Merging West with East


For the past couple of weeks I have been spending a lot of time thinking and reading about debate and argumentation - the western, rhetorical tradition, as well as the teaching methods and history of the conventions of Buddhism. I am starting work on a long-term project that attempts to separate the practice of debate from western rational thought, formal logic, and reason in an attempt to re-connect it to the aesthetic, imaginative, and spiritual side of communication.

Right now my focus is on the teaching device known as the Kung-An (J. Koan). It is my belief that the pedagogical principles behind the use of Koans in Buddhist teaching can be applied to how one approaches motions in debate. One should think of the motion like a Koan.

The major change is one of mental approach. Instead of seeing the motion and thinking "What are the arguments I can win on that are related to the motion," the debate comes as an aesthetic response to what you are presented in the terms of the motion. You articulate a response to the motion that does not seek to use it as an instrument to win its own particularities. You instead articulate persuasive belief that the motion will serve as an example.

A Koan is designed to separate you from the limits of reason, rational, and logical thinking. But this, from the point of view of a rhetorician, is merely a transition into another type of discourse. Zen and Ch'an masters are not looking for the correct answer, for a check box when they are evaluating what students say when responding to a Koan. They are looking for a much deeper understanding, something away from the discourses of predictable, limited, everyday thought.

This is not to say it's way out there. Instead, it is rooted in the experiences of the everyday, but articulates these experiences and this information differently. It attempts to flip the standard position of master and student on its head. Why not approach the motion in this manner: It is an example of the obvious, persuasive understanding that you advocate?

This might be a bit esoteric, so let's ground it with some analysis of what Zen and Ch'an masters look for to determine if a monk has reached satori, or enlightenment. Did they provide the sort of answer that distinguishes them as "getting it?" Here are some of the principles of evaluation gleaned from literary analysis of Koan dialogues by T. Griffith Foulk in the essay "The Form and Function of Koan Literature: A Historical Overview":
1. “The ‘awakened’ person naturally refuses to occupy the position of disciple, whose commentary is ipso facto ‘deluded.’ He insists rather on seizing and holding the position of master in the dialogue, which means that he must be prepared not only to comment on the root case, but to pass critical judgment on his teacher’ remarks as well when the teacher tries the usual gambit of putting him in his place. The confidence to stand one’s ground in this situation comes from understanding the basic message of Chou-chou’s ‘not’ (and many other Ch’an/Zen dialogues) which is simply that words and signs utterly fail to convey the true dharma.” (41)
The origin of the term Koan is a legal one, meaning "public case" - something like the modern practice of stare decisis, where case law is commented upon to point out its validity or to apply it to a contemporary legal question. So one can think of Koans, at least in their origin, as an argumentation game - can you provide a commentary that both re-explains this idea anew, while keeping in tone with the previous ruling? This spiritual stare decisis is the pedagogical tool of the master to see if the student is "getting it" - are they awake? Are they making sense within the "rules" of Ch'an? And finally, are they making a valuable contribution with their words to the understanding of those who hear? Are they making an impact on the thought of those who are listening? For the koan test is not mere mental gaming, but an important step in the training of the mind for the direct transformation of the world into something better. It is not necessary to describe the similarity to debate that is apparent here.

The koan in question here is the famous Chou-Chou koan: Does a dog have a buddha nature? To which Chou-Chou replied, "Not!" This is the root of the koan, but a response must keep in mind what the audience expects to hear.

Foulk points out that the first step is to "stand one's ground," to occupy the position of the teacher, and to speak with confidence. What is important for my analogy between koans and motions here, is that the confidence stems fro understanding the "basic message" of the koan and making sure all your remarks are relevant to that.

How frequent is it to see a debate where the "basic message" is not only lost, but since it is absent, the speaker fails to perform even the most basic elements of confidence? Confidence comes not from what you think you know, but from your approach to the motion. Do you allow the basics of the motion to inform your speech, or do you allow your confrontation with the motion to determine your speech? Which would the monk choose?

2. Foulk's second criteria he describes as a reversal of, “the prohibition against the interpretation of koans as symbol systems. All authoritative commentary, as modeled in the discourse records and koan collections, is grounded in the principle that the language of the old cases is figurative and the actions they report are symbolic. Clever commentary may acknowledge and play with the literal meaning of a saying, but it must never fail to interpret and respond to the figurative meaning. By the same token, the comments themselves must be couched in indirect speech. The real sin of intellectualism or discursive thought does not consist in the act of interpretation, as Ch’an/Zen masters like to pretend, but in the expression of one’s interpretation in direct, expository language.” (41)

This is going to be controversial, but I believe this means that we should treat motions as if they were open. Why? Too often, the debater is imprisoned by the directness and simplicity of the motion - they merely argue what they think the motion logically includes. But with the first step in mind, with basic understanding and the confidence of the teacher in mind, why not approach the motion as something that is the base, not the telos, of one's argumentation. The "sin of intellectualism" might not apply to debaters, but perhaps it does in altered form - nobody likes a debate that sounds "debate-y." People like a debate that sounds persuasive. They like speakers that clearly make their point and back it up with interesting, relevant words. They like someone who speaks with the sound and appearance of the master. The sin of direct language, as Foulk puts it, is an indictment of directness. There is something to be said about stylistic remarks, the use of metaphor, analogy, and narrative, and the richness of the persuasive moment that is not served when one attempts to speak like an equation. Logic is in service to the debater, reason and rationality are too, but how often are they mutated into the end result of a speech? Treating the motion as open allows you to use it as an example for your points, and argue something that the example would prove. This will help debaters access those larger principles, values, and ideas that good debates revolve around.


3. “Finally, the satori that gives one master over koans is traditionally expressed in statements to the effect that tone will never again be tricked or sucked in by the words of the patriarchs, which is to say, by the koan genre itself. . . Not to be sucked in is to realize that the words could not possibly embody or convey awakening, and that their imputed profundity is actually a function of the literary frame in which they appear. To fully master the koan genre, in other words, one must realize that it is in fact a literary genre with a distinct set of structures and rules, and furthermore that it is a product of the poetic and philosophical imagination.” (41)

The final step indicates to the master that the student realizes that truth is always an "arm's length" away. This is the realization that the requirements of form, genre, and appropriateness deserve due deference no matter what the arguments in the debate become. I have written about this idea before, which I call the "Righteous Four" - and here in the koan tradition, there is nothing above, nothing superior, to the format of the koan interview. Why would this be valuable?

One speculative answer is that the training must be specific. If one is dealing with something as important and precious as enlightenment, one better not ignore the things that make human judgment possible - things like culture, community norms, and the like. In rhetoric, these are the most important considerations: Appropriateness, Decorum, and Timeliness (or Timing). They make meaningful speech possible. And when one only has limited words to convey what should be felt, believed, or done, what could be more important?

Debate is a game, debate is not a game. Both things are true here. Deference to the genre helps us realize the limits in both statements. It helps us understand the interconnectivity. Opposites become essential to each other. Like the yin-yang we find debate as advocacy training and debate as competitive intellectual game. The same is true for the koan - at once school exercise/graduation requirement and what you will be doing for the rest of your life as a zen master. There is no distinction between the exam and the practice - and I feel debate, as a training for the public intellectual, or the intelligent, caring civic-minded person, should be no different.

I feel the comparison is valuable and opens a different understanding of how to approach debating. It is an essential part of the task of recognizing the often discarded side of debate as aesthetic, cultural, human practice. Without it, we are left with a mere language game that encourages corruption under the guise of objective truth seeking.