Tibetan Buddhist Debate as a paradigm for Empatharian

Tibetan Buddhist Monastic Debate form has three similarities with The Empatharian Practices: both use abstract thinking, social interaction, and physical/emotional movement. While other types of meditation are also intended for the practitioner to achieve enlightenment, Tibetan Monastic Debate has been shown to be superior in developing a resiliency of mental health and reducing stress. Similarly, Empatharian may be a key for modern society to combat the epidemics of depression and drug misuse.

“Notably, monastic debate is a highly social practice, which is significant because it has recently been demonstrated that contemplative practices that are social in nature are particularly powerful for reducing stress (Engert, Kok, Papassotiriou, Chrousos, & Singer, 2017). As years progress, monastics report they develop a strong sense of social connectedness cultivated by the highly social nature of the debate. Although a strong foundation of social connectedness is supported by the communal living in the monasteries and nunneries, debating appears to amplify the ability of monastics to empathize with one another, and to predict the other’s responses. Monastics are likely to acquire a strong sense of how to play with the opponent’s emotions, an sensitivity to how to regulate ones’ own emotions.

Social connectedness may well be measurable by modern neuroscience methods (Dumas, Nadel, Soussignan, Martinerie, & Garnero, 2010). For instance, EEG hyperscanning has been demonstrated to pick up neural patterns related to empathy in Western samples (Astolfi et al., 2015)—suggesting that changes in the inter-person communication during the debate may well be measurable with this method. Somewhat in-line with this idea, we found that there are differences in frontal alpha inter-brain synchrony between different states in the debate, although we observed only little change in inter-brain synchrony with experience (van Vugt et al., 2018). Monastic debate appears to be a means to develop a sense of confidence in one’s ability to reason independently (Perdue, 2014), since debaters learn to defend their reasoning against attacks from their interlocutors (Figure 2). As monastics gain experience in winning another over through their arguments, they acquire confidence in their own ideas, instead of having to merely rely on outer sources of authority. Such confidence is beneficial for the development of independent and critical thinking (Facione, Sánchez, Facione, & Gainen, 1995). Moreover, the monastics say that debate gives them confidence in their knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and in the Buddhist philosophy itself. Finally, given the highly physical nature of debate, this practice offers an outlet for the monastics’ physical energy while also making the elaboration and integration of nuanced philosophical arguments more lively, playful and motivating. Monastic debate can be thought of as a particular form of 20 contemplative exercise, which suggests it is relevant to compare monastic debate to other forms of contemplative exercise such as tai chi and yoga (Kerr, Sacchet, Lazar, Moore, & Jones, 2013). However, tai chi and yoga are typically practiced quite slowly and have a much lower cardio-vascular intensity than debate, during which heart rates going up to 180 bpm have been observed3. Potential uses for monastic debate in Western education Some of the major challenges facing education are teaching critical thinking (Holmes, Wieman, & Bonn, 2015) and increasing student motivation (Pintrich, 2003). Thus, if appropriately adapted outside of monastic context, debate could potentially become a pedagogical tool to help develop those skills (see MacPherson, 2000, for a description of how debate is used in Tibetan schools in India). For instance, debaters practice continually seeing things from many different perspectives, so that they can philosophically maneuver in response to their opponent. In addition, they train in identifying the consequences of different lines of argumentation so that they can catch the inconsistencies in the opponent’s reasoning. These capacities are crucial for critical thinking. Anecdotally, some of the monastics we interviewed mentioned that debate often afforded new insights when their opponents questioned assertions that they never thought about. Debate also turns out to be highly motivating, bringing excitement to highly abstract and challenging study material by means of its competitive nature and its active physical and theatrical form (MacPherson, 2000). As Dreyfus (2008) writes “rhetorical and performative elements are not just disruptions of a smooth system of logical connections, but give life to a practice that would otherwise be too boring to keep the attention of a large number of participants.” Further supporting this idea, we once watched a particularly vigorous debate which turned out to only be about a technical grammatical issue. In his book, Dreyfus also mentions that debate serves to gather the intellectual qualities of both debaters and the audience to help elucidate the fine technical details in even the most abstract of topics. The prospect of enlivening educational material has led secular Tibetan secondary schools to utilize the monastic style and rules of debate as a pedagogical tool. These heart rates were observed during an in-class demonstration of the Emory-Tibet science initiative taking place at Drepung monastery in June 2018. (Byłów-Antkowiak, 2017). More concretely, Byłów-Antkowiak (2017) gives the example of how a math lesson in such a school may involve debating about the definition of prime numbers, and a student challenger may ask a student defender questions such as: is five a prime number? Is eight a prime number? And just like debate in the monastery, asking these questions is punctuated by claps. Similarly, analytical meditation could have a place in Western education, allowing students to test their knowledge thoroughly in a fun and physically active way. The relatively recent field of contemplative education (Barbezat & Bush, 2013) makes some efforts to integrate the method of analytical meditation, but has not yet considered monastic debate. In addition to potential functions in education, analytical meditation could potentially also play a role in the enhancement of psychological well-being. For example, critical deficiencies underlying major depressive disorder are associated with an inability to decenter (Bernstein et al., 2015; Fresco et al., 2007) and impairments in working memory and emotion regulation (e.g., Disner, Beevers, Haigh, & Beck, 2011; Koster, De Lissnyder, Derakshan, & De Raedt, 2011). If debate practice can enhance the capacities of decentering, working memory, and emotion regulation, as we have suggested above, then this should also help to create resilience against relapses of depression. More specifically, monastics we interviewed gave examples of how debate practice helps them have a wider perspective on their thoughts, as well as an increased capacity to observe their thoughts from another person’s perspective. Since negative self-referential thinking is a crucial hallmark of depression (Disner et al., 2011; Marchetti, Koster, Klinger, & Alloy, 2016), an ability to step outside of this self-referential thinking could be beneficial to depressed patients”

-pages 16-21, Tibetan Buddhist monastic debate: psychological and neuroscientific analysis of a reasoning-based analytical meditation practice, by Marieke K. van Vugt, Institute of Artificial Intelligence & Cognitive Engineering, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands, Amir Moye, Department of Psychology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland. Joshua Pollock, Department of Psychology, Kent State University, Kent OH, Bryce Johnson, Science for Monks. Marcel O. Bonn-Miller, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA; Zynerba Pharmaceuticals, Devon, PA. Kalden Gyatso et al, Sera Jey Monastic University, India., published, 2019: PROGRESS IN BRAIN RESEARCH, 244: 233-253 EPUB 2019 Jan 3.

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