Dharma Data: Debate

Debating, the formal arguing or discussion of a thesis before an audience, has a long and distinguished history in Buddhism beginning with the Buddha himself. In text like the Sutta Nipata of the Pali Tipitaka, the Buddha says that the true monk argues with no one and keeps away from public debates. But in many other works in the Tipitaka he is portrayed as a vigorous and successful debater. It would seem therefore that at the beginning of his career the Buddha simply taught those who were interested in what he had to say, but later as his teachings came to be criticised or misinterpreted, he felt the need to explain, clarify and defend them. And this he did with remarkable virtuosity. So successful was he that he was accused of using magic to convert his opponents. In later centuries, Buddhist scholars success in debating played an important part in the winning of intellectuals to Buddhism. Sometimes the stakes were high. During certain periods those defeated in debate had to either become the victor’s disciple or commit suicide. Different Buddhist schools also debated with each other. The Chinese Mahayana monk Hsuan Tsang debated with the Savakayana monk Pragnadea in front of a huge audience and won. However it is specifically mentioned that after it was all over the two men remained good friends.

The great Samye debate in Tibet in 792-4AD between the Chinese monk Hva-san and the Indian monk Kamalasida, which the latter finally won, meant that Tibet was to rely more on India than China for its Buddhism. Perhaps the most crucial modern debate took place in Panadura in Sri Lanka in 1873. Venerable M.Gunaranda took on the Reverend David de Silva in a two day debate and to everyone’s astonishment, thoroughly defeated his opponent. The victory marked the halt in Buddhism’s decline in the face of Christian evangelism and the beginning of a major revival.

J.N. Jayatilleke, The Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, London, 1963.