The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Buddhist Monk by
Georges B.J. Dreyfus (University of California Press) (Papercover)
Gives an insider's view of how Tibetan Buddhist are trained in Tibetan
scholasticism. Dreyfus trained for 15 years in various Buddhist universities. In
The Sound of Two Hands Clapping we are shown the these strengths and
weaknesses of Tibetan intellectual culture as he observed that while studying.
He examines Tibetan monastic education, analyzing its central practices:
memorization, the reading of commentaries, and dialectical debate. Dreyfus’s
thesis is that this education is central to comprehending Tibetan Buddhism, that
has formed many of the brilliant Tibetan teachers who have captured the modern
the importance of the life of the mind in this tradition, he presents a picture
of Buddhism that differs from standard, romantic representations. Instead of
straining his ears to listen to the mystical sound of one hand clapping,
he was taught to focus on practices such as debate, where the sound of
two hands clapping can literally be heard loud and clear. Dreyfus examines in
depth the tradition's rational and intellectual elements. These elements have
often been misrepresented as precursors of scientific inquiry or rejected as
clerical corruption of an originally pure message.
By examining the role and nature of rationality in Tibetan monastic education,
The Sound of Two Hands Clapping shows that each of these views seriously
distorts the nature of rationality in traditional Buddhist cultures.
is not that Tibetan culture is uniquely spiritual or that monasticism is the
only focus of intellectual life. Tibet also enjoys a secular culture with
political institutions, literature, music, folklore, and so on. Nevertheless, it
remains true that the sophisticated intellectual culture that developed in the
large monastic institutions has been at the center of traditional Tibetan life
for centuries. Hence, an examination of the ways in which Tibetan monks are
educated can provide an important view of the depth and richness of Tibetan
culture. It can also correct the excessive emphasis on the mystical and romantic
that at times have been the focus of Western understanding of Tibetan culture.
If one were to fault Dreyfus’s focus it would be on the lack of rich ritual life
that can so obsessed with some Tibetan monks.
study brings to the fore a self reflective attempt to begin to integrate the
vigorous intellectual traditions of Tibet with modern thought, as both a
critique of the postmodern and as a contributor to postmodernity
in its turn to a strong nondefic spirituality.
The Sound of Two Hands Clapping should interest those who are intrigued
by such intellectual issues as the relation between contemporary theories and
traditional views of interpretation, the role of rationality and education in
traditional cultures, the kind of practices found in such education, and the
kind of intellectuals that it produces. Too often tradition is understood solely
in oppositional terms-as that against which modernity defines itself to assert
its unquestionable authority. Tradition is then depicted as static rather than
dynamic, as based on custom rather than reflection, and as repetitive rather
than creative. This view has been by now criticized by many thinkers, who have
exposed at great length its limitations and blindnesses. What may be less often
appreciated is that such a critique, as necessary as it may be, still fails to
do justice to traditional societies. To expose the dominant modern discourse as
hegemonic does not provide an adequate view of tradition, which should be
explored on its own terms, insofar as that is possible.
description of the formation of the Tibetan monastic intellectual elite, shows
little concern with the whole range of monastic experience but only with its
scholarly dimensions. Hence, the key term of this book is scholasticism rather
than monasticism. Scholasticism is often misunderstood as involving
hair-splitting discussions of irrelevant questions. This modern prejudice
obscures the nature and importance of scholasticism. Historically, scholastic
thinking has been at the center of several traditions, and it continues to
prosper today. Many modern thinkers can be considered scholastics, sometimes
unbeknownst to themselves. To rehabilitate scholasticism, Dreyfus attempts to
reconceptualize it as a range of diverse intellectual practices that shape its
typically have studied scholasticism in relation to Western traditions
(including Islam), rarely considering it in relation to Buddhism or
Confucianism. But in recent years, scholars have expanded this category, which
can be fruitful for cross-cultural studies, and have shown that several Asian
traditions can be usefully described as scholastic. The question is, what do we
learn about scholasticism by including these traditions? By analyzing the nature
of the intellectual practices that constitute scholastic experience in the
Tibetan tradition, Dreyfus attempts to make a substantial contribution to an
answer. As a living and thriving tradition, Tibetan scholasticism provides an
ideal venue for exploring a range of scholastic methods and their results.
The Sound of Two Hands Clapping is divided into three parts. The first
consists of three chapters that provide context. In chapter 1 there is a brief
synopsis of the main elements of Tibetan Buddhism and a sketch of the history of
the tradition. Next is examined the
nature of Tibetan monasticism, focusing on the institutional framework in which
scholastic studies take place. After
which Dreyfus should shows the course of a typical monastic career and the role
played in it by teachers. He also engagingly reflects upon his own less typical
second part, Dreyfus analyzes the intellectual practices that constitute
scholasticism. The discussion starts
with memorization and the acquisition of basic literacy, which constitute the
heuristic aspect of the process. It continues with an analysis of the two types
of complementary interpretive practice that form the core of this work,
commentary and debate. The constitutive role of commentary is treated and
competing curricular models is contrasted.
Next he considers the role of oral commentary and its relation to the issue of
orality. The soteriological role of commentary, its relation to meditation, and
its participation in the construction of meaning, particularly in relation to
the study of the path is examined in depth.
Next of the role of commentarial logic is contrasted with the critical
approach embodied in debate. Debate as a dialectical practice is shown to
explain the rules of debate and how they are learned. The role of debate in the
curriculum, particularly in relation to the study of logic, epistemology, and
Madhyamaka, is then considered; and the use of debate by Tibetan scholastics
emphasizes different approaches in the tradition and the function of debate as a
mode of inquiry.
The Sound of Two Hands Clapping concludes with an examination of the
results and limitations of these interpretive practices, Dreyfus analyzes the
use of rationality in Tibetan scholasticism, particularly in its relation to
some of the practices associated with folk religion, thereby distinguishing it
from modern scientific inquiry. Then
he considers some of the limitations of Tibetan scholastic education,
particularly those intrinsic to its structure. It also sets out the external
limits imposed by the sociopolitical location of scholastics, sketching how
Tibetan scholasticism has been shaped by the pressure of political forces and
events. And finally he considers the future of scholastic education as modern
secular education develops among Tibetans and provides a very provisional
evaluation of his own scholastic experience.
The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, Dreyfus has focused on the traditional
aspects of Tibetan monastic education, bringing to life the Tibetan scholastic
experience as it existed both before 1959 and afterward in exile. In doing so,
he has argued that scholasticism is characterized by three types of practice.
First, scholasticism, which is memorial rather than documentary, gives
memorization an important role. Second, scholasticism relies on commentary
through which the tradition is transmitted, interpreted, and enshrined. Third,
scholasticism in Tibet involves debate, which provides room for inquiry in a
tradition in which truth is not discovered but rather is transmitted.
this study, Dreyfus has delineated the particular features of Tibetan
scholasticism, focusing on the ways in which commentary and debate support the
dialectic of authority and freedom that he sees as a central dynamic of
scholastic traditions. Dreyfus has
described the constitutive role of the great Tibetan texts, the root texts
(often memorized) that delineate the outlines of the tradition.
He has emphasized their centrality in constructing a universe of meaning
and in strengthening one's confidence in the validity of the tradition, one of
the main functions of scholasticism.
He has also shown that the closure presupposed by tradition distinguishes
rational scholastic practices from the practices of modern scholars. It would
be a mistake, however, to assume that the boundedness of scholasticism
necessarily implies a dogmatic and uncritical spirit. To flourish,
scholasticism needs freedom to interpret its own constitutive texts. In the
Tibetan tradition, debate provides this freedom of inquiry, which allows
scholars to examine rigorously the content of the tradition, though that
examination is limited in its scope. Questions may be raised, but they may not
undermine the foundations of the tradition, particularly its constitutive
texts. In Tibetan scholasticism, when such limits are transgressed, authorities
(secular or monastic) step in to restore what they perceive to be the integrity
of the tradition, thus illustrating the reality and limits of this tradition's
freedom of inquiry.
The Sound of Two Hands Clappingoffers a critical look into a form of
religious inquiry still too little understood in Western forms of knowledge.
This study provides an important link between Western self-critical
inquiry with Buddhist practice and doctrine.
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