During our days in Bhumtang, Bhutan, Sither, our guide, thought it might be interesting for us to visit a local monastery which housed hundreds of young monks studying their Buddhist scriptures. Every afternoon, they study by having a public “debate” on scriptural issues. Monks debating in a language I couldn’t understand? Sounded interesting enough!
As the clock struck 4:30pm, dozens of monks strolled out into the courtyard and organized themselves into groups by class. Between two and three students became the challengers, asking questions of two select students at a time on the study subject of the day (in this case, the Hungry Ghost). The other students aided the questioners with the correct answers.
Though it started out mild, it soon became quite the yelling match! This was not the image of quiet, peaceful Buddhist monks that we have in the West. There was taunting, in-your-face yelling and pointing. It was all quite animated (and exciting!). Every time a question was asked, the questioners would clap to send it to the poor folks trying to answer.
As the debate heated up, we got a chance to talk with the Discipline Master of the monastery, who has the power to discipline any of the monks as they misbehave. In former times, they actually used to lash the monks (and even the Chief Abbott if need be). That practice has died down though and now some Discipline Masters carry a mini lash solely as a threat. He explained that this debate as a study tool took place every afternoon.
The debate became so interesting that I simply had to shoot some video, which you can see below.
Also in attendance at the debate was a young child, probably about 8 or so, who wore monk robes with an unusual yellow shirt. He certainly seemed to be fed more than his fellow monks. Sither explained that he had been identified at a young age as a reincarnation of someone rather noteworthy. Regardless of what this child may have wanted to do with his life, he has absolutely no choice. He will forever be a monk.
This whole process of identifying incarnations is rather fascinating. The prior incarnation would leave instructions prior to his death as to where and when he would be reborn. Once that time comes, a search committee is assembled to identify the child. Once they are 4 or so, they are asked to find several of the prior incarnation’s personal items and if successful, they are declared to be the reincarnation.
We must have spent an hour on the grounds of the temple watching the monks in wonderment. Maroon clad arms clutching Buddhist “rosaries” flung in each direction and though we did not understand a word that they were saying, it was a truly amazing experience!