Skip to main content
Log in

What is Debate for? The Rationality of Tibetan Debates and the Role of Humor

  • Published:
Argumentation Aims and scope Submit manuscript


In this essay, I examine the mode of operation and aim of debates in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. I contrast the probative form of argument that was privileged by the Indian tradition to the more agonic practice favored by Tibetan scholastics. I also examine the rules that preside over this dialectical practice, which is seen by the Tibetan tradition as essential to a proper scholastic education. I argue, however, that the practice of debates cannot be reduced to this dialectical model, for it has an important performative aspect not easily encompassed by the rules. I examine this aspect of Tibetan debates, focusing particularly on the role of humor. I conclude with a few remarks on the type of rationality entailed by the importance of humor and of other rhetorical elements involved in Tibetan debates.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. The (dge lugs) Geluk tradition can be traced back to the fifteenth century and the Tibetan thinker Tsongkhapa, who offered a powerful synthesis of the whole range of Buddhist doctrines and spearheaded a monastic revival. The Geluk School developed gradually, culminating in the seventeenth century when its then leader, the Dalai-lama, assumed temporal power over Tibet. Its main centers were the three monastic seats around Lhasa: Drepung, Sera and Ganden. It is there that the debates examined in this essay were practiced.

  2. Here rhetoric is understood as the use of arguments aiming at persuading an audience of a proposition without regard to its truth. This understanding of rhetoric is classical, going back at least to Socrates’ critique of rhetoric as contrasted with dialectic, the superior mode of inquiry that can lead to truth in opposition to mere success.

  3. The “three circles” refer to three conditions that the consequence must satisfy to check-mate the respondent. In the example “it follows that the subject the sound is not produced since it is permanent,” such a consequence is appropriate only to a person who fulfills three conditions: he admits that the sound is permanent, holds that whatever is permanent is not produced and that the sound to be produced. Such a person has completed the three circles and hence cannot give a correct answer without contradicting himself. In practice, the expression is used to signal any mistake in the respondent's answer and not just the ones that satisfy to these three criteria.

  4. There is a prescribed way in which the respondent wears his hat. When the topic is introduced, the respondent takes his hat off out of respect for the debater and waits until the basis for the debate has been laid out. He then puts on the hat again, a sign that he has mastered the topic and is ready to answer. Should he lose, however, the respondent has to take his hat off, recognizing his defeat. If he does not do so, his opponent may grab the hat himself.

  5. I should make it clear that I am speaking of a particular conception of debates within the Geluk tradition. Not all teachers would agree and many see debate as just a useful didactic exercise. Others would argue, however, that the debates is more than a mere internalization of the truth of the tradition and represents a genuine though limited realm of inquiry. For more on this topic, see Dreyfus (2003).


  • Dreyfus, G. 2003. The sound of two hands clapping: the education of a Tibetan buddhist monk. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kapstein, M. 2000. The assimilation of Buddhism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sierskma, F. 1964. rTsod pa: The monachal dispute in Tibet. The Indo-Iranian Journal 8: 130–152.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stein, R.A. 1972. Tibetan civilization. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vidhyabhusana, Satis Chandra. 1977. A history of Indian logic. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wardy R. 1996. Mighty is the truth, and it shall prevail? In Essays on Aristotle’s rhetoric, ed. A. Rorty, 56–87. Berkeley: University of Califiornia Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Georges B. Dreyfus.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dreyfus, G.B. What is Debate for? The Rationality of Tibetan Debates and the Role of Humor. Argumentation 22, 43–58 (2008).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: