A Little Adrift

A Little Memory… Why do Tibetan Monks Clap During Debates?

Monks in Dharamsala

The sound of emphatic clapping first greeted me as I walked into a Tibetan monastery in McLeod Ganj, India. The monastery is located at on the edge of town and my cousin and I had decided to visit. We hadn’t realized that this was examine season! But it turned out to be good fun and a well-timed visit. The monks were preparing for their exams with lively debates!

Pairs and trios of the scarlet-clad monks were spread all over the monastery grounds. The open-air courtyard allowed the laughter and debate to roll across the grounds like a playful child. Joyous sounds echoed off the walls of the monastery and into the surrounding hillside. My cousin and I couldn’t help but grin as we watched the energy ricochet around the space. There was no way we could have planned for this, it was just a happy coincidence and it now stands as one of my favorite memories from McLeod Ganj, India.

McLeod Ganj is the headquarters for the Tibetan government-in-exile, this is where His Holiness the Dalai Lama spends a good deal of time. And with dispensations from India, a large population of Tibetans have permanently lived in this region for more than 50 years. Those who make the long and arduous trek from Tibet into India have brought with them their culture — and that includes the unique style of debate that the Tibetan monks use! The monks use a large, exagerated, single-sound clap to emphasize their points during philosophical conversations about Buddhism, life, and anything else on the table for discussion.

The emphatic gestures — the gesticulating and whip-like hand clap is unique to Tibetan monks and was unexpected when I went for a wander through the monasteries around McLeod Ganj.

The clapping gesture is akin how you would teach a child to make an alligator jaw — arms elongated away from your body, a wide arch into the air as you throw your entire body into the movement, ending in a loud, cracking clap that snaps into the air and hurls sound at your eager opponent. Only the standing monk uses this gesture — he is the Challenger and thus asks questions to the Defender sitting on the ground. Once he has asked the question and done the large clap issued toward the Defender, the Challenger will hold out his left arm in a gesture welcoming an answer.

While it seems rather lively, there is no aggression, this is simply a spirited traditional way for the Tibetan monks to share and debate information. Louder than many styles of organized and cool Western debate, the huge smiles on the faces of these monks is a clear indication that they are fully engaged and enjoying their afternoon. The topics of the debate are varied, but it’s all undertaken with intention. The Asia Society notes:

“The central purposes of Tibetan monastic debate are to defeat misconceptions, to establish a defensible view, and to clear away objections to that view. Debate for the monks of Tibet is not mere academics, but a way of using direct implications from the obvious in order to generate an inference of the non-obvious state of phenomena.”

It’s even more complex than just a debate with clapping, however. Each hand and arm represents a part of the rebirth process with wisdom and compassion all tied into it. There’s a stomp that accompanies the clap, meant to slam closed the door to rebirth. If you’re keen to learn more, George Dreyfus’ book, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, makes for a fascinating read with deep insight into Tibetan Buddhism.

After sitting in a corner of the courtyard for a time, I left the monastery smiling right through my entire body. For hours, the echo of the loud Tibetan debate bounced through my head. And now, years later, thinking of that memory — filled with a breezy courtyard and balconies full of debating, clapping monks — makes me grin. One of the reasons I so love this life of travel is for the random nuances of life and learning that enter my sphere of knowledge.