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Course No.  687
Course No.  687
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

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.

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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.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    What is Buddhism?
    Buddhism is best understood as the unfolding of the story of the Buddha himself, and of the many generations of followers who have contributed to Buddhism's influence and diversity in India, the rest of Asia, and the world. x
  • 2
    India at the Time of the Buddha
    Buddhism began when Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would come to be known as the Buddha, "awoke" to the truth. This awakening was rooted in the tradition of the Vedas, Hindu scriptures that describe the lives of Indian sages and the Indian quest for wisdom about the nature of the world and the self. x
  • 3
    The Doctrine of Reincarnation
    Along with the quest for wisdom, Buddhism inherited the Indian notion of reincarnation. Humans and all other living beings live not one but many lives in a continuous process of death and rebirth. This process is known as samsara or wandering from one life to the next. While we might view reincarnation as an opportunity to enjoy life repeatedly, those in ancient India considered it to be a burden. x
  • 4
    The Story of the Buddha
    The Buddha was a real person who was born into a royal family, had a spiritual awakening and lived to be about 80. But the actual facts of Siddhartha Gautama's life cannot explain his impact on his followers. We must examine the stories that Buddhists tell about the Buddha, including those of his previous lives. x
  • 5
    All Is Suffering
    After the Buddha's death, attention turned to his Dharma, or teaching. A fundamental claim was that "All is suffering." This may seem pessimistic, but Buddhists find it a realistic, and even liberating, view of life. This perspective derives from the concept of "no self." x
  • 6
    The Path to Nirvana
    After describing the truth of suffering, the Buddha went on to describe the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The cessation of suffering is also called nirvana, the "blowing out" of desire. x
  • 7
    The Buddhist Monastic Community
    The Buddha's first converts formed the early Buddhist Samgha, or "community." After his death, attention shifted to his teachings, or Dharma. Disputes over doctrine and discipline eventually led to many different traditions of Buddhist practice. x
  • 8
    Buddhist Art and Architecture
    Buddhists developed distinctive artistic and architectural styles to express their understanding of the Buddha's teaching and to serve as the focus of worship and veneration. A blend of Indian and Hellenistic influences created the classic Gupta style that inspired Buddhist art throughout the rest of Asia. x
  • 9
    Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia
    The arrival of the first Buddhist missionaries in Sri Lanka led to the Theravada Buddhism that now predominates in Southeast Asia. Part of this tradition is the concept of the "righteous King," which continues to link Buddhist practice with political involvement. x
  • 10
    Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva Ideal
    The Mahayana tradition, or "Great Vehicle," emerged in India near the beginning of the Common Era. It introduced the ideal of the bodhisattva, or "future Buddha," who, rather than seeking nirvana, returns again and again in the cycle of samsara to seek the welfare of others. x
  • 11
    Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
    Another aspect of the Mahayana tradition is "celestial" Buddhas and bodhisattvas, heavenly beings who can save earthly beings who ask for their help. Among the most important are Avalokiteshvara, "The Lord Who Looks Down," and Amitabha, "the Buddha of Infinite Light," who is worshipped widely in Japan. x
  • 12
    At the heart of Mahayana practice lies the paradoxical and elusive concept of Emptiness. This concept challenged and undermined many of the rigid categories of traditional Buddhism, but it also introduced a new spirit of affirmation and possibility. x
  • 13
    Buddhist Philosophy
    The Mahayana tradition developed a sophisticated philosophy to deal with Emptiness. Two major schools of thinking appeared—the Madhyamaka and the Yogachara—that took very different approaches toward understanding the "reality" of Emptiness. x
  • 14
    Buddhist Tantra
    The Buddhist movement known as Tantra emerged in the 6th century. This tradition took a radical stance toward the concept of Emptiness that produced strikingly new forms of ritual and meditation. x
  • 15
    The Theory and Practice of the Mandala
    Practitioners of Buddhist Tantra use a mandala, or ritual circle, to explore connections between the self, Buddhist deities and the universe. A mandala can be a two dimensional representation or a three-dimensional object, ranging from a small implement to an enormous temple or even an entire city or nation. x
  • 16
    The “First Diffusion of the Dharma” in Tibet
    The "First Diffusion" or arrival, of Buddhism in Tibet occurred in the 7th century under the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo. Over time, Tibetan Buddhism took on the complex institutional characteristics of Indian Buddhism, and also had strong influence on a native Tibetan tradition known as Bon. x
  • 17
    The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
    Buddhism had to be reintroduced from India to Tibet in the 10th century. This "Later Diffusion of the Dharma" led to four schools of Tibetan Buddhism x
  • 18
    The Dalai Lama
    Tibetan Buddhism is personified for many people by the figure of the Dalai Lama. The present Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, is the fourteenth in a line of incarnations that began in the 15th century. x
  • 19
    The Origins of Chinese Buddhism
    Buddhism entered China at a time when the Chinese were disillusioned with traditional Chinese values. Through a long process of interaction with Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese popular religion, Buddhism took on a distinctively Chinese character. x
  • 20
    The Classical Period of Chinese Buddhism
    During the Tang Dynasty, a series of indigenous Chinese schools gave brilliant expression to the values of the Mahayana tradition. In return, Buddhist values had important influence on Chinese literature and the arts. x
  • 21
    The Origins of Japanese Buddhism
    Buddhism entered Japan as early as the year 535 from Korea. The indigenous Japanese tradition of Shinto, or "the way of the Gods," came to be seen as harmonious with "the way of the Buddha." x
  • 22
    Honen, Shinran and Nichiren
    During the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) political unrest in Japan led some to doubt whether Buddhism could be practiced in such a "degenerate age." Three Buddhist thinkers—Honen, Shinran and Nichiren—set new traditions in motion that have had enormous influence wherever Japanese Buddhism has traveled in the world. x
  • 23
    The Kamakura period also saw the appearance of Zen, now one of the most popular Buddhist Movements in the West. The goal of this process is to achieve awakening in the Mahayana sense—that is, to achieve an awareness of Emptiness. x
  • 24
    Buddhism in America
    The American Theosophist, Colonel Olcott, traveled to Ceylon in the 1880s, converted to Buddhism, and helped formulate a modern view of the Buddhist tradition. Today, Buddhism is represented in Asian immigrant communities, and has influenced American visual arts, literature, film, and music. x

Lecture Titles

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Malcolm David Eckel
Ph.D. Malcolm David Eckel
Boston University
Dr. Malcolm David Eckel is Professor of Religion and Director of the Core Curriculum at Boston University. He holds two bachelor's degrees, one in English from Harvard University and a second in Theology from Oxford University. Professor Eckel earned his master's degree in theology at Oxford University and his Ph.D. in the Study of Comparative Religion at Harvard University. He held teaching positions at Ohio Wesleyan University, Middlebury College in Vermont, and the Harvard Divinity School, where he served as acting director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. At Boston University, Professor Eckel teaches courses on Buddhism, comparative religion, and the religions of Asia. In 1998, Professor Eckel received the Metcalf Award for Teaching Excellence, the university's highest award for teaching. In addition to writing many articles, Professor Eckel has published two books on Buddhist philosophy: To See the Buddha: A Philosopher's Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness and Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places.
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Rated 3.9 out of 5 by 62 reviewers.
Rated 3 out of 5 by With Reservations Format: DVD. I viewed this course twice, the first time in 2012 when I was just curious, and the second time in late 2014, a time when I am quite interested in Buddhism as a philosophy of living during these turbulent times. This course by Professor Eckel, though interesting at times, is decidedly academic. It's much more the history of Buddhism than about the practice of this philosophy. As such, it would be more interesting to those who wish to compare religions. The course (as a history) is well-organized; Professor Eckel is intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable. However -and unfortunately- he is too often silly, laughing at his own sense of humor when discussing certain aspects of Buddhism. This comes across as inappropriate, condescending and demeaning to the sincerity of Buddhism's precepts and the sages who played important rolls in its evolution. As such, I was too often irritated to really enjoy the lectures and suffered through it only because I wished to learn about Buddhism. ( I understand that there may be some of you who may find amusing the giggling, snickering and nervous laughter during lectures... ). Nevertheless, I did learn a lot and would recommend the lecture with the above caveats. November 15, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Seems to cover huge mass of material thoroughly Professor Eckel is a follower of Buddhism, and he brings us vast knowledge of the subject, organizing it historically, which works well. He has ingenious ways of making points; for example, he talks about the happiness of owning a new car being degraded (along with the car) by road salt.! The course guide is outstanding,and contains some material that is not in the lectures. It would be worthwhile to own as a book. When you complete this course, you will have an excellent idea of what the teachings of Buddhism are, even though it is something of a struggle to cope with all the names, which are in languages totally unrelated to those of Europe and thus hard to learn. A couple of questions arose as I listened. First, a child is selected from the population and designated the Dalai Lama. This method has been highly successful with the current holder of the post, but suppose the child has no interest in religion and rebels, as children are wont to do? Second, how does the American left, which was so enthusiastic about China's invasion of Tibet in the 1950s because it would "rid" the country of the "evil" of religion, explain its present enthusiasm for letting Tibet be free? (Yes, there are those of us who are old enough to remember their cheers.) And third and most important, to me: the large number of monks beg all their food every day, usually in areas where everyone is poor. How can anyone possibly justify such parasitism? I have a complaint for the Teaching Company about this and their other courses. Every time you open a new box of disks, you have to listen to an advertisement for the Great Courses. Considering that you are already listening to a course, perhaps well along in a series of lectures, what purpose does this serve? Sometimes you can avoid it by skipping to cut 2, but often you are forced to listed. This is both highly irritating and unnecessary. If you want to know what the various forms of Buddhism believe, this is an excellent way to start, and the professor's knowledge and enthusiasm are a bright spot in the day. September 20, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by the many faces of buddhism can a tradition as vast and diverse as buddhism really fit comfortably into just 24 lectures? the short answer is not really, but prof. eckel gives it a good shot. he’s a likeable guy and speaks in an easygoing, conversational style which often involves telling stories and personal anecdotes—so much so in fact that i almost called this review “a survey of prof. eckel’s vacations”! but cheekiness aside, this approach will likely be very helpful for beginners in taking the edge off all the unfamiliar names, terms, and concepts. personally, i occasionally wanted something a bit less casual, but that’s only because i was already familiar with buddhism and wanted to go a bit deeper than an introduction could reasonably be expected to. while the course has a very coherent arrangement, some lectures are more helpful than others. for instance, the lecture that attempts to introduce theravada buddhism by profiling three famous theravadin political figures fails to give you any coherent sense of that tradition. in this context it’s also worth mentioning that the professor occasionally uses the “H” word—hinayana—which, given that it’s a sectarian slur, i wouldn’t have expected in a survey course. overall it’s clear that the focus of his attention is on the mahayana rather than the theravada, and the lectures on tibet, china, and japan felt much more solid and successful. despite its name the course actually gives you more than just buddhism as there are substantial digressions into daoism, shinto, and tibetan bön. these are for the purpose of discussing buddhism’s relationship with the indigenous traditions of china, japan, and tibet, but for those new to the subject they also allow the course to serve as a kind of “introduction to the religions of east asia.” unlike some commentators i didn’t find his presentation to be particularly preachy. he obviously respects and values buddhism highly—as one would expect from a professor of buddhism—and we do learn that he has personally experienced the tradition from the inside. nonetheless i didn’t feel like he was trying to push us to become buddhists. i watched the video version of this course because i was taking it with a friend, but unless you particularly like the video format there’s really no reason to do so. the visuals are very infrequent and mostly consist of text on the screen. one could easily just listen to the audio without missing anything important. of course there are many different ways to introduce buddhism, and i can’t help thinking that i might have done a few things differently. nevertheless this course does do a great job of covering the surprising, even seemingly contradictory range of teachings and practices that are all crammed into this deceptive word “buddhism,” and it will certainly give you a good foundation for further exploration. January 4, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Perfect for a beginner In lecture 23, Professor Eckel comments on “how far we have come from the serene, solitary figure of {the original Buddha} to the fiery devotion of Shinran and the passionate political denunciations of Nichiren.” My thoughts exactly! This course begins in the 5th century B.C.E. in India with the original Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, awakening to the truth that all suffering is caused by desire, and nirvana is the release from the reincarnations that will bring further suffering. We learn about the Mahayana, or first reform movement, and the Tantra, or second reform movement, and how Buddhism spread from India to China and throughout the rest of the Asia, and the resulting divisions. We learn about the Pure Land Buddhists, who have a surprisingly Christian feel to their worship. At the beginning of the course we began with the concept of reincarnation or nirvana as the only paths after death, but by the end of the course we end up with Buddhist heaven and hells where the soul may end up after the soul travels through a Mandala, (which will decide if the soul is reincarnated or not), as well as celestial Buddhas reminiscent of Pagan practices. And to think I thought Christianity’s multiple divisions were confusing! I really need to view this course again. As a complete beginner to Buddhism, I have a lot to learn. But Professor Eckel gave me a good background on the history of this tradition. I would recommend buying the CD version, since the images in the DVD version are exactly the same as in the course guidebook. I found Professor Eckel to be a very passionate lecturer who knows his subject matter well. However, if you’re not strongly interested in Buddhism, he may not keep your interest because there isn’t a WOW factor in this course. I feel like I've now had the college course in Buddhism I always wanted to take, but didn't fit into my coursework. I would like to thank Professor Eckel for bringing some enlightenment into my life. December 19, 2013
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