Friday, September 14, 2012


I stumbled on the lecture notes by Professor Malcolm David Eckel, Ph.D. an Associate Professor of Religion in Boston University. I found his lecture notes enlightening and current. I will be posting fragments of his lectures here.
The lecture is a survey of the history of Buddhism from its origin in India in the sixth century B.C.E. to contemporary times in America. The course 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 lecture begins by exploring the religious and cultural world of the Buddha in ancient India. To understand the Buddha’s contribution to the religious history of the world, it is important to know the problems he inherited and the options that were available to him to solve them. In ancient India, before the time of the Buddha, these problems were expressed in the Vedas, the body of classical Hindu scriptures. The Vedas introduce us to scholars and ritual specialists who searched for the knowledge that would free them from the cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddha inherited this quest for knowledge and directed it to his own distinctive ends.
Born as Siddhartha Gautama into a princely family in northern India about 566 B.C.E., the Buddha left his father’s palace and took up the life of an Indian ascetic. The key moment in his career came after years of difficult struggle, when 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, gathering a group of disciples and establishing a pattern of discipline that became the foundation of the Buddhist community. 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 quietly from the cycle of death and rebirth.
After the Buddha’s death, attention shifted from the Buddha himself to the teachings and moral principles embodied in his Dharma. Monks gathered to recite his teachings 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. Monks also developed patterns of worship and artistic expression that helped convey the experience of the Buddha in ritual and art.
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 (“Tradition of the Elders”) Buddhism 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 Burma.
The Indian tradition was radically transformed by two major new movements. The first was known as the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”); the second, as Tantra or the Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle”). The Mahayana preached the ideal of the bodhisattva who postpones nirvana to help others escape the cycle of rebirth. Tantra developed a vivid and emotionally powerful method to achieve liberation in this life.
Buddhism entered Tibet in the seventh 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 fourteenth Dalai Lama carries Buddhist teaching around the world.
Buddhism entered China in the second century of the common era, at a time when the Chinese people had became 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. Buddhism took on a distinctively Chinese character, becoming more respectful of duties to the family and the ancestors, more pragmatic and this-worldly, 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.
Buddhism entered Japan in the sixth century of the common era and soon became 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 (1133–1212), Shinran (1173–1262), and Nichiren (1222–1282) brought a powerful new vision of Buddhism to the masses, The Kamakura Period also saw a series of brilliant Zen masters who gave new life to the ancient tradition of Buddhist meditation.
Since the end of the nineteenth century, Buddhism has become a respected part of life in countries far beyond the traditional home of Buddhism in Asia. The teaching that began on the plains of India 2,500 years ago has now been transformed in ways that would once have been unimaginable, but it still carries the feeling of serenity and freedom that we sense in the image of the Buddha himself.
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