George Dreyfus Discusses Tibetan Education and His Experience
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., April 21, 2003--The University of California Press has announced publication of "The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk" by Williams College Professor of Religion Georges B.J. Dreyfus. Dreyfus has the honor of being the first Westerner to receive the title of "Geshe," traditionally the highest degree awarded by Tibetan Buddhist monastic universities and presented by the Dalai Lama himself.
"The Sound of Two Hands Clapping" examines the role and nature of rationality in traditional Buddhist cultures and seeks to strip away much of the mysticism and romanticism that colors Westerners' perception of Tibet. As the title suggests, Dreyfus focuses on elements that can "literally be heard loud and clear" and provides an in-depth and rich analysis of the sophisticated intellectual culture that developed in the large monastic institutions and has been at the very center of traditional Tibetan life for centuries.
At the age of 20, Dreyfus left his native home of Switzerland and backpacked across Eastern Europe through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India. After a brief travel in North-India and at the recommendation of a stranger, he traveled to Dharamsala where he first encountered Tibetan Buddhism. Captivated by its philosophy, he entered a monastery and began the studies that lasted for 15 years. At the intercession of his Buddhist tutor, Dreyfus was permitted to stay at the Dalai Lama's palace.
While the first part of the book discusses monasticism, the core of the book analyzes the intellectual practices that constitute scholasticism. These include memorization, the acquisition of basic literacy, and exercises in public commentary and debate. Dreyfus focuses more particularly on debate, discussing its rules and role in the curriculum, particularly in relation to the study of logic, epistemology and Madhymaka, the school of Buddhist philosophy to which most Tibetan monks belong. This stress on debate is in fact a distinctive feature of Tibetan monastic education (hence, the title of the book which refers to the gesture made by debaters when they put forth a question.)
Debate involves two parties: a defender and a questioner. The defender puts forth a thesis and tries to defend it while the questioner attempts to lead him into contradicting himself. The debate also involves a great deal of performance, dramatic gestures and striking statements, which are meant to put a great deal of pressure on the participants.
"I was fascinated by these dialectical encounters which seemed so lively," writes Dreyfus. "I enjoyed their intensity and the dramatic atmosphere that surrounded them, an atmosphere that was greatly enhanced by physical gestures and sometimes playful verbal exchanges."
In the final chapters of "The Sound of Two Hands Clapping," Dreyfus examines the limitations of these interpretive practices as well as of Tibetan scholastic education. He illustrates how Tibetan scholasticism has been shaped by the pressure of political forces and events and considers the future threat that the spread of modern secular education poses to Tibetan culture and methods of education.
Dreyfus is a specialist in the history of religions and has been a professor of religion at Williams since 1992. In addition to Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy, his research interests include post-colonial and cross-cultural studies and the study of religious intellectual practices, traditions, and identity. He is the author of a number of books, including another "Recognizing Reality: Dharmakirti's Philosophy and its Tibetan Interpretations." He received his Baccalaureate at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, and his Ph.D. in the history of religions from the University of Virginia.
Williams College is consistently ranked one of the nation's top liberal arts colleges. The college's 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their undergraduate teaching. The achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in research. Admission decisions are made regardless of a student's financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted. Founded in 1793, it is the second oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college is located in Williamstown, Mass. To visit the college on the Internet: www.williams.edu