Buddhism Debate
Paul G. Hackett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0024


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.

  • Dhirasekera, Jotiya, ed. “Debate.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by G. P. Malalasakera. Colombo, Ceylon: Government of Ceylon, 1961–.

    An introduction to the subject of debate, particularly drawing on the Pali canon.

  • Dreyfus, Georges B. Recognizing Reality: Dharmakīrti’s Philosophy and Its Tibetan Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

    A superb introduction to Buddhist epistemology in India and Tibet.

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

    A comprehensive overview of epistemology, logic, and debate in Indian philosophy. For Buddhist authors, see pp. 225–353.

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