.

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    An account of the Buddha overcoming rival teachers through magical displays.

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  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. “Sandaka Sutta.” In The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, 618–628. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995c.

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    An account of the disciple of the Buddha, Ānanda, instructing the wandering ascetic Sandaka and his followers in the faulty assertions of rival teachers of the day.

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  • Walshe, Maurice. “Brahmajāla Sutta.” In The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Translated by Maurice Walshe, 67–90. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995a.

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    Recounting of a different encounter between the Buddha and rival teachers in which he does not dispute with them but rather offers instruction in alternate viewpoints. Originally published in 1987.

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  • Walshe, Maurice. “Kevaddha-sutta.” In The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Translated by Maurice Walshe, 175–180. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995b.

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    An account of the Buddha presenting reasoning against the use of miracles over instruction to cultivate faith in the Buddhist path. Originally published in 1987.

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Pali Buddhism

Coinciding with growth and expansion of the Buddhist community and distinct philosophical schools in India was the increase in sectarian rivalry and divergences of opinion on philosophical points. Buddhist sources likewise record that with the increase of notoriety and patronage for the tradition, various heterodox teachers began assuming the guise of Buddhist monks while teaching their own individual philosophies. As a source of both contention and political competition these incidents culminated in a series of “councils” resulting in both the expulsion of individuals in extreme cases and religious schisms in others. Once again, the specific details of debates between the parties are not well documented, and competing sectarian accounts are only what remains. In the centuries following these schisms, greater emphasis appears to have been placed on codifying procedures for philosophical debate. In the Sri Lankan Sri Lankan tradition, numerous disputes with their principal rival of the Theravādins, the Pudgalavādins are recorded in the Pali canon, while any record of disputes with Mahāyāna Buddhists and tantric practitioners has been completely expunged from the historical record. In the Sandaka Sutta (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 1995), the Buddha’s disciple, Ānanda, contrasts the Buddha with four other teachers, one of whom is reputed to be a follower of pure reason leading to some positions that are well reasoned and some that are not. In the Vajjiyamāhita Sutta (Woodward 2003), the Buddha distinguishes himself from other teachers by declaring himself to be a “discriminative propounder” (Sanskrit: vibhajyavādin; Pali: vibhajjavādin) as opposed to others who respond to questions with counter-questions, dismiss questions as irrelevant, or put forth universal propositions to all questions without discrimination. In the Kathāvatthu (Aung and Rhys Davids 1969, Vidyabhusana 1921), this self-identification is elaborated upon, where the meaning of such “discrimination” is described as following an “eight-faced approach” (Pali: aṭṭha-mukha-vāda), a form then deployed not only for inter-religious debates, but for “internal debate”—debate for the resolution of points of controversy—as well. Young and Somaratna 1996 covers the topic of debate as a form of religious defense in Sri Lankan Buddhism, which was instigated by the arrival of Christian missionaries on the island, and spurred on by the nascent Theosophical Society.

  • Aung, Shwe Zan, and Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids. “Katthāvatthu.” In Points of Controversy, or Subjects of Discourse. By Aung Shwe Zan and Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids London: Pali Text Society, 1969.

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    Records disputes between the Theravadins and the Pudgalavādins.

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  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. “Sandaka Sutta.” In The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, 618–628. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

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    An account of the disciple of the Buddha, Ānanda, who points out the faulty conclusions that can be drawn from following pure reasoning from a priori assumptions.

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  • Vidyabhusana, Satis Chandra. A History of Indian Logic. Calcutta: Calcutta University, 1921.

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    Vidyabhusana provides a concise overview of the methods of disputation utilized in the Katthāvatthu.

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  • Woodward, F. L. “Vajjiyamāhita Sutta.” In The Book of the Gradual Sayings (Anguttara-nikāya), or More-numbered Suttas. Vol. 5. Translated by F. L. Woodward Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2003.

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    Records disputes between the Theravadins and the Pudgalavādins over the nature of a “self” in Buddhist doctrine. Originally published in 1975.

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  • Young, R. F., and G. P. V. Somaratna. Vain Debates: The Buddhist-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon. Vienna: Institut für Indologie der Universität Wien, 1996.

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    Drawn from primary sources, the book presents an account of the Buddhist revival movement in 19th-century Sri Lanka instigated by the presence of Christian missionaries on the island and the ensuing formal public debates.

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The Era of Early Madhyamaka Philosophy

In India proper, as in Sri Lanka, disputes were likewise recounted although accounts are focused primarily on points of philosophy in the interpretation of Buddhist sutras between the rival Buddhist schools of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra, and to a lesser extent with the more conservative Śrāvaka schools and non-Buddhists. Beginning with the writings of Nāgārjuna (c. 2nd century CE), a form of disputation unique to the Mādhyamika school emerged, taking the form of a reductio ad absurdum argument targeting opponents’ assertions. Dispute within the tradition over whether such an approach is mandated exclusively, or whether the use of syllogistic reasoning is allowable, gave rise to different strands of philosophical commentary, as well as the subsequent imputation of distinct philosophical schools by the later tradition in teasing out the philosophical implications of such debate protocols. The Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Tsongkhapa 2006) gives the basic approach of Nāgārjuna (c. 2nd century CE) consisting of several chapters of refutations of proffered examples of intrinsic essential natures of phenomena using the reductio ad absurdum approach. This basic approach is duplicated by Nāgārjuna in his Vigrahavyāvartanī (Nāgārjuna 2010), in which he responds to specific challenges to Buddhist philosophical positions in a more elaborate manner, concerned primarily with defending Buddhist doctrines rather than refuting others’ systems. The era of Nāgārjuna and his early commentarial lineage coincided with the rise to prominence of another Buddhist philosophical school, that of the “Yogācāra” or “Cittamātra” school. Consequently, a large portion of Mādhyamika literature concerns the refutation of Yogācāra positions. While one focus of Nāgārjuna’s efforts was the refutation of non-Buddhist philosophies, in later works in his lineage the object of contention shifts primacy from ontology to hermeneutics and the import of the Buddha’s teachings in the Mahāyāna sūtras. Bhāvaviveka (or Bhāviveka) offers one of the more extensive refutations of other Buddhist schools in his Mahyamaka-hṛdaya-kārikā and Tarkajvālā (Bhāviveka 2008a and Bhāviveka 2008b). In addition to their ongoing disputes with the more conservative Śrāvaka schools, this trend of philosophical debate continued for several hundred years appearing in the works of such later notable Indian Buddhist authors, such as Śāntideva, and can be seen in Dalai Lama XIV and Wallace 1988.

  • Bhaviveka. “Mahyamaka-hṛdaya-kārikā.” In Bhāviveka and His Buddhist Opponents. Translated by Malcolm David Eckel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008a.

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    A translation of the Śrāvaka and Yogācāra chapters of this text by Bhāvaviveka (or Bhāviveka).

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  • Bhāviveka. “Tarkajvālā.” In Bhāviveka and His Buddhist Opponents. Translated by Malcolm David Eckel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008b.

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    A translation of the prose commentary on the Śrāvaka and Yogācāra chapters of the “Madhyamaka-hṛdaya-kārikā” by Bhāvaviveka (or Bhāviveka).

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  • Dalai Lama XIV, and B. Alan Wallace. Transcendent Wisdom: A Commentary on the Ninth Chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1988.

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    A translation of the chapter of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra that deals explicitly with philosophical debates with exegetical commentary from the Tibetan tradition.

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  • Nāgārjuna. “Vigrahavyāvartanī.” In The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī. Translated and edited by Jan Westerhoff. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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    A translation and analysis of Nāgārjuna’s text and the hypothetical debates contained within it.

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  • Tsongkhapa. “Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā.” In Ocean of Reasoning. Translated by Geshe Ngawang Samten and Jay L. Garfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    A (revised) translation of Garfield’s earlier work on the entire text of Nāgārjuna, together with a 14th-century Tibetan commentary.

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The Codification of Debate in the Epistemological (Pramāṇa) Tradition

The early study of logic in India was exemplified by Gautama’s Nyāyasūtra, which attempted to present a complete system of reasoning and logic independent from Vedic ritual theory. A formal response to the Nyāya system of philosophy offering a Buddhist presentation of logic and reasoning appears to have been decisively formulated by the 5th-century Indian master, Dignāga. The author of several texts, the most influential in terms of its legacy was the Pramāṇasamuccaya, which dealt in part with the construction of logical arguments to be used in debate. A later follower of Dignāga, Dharmakīrti would greatly expand and clarify Dignāga’s works. In the Pramāṇavarttika, Dharmakīrti addressed the valid form of a reason (Sanskrit: hetu) and its relationship to the subject (Sanskrit: pakṣa) of a debate in both similar and dissimilar instances (Sanskrit: sapakṣa and vipakṣa, respectively; Tillemans 2000). His specific, shorter works address the precise details of debate and reasoning in opposition to his non-Buddhist Nyāya opponents; these works include the Hetubindu and the Vādanyāya. Gokhale 1997 gives an introduction and translation of Dharmakīrti’s Hetubindu presenting his own views and refuting the Nyāya school’s system of logic and valid reasoning. In a related work, Gokhale 1993 presents a study and translation of Dharmakīrti’s Vādanyāya, being a translation of Dharmakīrti’s text that presents his own rules of debate and refuting the Nyāya school’s presentation of “points of defeat” (Sanskrit: nigrahasthāna), particularly as espoused in Gautama’s Nyāyasūtra. Tillemans 1999 presents a series of essays dealing with the topic of what is entailed by an argument according to Dharmakīrti’s system. By the late 1st millennium, the influence of Dharmakīrti had become widespread, leaving its mark on the Madhyamaka school as well. The impact of this trend in the evolution of Buddhist ideas about epistemology and debate is most readily seen in the works of Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, who deployed these techniques to their own ends in debates with non-Buddhist philosophical schools. Jha 1986 gives a translation of Śāntarakṣita’s Tattvasaṅgraha and its commentary by his student, Kamalaśīla, presenting hypothetical debates and extensive refutations of non-Buddhist philosophies of the day, while McClintock 2010 investigates their treatment of the topic of omniscience in detail. As a representative figure in the final chapter of Indian Buddhist epistemology, the 11th-century author Ratnakīrti has lately received attention for his works on debate following early treatment in McDermott 1969, with Patil 2009.

Debate in East Asian Buddhism

As Buddhism migrated east, the resulting encounter between India and East Asian cultures gave rise to different sorts of challenges from those faced on the Indian subcontinent. Conflict with the doctrines of Confucianism and Taoism gave rise to their own sets of disputes (Kohn 1995 and Keenan 1994). As the tradition developed, disputes within the Buddhist community also developed, being reflected most visibly in the debate over the nature of the enlightenment process as being either sudden or gradual (Gregory 1991). Just the same, although some minor works on logic and debate (attributed variously to Dignāga, Vasubandhu, and others) were translated into Chinese (Tucci 1929 and Tachikawa 1971) and included in the Chinese canon, they appear to have played no significant role in formalizing debate in China, Korea, and Japan.

Debate in Tibetan Buddhism

Techniques for philosophical debate came to be a hallmark of late Indian Buddhism and were highly influential on the image of the tradition as it spread beyond India into Tibet. The first recorded debate in the Tibetan tradition was the famous “Sam-ye Debate” held at Sam-ye (Tibetan: bsam yas) monastery in 792 CE between Chinese Buddhists and the Indian Buddhists, ostensibly to decide the lineal fate of Tibet (Demieville 1952 and Tucci 1986). Speaking on behalf of the Chinese tradition was a figure whose identity has been lost in the polemics of history, while the Indian representative has traditionally been identified as the Indian scholar Kamalaśīla. Reputedly enacted over the span of a year and a half, the crux of the debate has been well documented: the nature of the process of enlightenment as either sudden or gradual, although no record of any specific argument nor the format of the debate survives. However, the hallmark of the Tibetan tradition has not been any specific historical debate but rather the extent to which the debate format has been incorporated into the monastic educational curriculum. As one of two primary models of education to be found in Tibetan monastic centers, the “debate model” (Tibetan: rtsod grwa) of education—as opposed to the “commentary model” (Tibetan: bshad grwa) of education—centers around the specific role of reasoning and argumentation as a pedagogical device. The result of this was a flowering of studies in logic and epistemology as part of a growing Buddhist educational tradition there. Consequently, a large corpus of literature devoted to this topic has been produced since the 12th century. Newland 1996 presents a concise overview of the history and use of monastic textbook literature as used in the debate-model of education as employed in Gelukpa (Tibetan: dge lugs pa) colleges, while Onoda 1992 looks specifically at the debate literature connected with the topics of epistemology. Exploring the early history of Dharmakīrti studies in Tibet, Onoda 1996 explores the work of Cha-ba-chö-gyi-seng-ge (Tibetan: phywa pa chos kyi seng ge, 1109–1169). Perdue 1992 and Rogers 2009 explore the contemporary end of the spectrum, presenting the Tibetan debate and logic traditions in their contemporary full-form. Finally, Dreyfus 2003 offers a window into the experiential, lived dimension of the pedagogical system.

  • Demieville, Paul. Le Councile de Lhasa. Bibliothèque de l’Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises 7. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale de France, 1952.

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    The most extensive treatment of the differing accounts of the Sam-ye Debate between Kamalaśīla (representing the Indian Buddhist perspective) and “Hva-shang Mahāyāna” (representing the Chinese Buddhist perspective).

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  • Dreyfus, Georges B. The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

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    An autobiographical account of the Tibetan monastic education system. The book delves extensively into the role and function of debate in Tibetan Buddhist education.

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  • Newland, Guy. “Debate Manuals (Yig cha) in dGe lugs Monastic Colleges.” In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Edited by José Cabezón and Roger Jackson, 202–216. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

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    A survey of pedagogical debate literature.

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  • Onoda, Shunzo. Monastic Debate in Tibet. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 1992.

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    An extensive treatment of the history of monastic debate literature in Tibet with considerable attention to the foundational writer in the genre, Cha-ba-chö-gyi-seng-ge (b. 1109–d. 1169).

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  • Onoda, Shunzo. “Bsdus grwa Literature.” In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Edited by José Cabezón and Roger Jackson, 187–201. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

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    A concise summary of the different types of monastic debate manuals (Tibetan: bsdus grwa) derived from the logic and epistemological tradition of Dharmakīrti used in Gelukpa colleges.

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  • Perdue, Daniel E. Debate in Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1992.

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    An extensive introduction to the subject of monastic debate in a pedagogical environment. The book includes a translation of a primer on debate, copiously annotated with analysis of points of procedure and the underlying philosophies.

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  • Rogers, Katherine. Tibetan Logic. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2009.

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    An introduction to the protocols of the debate format and requirements for the individual components of logical statements. The book includes a translation of a text in the genre of “Signs and Reasoning” (Tibetan: rtags rigs) that serves as a primer on the subject in the Tibetan educational system.

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  • Tucci, Giuseppe. “The Debate of Bsam Yas According to Tibetan Sources.” In Minor Buddhist Parts Texts I & II. Edited by Giuseppe Tucci, 313–464. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986.

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    A different treatment of the Sam-ye Debate drawing on Tibetan canonical and historical materials and exploring broader historical questions. Originally published in 1956 and 1958.

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LAST MODIFIED: 03/23/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0024

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