Coursework in Buddhist Studies

This page is not comprehensive of coursework in Buddhist Studies across the University but rather is meant to give a sample of the depth and breadth of available classes.

Autumn 2023

DVPR 33202 – Li Zhi and 16th Century China: The Self, Tradition, and Dissent in Comparative Context

The 16th century Chinese iconoclast Li Zhi (Li Zhuowu) has been rightly celebrated as a pioneer of individualism, one of history’s great voices of social protest, an original mind powerfully arguing for genuine self-expression, and more. He was a Confucian official and erudite in the classics, yet in his sixties he takes the Buddhist tonsure, and late in life befriends the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. He sought refuge in a quiet monastery devoting his life to scholarship, yet invited constant scandal. His A Book to Burn “sold like hotcakes,” and attracted enough trouble that reportedly readers would surreptitiously hide their copies tucked up their sleeves, and was later banned by the state soon after his death. In this seminar, we will place Li both within the context of the history of “Confucian” thought, and within the literary, religious, and philosophical conversations of the late Ming. Using his writings as a productive case study, we will think about topics including “religion,” tradition and innovation, “spontaneity” and “authenticity,” and the relationship between “classics” and commentaries. Throughout, we will bring our discussions into comparative analysis, considering views of thinkers and traditions from other times and places. Chinese not required; for those interested, we will read select essays of Li’s in Chinese and students may choose translation as a final project. Pauline Lee, Visiting Professor in Divinity

Equivalent Div Course(s): HREL 33202, RLST 23202

HREL 40700 – Rethinking Treasure: New Perspectives on the gter ma Traditions of Tibet

A distinctive feature of Tibetan religion is its tradition of ‘Treasure discovery’ (gter ma), in which prophesied individuals reveal hidden treasures of sacred texts, sacred objects, and sundry other items, concealed in the landscape, the elements, or even the mind. Much of Tibet’s most influential religious literature is revealed in this way, so the Treasure traditions have attracted considerable academic interest. Why and how did this unique tradition arise? Early scholars tried to explain it predominantly as a device for religious innovation that drew on the pre-Buddhist burial cults of the ancient emperors, but neither of these propositions now remain entirely tenable. By contrast, many more salient features have so far remained under explored: gter ma’s dense intersections with the cosmologies of Tibet’s non-elite indigenous ‘nameless’ religion; its cultural interconnectedness with the contemporaneous textual revelatory traditions of the non-dual Śaivism of Kashmir; the efforts of early gter ma apologists to present it as a continuation of the Indian traditions of nidhi, including the nidhiśāstra materials shared by Śaiva and Buddhist tantrists in India; the widespread adaptation of Mahāyāna narrative tropes of prophesied dharmabhāṇakas that characterised much early Tibetan tradition-building; and more. This course will present materials from a book in progress that rethinks the nature and origins of gter ma. PQ: Some prior coursework in the study of Tibet, South Asia, or Buddhism is ideal. Robert Mayer, Visiting Professor in Divinity

RLST 24115 – Chinese Thought and The Good Life

This course examines the ideas of thinkers with vastly different responses to the question: What is the life well lived? In our study, we will focus on early China (5th century to 221 BCE), a seminal and vibrant period in Chinese thought. Some thinkers (such as “Laozi”) argue the good life is the simple one, others (Xunzi) insist that it is the life of achieved great intellectual, aesthetic, or moral ambition. Yet others argue that central to the life well lived are rich, nuanced, and strong ties to family (Confucius), acting on one’s developed intuitions (Mengzi), or developing one’s capacity to play in the moment whatever the circumstances (Zhuangzi). Two thinkers we will study focus on the means for making the social world supportive of a life that is good. Hanfeizi argues for the importance of well-defined, objective, enforced laws. Sunzi illuminates the art of war. We will explore topics such as notions of the self, conceptions of the greater cosmos, the role of rituals, ideas about human nature, and the tension between tradition and self-expression. The course includes lectures, class discussions, self-designed spiritual exercises, creating a class “Commentary” on the Analects, essays of varied lengths, and writers’ circles. Pauline Lee, Visiting Professor in Divinity

RLST 28602 – Topics in EALC: Nature and Dao

This course is about ways some fundamental questions about life have been asked and answered in Chinese traditions. What is the world—especially what we today might call the “natural” or “living” world? How should one live, and see one’s life, within it? What is our relationship with it? How can we best understand it? How should our understanding guide our own lives and practices? We’ll explore some traditional Chinese responses to these questions as they have been expressed in religious practice, painting, literature, philosophy, gardening, and travel. Programmatically, the course is a hybrid: a “great works” course in the classic mold grafted onto a survey of some recent writings in the “environmental humanities.” These texts will both provide a set of conversation partners for our classic Chinese works and outline possible resources for reading and thinking about them here in our present age of ecological catastrophe generated, in large part, by our modern human practices. Note: This course is open only to students in the College. There are no prerequisites. Paul Copp

Winter 2024

DVPR 47900 – The Philosophical Career of Vasubandhu

In this course we will take some soundings in the huge corpus of the Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu (c. 4th century C.E.), who produced works influentially expressing what have been taken as several different schools of Buddhist thought – in particular, the Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika trends of Abhidharma literature, and the Mahāyāna philosophical program of Yogācāra. Canvassing examples of many of Vasubandhu’s major writings, we will particularly consider the sense it makes for all of these works to have been written by the same person; we will consider, that is, the philosophical coherence of the diverse body of work that’s generally attributed to this one thinker. PQ: This class presupposes some understanding of Buddhist doctrine. Course Note: Undergraduates may petition to enroll. Daniel A. Arnold

HREL 31500 – The Globalization of Japanese Religions: From the 19th Century to the Present

This course will explore the processes that led to the present situation of Japanese religions both within and outside of Japan. It focuses on the encounter and exchanges between Japanese and non-Japanese actors in order to question overly simplified models of globalization and modernization from the point of view of a global history of religions. We will first consider the formation of the concept of “religion” itself in the second half of the nineteenth century in both Europe and Japan. Building on these considerations, we will consider a selection of primary sources to trace the main developments of Japanese religious traditions and institutions into the present. Particular attention will be paid to both the inculturation of “foreign” religious traditions in Japan and the spread of “Japanese” religious traditions outside of Japan. If possible, the course will also incorporate field trips to Japanese religious groups in the Chicago area. Stephan Licha

RLST 28405 – Religion in Anime and Japanese Pop Culture

How does Spirited Away reflect teachings of Japanese Buddhism and Shinto? Or what about Neon Genesis Evangelion? What can pop culture tell us about religion? In this course, we will consider what Japanese religions are (and are not) by looking at their representations in popular cultural forms of past and present. Sources are drawn from a range of popular cultural forms including anime and manga, but also literature, artistic performances, visual arts, and live-action movies. The course covers foundational aspects of Japanese religious life through non-traditional sources like Bleach, The Tale of Genji, and Your Name. At the end of the course, students will be able to speak to the great diversity of religious practices and viewpoints in Japan, not only its centers but also its peripheries and minorities. Meanwhile, we will consider broader questions about the complex connections between religion and popular culture. No prior knowledge of Buddhism, Shinto, or Japanese history is expected. Bruce Winkelman

DVPR 35840 – Philosophical Approaches to Peace of Mind: The Zhuangzi in Dialogue

Philosophical activity across cultures and times has been closely associated with the management of affective states. One common goal is to minimize negative emotions by changing how events are interpreted and appraised. This course will focus on three strategies that appear across different traditions. The first argues that events are outside of our control, in some cases appealing to fate but in other cases appealing to chance. The second strategy is a skeptical approach that attacks our ability to judge any event as bad or good. The third strategy undermines the ontological status of the kinds of things we become attached to, either by rejecting the ultimate reality of individual substances or arguing that diverse things form a single whole. All of these strategies appear prominently in the classical Chinese text the Zhuangzi. The core of this course will consist of a close reading of parts of the Zhuangzi, considering these strategies as they intersect with and shed light on its various philosophies. We will also read in a comparative context. The other traditions used will be guided by student interest, but the most likely choices would be Stoicism and Epicureanism (for the first strategy), Sextus Empiricus (for the second), and arguments appearing South Asian Buddhist philosophies (for the third). Aside from better understanding the Zhuangzi, the goal of the course is to consider how similar strategies function in significantly different cultural contexts. Frank Perkins, Visiting Professor in Divinity

Equivalent Div Course(s): HREL 35840, RLST 25840

Spring 2024

DVPR 43200 – Indian Philosophy of Language

In this course, we will consider representative topics and thinkers in the history of Indian philosophy, with a particular focus on developments in the latter half of the first millennium. PQ: This class presupposes some philosophical understanding, as well as some acquaintance with South Asian intellectual history. Daniel A. Arnold and Andrew Ollett

HREL 34600 – Buddhist Meditation: Tradition, Transformation, Modernization

From the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta of the Pāli canon to the “mindfulness” boom of recent years, Buddhism and meditation often appear inseparable. The aim of this seminar is to historicize and critically question this seemingly natural intimacy, for while it certainly cannot be denied that the various Buddhist traditions have always had on offer a plethora of techniques for mental (and physical) cultivation, it is far from clear how or even if all these could be subsumed under the in its current usage relatively recent category of “meditation”. Drawing on Buddhist meditation literature from various traditions, historical periods, and literary genre, in this seminar we will take up a twofold question: First, how has the encounter with Buddhist techniques of cultivation shaped the modern understanding of “meditation”, and second, up to which extend, and at what cost, has this very modern understanding conversely conditioned us to see Buddhism as a “meditative religion” par excellence? Stephan Licha

Equivalent Div Course(s): RLST 24600

RLST 21702 – Buddhist Thought in Japan

In this seminar we will explore the intellectual history and social contexts of fundamental motifs of Buddhist thought in, especially but not exclusively, premodern Japan. Eschewing narrow sectarian boundaries, we will focus on the four traditions of the Lotus sūtra, the Pure Land, the tantric teachings and Zen construed inclusively as trans-sectarian sources of religious meaning and models of cultivation. Building on an initial exploration of the wider East Asian context of Japanese Buddhism, we will deepen our understanding of these four traditions through a careful examination of primary sources in translation. The course will also incorporate field trips to Japanese Buddhist groups in the Chicago area. Stephan Licha

RLST 22100 – Introduction to Zen Buddhism

This course will consist of the close reading and discussion of primary texts (in translation) of the Chan and Zen Buddhism of China and Japan, with a few secondary descriptions of Zen institutions and cultural influences. This will be done both with an eye to the historical development of these schools of thought and practice within the context of East Asian Buddhism in general, and for whatever transhistorical valences we care to derive from the texts. Course Note: This course counts as a Gateway course for RLST majors/minors. Brook Ziporyn

Equivalent Div Course(s): DVPR 32100, HREL 32100


DVPR 34300 – Buddhist Poetry in India

The substantial Buddhist contribution to Indian poetry is of interest for what it teaches us of both Buddhism and the broad development of Indian literature. The present course will focus upon three phases in this history, with attention to what changes of language and literary genre tell us of the transformations of Indian religious culture from the last centuries B.C.E. to about the year 1000. Readings (all in translation) will include the Therīgāthā, a collection of verses written in Pali and the most ancient Indian example of womens’ literature, selections from the work of the great Sanskrit poets Aśvaghoṣa, Āryaśūra, and Mātṛceta, and the mystical songs, in the Apabhraṃśa language, of the Buddhist tantric saints. PQ: General knowledge of Buddhism is desirable. Matthew Kapstein

DVPR 34350 – Introduction to Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit

Complementing the course on Buddhist Poetry in India, we will be reading a celebrated verse scripture, the Prajñā-pāramitā-ratnaguṇa-sañcaya-gāthā (“Verses Gathering the Jewel-like Qualities of the Perfection of Wisdom”) in both its Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit original and its Tibetan translation. (Students are required to have had at least two years of either Sanskrit or Tibetan – it will not be necessary to do both.) Those wishing to take the course for Sanskrit credit should enroll in SALC. PQ: Students must have had two years of Tibetan OR Sanskrit. Course Note: This course is open to undergrads ONLY by petition. Matthew Kapstein

HREL 34441 – Theravada Buddhism: History and Philosophy

This course studies the history and philosophy of Theravada Buddhism in India and other Southeast Asia countries. We first introduce the life of the Buddha and his major teachings within the context of the social and cultural environments in which Buddhism emerged about 2500 years ago. Having thus grasped some fundamental knowledge on Buddhism based on Pali texts, we then embark on examining its philosophical and historical developments from primitive Buddhism to sectarian Buddhism, and to the ramification of Theravada Buddhism in various countries such as Sri Lanka and Thai Land throughout its long history. Towards the end of the quarter, the class briefly discusses the revival of Theravada Buddhism in Indian in connection with the arising of Protestant Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the early 20th century. It is hoped that students having completed this course will be equipped with sufficient knowledge on general history, major philosophy and outstanding cultural tradition of Theravada Buddhism. Yu Xue

Equivalent Div Course(s): RLST 20441

HREL 36265 – Comparative Study of Humanistic Buddhism and Engaged Buddhism

This course is designed for students who would like to explore further social philosophy and implication of Humanistic Buddhism and Engaged Buddhism, the two mainstreams of Buddhist development in modern world. We first examine historical background for the arising of Humanistic Buddhism from Mahayana tradition in China and Buddhist revivalism or Protestant Buddhism, the forerunner of Engaged Buddhism in Sri Lanka almost simultaneously at the beginning of 20th century, and their subsequent developments respectively. Having then briefly reviewed some prominent figures such as Taixu (1898-1947), Dhammapala (1864-1933), and their major advocates, we undertake thorough comparative studies of the two Buddhisms by exploring several topics, including modern education and science, environment and ecology, human rights and feminism, politics and violence, suffering and happiness, and others. While discussing these topics, we also examine how Buddhism has transformed itself from the religion of other world to that of this world, how Buddhists have reinterpreted Buddhism in order to fit the idea and practice of modernity, an how new cultures have thus been recreated to cater for the needs of contemporary life both in the East and West. Toward the end of the quarter, discussion may be extended to compare other new religious movements so that students may have a broader vision on religions and their social advocates in contemporary world. PQ: Some knowledge on the general history and basic philosophy of Buddhism. Yu Xue

RLST 22100 – Introduction to Zen Buddhism

This course will consist of the close reading and discussion of primary texts (in translation) of the Chan Buddhism of China and Zen Buddhism of Japan (禪宗–more commonly known in Engish by the Japanese name, Zen), supplemented by secondary readings on Zen institutions and cultural influences. As our foundation, we will be begin with an overview of basic Buddhist tenets, and then work through key Mahāyāna ideas and sūtra passages, focusing on the ideas of Emptiness, Buddha-nature, and Mind-only. Then we will turn to the unique syntheses of these ideas in the early Chan movement in medieval China and their various deployments in the contending interpretations and methodologies of later Chan and Zen, including the Platform Sutra of Huineng, the kōan (Ch: gong-an) literature of the Song dynasty, and the essays of Dōgen. This will be done both with an eye to the historical development of these schools of thought and practice within the context of East Asian Buddhism in general, and for whatever transhistorical philosophical and religious valences we care to derive from the texts. All readings will be in English. Course Note: This course counts as a Gateway course for RLST majors/minors. Brook Ziporyn

RLST 26101 – Buddhism (undergrads only)

This course will survey central features of the Buddhist traditions in South, Central, and East Asia, over its roughly 2500-year history. Attention will be paid to the variety of disciplinary orientations (historical, philological, anthropological, sociological, economic, archaeological, philosophical) that may be taken to illuminate various aspects of the traditions. Consideration will also be given to the globalization of Buddhism since the late nineteenth century, and the concurrent rise of distinctive Buddhist responses to modernity and the modern/academic study of Buddhism. Christian Wedemeyer

Winter 2022

HREL 38219 – Understanding Buddhism through Meditation

Meditation is one of core practices in Buddhism and it has now become popularized worldwide. This course studies succinct theories and systematic practices of Buddhist meditation based on both Theravada and Mahayana texts and traditions. In general, the course is divided into 4 parts. 1. Theories and practices of meditation in Pali texts and Theravada tradition—we examine idea and practice of Samadha and Vipassana mainly based on the Satipatthana Sutta and Visuddhimagga; 2. Chinese Texts and Chan/Zen Buddhism—Mohe Zhiguan (摩訶止觀)—The Great Concentration and Contemplation, and the Platform Sutra, two of the most important texts in Chinese Buddhism will be read and discussed; the influence of Daoist meditation such as breathing technique on Buddhism will be examined to show how Buddhist practice of meditation underwent the process of sinicization; 3. Scientific studies and understanding of Buddhist meditation, and dialogue between Buddhist meditation and science—we read and discuss research papers and experimental reports on mediation practice by modern scholars through neuroscience and psychotherapy in the West. A special attention is paid to the discussion on the Western derivatives of Buddhist meditation for different purposes other than the final enlightenment of Buddhism, and on arising of variety of meditation practices such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM), Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). And 4. Meditation session—the course instructor or meditation masters will provide instructions for students to practice meditation based on theories and methods discussed in the class and through readings. Having completed the course, students are expected to grasp not only the fundamental idea but also basic techniques of Buddhist meditation either for their physical relaxation or mental development. PQ: Some basic knowledge of Buddhism recommended. Yu Xue

RETH 59903 – Modern Indian Political and Legal Thought

India has made important contributions to political and legal thought, most of which are too little-known in the West.  These contributions draw on ancient traditions, Hindu and Buddhist, but transform them, often radically, to fit the needs of an anti-imperial nation aspiring to inclusiveness and equality.  We will study the thought of Rabindranath Tagore (Nationalism, The Religion of Man, selected literary works); Mohandas Gandhi (Hind Swaraj (Indian Self-Rule), Autobiography, and selected speeches); B. R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution (The Annihilation of Caste, The Buddha and his Dhamma, and selected speeches and interventions in the Constituent Assembly); and, most recently, Amartya Sen, whose The Idea of Justice is rooted, as he describes, both in ancient Indian traditions and in the thought of Tagore. Course Note: Students not from Law or Philosophy need instructor’s permission.  Undergraduates are not eligible. Martha Nussbaum

RLST 23905 – Is Buddhism a Religion? (undergrads only)

One often hears it said that Buddhism is not a religion, it is (e.g.) a “mind science,” or perhaps a therapy, or a philosophical way of life, etc. What would it mean, though, to say either that Buddhism is or is not a “religion”? Why does the answer matter, and (more significantly) to whom does it matter? And why is the question familiarly asked only of Buddhism? The latter question turns out to involve a great many historical developments involving colonialism and empire, power and representation, science and religion, tradition and conversion, and the life of a 2,500-year-old tradition in the modern and postmodern worlds. Engaging something of this history, this course will explore the origins and function of the “Buddhism isn’t a religion” meme, in light of the more general questions of what “religion” is anyway, and of the difference it makes who says so. Daniel Arnold

RLST 26160 – Art and Religion in South Asia (undergrads only)

This course is an introduction to religion and art in South Asia (comprised of the modern nation states of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka). The course material covers Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, and Islamic architecture, sculpture, painting, and performing arts. The course examines the ways in which art is related to myth and symbol, religious values and goals, ritual, religious experience, and social and political realities. Sarah Pierce Taylor

RLST 27391 – Pirates, Saints, and Rebels: Religions of the Indian Ocean (undergrads only)

In this course we will set sail with pirates, saints, slaves, merchants, rebels, missionaries, and deities of the wind and water to explore the transnational religious networks of the Indian Ocean. Orienting ourselves around moments of encounter, translation, circulation, and exchange between Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and indigenous traditions will allow us to reassess how traveling religious texts, objects, ideas, and the people who carried them interact between geographical areas typically considered in isolation. Beginning with late antiquity and the medieval period, we will investigate how religious networks were formed and mobilized between the coastal regions of South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern and Southern Africa, continuing through the age of exploration and imperial expansion to the present day. We will analyze the relationship between religion and colonial power, and examine how colonial technologies of travel and communication both enabled the expansion of empire and provided the tools for grassroots resistance. Francesca Chubb-Confer


DVPR 48790 – Chinese Responses to Christianity in the Ming Dynasty

This course will focus on close readings of primary texts in Chinese concerning the polemics around the introduction of Christianity into China in the Ming Dynasty, starting with Matteo Ricci’s introduction of Catholic doctrine in his 天主實義 and the polemical responses to it from mainly Confucian and Buddhist authors, with special attention to the metaphysical premises of the conflicting traditions, and more generally what might be at stake in them. PQ: Reading proficiency in Chinese. Course Note: Undergraduates can petition to enroll. Brook Ziporyn

RLVC 37490 – Art as Buddhism in Ancient India: Explorations in the Stupa of Amaravati and Other Monuments

This course will examine the visual construction of early Buddhism in India, focusing in particular on stūpas and especially on the art of the great stūpa (mahachaitya) at Amarāvatī in Andhra Pradesh. We will examine questions of Buddhology, of the diversity and range of conversations within early Buddhism, leading to the rise of the Mahāyāna, in relation to the visualization of Buddhist theory and narrative in the extensive and extraordinary decorations of the major sites. The course will introduce those taking it to the rich visual, material and epigraphic culture of the Buddhist stūpas as well as the vibrant textual world of Indian Buddhist writing – from stories to suttas to commentaries. Students will have the opportunity to develop their own final papers in relation to this material or comparatively with other material in which they also retain an interest (not necessarily only Buddhist). If the course is taught in person, depending on the Covid situation in Spring 2022, then it is likely to be on a speeded up twice per week basis over the first half of the quarter. Jaś Elsner

RLST 27305 – Haj to Utopia: Race, Religion, and Revolution in South Asian America (undergrads only)

With the election of Kamala Harris to the office of Vice President in the 2020 election, it would appear that Americans of South Asian descent find themselves nearer than ever to the center of U.S. political power. But what if one narrated the history of South Asian Americans not according to their inevitable embrace of imperialist politics, economic and cultural capital, but as fraught subjects of a settler colonial regime? What are the alternative futures, of life, love, and liberation, imagined by transnational revolutionaries? How does the politics of immigrant identity operate at the nexus of race and caste? How does religion index race in the eyes of the surveillance state? How do South Asian histories of migration prefigure the mass displacements, border enforcements, and unequal labor conditions that have defined the politics of globalization in the 21st century? Anand Venkatkrishnan

RLST 27723 – Health, Healing, and Religion in East Asia (undergrads only)

This course will consider the intersections between health, healing, and primarily non-Abrahamic religions across East Asia. By reading about, considering, and analyzing conceptions of health and associated healing methods, you will develop the ability to better understand the medical and religious traditions of peoples in East Asia. You will learn to makes sense of religious features such as ritual, spells, pilgrimage, and meditation, including various ways that healers instill calm and confidence in those they treat. These religious features appear strongly in some medical instances, and subtly in “non-religious” medical and psychological contexts. We will compare and contrast these features in the East Asian context and reflect upon their implications for healthcare in the U.S.A. today. H.S. Sum Cheuk Shing