Monash Association of Debaters

Stephen M. Llano

The Motion as Koan: Seeing Debate as Transformative Practice

About the author:

Stephen M. Llano, Ph.D. studies the practices and pedagogy of
debate and argumentation. He researches rhetoric, rhetorical criticism argument
theory, and their connections to literature. He currently directs the St. John’s
University Debate Society in New York City, and has served as a teacher of
debate at the University of Rochester and the University of Pittsburgh.

In 2005, the internationally famous author and Zen monk Thich Nat Hahn was
allowed to return to his native country of Vietnam. While there, he founded a
new monastery, Bat Nha, for practitioners of Zen Buddhism. In 2009, the
Vietnamese government engaged in practices that denied the monks their
religious freedom. Human Rights Watch claims that “undercover police and
local communist party officials terrorized and assaulted several hundred monks
and nuns,” and “authorities have relentlessly harassed and pressured the Bat
Nha Buddhists to vacate Phuoc Hue and other pagodas that took them in,
periodically cutting electricity and water and barring local lay people from
providing food and supplies.”1 Disturbing reports indicate the use of incredibly
loud music, assaults, and physical intimidation of the monks by gangs of thugs.2

In response to the international attention to these terrible crimes of religious
persecution, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a response – he compared the political
prosecution of these religious followers to the koan, a method of Zen training:

A koan cannot be solved by intellectual arguments, logic or reason,
nor by debates such as whether there is only mind or matter. A koan
can only be solved through the power of right mindfulness and right
concentration. Once we have penetrated a koan, we feel a sense of
relief, and have no more fears or questioning. We see our path and
realize great peace. “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” If you think
that it's the dog's problem whether or not he has Buddha nature, or
if you think that it's merely a philosophical conundrum, then it's not
a koan. “Where does the one return to?” If you think this is a
question about the movement of an external objective reality, then
that is not a koan either. If you think Bat Nha is only a problem for
400 monks and nuns in Vietnam, a problem that simply needs a
“reasonable and appropriate” solution, then that too is not a koan.
Bat Nha truly becomes a koan only when you understand it as your
own problem, one that deeply concerns your own happiness, your
own suffering, your own future and the future of your country and
your people. If you cannot solve the koan, if you cannot sleep, eat or
work at peace, then Bat Nha has become your koan.3

This response is valuable to debaters. Hahn argues we cannot understand or
help until we fully absorb the situation into our daily lives. Instead of keeping
the issue on the level of esoteric discussion– what solutions should be offered,
who is to blame, what international agency should intervene – we should
confront it with our being.

Hahn’s followers and supporters in this matter certainly feel distant, powerless,
and unable to offer the help that they want. Hahn attempts to redirect their
desires toward what he feels is greater. To help Bat Nha is to absorb the issue
into your own life, and confront this issue daily. If you do not internalize and
own the situation, nothing will come of it, and the ground remains fertile for

Thich Nhat Hahn’s suggestion for how to solve Bat is compelling as an analogy
to debate practice. Much like those wishing to help the persecuted nuns and
monks in Vietnam, the conversation about which agency should intervene and
placing responsibility often dominates caring debaters’ minds, and the
participants feel good during such debates. This feeling of satisfaction at our
knowledge and words is only a part of the practice of debate. In this essay, I
argue that complete debating practice should extend to the transformation and
improvement of the whole person – an engagement that assists in winning
more debates, and in critical and careful consideration of daily speech, daily
acts, and daily understanding.

If we think of the practice of debate as a forum for refining and developing our
abilities as human communicators, we broaden the value and importance of
debate tournaments. Debate becomes more about improving the whole person
within society rather than creating an enclave of practitioners of a strange yet
powerful art that have trouble discussing important issues in a non-threatening
tone. When we don’t internalize practice, as Thich Nat Hahn reminds us, the
political consequences can be dire. We easily lose sight of how our debate
practice convinces us we are the total masters of our words. A quick inventory
of your personal life or personal experiences is a sobering reminder as to how
little control and influence we have over how our words are interpreted. Such
carelessness can lead to unintended violence.

Debate is such a powerful tool for the transformation of lives that I seek to reconnect
it to the aesthetic, imaginative, and spiritual side of communication. It
is in this dimension that a huge amount of our interactions with other human
beings occur – but we spend such little time investigating this realm with the
other intelligent people we meet due to unreflective debate norms.

Thich Nat Hahn suggests that the methods for teaching enlightenment in
Buddhism should be “skillful means” – one must not predicate others’
understanding on your own connections between symbols, objects, and actions
– a difficult proposition at best. “These means are only skillful if they are
suitable to the particular circumstances.”4 In debate, nothing could be more
valuable than to develop “skillful means” for reaching adjudicators, opponents,
your partner, and of course, others in the community. The point of using these
practices is the same as the point of improving one’s ability in debating. “One
of the greatest potentialities of skillful means is to free beings from their prisons
of knowledge and prejudice.”5 Many times, without our even trying, we are
taught how much of what we ‘know’ about an issue or region of the world is
not actually so. Approaching debate with the attitude of “skillful means” creates
a goal in the practice of debating outside of tournament success. It is my belief
that the pedagogical principles behind the use of Koans in Buddhist teaching
can be applied in this manner. The first step is simple: One should think of the
motion as if it were a Koan.

Instead of seeing the motion and thinking "What are the arguments I can win
on, that are related to the motion?” you articulate a response to the motion that
does not seek to use it as an instrument to win its own particularities. You
instead articulate persuasive belief that the motion will serve as an example.

A Koan is designed to separate the practitioner from the limits of reason,
rational, and logical thinking. But this, from the point of view of a rhetorician,
is merely a transition into another type of discourse. Zen and Chuan masters
are not looking for the correct answer, for a check box when they are evaluating
what students say when responding to a Koan. They are looking for a much
deeper understanding, and it comes in the form of a way of speaking and
engaging the speech of others. This discourse is rooted in the experiences of
the everyday, but articulates these experiences and this information differently.

It attempts to critically question deep assumption and hierarchy. The koan is an
opportunity to speak critically and display one’s mind in hopes of enlightening
others. The debate motion, if treated this way, could serve the same purpose,
benefiting debaters both competitively and educationally.

This suggestion is esoteric, so deeper comparison with what Zen masters look
for to determine if a monk has reached satori, or understanding is in order.
Here are some of the principles of evaluation for practitioners of Zen

The “awakened” person naturally refuses to occupy the position of
disciple, whose commentary is ipso facto “deluded.” He insists
rather on seizing and holding the position of master in the dialogue,
which means that he must be prepared not only to comment on the
root case, but to pass critical judgment on his teacher’s remarks as
well when the teacher tries the usual gambit of putting him in his
place. The confidence to stand one’s ground in this situation comes
from understanding the basic message of Chou-chou’s ‘not’ (and
many other Ch’an/Zen dialogues) which is simply that words and
signs utterly fail to convey the true dharma.6

The origin of the term Koan is a legal one, meaning "public case" - like the
modern practice of stare decisis, where case law is commented upon to apply it
to a contemporary legal question. One can therefore think of koans, at least in
their origin, as a discursive challenge not unlike debating. The challenge is: Can
you provide a commentary that can both explain anew, and keep in tone with
the previous ruling? This spiritual stare decisis is the pedagogical tool of the
master to see if the student is "getting it" - are they making sense within the
rhetorical order of Zen? Are they making a valuable contribution with their
words to the understanding of those who hear? Are they making an impact on
the thought of those who are listening? This is where the koan breaks with
traditional debate practice as mental gaming. The value to those listening is
considered both above winning a contest and a central part of the evaluation of
that contest just the same. When we discuss adjudication standards along the
lines of “general persuasiveness,” we are speaking closer to the way koan
practice is evaluated. But when we discuss the tactics of what the motion allows
us to “get away with,” we lose sight of the broader and more critical component
of debating.

Foulk points out that the first step is to "stand one's ground," to occupy the
position of the teacher, and to speak with confidence. What is important for my
analogy between koans and motions here is that the confidence stems from
understanding the "basic message" of the koan and making sure all arguments
are relevant to the center. Frequently we see debates where the "basic message"
is not only lost, but since it is absent, the speaker fails to perform even the most
basic elements of confidence? Confidence comes not from what you think you
know, but from your approach to the motion. Do you allow the basics of the
motion to inform your speech, or do you allow your confrontation with the
motion to determine your speech? In the metaphor to koan practice, the choice
is clear – the confrontation of the whole self with the question is the genesis of
a proper answer. Intellectualizing with semantics or other “gaming” methods
will only lead to failure to grasp the principles, and judgment against your
understanding on that question.

Foulk described his second criteria describes as a reversal of, “the prohibition
against the interpretation of koans as symbol systems. All authoritative
commentary, as modeled in the discourse records and koan collections, is
grounded in the principle that the language of the old cases is figurative and the
actions they report are symbolic. Clever commentary may acknowledge and play
with the literal meaning of a saying, but it must never fail to interpret and
respond to the figurative meaning.

By the same token, the comments themselves must be couched in indirect
speech. The real sin of intellectualism or discursive thought does not consist in
the act of interpretation, as Ch’an/Zen masters like to pretend, but in the
expression of one’s interpretation in direct, expository language.”7

Foulk’s meaning here is a warning not to mistake a direct style for a good
interpretation of a question. This means, I believe, that debaters are advised to
treat all motions as if they were open. Why? Too often, the debater is
imprisoned by the directness and simplicity of the motion - they merely argue
what they think the motion logically includes.

But with the first step in mind, with basic understanding and the confidence of
the self in confrontation with the koan in mind, why not approach the motion
as something that is the base, not the telos, of one's argumentation? The "sin of
intellectualism" might not apply to debaters, but perhaps it does in altered form
- nobody likes a debate that sounds “debatey.” People like a debate that sounds
persuasive. They like speakers that clearly make their point and back it up with
interesting, relevant statements. They like speakers who speak with the
appearance of the master in the moment. The “sin of direct language,”8 as
Foulk puts it, is an indictment of directness. Stylistic remarks, the use of
metaphor, analogy, and narrative, and the richness of the persuasive moment
are not served when one speaks like an equation. Logic is in service to the
debater, reason and rationality are too, but are not speech. Treating the motion
as open allows you to use it as an example for your points, and argue something
that the example would prove. Forwarding this idea might help debaters access
those larger principles, values, and ideas that center and craft good debates.
Now the requirements of the round and logic serve you.

Foulk concludes his criteria by making sure that we recognize that for all of
Zen’s seriousness, full sight of the place of the koan is never lost: “Finally, the
satori that gives one master over koans is traditionally expressed in statements
to the effect that tone will never again be tricked or sucked in by the words of
the patriarchs, which is to say, by the koan genre itself. . . Not to be sucked in is
to realize that the words could not possibly embody or convey awakening, and
that their imputed profundity is actually a function of the literary frame in
which they appear. To fully master the koan genre, in other words, one must
realize that it is in fact a literary genre with a distinct set of structures and rules,
and furthermore that it is a product of the poetic and philosophical

As a direct analogy, we all need to realize that success in debating is predicated
on the artificial rules of debating, and on the community of debaters who treat
debate, past rounds, and excellent past speakers as a “literature” from which
one can extract the standards of excellence. With the advent of inexpensive
digital video and internet access, the breadth of this literature and its
development will only continue. It’s good to watch past rounds and past
champions, but it is also good to recognize their success is not crafted of shale,
but as fluid as the standards of our always expanding, always altering
international debate community.

Additionally, for the koan to be answered sufficiently by the student, the master
must see that the student realizes that truth is an "arm's length" away. This is
the realization that the requirements of form, genre, and appropriateness
deserve due deference. And here in the koan tradition, there is nothing above,
nothing superior, to the format of the koan interview. Why would this be a
valuable step in the training of practitioners?

One speculative answer is that the training must be specific. If one is dealing
with something as important and precious as enlightenment, one had better not
ignore the things that make human judgment possible - things like culture,
community norms, and the like. In rhetoric, these are the most important
considerations: Appropriateness, Decorum, and Timeliness (or Timing). They
make meaningful speech possible. And when one only has limited words to
convey what should be done, what could be more important? For debaters, the
recognition that style can be imprisoning is important – yet it is equally
important to realize its importance in making judgment possible. Recognizing
deference to style is key in avoiding the fallacy of equating particular in-round
practices with argumentative success.

Debate is a game, debate is not a game. The truth of either statement is hard to
deny or defend. Deference to the genre helps us realize the limits in both
statements. It helps us understand the interconnectivity. Opposites become
essential to each other. Like the Taoist symbol of the yin-yang we find debate as
advocacy training and debate as competitive intellectual game. The same is true
for the koan - at once school exercise/graduation requirement and what you
will be doing for the rest of your life as a Zen master. There is no distinction
between the exam and the practice - and I feel debate, as important training
toward a life of serious engagement with the world, should aspire to nothing

Thich Nhat Hahn’s call to embrace the issue of Bat Nha as a personal
investigation should not be seen as valuable only to those seeking
enlightenment in Buddhism, but also to those who engage in the practice of
debate. Without serious, deep engagement with each issue debated, one risks
the loss of valuable self-improvement to the mind and being behind the
arguments. In the end it is the transformation of the person debating and not
the decision that is most important: The value of debating comes out of
debating as an act. This essay has hopefully highlighted the importance of
practice in reaching improvement as a debater. As Thich Nhat Hahn writes,
“What is the good of discussing a musical masterpiece? It is the performance
that counts.”10


1 Human Rights Watch, “Vietnam: End Attacks on Bat Nha Buddhists,” Human Rights Watch,, Dec 16, 2009
(Accessed July 20, 2010).

2 “Zen master: Vietnam paid mobs to evict followers,” The Herald, January 12, 2009; Simon Montlake,
“Buddhist Sect Decries Lack of Freedom in Communist Vietnam,” The Christian Science Monitor,
October 5, 2009; Andrew Buncome, “Vietnamese Evicted My Flock , Says Zen Master,” The
Independent, January 12, 2010.

3 Thich Nhat Hanh, “Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh's compassionate response to the persecution of his
students in Vietnam,” January 24, 2010
html (Accessed July 20, 2010).

4 Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 52.

5 Hanh, Zen Keys, 52.

6 T. Griffith Foulk, “The Form and Function of Koan Literature: A Historical Overview,” in Steven
Heine and Dale S. Wright, Eds., The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2000), 41.

7 Foulk, “Form and Function,” 41.

8 ibid

9 Foulk, “Form and Function,” 41.