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Great World Religions: Buddhism

Great World Religions: Buddhism

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Great World Religions: Buddhism

Course No. 6105
Professor Malcolm David Eckel, Ph.D.
Boston University
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Course No. 6105
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Course Overview

Buddhism challenges some of the most important Western ideas about God, human life, and the self. In Buddhism there is no single almighty God who created the world. Instead, Buddhism teaches that all of life is suffering, and there is no permanent self. And it teaches that in accepting that all life is bliss can be achieved in this life.

Professor Malcolm David Eckel is winner of Boston University's highest honor, the Metcalf Award for Teaching Excellence. He has spent most of his adult life studying Buddhism in Asia and North America, and shares his insights about this endlessly fascinating faith in this vital series.

"An Excellent Study in the Basics of Buddhism"

Buddhism's core philosophy that nothing is permanent—all is change—has made it an astonishingly lively and adaptable religion. Buddhism has transformed the civilizations of India and much of Asia, and has now become a vital part of Western culture.

According to Professor Eckel, nothing conveys the spirit of Buddhism better than the image of the seated Buddha—stable, focused, and serene in the face of tumultuous change.

In this course you study:

  • The Buddhist idea that there is no single almighty God who created the world, that all of life is "suffering" (while not necessarily being pessimistic), and that there is no permanent self
  • The life story of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama
  • The Buddha's teaching, or Dharma
  • The development of his Samgha, or community of disciples
  • Key Buddhist terms such as nirvana, tantra, mandala, bodhisattva, and Zen
  • The lives of contemporary, well-known Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama
  • Buddhist responses to some of the fundamental problems of life.

According to Readers Preference Reviews, "Great World Religions: Buddhism is an excellent study in the basics of Buddhism. While it can easily take a lifetime to gain a complete understanding of the nuances of Buddhism, Professor Eckel provides a solid foundation."

Buddhism: A Community that Spans the Globe

These lectures survey Buddhism from its origin in India in the 6th or 5th centuries B.C.E. to the present day. During its 2,500-year history, Buddhism has grown from a tiny religious community in northern India into a movement that now spans the globe.

Buddhism has shaped the development of civilization in India and Southeast Asia; significantly influenced the civilizations of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan; and has become a major part of the multireligious world in Europe and North America.

"Although Buddhism plays the role of a 'religion' in many cultures, it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about religion," says Dr. Eckel. "Buddhists do not worship a god who created and sustains the world. They revere the memory of a human being, Siddhartha Gautama, who found a way to be free from suffering and bring the cycle of rebirth to an end. For Buddhists, this release from suffering constitutes the ultimate goal of human life."

"The Awakened One"

Born as Siddhartha Gautama in a princely family in northern India about 566 B.C.E., the man who is known as the Buddha, or the Awakened One, left his family's palace and took up the life of an Indian ascetic. After years of difficult struggle, he sat down under a tree and "woke up" to the cause of suffering and to its final cessation.

He then wandered the roads of India, preaching his Dharma, or teaching, gathering a group of disciples and establishing a pattern of discipline that became the foundation of the Buddhist community, or Samgha.

The Buddha helped his disciples analyze the causes of suffering and chart their own path to nirvana. Finally, after a long teaching career, he died and passed gently from the cycle of death and rebirth, or reincarnation, in which Buddhists believe.

The community's attention then shifted from the Buddha himself to the teachings and moral principles embodied in his Dharma. Monks gathered to recite his teaching and produced a canon of Buddhist scripture, while disputes in the early community paved the way for the diversity and complexity of later Buddhist schools.

Theravada, Mahayana, Tantra, and Philosopher Kings

The Buddhist king Asoka, who reigned from about 268 to 239 B.C.E., sent the first Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka. From this missionary effort grew the Theravada Buddhism ("tradition of the elders") that now dominates all the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia with the exception of Vietnam.

Asoka also left behind the Buddhist concept of a righteous king who gives political expression to Buddhist values. This ideal has been embodied in recent times by King Mongkut in Thailand and Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent resistance to military repression in Myanmar.

Two major new movements radically transformed the Indian tradition.

  • The first was known as the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle. The Mahayana preached the ideal of the bodhisattva who postpones nirvana to help others escape the cycle of rebirth.
  • The second was Tantra or Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle. Tantra developed a vivid and emotionally powerful method to achieve liberation in this life.

Buddhism entered Tibet in the 7th century and established itself as a powerful combination of Indian monasticism and Tantric practice. Tibetan Buddhism eventually developed four major schools, including the Geluk School of the Dalai Lama. Today, the 14th Dalai Lama carries Buddhist teaching around the world.

Buddhism in China, Japan, and throughout the World Today

You learn how Buddhism entered China in the 2nd century when many Chinese were disillusioned with traditional Confucian values. To bridge the gap between the cultures of India and China, Buddhist translators borrowed Taoist vocabulary to express Buddhist ideas.

Professor Eckel shows how Buddhism became distinctively Chinese in character: more respectful of duties to the family and the ancestors, more pragmatic and mundane, and more consistent with traditional Chinese respect for harmony with nature. During the T'ang Dynasty (618–907), Buddhism was expressed in a series of brilliant Chinese schools, including the Ch'an School of meditation that came to be known in Japan as Zen. From China, Buddhism spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Buddhism entered Japan in the 6th century and was quickly allied with the power of the Japanese state. Buddhist Tantra was given distinctive Japanese expression in the Shingon School, and the Tendai School brought the sophisticated study of Chinese Buddhism to the imperial court.

During the Kamakura period, 1192–1333, Japan suffered wide social and political unrest. Convinced that they were living in a "degenerate age," the brilliant reformers Honen, Shinran, and Nichiren brought a powerful new vision of Buddhism to the masses. In the Kamakura period a series of charismatic Zen masters gave new life to the ancient tradition of Buddhist meditation.

Today, Buddhism reaches most of the world, including Europe, Australia, and the Americas. And, with this course, its history, insights, and perhaps its profound peaceful influence may reach you.

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12 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2003
  • 1
    Buddhism as a World Religion
    During its 2,500-year history, Buddhism has grown from a tiny religious community in northern India into a movement that now spans the globe. This lecture describes its lasting and present influence, the ways it is not a religion, and its practitioners' ultimate goal. x
  • 2
    The Life of the Buddha
    This lecture tells the story of the beginnings of Buddhism in India in the 6th century B.C.E., with the birth of Siddhartha Gautama. His life has given rise to a rich tradition of stories that tell us not only about Buddhist origins but also about Buddhist aspirations for a life of wisdom, freedom, and peace. x
  • 3
    “All is Suffering”
    After the Buddha had experienced his awakening, he taught a group of ascetics about it. This event is known as the first "turning of the wheel of Dharma," or teaching. The lecture goes on to show how Buddhism presents a realistic assessment of life's difficulties and how that can lead to a sense of liberation and peace. x
  • 4
    The Path to Nirvana
    This lecture describes the Buddha's teachings about suffering and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering: nirvana, which means literally the "extinguishing" of desire. Nirvana marks the definitive end of the cycle of rebirth. x
  • 5
    The Buddhist Community
    Due to a long and productive teaching career, the Buddha attracted many disciples and laid the foundation for Buddhist monasticism, including orders of monks and nuns, as well as a sophisticated tradition of lay devotion and support. Buddhist art and architecture shows us not only how Buddhists came to view the Buddha himself but how they gave ritual and artistic expression to his teachings. x
  • 6
    Mahayana Buddhism—the Bodhisattva Ideal
    This lecture describes the movement called the Mahayana, which promotes the ideal of the bodhisattva who does not attempt to achieve nirvana but vows to return again and again to seek the welfare of other living beings. Practitioners of the Mahayana develop the contemplative virtue of wisdom, together with the active virtue of compassion. x
  • 7
    Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
    Along with the human beings who aspired to be the bodhisattva ideal came an array of heavenly beings called the "celestial" Buddhas and bodhisattvas. x
  • 8
    This lecture looks at the paradoxical concept of Emptiness in Mahayana texts and doctrines that gave rise to a radically new way of viewing the Buddha. In Tantric Buddhism, the Buddha can be visualized not just as the peaceful figure we know from earlier Buddhist art, but also as a wrathful deity and as the intimate union of male and female. x
  • 9
    Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia
    During the reign of the Buddhist king Asoka (c. 268–239 B.C.E.), missionaries left India for Sri Lanka. From this effort grew the Theravada Buddhism that now dominates all the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia except Vietnam. Throughout the history of Theravada Buddhism, there has been a close relationship between the Buddhist Samgha and Buddhist political leaders. This relationship is evident in Thailand and plays a role in the work of Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent resistance to military authority in Burma. x
  • 10
    Buddhism in Tibet
    The early history of Tibetan Buddhism was shaped by models borrowed from India. Eventually, Tibetan Buddhists developed a tradition of four schools, the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk, each with is own distinctive characteristics. Today, the Tibetan tradition is best known in the figure of Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his peaceful campaign of resistance to Chinese domination in Tibet. x
  • 11
    Buddhism in China
    This lecture discusses the spread of Buddhism in China, which began in the 2nd century C.E., when China was suffering from political turmoil and cultural decline. The earliest Buddhist translators used Taoist vocabulary to express Buddhist ideas. Through a long process of interaction with Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese popular religion, Buddhism took on a distinctively Chinese character. x
  • 12
    Buddhism in Japan
    Buddhism entered Japan in the 6th century C.E. This lecture describes the founding of the three great Buddhist schools that have dominated Buddhist life in Japan up to the present day. x

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  • Ability to download 12 audio lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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CD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 6 CDs
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos
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Your professor

Malcolm David Eckel

About Your Professor

Malcolm David Eckel, Ph.D.
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...
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Also By This Professor


Rated 4 out of 5 by 34 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Enjoyable Short Course This course gave a very good overview of the broad strokes of Buddhism. With such a sweep of time and tradition to cover, tradeoffs need to be made. Especially as this is a 12 lecture course. I think even a 24 lecture course would be hard pressed to give adequate coverage of both the history and the theological beliefs of a major religion. That being said, Professor Eckel does an excellent job of not only covering the history - but also trying to explain the theology behind some of the major Buddhist concepts. While it is hard to try to meditate while driving in traffic (and he actually refers to those of us who listen to these courses in the car - which I found very humorous) I did appreciate the attempt to get across some of these concepts that are fairly foreign to a western mind. I look forward to looking up Professor Eckel's other courses. -John July 29, 2015
Rated 3 out of 5 by Lots of History, Some Belief I purchased the download audio version of this course because I knew just about nothing about Buddhism. I feel now that I know about the history of Buddhism but I'm still a bit shaky about the beliefs of Buddhism. While learning about the differences between various types of Buddhism was somewhat interesting (see the final 4 lectures), I would have preferred he spend more time on the basic beliefs and teachings. I felt this was similar to studying the differences between, for example, the Baptists and the Methodists without truly understanding Christianity. As for the presentation, I agree with other reviewers that the professor was not particularly engaging. He is also very proud of, and refers often to, the fact that he is a professor at Boston University. Frankly, I don't care where he teaches; rather, I care whether he can teach. June 7, 2015
Rated 1 out of 5 by A disappointment I have recently heard Professor Benjamin's wonderful TGC course "Foundations of Eastern Civilizations", in which he covers among other things the philosophies and religions which originated in Eastern Asia. Having enjoyed the course so much, it made me curious to go a little bit more in depth on some of the topics covered. So I stared hearing this course on Buddhism… I did not enjoy this course. The content in some of the lectures was on the face of it quite interesting, particularly in the ones about the origin of Buddhism, the life of Siddhartha and the central teachings of Buddhism. The content of the final set of lectures, concerning the central traditions in different geographies such as Tibet, China and Japan was in principle interesting for me as they were the reason I had become curious about this subject in the first place. My problem was with the professor. I found that much as I tried (and I listened to some of the lectures tree times), I could simply not keep my mind focused on him. I could concentrate for several minutes at a time but eventually my mind would wander and I found myself sometime later having disconnected totally from his thread of teaching. This is my Eightieth course in the TGC, and though there were other Professors I struggled with, this is definitely my biggest disappointment so far due to presentation. I had a hard time figuring out what it was about his teaching style that made it so hard for me to follow him, but having read some of the reviews on the TGC, I think it is now clearer to me. The course is quite slow, and does not seem to go into any great depths. Another reviewer writes, and I agree with him, that he somehow gives an impression that he does not believe (or takes seriously) some of the traditions that he is covering in the course, often chuckling as he describes particular aspects. So overall I would have to say that this course was a disappointment and it is the first TGC course I have bought so far that I intend to return. May 5, 2015
Rated 3 out of 5 by Get the *other* Buddhism course Simply put, this is the short version of a much better, much more in-depth survey of Buddhism offered by The Great Courses. If you are truly interested in Buddhism, my advice is to skip this version and instead get the twenty-four lecture course entitled simply, "Buddhism", which is also taught by Professor Eckel. This "Great World Religions" version starts off virtually the same as the longer version, but after Lecture Three begins to rapidly deviate from the longer "Buddhism" course and start to quickly skim over vital topics to understanding Buddhism. As a primer, this course is just ok. Nothing more. Get the other one instead. November 8, 2014
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