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The uncivil poetics of reason: Buddhist debate and demeanor in the Tibetan diaspora

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  • Religion
  • General|Anthropology
  • Cultural|Language
  • General
  • Anthropology
  • Linguistics
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • Religious Science


This linguistic anthropological study examines the relationship between argumentation and subject formation. The empirical focus is Tibetan Buddhist ‘debate’ (rtsod pa), a form of argumentation practiced daily by monks of the Geluk sect in India. Following the Dalai Lama's flight to India in 1959, the Geluk sect replicated its monastic-seats in south India and began anew its debate-centered philosophical curriculum. Debate, however, was not merely rekindled. It was also disseminated more widely than ever before. To understand the contemporary significance of debate and its new patterns of circulation, this study examines the dialectic between event-level processes of argumentation and larger-scale processes of diasporic subject formation. At an event-level scale, debate is examined using video-recordings taken at Sera Mey monastic-college during fieldwork in India (2000–2001). Special attention is paid to an oft-neglected facet of argumentation, intellectual demeanor. In debate, monks enact forms of demeanor that are constructed out of token co-occurrence patterns in a number of semiotic modalities, including language. These forms of demeanor work in concert with the operations that monks perform on the denotational content of their discourse, that is, what they are wrangling “about.” Demeanor is shown to be a prime resource for the cross-modal enactment of a cultural ideology of rationality. With debate examined at an event-level scale, this study then considers the circulation of this genre in India and the values ascribed to it. The Dalai Lama, like Buddhist modernists before him, has characterized Buddhism as a religion of “reason.” Through an analysis of his public addresses to Tibetans in India, it is argued that the Dalai Lama has also made “reason” a characterological attribute of the ideal diasporic subject; it is through the exercise of reason, and through the study of Buddhist philosophy in particular, that Tibetan refugees are to withstand the corrosive pluralism of exile. In valorizing reason, and in promoting philosophical study, the Dalai Lama has invited analogies between debate—including its forms of intellectual demeanor—and the cultivation of a political subjectivity. The dissemination of debate is hence profitably viewed in light of its emergence as a diasporic pedagogy. ^

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