Course No. 687
Professor Malcolm David Eckel, Ph.D.
Boston University
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Course No. 687
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Course Overview

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 religious. 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
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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

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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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Buddhism is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 99.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and Comprehensive Course This is an excellent and comprehensive course. It covers a lot of topics and includes a lot of information.
Date published: 2019-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Obvious knowledge and love of subject matter The professor had a great love and respect for the subject matter and didn't speak as an outsider. I really appreciated the depth of knowledge he provided.
Date published: 2019-09-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from great subject! wonderful in depth study of one of the worlds great religions and philosophies.
Date published: 2019-06-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Very intellectual History of Buddhism "It wouldn't be appropriate to practice meditation in the classes I teach at the university," the professor said in a midway lesson, and I wasn't surprised. This is an intellectual course taught by a conventional scholar. It is not an experiential course on Buddhist practice. The focus is on the history of Buddhist schools and leaders, and its diffusion throughout Asia. Metaphysical or psychological elements are secondarily even if superficially discussed. The delivery is pretty bland, with dry lectures (I'm a PhD and had to struggle a bit at times to keep my attention). In sum, this is a conventional scholarly course on the history of Buddhist diffusion. You should not expect anything "deeply spiritual" in case you are interested in in individual practice.
Date published: 2019-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mesmerizing, multifaceted and quite difficult This is one of the most difficult Great Courses I have taken—and I have taken many. So I had to play the DVDs again and again. Part of the reason for the difficulty is that Professor Eckel (who radiates eminence) seems to be reading-out from (or anyway to be consulting very closely) some prepared text. This could be the book he has authored, I don’t know but one day I’ll find the time to read it. Said text is not structured powerpoint-like. Perhaps it would have been kitch to have structured the Great Course on Buddhism as a powerpoint presentation of a boy-scout code of some sort, the thrill would have gone. On the contrary, Eckel’s underlying text is in the nature of a travel guide of sorts, like a tapestry. By the way, many of the ideas one encounters when reading Plato or Heraclitus seem to be Buddhist (or anyway oriental) in flavour. This though is my own observation, clearly Eckel does not deal with this matter, it is beyond his scope. Let me attempt a crude analogy. (Jacqueline, the top reviewer of the Great Courses, made a similar remark when reviewing this course ten years ago.) It is as if one is trying to familiarize us with Christianity not simply by citing the Bible but by talking about the symbolisms in church architecture, the function of liturgical implements, about the procedures followed in various rituals, about the various places of pilgrimage and about the thousands of apocryphal stories (i.e., not contained in the Canon) which have been developed over the centuries e.g. about the Dormition, about Mary Magdalene, many of the Saints and so on. And then the course turns to Church history, to talk about heresies, the iconoclasts, the schisms, Reformation, the monastic orders and so on and so forth. I don’t want to imply that Eckel’s course is really heavy on history or geography—it does, however, makes several references thereto. When watching Eckel’s course, you will not feel that you have been through complete catechesis in the Buddhist religion. You will find only so much catechesis, not very much for sure. I have sought extra catechesis in the Great Course about the Religions of the Axial Age, but didn’t really encounter much additional material. Rather Eckel’s course will take you on a journey into a misty, demonic and quite idolatrous world. The course will take you on a search, well basically for serenity, for lightness and buoyancy. It is a search for overcoming your weaknesses (thereby becoming superhuman perhaps?), a search how to become impervious to suffering, maybe to shrink to nothingness (is that not the technique of the hedge-hog which curls to become invincible!). Even, one would think, a search for overcoming reality as we in the 21st century understand it. I get the same feeling I got from watching Eckel’s course when visiting the, mostly dimly-lit and very quiet, galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to Buddhist Art. And I can tell you it is quite an awesome feeling!
Date published: 2019-04-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not a great course but worth the time. I'd recommend it to other novices.
Date published: 2019-02-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Unenthusiastic The lectures were nonplus. The Prof giving the lectures had no spark nothing to excite a real interest in what had to say. I think I know why it was on sale. He seemed to loose interest in subject matter.
Date published: 2018-12-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great subject, a bit dry I bought the course on a $19 download sale a month ago, will be going to Nepal next year hiking and was interested in the culture. Professor is extremely knowledgeable and a good speaker, but a bit dry. I wish GC showed more interaction with the fake audience, even having them ask questions or laughing.
Date published: 2018-12-05
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