While Buddhism was a missionary religion from the very beginning, the way it has promoted itself has, with few exceptions, generally been gentle, unobtrusive and low-key. Of all the Westerns Buddhists I have met, and there are many hundreds of them, not one adopted Buddhism as a result of someone trying to convince them of the truth of the Dhamma. No one came knocking on their door, no work colleague pressured them in going to a temple, no bhikkhu loudly proclaiming Buddhism on a street corner pricked their interest. All of them on their own initiative decided to look into Buddhism. This does not mean that Buddhists have not on occasions taken a more proactive stance to promote their religion or in some cases to protect it from unfair criticism or misrepresentation.
Throughout history, there have been occasions where for a variety of reasons Buddhists have participated in debates with those of contrasting viewpoints. Some of the more famous debates are the following. In the sixth century when the Chinese monk Xuanzang was in India, he participated in a Mahayana verses Theravada debate in the presence of King Harsha; he managed to emerge as victor and was richly rewarded for his efforts.
The Samye Debate of 742 in Tibet between Kamalasila and Mahayana meant that the Indian rather than the Chinese interpretation of Dhamma became dominant in that country. The most significant debate of recent times took place in Panadura in Sri Lanka in 1873 between Venerable M. Gunananda Thera and the Wesleyan missionary Reverend David de Silva. The former’s decisive victory gave Buddhists a renewed confidence in themselves and their religion and marked the beginning of a revival of Buddhism in the country.
Some older Sri Lankans might remember the three-day debate in the 1940s between the Dutch monk Ven. Dhammapala Thera and Rev. Clifford Wilson, Vicar of Christ Church, Galle Face, organised by students of the University of Ceylon. Although the audience was a mixed one, both Buddhists and Christians, the general consensus was that Rev. Wilson had been bettered. At the end of the event, he good-naturedly bowed to Dhammapala and said: “Venerable sir, I take my hat off to you.” The crowd, which had increased exponentially each day of the encounter, roared its approval – at Wilson’s magnanimity and at Dhammapala’s victory. This was an example of the best type of debate – where mutual respect and goodwill prevail despite differences of opinion.
The debate (Pali, vivada) and debating go back to the fifth century BCE in India and were an integral part of religious and intellectual life. An important way the Buddha communicated his Dhamma was by participating in these public debates. So popular were these events that they attracted large crowds and some towns even used their council halls to hold them. The Tipitaka and other sources from around the same period give a good idea of how these debates were conducted. If on being asked a legitimate question for a third time, an opponent could not answer, he was considered to have been defeated. Participants were expected to use recognised arguments and adhere to accepted procedures, and a moderator (panhavimamsaka) tried to make sure they did. To dodge a question by asking another question, change the subject, make an assertion, drop it when challenged and then take up another one, or ridicule the questioner were considered improper. Likewise, to shout down an opponent, catch him when he hesitated or interrupt from the sidelines were also unacceptable.
One particular Jain monk is described in the Tipitaka as “a debater, a cleaver speaker much esteemed by the general public.” Like some others who participated in these events, he revelled in displaying his rhetorical and dialectical skills and once proclaimed: “I see no ascetic or brahman, no leader or teacher of any sect or order, including the ones claiming to be accomplished or fully awakened, who would not shiver and shake, tremble and sweat from the armpits if he were to engage in a debate with me.”
After a discussion with a Buddhist monk and an arrangement to meet the Buddha later, he made this boast before a large assembly of Licchavis. “Today there will be some discussion between me and the monk Gotama. If he maintains before me what one of his well-known disciples, the monk Assaji maintained before me just before, then as a strong man might grab a shaggy ram by the fleece and drag it to and fro, this way and that, so to in debate I will drag the monk Gotama to and fro, this way and that.”
With reputations on the line and the possibility of attracting patronage and disciples at stake, there were debaters prepared to resort to trickery and deceit in order to win. Before an encounter, a participant might plot with his supporters to think up fallacious questions or double propositions (dupadampanham) in the hope of confounding the opponent. One ascetic was known to have worked out several hundred arguments to use against his opponents and he must have had some success with them because he had come to be known as The Pundit.
The Buddha noted that some teachers avoided debating because their philosophy was not particularly coherent, but if compelled to explain themselves they would “resort to evasive statements” while others who were dubbed “eel-wrigglers” (amaravikheppika), would not allow themselves to be pinned down to any particular position. The Indian teachers of the Buddha’s time were as argumentative and hair-splitting, as subtle and as penetrating as their equivalents in ancient Athens were at around the same time.
Success or failure in a debate did not always depend on the veracity of one’s thesis or the logic of one’s arguments but on the attitude of the audience. The Buddha pointed out that even if a protagonist supporting a false premise was able to silence an opponent using valid arguments, the audience might still support him and noisily shout: “It is he who is the wise man.”
On the other hand, if the audience was appreciative of a teacher’s rhetorical skill and the strength of his arguments, it would applaud him and mock the loser. There is a description of a participant at the end of a debate with the Buddha “reduced to silence, his head lowered, his eyes downcast, at a loss, unable to make a reply” while the audience “assailed him on all sides with a torrent of abuse and poked fun at him…” There is no suggestion that the Buddha encouraged or approved of this man’s humiliation. It is by no means the case that all these debates were just exercises in sophistry or intellectual entertainment; many who participated in them were genuinely interested in testing their ideas against others in order to plum the truth.
Because debates could get heated and sometimes even end in blows, this was probably the reason why during the early part of his career the Buddha avoided such assemblies. He observed: “Some debates are conducted in a spirit of hostility and some in a spirit of truth. Either way, the sage does not get involved.” As a consequence, at the beginning of his career, the Buddha was accused of being unable to defend his philosophy in the face of scrutiny. One critic said of him: “Who does the monk Gotama speak to? From whom does he get his lucidity of wisdom? His wisdom is destroyed by living in solitude, he is unused to discussions, he is no good at speaking, he is completely out of touch. Like an antelope that circles around and keeps to the edges, so does the monk Gotama.”
For a long time the Buddha was content to let his Dhamma speak for itself but as people began to seek deeper explanations of it and it started to be criticised and even misrepresented, he was compelled to participate in public debates and discussions.
He soon earned a reputation for being able to explain his philosophy with great clarity and to effectively defend it against criticism. He also began to subject the doctrines of others to hard questioning. So successful was he at winning over his critics and even having them become his disciples that some suspected he was using occult means to do it.
The Buddha’s aim in debating or engaging in one-on-one conversations was never to defeat an opponent, silence a critic or even to win disciples, but to lead people from ignorance to clarity and understanding. He emphasised this point often as these two quotes from the Angutara Nikaya demonstrate: “Truly, the good discuss for the purpose of knowledge and certainty” and again: “The spiritual life is not lived for the purpose…of winning debates.…Rather, it is lived for the purpose of restraint, giving up, dispassion and cessation.”
In one of the most heartfelt appeals he ever made he said: “I tell you this. Let an intelligent person who is sincere, honest and straightforward come to me and I will teach him Dhamma. If he practises as he is taught, within seven days and by his own knowledge and vision, he will attain that holy life and goal. Now you may think that I say this just to get disciples or to make you abandon your rules.
But this is not so. Keep your teacher and continue to follow your rules. You may think that I say this so you will give up your way of life, follow things you consider bad or reject things you consider good. But this is not so. Live as you see fit and continue to reject things you consider bad and follow things you consider good. But there are states that are unskilful, defiled, leading to rebirth, fearful, causing distress and associated with birth, decay and death, and it is only for the overcoming of these things that I teach the Dhamma.”