A religion without God? How could that be? And how could it have captured and captivated so many millions of people in so many countries for so many centuries? No doubt you can picture the Buddha—seated serenely, feet crossed in front of him, hands folded in his lap. But who was the real person behind this image? What did he say about the nature and purpose of life? What were the origins of the concepts of reincarnation, nirvana, karma, and Zen, and what is the Buddhist understanding of them? Buddhism is your opportunity to trace the history, principles, and evolution of a theology that is both familiar and foreign.
In its 2,500-year history, Buddhism has expanded from a tiny religious community in northern India into a movement that now spans the globe. This course is a historical survey of Buddhism from its origin in India in the 6th century B.C.E. to its present status as a major world religion. It is meant to introduce students to the astonishing vitality and adaptability of a tradition that has transformed the civilizations of India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan and has now become a lively component in the cultures of Europe, Australia, and the Americas.
The study of Buddhism offers great challenges to people who have grown up in the Western world. It does not share many of the central beliefs of Western religions, such as the concept of a single, omnipotent God, or that each human being has a permanent self that began at conception and will continue in an afterlife.
Buddhism also has been transformed in many ways as it has swept across the cultures of Asia; it often is difficult to decide what Buddhism actually is and how it should be studied. Buddhism as an Unfolding Story
Professor Malcolm David Eckel begins the course by saying, "Buddhists love to tell stories,"and he approaches Buddhism as a series of stories. Throughout his lectures he acts as a storyteller as well as a teacher, recounting tales that have been told throughout centuries to elaborate on and explain the Buddhist view of life.
The stories begin with the rich religious culture of India, the culture into which the Buddha was born, the culture that made it possible for him to craft his own distinct solutions to the problems of life and death.
The stories then proceed to the life of the Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama. Born into a royal family in 566 B.C.E., he eventually renounced his life of privilege and became an Indian ascetic. After years of struggle, the pivotal moment in his life came when he sat under a tree and "woke up"to the meaning of life ("Buddha"means "Awakened One"). This awakening was the realization that "all of life is suffering,"combined with an understanding of the path that led to the cessation of suffering, and to nirvana.
The stories then examine the practice of Buddhism after the Buddha's death. You'll trace the interpretation of his teaching, or Dharma; the development of the early Buddhist community, and the remarkable evolution of Buddhist philosophy as it emigrated from India to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), China, Japan, Tibet, Southeast Asia and, ultimately, the Western world. A Remarkable Capacity for Change
One of the most fascinating aspects of Buddhism is its extraordinary flexibility. As it adapted to new challenges in India and the rest of Asia, Buddhist beliefs went through significant, even radical, changes.
Early Buddhism was a tradition of self-reliance: Awakening came—if it came at all—solely on the basis of one's own efforts. You'll learn that in the Mahayana movement, or "Great Vehicle,"Buddhists emphasized the importance of compassion and concern for others. The Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva ("Buddha-to-be"or "future Buddha") was not to attempt to achieve nirvana but to return to this world to help others along the path.
As Mahayana Buddhism spread across India and Central Asia, it added the concept of "celestial bodhisattvas,"advanced practitioners of the bodhisattva path who reside in the heavens and are able to serve earthly beings who call on them for help. With these new ideas, the Mahayana movement transformed the traditional emphasis on self-reliance into an ideal of salvation by faith and reliance on an otherworldly savior. This tradition of Buddhist devotion has become extremely popular in Japan today, and is also widely represented in North America, where it bears surprising similarities to Christianity.
As you study its past, you'll discover that Buddhism also changed as it encountered other cultures in Asia. In China, Buddhism became more respectful of duties to the family and ancestors, more pragmatic and this-worldly, and more consistent with Chinese respect for harmony with nature. In Japan, Buddhas were reconciled with the local deities, known as Kami, so that both could be worshipped together.
The Buddhist ability to embrace change may seem puzzling to Western minds. But change lies at the very core of Buddhism. You'll examine how the Buddha himself espoused the doctrine of "no-self,"a belief that there is no such thing as a permanent identity. Instead, the human personality and all of reality are constantly changing. Mahayana Buddhism elaborated this idea when it developed the concept of "Emptiness,"the view that nothing exists in its own right, and that everything is "empty"of identity.
Buddhists believe the concepts of no-self and Emptiness are far from negative: They invest their religion, and life itself, with limitless possibilities. If everything is constantly changing, then it is possible for everything to become new. If everything is an illusion, then there is no barrier to accomplishing anything. A Tradition of Political Activism
Professor Eckel will introduce you to Buddhist values that are not always limited to aspects of life that we would call reliious. For example, Buddhism also has a lively tradition of political action. This tradition began with King Asoka, emperor of the Maurya Dynasty in India from 269–238 B.C.E. Asoka waged a campaign to conquer the Kingdom of Kalinga that was so brutal that it prompted him to convert to Buddhism. He then proclaimed himself a "righteous King"who would protect and promulgate Buddhist teachings.
Asoka's ideal has been imitated in traditional Buddhist cultures throughout Southeast Asia, as well as in Tibet, China, and Japan. A striking contemporary example of the intersection between religious and political values in Southeast Asia is Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, the daughter of General Aung San, the country's national hero. Aung San Suu Kyi became the leader of the movement against repressive military rule and was eventually placed under house arrest, where she continued to speak out in favor of the democratic opposition. She received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 for her efforts on behalf of democracy, human rights, and ethnic reconciliation.
Even more familiar to us today is the work of the Dalai Lama, who has helped lead Tibetan Buddhists through a period of deep political and cultural difficulty, winning the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1989 for his nonviolent campaign of resistance to Chinese domination in Tibet. His public involvement in many significant issues—including human rights, the exploitation of the environment, and the oppression of minority peoples—has made him one of the foremost spokesmen and most visible symbols of Buddhism in the contemporary world. The Buddhist Story Becomes Our Story
Buddhism's capacity to transform itself and influence new cultures continued as it came in contact with Western nations. Since the end of the 19th century, Buddhism has become a respected part of life in countries far beyond its traditional home in Asia.
Early Western converts to Buddhism interpreted the religion for their countrymen. In the 1880s, Henry Steele Olcott traveled to Ceylon, converted to Buddhism, and created the Theosophical Society and a Buddhist Catechism that embodied what has been called a Protestant form of Buddhism, designed to make it more acceptable to Western sensibilities.
Today, almost every variety of Buddhism has been adapted for an American audience. Fascinating new Buddhist communities, such as the Buddhist Churches of America, have taken hold on the West Coast and in Hawaii. Centers for Zen practice and for Tibetan Buddhism have been established in North America, often making it possible for American converts to receive training and assume positions of leadership.
Buddhist influence has also permeated many aspects of Western culture. Often a person's first contact with Buddhism has come through reading Siddhartha by German author Herman Hesse, the novels of Jack Kerouac, or works of Beat Poets such as Gary Snyder. African American author Charles Johnson uses Buddhism to explore the change of consciousness that takes place when ex-slaves experienced freedom.
Professor Eckel will show you how the widespread and continuing appeal of Buddhism always comes back to its stories—of the Buddha himself, and of the ways others have lived their lives in the attempt to follow his example.