In modern contexts, Buddhist theory and doctrine preferably are interpreted and explained in psychological terms, both in and outside Asia. When and how did this hermeneutical practice arise? Yet, this is not a seminar on psychology, what we are rather interested to explore is the framing of Buddhism as a form of psychology, be it a non-modern one (a contradiction in terms, if there ever was one…), i.e., Buddhism as some kind of ‘science of the mind’. Students of psychology and the social sciences who are interested in this hermeneutical interface are more than welcome to attend.
The practice of translating, interpreting and framing Buddhism in psychological terms and concepts has a long and demonstrable history that—perhaps not surprisingly—is approximately as old as is the discipline of psychology itself. These hermeneutical proclivities may in fact reveal more about our own intellectual history than about Buddhism in non-modern Asian contexts: viz. our specific history with religion, as exemplified in the transition through the age of enlightenment and the rise of modern disciplines of science, secularisation, processes of individuation, interiorisation of the ‘self’ and the increasing, at times sheer dazzling self-reflexivity of modernity, and, of course, the concomitant history of reception of Buddhism in the ‘West’.
In the course of this seminar we will have opportunity to reflect on the reception history and psychological interpretation of Buddhism, as outlined above. Bravely conquering our neophyte trepidations, we will leap into the deepest waters from the very outset. Our main sources of information on Buddhism will be original texts in translation, rather than second- or third-hand information and digests. We will first study several typical examples of Buddhist texts and genres; ‘typical’ in the sense that they have contributed to the widely entertained assumption that Buddhism, au fond, is some non-modern form of psychology. Don’t let the technical nature and at times hermetical appearance of the Buddhist reading materials discourage you; many of these texts indeed appear a far cry from the Buddhist literature that is specifically produced for ‘Western’ audiences and which many of those interested in Buddhism in this ‘New Age’ may be familiar with. This is a different cup of tea altogether, not rarely steeped by the sharpest minds, greatest philosophers and most erudite scholars of pre-modern Asia. Some of these were also reputed to be accomplished yogins; but that is not as self-evident as it may seem. In fact, the very problems we experience whenreading, understanding and contextualising the materials are what fuel the subsequent discourse and our discussions in this seminar.
We will thus be reading, in transla¬tion, complicated and knowledge-intensive materials that often are difficult to penetrate without extensive commentary. We shall see late-tantric schematic representations of the mental domain, referring to visualizations and other imaginings & conceptualizations of so-called disturbing emotions, transcendent wisdoms, and various other mental categories, pertaining to both saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, cyclic existence and its extinction: i.e., final release of the same. We will familiarize ourselves with Buddhist theories of perception and, more in general, with an abundance of Buddhist scholastic classifications pertaining to the mental domain. Struggling with these, at times, gnomic texts, we will also learn a thing or two about Buddhist views and theories of mind and on Buddhist perspectives on our ordinary and extraordinary human potential, thoughts and feelings.
Participants will be encouraged to critically examine everything—including the framing of this seminar itself (and if needs be to blast their way out of this provisional framing)—and to question or underpin the received wisdom of current modernist assumptions regarding the relationship between Buddhism and psychology highlighted in the course, or fundamentally to revise them or establish anew their framings, in brilliant academic discourse. The ample attention, during this seminar, for critical reflection and discussion, its informal format, with the opportunity for tailor-made individual contributions, and the main mode of course assessment, through individual essays that are research-oriented, all contribute to an exciting and probably also somewhat demanding and challenging (if not occasionally frustrating) journey of discovery.
Being able to demonstrate, in oral presentation and written form, detailed knowledge of the main Buddhist theories and doctrines that have invited the hermeneutical rapprochement between Buddhism and psychology.
To demonstrate analytical insight into the history of the framing Buddhism in psychological terms and ideas.
To demonstrate familiarity with the complex relationships of psychological readings of Buddhism against the backdrop of Buddhist modernisation movements in Asia and the reception of Buddhism outside Asia.
To demonstrate analytical insight into “how things appear in the eye of the beholder”: i.e., appreciation of the reflection of our own history of religious ideas in the rapprochement between Buddhism and psychology, and recognition of our tendencies to ‘psychologise’ the sacred and to ‘sacralise’ psychology.
To demonstrate understanding of the problematic nature of categories such as ‘immediate experience’ in Buddhism and the implied epistemic paradoxes.
To demonstrate the ability to engage the problematic of first and third person approaches in academia.
To develop and demonstrate the required skill of selective reading in voluminous and varied primary and secondary sources; for instance, the ability to extract relevant data from chapters and articles that are written from a variety of perspectives and theoretical framings.
To acquire and demonstrate, in essay and presentation, basic academic skills, such as asking properly academic questions, critically appraising information, and effectively presenting data and academic arguments, both in writing and verbally, and demonstrating awareness of the target audience while doing so.
Mode of instruction
5 EC (140 hours/SBU), level 500:
Attendance at seminar: 26h
Oral presentation: 10h (is also preparation for essay)
Readings and weekly summaries: 70 h (readings partly used for presentation and essay)
Essay 1.500 – 2.500 words: 34h
10 EC (280 h/SBU), level 500:
Attendance at seminar: 26h
Presentation: 10h (is also preparation for essay)
Readings and weekly summaries: 70 h (readings partly used for presentation and essay)
Additional readings at higher level: 76h
Essay: 4.000 – 6.000 words: 98h
In order to pass the course, students must obtain an an overall mark of “6” (=5.45) or higher. No re-sits are possible.
The course is an integrated whole. The final examination and the assignments must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.
5.0 ECTS, level 500
Weekly summaries of the reading materials and participation in discussion: 20% of grade
Oral presentation: 20% of grade
Essay: 60% of grade
10.0 ECTS, level 500
Weekly summaries of the reading materials and participation in discussion: 10% of grade
Oral presentation: 10% of grade
Essay: 80% of grade
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Collins, S. (1982), Selfless Persons, Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1992 (reprint 1982).
Dorje, Gyurme (2006), trsl., The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation, New York and London: Viking 2006.
Gómez, Luis (2004), “Psychology”, in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, edited by Robert Buswell, Jr., 2 Vols., New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
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Registration via uSis
MA seminar, offered in the first semester;
5.0 (or 10.0) ECTS, level 500, language English, Dutch is an option;
Weekly summaries, active participation, and concluding essay (5.0/10.0 EC).
Recommended: Introduction to Buddhism (Silk, 5.0 ECTS, 100).
Deficiencies can be resolved by a pensum.