Sacred Texts of Asia
For many people the thought of India and the Far East conjures up all sorts of exotic or fantastic images: the ash smeared yogi on his bed of nails, the Zen monk sitting endlessly in zazen practice, the jet-set guru followed around the globe by his adoring disciples. Images like these lead to a perception of the East as "thick" with religion and, moreover, that each of these so-called Eastern religions is basically the the same. But what is the common denominator of these religions? Is any feature shared by the religious traditions of Asia? We must be cautious not to assume that the label "Eastern Religion" guarantees some common characteristic--instead we should stop and look and see whether or not any shared feature is revealed.
This is what we will do: stop and look. But where shall we look? Many religions have originated in India and China, and others have been successfully transplanted. Four major traditions will provide our primary focus this semester: Hinduism and Buddhism in South Asia; Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism in East Asia. Even after narrowing the field in this way there are many places where we might begin. We could look directly at the contemporary, popular forms of these religions--the current ritual, liturgy, and sacred specialists. We could explore the social function of the belief system, or else study each as an ethical system, a guide to living life. We might rely upon scholars who have written interpretive studies of religious doctrines and belief systems. Or we might do a combination of these things by first turning our attention to the "great books" which have been accorded a special status by these religions.
Most of our work together this semester will involve a close reading of selections from the texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. This will be a challenge because, like most sacred texts, the meaning is not always clear after the first reading; sometimes several readings will be required. You will also write regular, informal responses to these reading which will serve as the basis of our in-class discussion. These papers will be collected each week and returned with comments.
One of the central questions we will treat this semester is: How do these religious traditions understand and utilise their "great books?" One of the ways we will try to answer this question is by considering commentaries written on these books. (One of the formal papers you will write will take the form of a commentary on a specific text.) Just as there is diversity in the way Christianity has used and understood the Bible, the religious traditions of Asia have developed through intra-religious claims and counterclaims about what the text says.
Together, in class, we will try to make some sense of these competing voices. Some of the necessary background will be filled in by Fenton's Religions of Asia. In addition, supplementary lectures on these traditions will shed additional light on the subject, taking up the notion of "oral texts," the use of scripture in performance and ritual, and the role of authority and canon. After exploring how these texts have spoken, and still speak, to believers in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism we will begin to understand something of the complexity and the richness of the collection of Asian religious traditions sometimes called "Eastern religion."
Swami Prabhavananda, trans. The Upanishads NAL-Dutton.
Swami Prabhavananda, trans. Bhagavad-Gita. NAL-Dutton.
A.F. Price, trans. The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-Neng. Shambala.
The Dhammapada. Oxford University Press.
D. C. Lau, trans. The Analects of Confucius Penguin Books: 1979.
D. C. Lau, trans. Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching Penguin Books: 1963.
John Fenton, et al. Religions of Asia, 3rd ed. St. Martin's: 1993.
Course requirements and criteria for evaluation
1. Four "thought papers" of 4-5 pages each; topics and format will be discussed in class.
2. Weekly informal summary/reaction statements.
3. Regular attendance, preparation, and participation.
A Few Words on Class Participation
The material we will be studying together this semester naturally lends itself to group discussion. Because most of our class time will be devoted to an analysis of the assigned reading, your attendance and contribution in the classroom is important and will affect your final grade. Together we will question, examine, and critique each reading in an effort to discover what the author is saying, and what we think about it. Consequently, a discussion format will dominate our class time. You will find this approach enjoyable and rewarding if you follow a few simple guidelines.
1. Come to class with the assigned reading prepared. Take notes as you read so you can recall passages that seemed unclear or that made an important point we should discuss. Items of this sort should be included in your weekly summary/reaction paper.
2. Bring the appropriate text to every class. In the course of our discussion we will undoubtedly refer to specific passages in the text. Arriving to class without your book, or without preparing the assigned reading, undermines the opportunity of genuine intellectural exchange and collaborative learning.
3. Speak your mind. Feel free to raise your own questions about the material, or about observations made by others in the class. Remember that quality contributions deepen and promote discussion, but contentiousness and dogmatism stifle the free exchange of ideas.
4. Listen to what others are saying. By carefully listening to what others are saying we can go beyond "talking at" each other to achieve deeper levels of understanding.
Units of Study
(a tentative itinerary subject to revisions)
Weeks 1 and 2: Introductions; pre-Vedic civilization; the gods of the Veda; Vedic religion and ritual. Introduction to the Upanishads.
Weeks 3, 4, and 5: Hinduism; the influence of the Upanishads on religious expression; the systems of Shankara and Vallabha; the Bhagavad Gita and its commentaries. Bhakti movements.
Weeks 6 and 7: Buddhism in India; the life of the Buddha; Doctrinal foundations of Theravada Buddhism; the concepts of Nirvana and Anatman.
Week 7 and 8: Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet and China; the transformation of Buddhism from Theravada to Mahayana; Concept of the Bodhisattva and the cultivation of the Bodhicitta; the beliefs and practices of the Tantra, Ch'an and Pure Land Schools.
Week 9 and 10: Confucianism; early religious expression in China; the advent of Confucius; basic doctrines and concept of ideal society.
Week 11 and 12: Taoism; philosophical Taoism and religious Taoism; the cosmology and basic doctrines; concept of nature and the ideal life.
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Attendance/Participation Policy: One unexcused absence is allowed. Regular participation in class discussion will enhance the final grade.
Office Hours: Wednesday 11 AM and by appointment.
Office: Knapton 103; ext. 3695.