Why Debate Should be More Soto, and Why Everyone Loves Rinzai

Recently visited the Strand, perhaps one of the more famous used bookstores in Manhattan with a great friend, and while browsing the Buddhism section, I come across a perfect book for teaching debate, titled Mouth Open, Already a Mistake. Beautiful isn't it?

Although the title did get a good laugh out of us, the connections between Buddhism and Debate have always seemed obvious to me. they pop out of nowhere, everywhere, all the time. I bet you might see a few even if you are not stricken with seeing the connection, as I am.

Take for instance the "division" between the two schools of Zen Buddhism in Japan, Soto and Rinzai. I believe these two different approaches to Zen can be a great analogy to debate practice.

Zen Buddhism is unquestionably a religion centered on practice. The two sects of Zen Buddhism - Rinzai, famous for its reliance on koans and its famous history as the religion of choice for samurai, and Soto - the famous "sitting Zen" of Dogen Zenji that reminds us there is no proper "enlightenment," just the practice of Zen - are two different paths that debaters can take. You can work on debate as a "problem" that defies logic - the more you come up with formulas for victory, the further away it seems. That's Rinzai debating.  Rinzai debate is debate that defies a reasoned, logical solution. It's debate that, like a riddle, pushes you till you finally get it - then you become enlightened, and the mysteries of the debate Universe are yours. Soto Zen doesn't believe in a stark moment of "enlightenment" per se, or satori, a moment of great clarity, but believes that the practice of Zen - sitting and meditating, is "enlightenment" by definition. You are enlightened when you are doing the work of practice. There's no moment you work toward, you just do the action. Soto debate is rare, probably because it's a lot less sexy.

I believe that most current participants of debate, especially people who are only a couple of years into it, follow a Rinzai Debate practice. It seems the most popular approach to debate, hands down. There's really something that fits here for these practitioners.

Debate is a puzzle that only the most clever can figure out through abnormal means. Maybe it's going to hit you during lunch, or at the social what the grand strategy is. You employ it the next day, and . ..wow, another four. Sadness. You wait for the next moment of inspiration, or you work hard to glean a clue from the lips of the "enlightened masters." Perhaps if you are nice enough, or lucky, or attractive, one of the enlightened masters will take you aside and confer upon you the transmission of the secret truths that will bring you enlightenment. They will help you figure out the trick to it, and you can one day, in one round, in one speech hit satori and the
debate world will crack like an egg.

This leads to a practice of debating that seeks the quick fix, the trick, the "moment" where it will all fall into place. Hours are spent admiring the work of the enlightened masters, and trying to figure out the one thing, the formula, or the "secret path" to success. People try to emulate the enlightened in their POI style or their manner, or the structure of their arguments. Of course, just like a student who repeats one of the recorded answers to a _koan_ for his or her Master, this doesn't work and is immediately seen through - or in our case, gives the adjudicators a bad taste in their mouths. Either way, you fail the test. Back to the drawing board.

Soto debate is a bit rarer. This is the practitioner who sees little distinction between being a "good debater" and being a "human." The practice bleeds into daily life, and daily life bleeds into the practice. They of course admire the success of the skilled, but recognize it was not because of a moment of satori that success was achieved. Daily sitting, daily "work" on debate was essential. When you are sitting Zazen, you are doing Zen, which means you are practicing it. There's nothing more to do. When you debate, you are a debater, whether you make bad arguments or not. You are a practitioner. Debating is not an instrumentality, it is the goal. When you debate, you debate. You are not trying to open up something, it's open. You opened it. This is the Soto approach.

I am going to suggest that the Soto flavored practice of debating might not only be a bit healthier, if you are into improving the self with debate practice, but might also improve debating for everyone involved. It might even cause you to win a bit more.

The Soto practice is called "sitting Zen" because, well, that's what it is. Not terribly exciting, it forces you to confront in solitude and silence the very essence of the narrative that you believe makes "you." You are not "you" and sitting Zen makes this clear (given a bit of time of course). The sitting is just that. Debating is just that. There's no moment of purity coming. There's no ticker counting up the minutes you've spoken opening prop until you suddenly master it. That time is right now, that moment is right now. Face it!

Open Mouth, Already a Mistake indeed. It is unavoidable to falter. There is no "enlightenment" as a distinct moment of perfect success. There are only successive moments known as your life. Don't let them blow by you because you are imagining some greater moment ahead that will open up for you. You speak; the heavens crack open - an illusion, a fantasy. But that last sentence might have made perfect sense to someone in the room. That's "enlightenment."  Every round, every utterance, is the moment, and you cannot (but will) be mistaken about this.

Does this mean don't prepare? Hardly. You open your mouth daily, hourly, some of you by the minute. How often do you draw up distinctions between debate rounds and life rounds? Do you sit and read and face your inadequacies daily through reading? What do you not know? What knowledge gaps can be filled? What discussions could you have to help you out? What about the discussion you just had? Any insights there for debate? Always practicing, always practicing. It is said that there should be no difference in meditating on a crowded city bus or a peaceful temple. There is of course, but to the devoted practitioner, that difference is no matter.

Instead of worrying about what the Masters say, or the discourse of the enlightened being, worry about what you say - or better yet, don't, and just open your mouth and debate. Practice all the time, make daily life your practice, and you will be a debater. It won't come in one sudden moment, and it won't come after years of work, it will only come when you open your mouth - and make a mistake.

N.B. Of course, this is a bit over-simplistic, and no insult is intended toward Rinzai Zen. It is a very serious, and very well founded religious practice. Most Rinzai practitioner, and for that matter Soto practitioners would not characterize the differences in the schools so harshly. But young students and interested beginners/laypersons might, and this would be the way the narrative would unfold. A Zen Master, along with the student, would work many years to clarify and tune the position of the adept practitioner. Just like any analogy,
this one suffers from a gap and difference from reality that, although diminishes accuracy, allows for a different and hopefully productive perspective in the mind of the reader.