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A different class of teaching
Publication Date : 09-01-2014
The revival and honouring of an ancient form of debate is bringing change to the classrooms
At 5:20 on a freezing December afternoon, 80 grade-two students gathered in the open air in front of a school building. They split into two groups: students on one side sat on the ground, while the others stood facing them. The groups then split up into small debating teams, with one student standing and a couple of their peers sitting on the ground.
When the standing student asked a series of questions, those sitting on the ground attempted to provide answers as concisely as possible.
As the debates continued, the students, who spoke rapidly in cadenced Tibetan, grew increasingly excited. The questioners raised themselves on one leg and took a step forward, clapping their hands to warn their audiences that it was time to provide answers. The antics made some of the students laugh and their faces glowed red, as if unaffected by the cold. At the end of the hour-long session, as the shadows lengthened and the air grew cooler, the students returned to their classrooms.
Welcome to the world of Hetuvidya, or Buddhist Logic.
Hetuvidya has been part of Tibetan Buddhism for about 1,000 years, and is regarded as a highly effective tool for logical analysis. However, the debating tradition, an essential element of the daily routine of Tibetan monks as they study Buddhist scriptures, has only in recent years attracted the attention of mainstream scholars. Now, a number of schools and universities in northeastern China are honouring the tradition of reasoned debate by emphasising its value as a cornerstone of philosophical enquiry.
Look, listen and learn
"Practical debates are part of the Hetuvidya study course. Every week, all grade one and two students have two Hetuvidya classes - one concerns theory and the other is a practical debate on everything they've learned or want to discuss," said Lubumkyab, vice-principal of No 1 Minzu High School in Hainan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Qinghai province.
"We've been offering this course since 2005, when we were trying to identify the best way of carrying out the government's essential-qualities-oriented schooling policy," he said.
Does one plus one definitely equal two? Which is primary and which is secondary, matter or ideas? We all agree that the sun rises in the east, but what is "east"? While many philosophical schools have discussed these elementary, but difficult, questions, the discussion of abstract thought is not a common practice in Chinese high schools.
Because of the enormous pressure exerted by the gaokao (the national college entrance examination) which falls in June every year, high school students in China are encouraged to sit quietly, listen to their teachers and memorise philosophical concepts and theories, such as Marx's ideas on historical materialism. Debate is rarely seen as part of the process.
There are exceptions to every rule, however, and No 1 Minzu High School is one of them. Half of the students are taught in Tibetan, the other half in Mandarin Chinese. However, no matter which language is used, Hetuvidya courses are mainly restricted to grade one and two students.
The gaokao is the top priority for grade-three students, and so only the best debaters will be allowed to continue the course after grade two.
Originating in ancient India, Hetuvidya is based on providing reasons and demonstrating points of view. The theory was introduced in China's inland regions, and later disseminated across the areas populated by Tibetan speakers, between the 4th and 12th centuries. Gradually, two schools of thought developed, Han Chinese Hetuvidya and Tibetan Hetuvidya.
Debate is one of the most important ways for Tibetan Buddhist monks to think about the world - to determine right from wrong, and truth from falsehood. They engage in debate during their daily studies and every year four conferences, each lasting about a month, are held and Buddhist scriptures are debated.
The authorities at No 1 Minzu High School adopted the approach as a means of encouraging the students to think for themselves. "Previously, the students played a passive role in class and just listened to what the teachers told them. We believe essential-qualities-oriented schooling means teachers can guide their students to become more involved in the classes," said Lubumkyab.
After examining several ways of implementing the government's policy, the school authorities realised that in monasteries in the Tibet autonomous region, masters spend very little time explaining the theories of Hetuvidya to their charges, instead they allow them to debate the topics thoroughly. The debates help the students to better understand their lessons and to memorise them quickly and effectively.
"As a result, we wondered if it would be possible to employ this teaching method at our school. So, we introduced the Hetuvidya course and,
after about a year, we found that the students had become very active in class," said Lubumkyab. "We now need more Hetuvidya teachers."
Methods of debate
Sonam Yeshi is one of two Hetuvidya teachers at the school. Since age 17, he has spent his spare time visiting monasteries and studying the subject.
"My major is actually Tibetan, but I am very interested in Hetuvidya," said the 46-year-old, who used to teach Tibetan, but now teaches all 14 grade-two Hetuvidya classes.
The textbook the students use was compiled at Labrang Monastery in the northwestern province of Gansu. Founded in 1709, Labrang is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and home to the largest number of monks outside Tibet.
"Although the textbook was originally compiled for monks, it's not hard to understand. It teaches Hetuvidya theory, mainly the debating methods," said Sonam Yeshi. "I teach the students the methods of debate, and they can use them to examine any subject, from Chinese to math or physics."
Chenwang Ngakrig is a 17-year-old grade-two student at the school. He has been studying Hetuvidya for a little more than a year.
"I used to find it very difficult to memorise lessons in mathematics or chemistry because I didn't understand the underlying concepts. I'm not a top student, but I've made good progress in my studies because the debating methods used in Hetuvidya enable me to analyse questions in a very clear and easy way. Through analysis and debate it's very easy to memorise my studies, because I know the mechanisms that underpin them," he said.
"I applied the methods when I was learning about redox reactions and trying to understand why one minus one equals zero," he said.
In addition to a conference at which students compete in reciting Hetuvidya theories, every May the school hosts a debate in which the students are the main participants. About 150 students take part in the debates, which feature both individuals and teams selected by class or grade.
Contestants are required to wear traditional costume and, as a result, the conference looks like a festival, especially as parents, relatives and students' friends from other schools are welcome.
Hetuvidya experts and scholars from college and monasteries are invited to judge the contests. Professor Tashi Dawa, from Qinghai University for Nationalities, frequently attends the conferences. "This approach can train students to think logically. It is a traditional method of study for Tibetan people," he said.
"I have visited many different high schools, but only No 1 Minzu High School offers the Hetuvidya course. In other schools, I have found that the students are very shy in class and only a few dare to ask questions. By comparison, the students at No 1 Minzu High School are very active - they ask questions and then discuss them. Therefore, it seems that this method of study can also improve the students' confidence and their communication skills," said Tashi Dawa.
"There is not a great difference between these debates and those in contests such as the International Varsity Debate, but we have a debating formula, a specific pattern. The debate, which contains three parts, has a special pace. It resembles Aristotle's Syllogism in formal logic ("All men are mortal. Hercules is a man. Therefore Hercules is mortal."), but our method is mainly one of refutation," he said.
The professor explained that during a debate, the person standing is supposed to refute the views of the person sitting on the ground, trying to find any flaws in the argument. After a short training period, the students are usually quick to spot anomalies, especially in respect to questions of logic.
In 2011, Qinghai University for Nationalities took the unusual step of introducing a debating course based on Hetuvidya. Studies at universities for nationalities, those usually attended by members of ethnic groups, usually include the Hetuvidya course, but not the debating classes.
Chinese Buddhism also includes Hetuvidya studies, but has no tradition of debate.
"Introducing the Hetuvidya course in the teaching of traditional Tibetan culture and history is not only a good way to train students to think logically, but it's also an effective way of honouring our traditions," said Tashi Dawa.