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
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
The ones who sit as the examiners are the abbots of
the monasteries. But usually there are many geshes
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
There would be two hours of debating sessions in the
morning, then many hours of prayers (since it was
during the prayer festival),
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
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
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
the topic I had debated!
This article first appeared in Mandala