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
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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

Lecture Titles

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  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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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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Great World Religions: Buddhism is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 41.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Did Not Capture My Attention I had originally purchased and listened to the professor's other course ("Buddhism") but I just could not get into it. I felt like there was too much "talking" (and a little bit of fluff) and not alot of teaching or explanation of the differences of the various types of Buddhism. So I purchased this course thinking with half the time allotted the professor would likely cut out alot of the stories and focus only on the key discussion points of Buddhism. Unfortunately, alot of what was said in the other course was repeated here (including his personal anecdotes) and it had a similar effect on me: I found myself drifting away unable to stay focused on the lectures. If I wasn't driving I could easily fall asleep because my attention was never grabbed and held hostage. Alot of times it felt like a grandfather telling random stories with some history sprinkled in but not alot of explanation. Don't get me wrong: his presentation style isn't all bad and his style may very well work for you and you may learn alot. He comes across as a very affable person who is knowledgeable and dedicated to this field of study. I just wish there were deeper discussions of how the various types of Buddhism differed from one another. I don't feel like that was conveyed very well. Lectures 3 and 4 took me the closest to an understanding of the core of this great tradition and placed me in deep reflective thought. But it didn't last from there. If you're interested in the basics of Buddhism, for my money I would suggest courses like "Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know" and "Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition".
Date published: 2018-10-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Similar to his other course but worth buying As other reviewers have noted, this is in some ways a shorter version of his other course, Buddhism. But sometimes it is helpful to hear the same material in a different way. In both courses, he spends very little time on Theravada Buddhism. He covers that topic by discussing the current (when the course was recorded) political situation in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar. We have been to Thailand and Cambodia and would have liked to learn how Theravada differs from Mahayana, and were disappointed. Maybe he doesn't know much about Theravada. I found it odd how the he treats the Dalai Lama with such reverence and awe, quoting him often, as if his opinions were the the height of wisdom. Unless you buy into the reincarnation story, that man, the Dalai Lama, is just someone who was randomly selected as a child to take that role. There is no reason to think he is particularly intelligent or has great wisdom.
Date published: 2018-04-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great breadth of subject and excellent professor. Having studied many writings on Buddhism I find that this is a good review of some of what I know and has many new points for learn. I am very pleased.
Date published: 2017-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear, and a good introduction I found this to be a very good introduction to the traditions and thought of Buddhism. The speaker is very knowledgable and presents material very clearly. As an introduction it would probably not be appropriate for someone who already knows a lot about Buddhism, but for someone who doesn't, it was great.
Date published: 2017-05-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Buddhism Sometimes I missed the key message of a chapter. The script that comes along with the lecture was incomplete. It would be better if the lecturer gave the lecture without reading it from a manuscript. His voice and speech was very good. if there is a video, some more photos, animations would be good. What was good was the content. I feel very well-informed about Buddhism now.
Date published: 2016-06-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointing I was expecting more information on the tenets and beliefs of the various schools of Buddhism, but the course was moistly a history of the spread of Buddhism to various regions of Asia. It did not give much in the way of substantive discussion of the beliefs and tenets of Buddhist and how they differed from region to region. I was especially disappointed in the cursory treatment of the tradition of Theravada Buddhism , which is the most popular form of practice in the United States and Southeast Asia. If you're interested in the study of how Buddhism spread across various regions, I would be recommend this course. But if you (like I) am more interested in the substantive beliefs and philosophy of Buddhism in general and a comparison of Buddhist beliefs and practice among various regions, I'm afraid you will be disappointed with this course. (As an aside, over t he years I have taken many of the courses offered by The Great Courses and have generally found them to be first-rate and the lecturers to be top notch. Right now, I have two courses that just arrived and can't wait to get to them!)
Date published: 2016-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Difficult Concepts: Worth the Effort video download version For me the course on Buddhism contained concepts that I found difficult to comprehend. Much more so than the other four religions covered in this series. Of course, none of these (or likely any other) religions can be covered in depth in such a survey course, so my difficulty with the concepts may be well because I had more personal familiarity with and knowledge of the other four world religions before watching the lectures than I had with Buddhism. Perhaps I would become more comfortable with the concepts of "emptiness" and "no self" will come more easily after taking another, more in-depth course and being able to start with a bit more of a background. On the positive side, I do feel that I made some progress as to understanding why Buddhists say "all is suffering". Professor Eckel spends a great deal of time covering history, some of which I was already familiar, (the life of the Buddha himself) but most of which was new and interesting. As an example I had no idea how Buddhism had traveled from India to SE Asia, how it went into China before Tibet, then Korea and on to Japan and how Vietnam came to Buddhism from China rather then the rest of SE Asia. And how Buddhism changed and adapted to meet the needs of differing cultures and languages. Good stuff. I can understand why some reviewers would have preferred more theology and less history, but I thought that the mix was about right for 12 lectures. After all how much can really be examined in depth in a survey course. And unlike some reviewers I did not find Dr. Eckel's presentation style to be boring. Rather his occasional bits of humor and flights of fancy, for me, enlivened the lectures, and kept them from being too dry. I would buy other courses from him. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2016-03-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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
Date published: 2015-07-30
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