Transcribed from a talk by Richard Freeman
There is a traditional form of inquiry into complex metaphysical ideas that is called the “dialectic” approach. It’s a method of exploring a topic, arguing differing perspectives in pure pursuit of the truth. This is the classic Buddhist debating technique, and if you’ve ever visited a monastery in Tibet or India you’ve probably witnessed it in action.
A group of monks gather on the steps to engage in debate, drilling down to the truth: discussing, arguing, making point after counter point, and slapping their hands together when a new perspective on the truth rings out. Arguing intelligently and very skillfully without any ego in the argument.
In training for this approach the monks will choose a topic to argue about and then arbitrarily different perspectives will be assigned to different monks. One will start laying down his argument, and then another monk will deliberately make a contradictory—perhaps even straw man—argument that completely upends the original argument. Sometimes they’ll even twist the words to trip up their partner in debate.
“Oh, when Shankaracharya says ‘nirguna Brahman’ he is meaning it is like an empty ocean and that it is far superior to ‘saguna Brahman.’”
Of course that isn’t what Shankaracharya said and everyone knows it, but someone debating might say this quickly enough to confuse their opponent and throw them off course.
Part of the training for debate is to get tossed into this type of conundrum: when you hear something you think or know to be untrue but you don’t have the stability in your thinking to trust your doubt or knowledge base. Thrown off center like this causes a major disruption in your Prana and nervous system, so you are likely to become emotionally engaged.
When debating (or in all thinking, actually) you learn that if you get emotionally invested in your ideas for the sake of the idea itself, you’ll break down in tears at this sort of straw man challenge and your debating is flawed. So in a debate, when they get you—when you go for the straw man and you overlook the emptiness of the argument—then the one offering the distraction with the false argument, with a twinkle in his eye, laughs, and everybody laughs, until eventually even you laugh too. Laughter can be the great conduit for humility, teaching us to not become literalists. And being a literalist is one thing that stops the process of sticking with things long enough to dig down through distraction, confusion, and preconceptions to the truth.
If you don’t understand the dialectic approach, you’re likely to put a lot of investment into a particular point of view. You’ll identify with your point of view to the extent that you may actually equate it with the truth even though, deep down, you may know you have no basis for this belief and no right to identify with such a limited point of view. You may have even seen that the exact perspective you’re taking is relative to context, but because you identify with it, you’re incapable of letting it go. The harder you are pushed to reconsider, and the more you resist thinking outside of your own limited perspective, the stronger the affront to your ego becomes, which causes you to hold onto your view even more rigidly; and the more aggravated you become. And the more likely you are to make a mistake in thinking, perception, or logic.
In Eastern philosophical traditions, dialectic thinking and debating is introduced as a means of revealing the truth. You may have noticed that many of the classic Indian texts, like the Gita, are written somewhat dialectically. As important as the particulars of the topic being discussed is an understanding of the value of truth forever unfolding within context; truth blossoming on its own rather than as a result of any individual’s intellectual maneuvering.
It’s fun to experiment with dialectical thinking. You make a proposition, and then the teacher counters it with the antithesis. If you are emotionally invested in your point of view, you just can’t stand the whole process. But learning to soften into the process of discovery rather than clinging to your own brilliance is an inspiration for great freedom of thought.
In the West we have a way of almost incorporating the dialectic approach into a discussion. We tend so frequently to take things personally. In the West we cushion everyone’s egos while debating with friends by saying, “Let me play devil’s advocate here . . .” This gives us license to say the counter argument without others taking it personally. But it’s not as good as the Buddhist debate system for teaching non-attachment to our perspectives. When we play devil’s advocate in everyday conversation, we’re touching into the dialectic approach—politely excusing our egos from the discussion as we offer up a counter argument whilst turning it over to the Devil so no one takes offense.
Practicing the dialectic approach is sort of like being a lawyer or a politician. One political party will make a statement. Then the other political party will misunderstand it, absolutely, totally on purpose (and you hope it’s deliberate because nobody can be that stupid). And you have to be sharp to see that they are deliberately taking one topic and the same words used in different ways, taking everything out of context on purpose! That’s how a seasoned politician crafts his message. Arguing for the sake of argument in an almost dialectic style. Yet in many big debates in Congress, the faces and needs of his constituents (the truth) are not necessarily held in the politician’s heart. Instead he is arguing to win. Then he goes home and carries on with his day—has his gin and tonic and watches a movie before bed.
Of course the difference between most politicians and monks is that the need for a personal win is at the root of most politics. So in political debates it is rare (though not unheard of) for there to be the same deliberate egoless pursuit of the truth. When watching politics, if you’re lucky, your intelligence kicks in and you’re able to see the interdependence of different points of view; that every extreme proposition really is dependent on the counter extreme proposition.
Whatever the circumstances, by observing and questioning topics being debated, by introducing in your own mind the antithesis to a proposition and following the topic through the myriad layers of complex thought it elicits—you become really good at the dialectic process. It’s just like this crazy game. But as long as you’re a player who takes the game seriously, you lose until you’re intelligence kicks in and you can see all of these different positions simultaneously.