What is Buddhism? This course is, at its broadest, an attempt to begin to answer that question. But why should you care? There can be both personal and academic reasons for such a study. For instance, I would argue that Buddhism is the only cultural force, in fact the only reason other than sheer geography, which justifies us in speaking of something called “Asia” at all. No other cultural or historical force could allow us to link together South India or Sri Lanka with China, Korea or Japan. It is Buddhism, which makes it possible for Sri Lanka and Japan to share a common vocabulary of cosmology, mythology, ideal rulership, and much more. So there are good historical and cultural reasons for studying Buddhism, and such an approach requires a consideration of concrete historical facts. On the other hand, a study of Buddhism also provides an excellent opportunity to approach basic human questions of an entirely general type. Some such questions also concern facts of the world, dealing with issues such as the dynamic tension between the religious and the secular, or how issues of authority are mediated. But obviously Buddhism as a religion, as a tradition centrally concerned with questions of the transcendent, also involves questions such as how over a period of some 2500 years some very smart and insightful and sensitive people have thought about what it means to live and die, how to conduct oneself in the most genuine and meaningful way, and so on. So, an opportunity to spend a little time approaching the topic of Buddhism should appeal to you no matter what your starting point might be.
As we engage the course materials, you will gain a familiarity with:
- Basic chronological / historical information about Buddhism—its “history” in a factual sense.
- The universe (“cosmology”) of Buddhism, and thus Asia generally, its gods and spirits and powers.
- The major movements of ideas and practices in Buddhism over time.
- The major forces acting on Buddhism over time: political, economic, philosophical, practical, and so on.
- The major sources for the study of Buddhism: texts, art and archaeology, secular sources, modern ethnography, etc.
These items put the focus on the “content” of the course. But this “content” is secondary to the range of theoretical issues, frameworks through which we will investigate the course “content.” These issues include (but are not limited to):
- Inculturation, what it is and how it works.
- Authority, and its sources.
- Regionalism, and its effects.
- The place of religion in life, and the tensions brought out by religious thinking.
This course is not a history of Buddhism, nor is it a course in Buddhist philosophy. Rather than trying to “cover” some material, rather than trying to memorize names and terms, we are going to learn how things work—what the basic concepts and operating premises of Buddhism are. Rather than enter and move through Buddhist history in a chronological order, following Buddhism from fifth century B.C.E. India to present-day Taiwan, we will start with cases, and try to understand them in many dimensions by contrasting them with other cases; out of that confrontation we will try to extract principles or patterns. The questions we ask of our materials will both allow us to span diverse historical periods, and demand that we see this history in a comparative context. Here is a sample of the kinds of questions we will think about as we survey what Buddhism is all about:
- What is the fate of the dead? What can be done about it?
- Who is in charge? How is that decided, and by whom?
- What is our human situation? What can we do about it?
- What do we owe others? What do they owe us?
Click here for the timetable.
Mode of instruction
Written exam with (short) essay questions
- Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide, edited by Kevin Trainor (ISBN 0195173988, paper, Oxford University Press).
- The Heart of Understanding by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 0938077112, paper, Parallax Press, 1988).
Blackboard. Use of Blackboard will be made for this course, including the posting of readings (with the exception of two assigned books) as pdf files, and posting of PowerPoint lecture slides for student download.
1. General Introduction: Issues and Problems
2. The Buddha’s life
3. The Buddha’s Life continued
4. The Shape of the Universe and Our Place in It
5. More on Cosmology
6. What Is and What Will Never Be: Non-self; dependent origination; emptiness The Heart of Understanding (whole book, 54 pp.)
7. The Nature of Death and What to Do About It
8. Professional Buddhists
9. Ways of Being Buddhist
11. Spreading the Word
12. Buddhism in Society (aka the “real” world)
13. Summing Up and Coming to Terms with Buddhism