As 300 Buddhist monks amble onto a courtyard overlooking the Bumthang Valley in central Bhutan, some carrying pillows for sitting and most wearing flip-flops or thin shoes even in the cold, Himalayan air, the space begins to fill with chatter. Calm at first, the atmosphere is soon broken with loud shouts and the sound of hands slapping, feet stomping. With each passing moment, the typically calm group grows more raucous, vocal and seemingly violent toward each other.
On various nights of the week, visitors are welcome to observe this controlled chaos at the Namkhai Ningpo Goemba above the town of Jakar and the Chamkhar Chu River which runs through it. The event is not put on for tourists and amazingly few attend this fun and entertaining evening of Buddhist monks debating various philosophical problems. Even when you don’t speak the language, the debates are easy to follow.
A questioner lords above his opponent, often with rosaries on one arm, and poses a question. The seated monk then posits an answer and the debate begins. When the questioner thinks he has refuted his opponent, or caused him to contradict himself in some way, he will swirl the rosary above the seated opponents head as well as clap his hands loudly while lunging at the seated monk. The seated monk often responds with strong words but is not allowed to stand and directly confront his opponent.
It is said the exercise is helpful in not only debating Buddhist philosophy but also in training monks to not become personally attached to their viewpoint, lest they feed their own ego. Often the monks will change positions as the answering monk is certainly in a more vulnerable and submissive position and it is helpful for both sides to be debated.
Lasting about an hour and a half, the debates can be fast and furious, with more experienced monks ganging up on lesser-learned monks who refuse to concede a point. If a monk is not engaging with others (monks are free to roam the courtyard and start a debate with any seated monk), he will often receive a demerit in the form of a pink slip which can lead to a number of different, negative consequences (usually involving extra labor or surrender of small amounts of money).
The event is pure pageantry for its sake only. Rarely do locals attend the debates and most of the time the monks are their own audience. This makes it a fun and authentic slice of Bhutan well worth price of admission (it’s free, just ask your guide to take you). The debates are not every evening and we missed them on my last visit as there was a festival that week at the monastery. But the next time I am in the Bumthang Valley, I will be sure to inquire if the debates are happening. I highly suggest you do the same.