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  • The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk
  • Christian P. B. Haskett
The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. By Georges B. J. Dreyfus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 445 + xv pp.

Georges Dreyfus is a uniquely valuable contributor to the academic study of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the first Westerner to have received the Geshe degree, signifying a thorough mastery of the curriculum of the Geluk (dge lugs) school, and in his latest work, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, he not only displays the critical acumen produced by that education, but also candidly reveals the personal details of life as a monk in a Buddhist monastic university. This alone should commend this project to the attention of readers seriously interested in Buddhism; however, Dreyfus also gives us a work of scholarship of religion that is exemplary in its capacity to use a single topic as a starting point to explain vast swathes of religion and culture. A brief overview of the chapters precedes my assessment of the book's successes and its importance for Buddhist-Christian studies.

The first chapter gives a brief historical overview of Tibetan Buddhism. Those with a passing acquaintance with Tibetan history will find little new information here, but Dreyfus does manage to succinctly and accurately present 1300 years of religious history in a mere fifteen pages. Chapter 2, "Tibetan Monasticism," takes up the context in which most Buddhist scholastic activity occurs, "describing...some of its characteristics and discussing its strengths without hiding its drawbacks" (p.33). Dreyfus moves from a depiction of the Indian precedents and textual foundations of monasticism in general to a discussion of the mass monastic movement in Tibet. His assessment is unsparing but nonjudgmental as he describes monks as tax collectors, ritual actors, priests, and even "punk-monks." In the third chapter "Becoming a Monk," the personal and autobiographical nature of Two Hands Clapping begins to emerge as Dreyfus relates his own personal experience of entering [End Page 192] monastic life interwoven with accounts of both the normative Tibetan standards and the present-day situation of Tibetan monastics. These vivid reports detail the sleep deprivation, poor diet, and rigorous lives of exiled monks, and the genuine affection that those who endure these circumstances feel for one another. This chapter also examines the differing roles of teachers as housemasters, scholastic preceptors, and gurus, and begins introducing several teachers with whom Dreyfus studied. These three chapters comprise the first section, "The Context."

Despite the title and cover picture of a debating monk, this book is a study of the full range of scholastic monastic practices. Dreyfus begins his far-ranging comparisons to other religious educational traditions such as yeshivas and medieval European monasticism in the second section, "Tibetan Scholastic Practices." Chapter 4 looks at reading and memorization, considering literacy and education in Tibet first. His discussion of memorization comprises details of memorization practices and a good but not overwhelming discussion of modern psychological theory on memorization and mind. Chapter 5 presents the curriculum followed by Tibetan monks and identifies a key element of scholasticism: commentary. The section on comparative perspective is particularly good, comparing Shi'ite, Christian, and Tibetan models and citing theorists including Foucault and Halbertal to elucidate how commentary is used to create sectarian positions out of shared canonical texts. While the sixth chapter begins by comparing curricula and practices followed by both Ge-luk and non-Ge-luk monasteries, it concludes with a detailed section on the role of scholasticism in the production of authority and orthodox, accounting for the emergence of sectarian divisions within Tibetan Buddhism within a sociopolitical context. This return to the history provided in chapter 1 explains the history of sectarian divisions in Tibet and demonstrates both the centrality and scope of the impact of scholasticism in Tibetan religion. In chapter 7, "Scholasticism and Orality," Dreyfus gives the sort of detailed and nuanced testimony that only a long and careful observer of and participant in Buddhism could. He carefully dissects the role of orality in memorization and recitation on the one hand, and of oral commentary in pedagogy on the...


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