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SOSCI Seminar Buddhism, Visuality, and the Visual Arts in Japan


Admission requirements

There are no specific entry requirements for this course.


Throughout the centuries, Buddhism has developed a unique and immensely diverse visual culture. Indeed, attention to the visual may well be one of the fundamental characteristics of this religious tradition, to the point that Buddhism in China was known as the “teachings of images” (xiang jiao).

This course explores the rich world of Buddhist visual culture in Japan through a focus on some of its most representative aspects. We begin with a discussion of the Buddha’s absence and the need for representations. Next, we study forms of meditation and visualization, together with dream incubations and dreamscapes. Then, we move into the complex world of Buddhist material artifacts (images, mandalas, temple architecture, and Buddhist interventions on landscape). Toward the end of the course, we investigate relatively unknown aspects of Buddhist visual culture, namely, maps and representations of the cosmos and the known world, and the cultural components of display of Buddhist objects at temples and museums. The course concludes with theoretical considerations on the dichotomies of absence/presence and visible/invisible that seem to characterize much of Buddhist visual culture.

Through an analysis and discussion of a wide set of readings, ranging from Buddhist meditation texts to studies of visualizations, dreams, icons, and the landscape, from practices of display to acts of iconoclastic destruction, this course aims at offering keys to understand the multifarious world of Buddhist visuality and its significance in Japanese history as well as contemporary Japan.

Course objectives

  • Articulate the questions and issues that are central to the study of Buddhism and visuality in Japan.

  • Identify important strands of Buddhist traditions such as Shingon, Tendai, Zen, Pure Land, and their commonalities and divergences.

  • Challenge preconceived notions about the visual and material function of Buddhist art and iconography

  • Analyze the material, spatial, and social aspects of icons and images, and the roles that objects play in our everyday perception and imagination.

  • Develop skills to think critically, analyze different types of materials and media, and use them as a basis for formulating cogent argumentation.


The timetables are avalable through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method


  • Participation, postings and discussion (40%)

  • Referee (20%)

  • Paper (40%)


The final grade is established by determining the weighted average of all elements. In order to pass the course, all elements must receive a passing grade (6 or higher).


There is a two-deadline policy for all papers; for those who miss this deadline, this means they have failed on the first attempt. Those who fail on the first attempt—whether by not submitting a paper by the first deadline, or by submitting an inadequate paper—will have one more (second and last) chance to submit their paper by the second deadline. As for all assessments, rules for legitimate extenuating circumstances apply.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

No reader or books need to be purchased for this seminar. Readings will be available on Brightspace.


Enrolment through My Studymap is mandatory.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Vrieshof