restricted access 1. Dissensus by Design
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1 Dissensus by Design How could fierce, stylized wrangling about centuries-old religious doctrine— by monks, no less—seem as if it involves the exercise of an autonomous, critical rationality, a faculty akin to the one celebrated in the European Enlightenment? To appreciate how debate can exhibit attributes of the liberal subject and become a diasporic pedagogy—a means by which Tibetan refugees can avoid blind faith and protect their religious patrimony from the challenges of exile—we must first appreciate what debate does within the confines of a monastery. At Sera Monastery in India, debate’s drama, where the defendant tries to save Buddhist doctrine from challengers who threaten it, becomes a coherent ritual drama not just because it is crafted a certain way but by virtue of the way this practice has been “placed” within a complex assemblage of discursive and educational practices, which range from daily memorization routines to the habitual ways in which monks physically handle their books. This means that the very question of what debate does at Sera—to say nothing of what it does in the diaspora in India—demands a detour. Let us therefore postpone consideration of debate for the moment and work from the outside in, beginning, as I began, with a critical feature of Sera’s landscape, its division into two monastic colleges: Sera Jey and Sera Mey. CORPORATE PANORAMAS Visually and from afar, Sera Monastery in South India—a sprawl of buildings and residences located near a bend in the Cauvery River and the town of Bylakuppe— shrinks into a compact, scintillating gilt-roofed jewel. Encircled by a sea of maize and grass, it looks whole and pacific, or did to me. By auto-rickshaw I would snake 19 up the roads that extend from the neighboring towns of Bylakuppe or Kushalnagar , and pass into Sera’s premises through a singular, ornamental gateway—suggestive , again, of a monastic settlement with a monolithic identity. Here, the visual landscape conspires with the lexicon, for perhaps nowhere is Sera’s cohesiveness more conspicuous than in the words for its parts. Take the names for Sera’s primary administrative units: ‘monastery’ (dgon pa) (syn. ‘monastic-seat’ gdan sa), ‘college’ (grwa tshang), ‘regional house’ (khang tshan).1 Gather these lexical items into an institutional partonymy, asking of each, “Is x a part of y?” and an elegant Matryoshka-like whole snaps into view. Regional houses nest into colleges, and colleges into monasteries, so that Sera’s two colleges, Sera Jey and Sera Mey, look “equivalent.” And once they are subsumed as equal parts within a single corporate body, it does not take much to imagine them enjoying a friendly, fraternal existence. At first I could barely see Jey and Mey. Little signage distinguishes the two, and thecolleges’perimetersarenotstakedoutwithobtrusivefences,walls,orpaths.Many regional houses of Jey and Mey, I discovered, stand side by side, as if seamlessly integrated . Nor do monks broadcast their college affiliation through dress, badge, or comportment. No legible clothing or garish emblems of group membership. Monks of Jey and Mey brush by each other on the road, dressed in indistinguishable maroon robes. And Sera boasts just one major circumambulation route on its premises . At dusk, a brisk current of monks from both Jey and Mey eddies clockwise around the route in a scuffling whirl of casual talk and murmured mantras, set to time by the click of prayer beads counted off with thumb and forefinger. As weeks pass and more Jey and Mey structures come into relief, I begin to feel anoddsenseofredundancyaboutthisveritabletown,peopledbysome4,500monks. It is not just that each of the monastery’s two colleges has its own semiautonomous administrativeapparatus,itsown‘abbot’(mkhanpo),‘disciplinarian’(dgeskos),‘financial officer’ (phyag mdzod), and so forth. Nor is it just that each boasts its own central assembly hall, debating courtyard, fleet of regional houses, and secular schoolhouse . For nearly every imaginable category of building in this townscape—library, bookstore, phone station, publishing center, restaurant, general store—there is (at least) one allocated for Jey and another for Mey. The buildings in Sera’s townscape are divisible by two, with little if no remainder. And this integrated but divided townscape comes with unambiguous loyalties of patronage and consumption. I had chosen Mey and felt the consequences at once. On my first visit to Mey, I decided to explore the libraries of both colleges and shared these plans casually with a senior Mey monk. His response was dampening. Sera Mey’s library is ‘better’ (yag ga...


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