Category Archives: Monastic debate

The Meaning of Gestures in Tibetan Buddhist Debate

Watching nuns or monks practice debate is fascinating because of their lively hand and body motions, but many observers wonder about the meaning of the gestures in Tibetan Buddhist debate.

monastic debate, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan debate, debate gestures

A group of nuns act as Challengers and pose questions to seated nuns during daily debate practice at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Debate in Tibetan Buddhism serves many purposes including clearing up doubts, developing critical thinking skills, deepening one’s understanding of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and increasing wisdom and compassion. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Monastic debate is noisy. When you see Tibetan debating for the first time, the debaters’ stances, gestures, and sounds may seem confrontational. Yet everyone practices debate with an attitude of respect and a shared desire to deeply understand the Buddhist teachings.

Each hand and body motion is rooted in wisdom and compassion, which must be united to attain enlightenment.

The Meaning of Gestures in Tibetan Buddhist Debate

Daily practice in monastic debate is of critical importance in traditional Tibetan Buddhist learning. Through debate, nuns and monks test and consolidate their classroom learning and gain a thorough understanding of the Buddhist teachings.

In daily debate practice, the Challenger chooses the topic from the Buddhist philosophical texts studied earlier that day. The Challenger stands and asks questions to the Defender who is seated and who must answer. Sometimes monastics debate in groups. There is strength is numbers and the weak learn from the strong.

As the Challenger asks the question, she or he claps loudly to punctuate the end of the question.

In the gestures of debate, the right hand represents compassion or method. The left hand represents wisdom. The loud clap signifies the joining of wisdom and compassion.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun practicing debate dramatically claps her hands together after asking her question. The loud clap signifies the coming together of compassion (right hand) and wisdom (left hand). Photo by Olivier Adam taken at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India.

When the Challenger claps her hands together, she simultaneously stomps her left foot. This symbolizes the slamming of the door to rebirth in the lower realms.

After the clap and stomp, the Challenger holds out her left arm which represents wisdom. Through this motion, she represents keeping the door to all rebirth shut.

Tibetan debate. monastic debate, meaning of Tibetan debate gestures

Stomping one’s foot in Tibetan monastic debate symbolizes slamming of the door to rebirth in the lower realms. Photo by Olivier Adam of a nun practicing daily debate at Geden Choeling Nunnery.

Then she uses her right arm to lift up her mala (Tibetan prayer beads) around her left arm. This gesture represents the compassionate lifting up of all suffering beings from the cycle of rebirth.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “The root of suffering is the unruly mind, so the practice of Dharma is to transform the mind.” The practice of debate helps develop critical thinking skills, deepens one’s understanding of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and increases wisdom and compassion.

If the Defender’s answer is satisfactory, the Challenger moves on to the next question. If not, the Challenger will make a gesture like an alligator closing its jaws, loudly smacking her hands together as she seeks an in-depth explanation from the Defender.

Tibetan debate, monastic debate, gestures in Tibetan Buddhist debate

A nun uses her right arm to lift up her mala or Tibetan prayer beads around her left arm. This gesture represents the compassionate lifting up of all suffering beings from the cycle of rebirth. Photo by Olivier Adam.

The Importance of Tibetan Buddhist Debate

The following video is a great primer on debate by Tibetan Buddhist nuns. It is part of a longer video made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India. It answers many questions about monastic debate and shows and describes the gestures.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

“The logic and epistemology that prevailed in ancient India have lapsed in modern times, but we Tibetans kept them alive in our monasteries,” said His Holiness the Dalai Lama at an important debate event in India. “Our studies are rigorous. We memorize texts word by word, study commentaries to them and engage in debate during which we refute others’ positions, assert our own and rebut criticism.”

Debate pushes everyone to study and to try to understand the meaning of the texts.

Training Nuns in Debate

Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. This is true also for training in monastic debate. The Tibetan Nuns Project’s mission is to educate and empower nuns of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as teachers and leaders, and to establish, strengthen, and support educational institutions to sustain Tibetan religion and culture.

Now nuns are able to get training and daily practice in monastic debate. In addition to their regular daily debate practice at their own nunneries, each year hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist nuns from nunneries in India and Nepal gather for a special, month-long inter-nunnery debate called the Jang Gonchoe.

Here is a video of the 2019 Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate. Can’t see it? Click here.

Before 1995, there was no Jang Gonchoe for nuns and this learning opportunity was only open to monks. The Tibetan Nuns Project, with the wonderful support of our patron, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, played a critical role in opening up this learning opportunity to women. Establishing a comparable debate session for nuns has been an integral part of the nuns reaching their current level of excellence in their studies.

The inter-nunnery debate helps bring the nuns closer to equality with the monks in terms of learning opportunities and advancement along the spiritual path. For many, the Jang Gonchoe is an essential component of working towards higher academic degrees, such as the Geshema degree, equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “Nowadays, the Nalanda tradition of approaching the Buddha’s teachings with logic and reason is only found amongst Tibetans. It’s something precious we can be proud of and should strive to preserve.”

New Endowment Created for Nuns’ Debates

“Last year the Jang Gonchoe was an excellent one. We debated till midnight each day. We were overjoyed to share our ideas and thoughts. There were about 400 nuns and all were full with enthusiasm and eager to debate with one another.”
Tenzin Nyidon, Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

For centuries, Tibetan monks have held an annual month-long debating session called Jang Gonchoe. The event was so named for Jang, the region in Tibet west of Lhasa where the month long inter-monastery debate originated, and Gonchoe, which is Tibetan for winter debate.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating 2013

The nuns of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute practicing debate in 2013 prior to the completion of the new debate courtyard. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

The practice of debate takes many years to fully master and is critical to fostering the nuns’ ability to assume roles as fully qualified teachers of their tradition. In 2015, it will be 20 years since the nuns started taking part in the Jang Gonchoe and building their own strong tradition of debate. Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, the Tibetan Nuns Project has so far been able to support the Jang Gonchoe for 17 years through major gifts and $100 scholarships to the nuns.

It is our wish to create an endowment for the Jang Gonchoe so it may continue for years to come. The amount needed for full endowment at current exchange and interest rates in India is $300,000.

We have received an initial gift of $35,000 from a nun living in France. By donating to the endowment you are not only helping to preserve the Tibetan culture, but you are opening up a centuries-old tradition to the nuns and enabling and empowering them to become great teachers in their own right. The benefit of this is inestimable and will be an enduring legacy for generations to come.

This is a unique opportunity to build capacity and equality for the nuns, to help ensure that a centuries-old tradition continues and expands to include the nuns, and to foster the dharma for future generations.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns praticing debate

Nuns of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute debating in the spring of 2013. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Background on the Jang Gonchoe Debates

The practice of debate combines logical thinking with a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy and is an essential part of monastic education in the Tibetan tradition.

Until the 1990s, Tibetan Buddhist nuns we excluded from this form and level of education and the Tibetan Nuns Project has worked hard to open up this opportunity for the nuns and make debate a core part of their education. Establishing a comparable debate session for nuns has been an integral part of the nuns reaching the level of excellence in their studies that they have.

On September 20, 1995, an historic event took place in the development of the nuns. The first inter-nunnery debate, modeled on the Jang Gonchoe debate of the great monastic institutions of Tibet, was held in Dharamsala. It was organized by the Department of Religion and Culture and was attended by nuns from 4 nunneries in India–Jangchup Choeling, Jamyang Choeling, Geden Choeling, and Dolma Ling.

For the first time in the history of Tibet, nuns debated in front of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for almost two hours. His Holiness was very happy to see their debate because for many years He had been asking nuns to study the higher topics of Buddhism.

Venerable Jampa Tsedroen from Germany donated funding for the first year, but during the second year, 1996, there was no specific funding so the participating nunneries from Dharamsala could only afford half a month debate session while Jangchup Choeling nuns from South India were unable to attend the session altogether.

In the third year, 1997, the nunneries approached the Tibetan Nuns Project for assistance. The Tibetan Nuns Project felt strongly that this method of learning which helped to produce many famous scholars in the monasteries over many centuries must continue and be open to the nuns and so agreed to accept the responsibility for raising the necessary support each year. The Jang Gonchoe session is a great opportunity for the nuns in sharping their mind and sharing their knowledge and debating skill among themselves.

The Growth of the Nuns’ Jang Gonchoe

Jang Gonchoe debate by Tibetan Buddhist nuns 2013

Nuns gather for the 2013 Jang Gonchoe, the month-long inter-nunnery debate event

The number of nuns wanting to participate in the Jang Gonchoe is increasing steadily. At the Jang Gonchoe at Dolma Ling Nunnery & Institute in 2013, over 400 nuns from 8 nunneries in India and Nepal took part in the event.

An average of 7 nunneries take part each year. All nunneries are welcome to join when they can. The main obstacle to wider participation is funding – for travel, food and accommodation for nuns to attend.
• Dolma Ling Nunnery & Institute – participant since 1995
• Jangchup Choeling Nunnery – participant since 1995
• Jamyang Choeling Nunnery – participant since 1995
• Geden Choeling Nunnery – participant since 1995
• Khacho Ghakil Ling, Nepal – yearly participant
• Thugjee Choeling Nunnery, Nepal – yearly participant
• The Buddhist Education Centre from Kinnaur – yearly participant
• Drikung Nunnery – participant once
• Dongyu Gyatseling Nunnery – occasional participant
• Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Spiti – occasional participant
• Yangchen Choeling Nunnery, Spiti – occasional participant
• Jampa Choeling Nunnery, Spiti – occasional participant
• (The nuns from the latter three nunneries now hold their own inter-nunnery debate session each year in Spiti.)

Under guidance from the Tibetan Nuns Project, the nuns themselves have taken on the organizing role. Since 2011, a nuns’ committee formed with two representatives from each participating nunnery has taken responsibility for making all the plans and arrangements for the session.

The venue of the Jang Gonchoe site is rotated among the participating nunneries. It costs more when the debate session is held in Nepal or in South India because most of the nunneries are situated in North India. The annual cost of the Jang Gonchoe varies from between $13,000 and $20,000 depending on the location, the number of nuns participating, and the year. Rapid inflation in India over the past few years has put great pressure on the nunneries, especially for things like food and fuel costs.

The Tibetan Nuns Project fundraises for $100 scholarships to enable nuns to take part. Each year, the Tibetan Nuns Project ensures that at least 25 nuns and two Buddhist philosophy teachers from each participating nunnery are sponsored to attend. As the number of nuns wanting to participate in the session is increasing steadily, when more than 25 from a particular nunnery wish to attend they have to find the funding individually or through their nunnery. The total number of extra nuns that can attend depends on the availability of accommodation in the host nunnery.

“I would like to thank you so much for supporting our education. It is all because of your support that I’m getting all these opportunities to study dharma in Dolma Ling. It has been 10 years now since I’m studying here. It is only through debate and discussion with teachers and dharma friends that has helped me to improve my knowledge and understanding of the teaching in a much better way.”
Tenzin Chonyi, Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

To donate to the Endowment for the Jang Gonchoe debates, please visit our online donation page or send a check to:

The Tibetan Nuns Project
815 Seattle Boulevard South #216
Seattle, WA 98134 USA
Phone: (206) 652-8901