Kurukulla Center

Debating with the Dalai Lama

This article was part of a series published in Mandala Magazine (July-August 2000) about Ven. Choden Rinpoche. To learn more about Rinpoche's visit to Kurukulla Center, or to read more articles from this series, please go here.

During the Great Prayer Festival, Monlam, in the spring of 1959, just before he fled Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama had to debate as part of his geshe examination. All the main monasteries sent some of their best debaters to debate with him; Geshe Lhundrup Sopa and I represented Sera Je.

The ones who sit as the examiners are the abbots of the monasteries. But usually there are many geshes who have mastered all the subjects at the debates, so they can see how well a person does. Debate is not like written exams; everyone hears what you have to say, so it’s very clear whether you make a mistake or whether you give a very smart answer.

The Great Prayer Festival is held during the first month of the Tibetan new year, and all the monks from all the main monasteries and many of the smaller local monasteries gather around the Jokhang; there were probably several tens of thousands of monks there.

When His Holiness was learning debate, he would usually debate with an assigned debate partner (tsenshab), and they would debate in private. Therefore, no one knew how good His Holiness was because he’d never debated in any of the monasteries. They had absolutely no idea what his level of skill was.

Five main treatises make up the studies in the geshe program, so time is set for debating on each one of these topics, and all the representative geshes from all of the monasteries are given a part of the subjects to debate. Each debater gets his own topic, and each of them would debate His Holiness.

The subject debated in the morning for His Holiness was Pramanavartika, and the people debating at the time were Geshe Rabten and Gen Kalo, who was the abbot of the Lower Tantric College, Gyume. In the afternoon there’s another debate session, and the subject then was Madhyamika and the Perfections. During that time, Geshe Sopa Rinpoche and I debated. In the evening there is what is known as the great debate session where all the geshes of the major monasteries will debate.

There would be two hours of debating sessions in the morning, then many hours of prayers (since it was during the prayer festival), and there would be two hours of debate in the afternoon with many prayers, and then the debate session in the evening, which is the longest.

His Holiness was present all together for the debate for about three hours. When His Holiness debated in the evening, everyone was amazed at how good he was! That evening, for the first time, everyone had insight into the level of skill of His Holiness.

I had the topic of the two truths, conventional and ultimate. Twenty-five years later when I saw His Holiness, in 1985, His Holiness had such a clear memory: he said, “You were one of the debaters, weren’t you? You debated on the two truths.” This is a major debate with so many monks, and His Holiness knew not only that I was someone who had debated, but he even remembered the topic I had debated!

This article first appeared in Mandala Magazine, July/August 2000.