The joy of fishes

Some came for the pageantry, some for the throat singing, some just to show their support for a Free Tibet. But for me, the whole reason to see the itinerant troupe of Tibetan monks a second time was to watch a three-minute debate in a language that I cannot understand.

Repeat viewers who, like my friend Jo, had been attracted to the interpreter the first time around must’ve been disappointed. In place of the charismatic, 50-something pony-tailed Anglo here was a native Tibetan woodenly reciting his memorized lines, like one of those awful teenage tour guides you get when visiting a local cave during the summer months. “Up-ahead-on-the-left-you-can-see-the-head-of-Abraham-Lincoln-and-right-below-him-is-Pocahontas-both-were-formed-by-natural-geologic-processes-to-resemble-these-symbols-of-our-nation. Now-we-approach-the-most-beautiful-formation-in-the-cave-which-is-the-Potala-Palace.”

What a difference a good interpreter can make, especially with stuff so far outside the normal scope of Middle American life. The pony-tailed dude knew exactly what reactions to anticipate, spoke spontaneously and with charm, and got most everyone enthused about what they were watching. He gave a five-minute tutorial on throat singing, with audience participation, so we could “all go home and practice in the shower.” When it came time for the one unrehearsed item on the program, the demonstration of an Actual Monastic Debate, he set it up in such a fashion that we were all on the edge of our seats.

Debate, in the Gelug order especially, is a spectator sport. The umpire sits on the floor, facing the audience, behind the two debaters. One pitches, the other bats. The batter sits to the umpire’s left (if memory serves) and the pitcher stands to his right. I can’t remember all the details, but I retain a strong impression of total focus and earnest vehemence. The one I call the pitcher makes his points not just with his mouth and hands, but with his whole body. The dance is elemental: little more than an abbreviated version of the Texas two-step. The pitcher’s words are expelled with great force and a kind of throwing-down-the-gauntlet gesture, his pitching arm winding back, swinging around and coming down with emphatic suddenness as he lunges toward his opponent, open hand face-up going THWACK against the palm of his other hand.

The batter is almost unmoved. Cross-legged, hands on his knees, he appears to rock backward just a hair – or is that an illusion, a trick on our suggestible vision, analogous to the overtones that emerge from the weird mingling of voices during throat singing? The batter’s reply is no less vehement but it appears to come straight from the belly – or some other place of great stillness. Hardly a moment elapses before his opponent fires back, and he responds with the same immediacy.

We are mesmerized. It’s like watching the ocean. The waves come in, smash against the rocks, withdraw. What in God’s name makes this so damned interesting?

Then suddenly it’s over. The umpire does something with his eyebrows, murmurs something and they stop. All three laugh, relaxed. The audience laughs, then applauds uproariously.

Who won? Who cares! What were they arguing about? The first time I saw them the interpreter did try and summarize it, but his explanation made little sense – how could it? They might as well have been arguing about how many buddhas can dance on the head of a vajra. Actually, I’m sure it was some matter of life-and-death importance, but the terms used, even if translated into the most vernacular English, would only be comprehensible to those who have spent their lives in that particular garden of the text, the Tibetan Buddhist canon. And perhaps because we didn’t understand them, we are left feeling as if we have witnessed something timeless and universal: a scene from the ancient Athenian agora, the Babylonian Talmud in the making, Chuang-Tzu sparring with the logician Hui Shih. Something almost forgotten in the Christian West since the days of Peter Abelard, who turned public debate into something vicious. In place of the more gentlemanly, ritualized style then in fashion, Abelard – the leading light of the new University of Paris – sought nothing less than to emasculate his opponent as he in turn was emasculated.

Watching the Tibetans reminded us that the exercise of reason need not be a fight to the finish. It can take the form of a kung fu display rather than a boxing match, and at times it can resemble t’ai ch’i more closely than kung fu. Buddhist mediation techniques can train us in the art of detachment, transform us into removed observers of the play of ideas arising spontaneously within our own minds. But what about passion? We live our lives in dialogue, and dialogue – very broadly defined! – is the source of our truest joy. “Humans live in Dao like fish live in water,” says the ancient Chinese text Chuang-Tzu (Zhuangzi).

Chuang-Tzu and Hui Shih were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river.

‘Out swim the minnows, so easy and free,’ said Chuang-tzu. ‘That’s how fish are happy.’

‘You are not a fish. Whence do you know the fish are happy?’

‘You aren’t me, whence do you know that I don’t know the fish are happy?’

‘We’ll grant that not being you I don’t know about you. You’ll grant that you are not a fish, and that completes the case that you don’t know the fish are happy.’

‘Let’s go back to where we started. When you said “Whence do you know the fish are happy?” you asked me the question already knowing that I knew. I knew it from above the Hao.’

– A. C. Graham, trans., Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters (Hackett, 2001)

A page later in the Graham translation (which rearranges the original text according to subject matter) comes Chuang-Tzu’s touching tribute to his friend:

Chuang-Tzu, among the mourners in a funeral procession, was passing by the grave of Hui Shih. He turned round and said to the attendants,

‘There was a man of Ying who, when he got a smear of plaster no thicker than a fly’s wing on the tip of his nose, would make Carpenter Shih slice it off. Carpenter Shih would raise the wind whirling his hatchet, wait for the moment, and slice it; every speck of plaster would be gone without hurt to the nose, while the man of Ying stood there perfectly composed.

‘Lord Yüan of Sung heard about it, summoned Carpenter Shih and said “Let me see you do it.” “As for my side of the act,” said Carpenter Shih, “I did use to be able to slice it off. However, my partner has been dead for a long time.”

‘Since the Master died, I have had no one to use as a partner, no one with whom to talk about things.’

What about women, then? See Feminist aggadah (and the two posts following/above it) for one answer.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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