Suggested Topics for Final Paper, REL 407/507 Buddhist Women

Due Tuesday, June 6, 2006, in class.

I also strongly encourage you to read the essays on my "Writing Papers" web pages, especially "Four Keys to Writing in the Humanities," "Paper Writing Guidelines," "Checklist for Papers," and "Writing: The Bridge between Consciousness and Unconsciousness."


Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life

1 & 2. Etty Hillesum in a sense chose to be multidimensional: to live and work with the Jewish people in Amsterdam and Westerbork yet continue to work towards her dream of becoming a writer and a scholar; to enter the realm of intense spiritual inquiry while affirming her identity as a woman, a sexual being, and a human being with diverse intellectual interests. Her early death leaves us with a mystery as to the ultimate destiny of her life. Choose one of the following topics in relation to these circumstances: a) Discuss the ways in which she did or did not resolve the possible tension between these diverse elements while she was alive. Was there a tension at all? If so, how did her spiritual transformation influence this? b) Provide additional autobiographical narrative or journal entries that might reflect her further journeys had she lived. Be sure to document your paper with quotations and page references regardless of whether you choose do a) or b)

3 & 4. Before the war, Etty Hillesum was a talented, well-educated, upper middle-class woman. In the short span of two years during which she kept her diaries, she underwent a profound transformation. Choose one of the following topics: a) Identify three turning points in her spiritual development and discuss their significance. You might want to examine them in relation to the changes in her inner and outer lives, or you might elaborate upon her relationship to key figures in her life. b) Imagine that you are a woman who comes to know her through correspondences. Provide a series of letters that reflect your understanding of who she was and possibly who you are. (You may but are not required to draw upon the second half of the volume we read for the course, Letters from Westerbord). Be sure to document your paper with quotations and page references regardless of whether you choose do a) or b)


Natalie Goldberg

5. Compose a commentary by Natalie Goldberg about the Goddess in the Vimalakirti Sutra, discussing 1) the Goddess's lessons for Sariputra and other Buddhists as a woman, and 2) who created the Goddess as a literary figure. Was it a man, a woman, the Buddha, emptiness?

6. Compose a dialogue between Natalie Goldberg and Etty Hillesum on the relation between the spiritual life and religious traditions. To what extent is religious tradition important for one's own spiritual development, and to what extent is it a hindrance? Can one's experience or fidelity to a single religious tradition open one up to appreciate and integrate diverse religious understandings? Did being a woman play a role in their understanding of how to grapple with diverse religions? Be sure to provide quotations and/or textual references to substantiate the ideas you attribute to these women.


Alice Walker, The Color Purple

7. What is the view of spirituality articulated by Walker in The Color Purple through the eyes of the main character Celie? Either a) add one to three pages of commentary by one of the Buddhist authors from the course at the end of the discussion, or b) devote a section of your paper to a comparison with the Buddhist views of one of the authors from the course.

8. Discuss the spiritual lives of two characters, Celie and Shug. How do they differ at the beginning, what are the different kinds of love they share, and what understanding do they develop of one another as the story progresses?


9. Take any one author and discuss the balance of passion and compassion in her life and thought. How is her passion for justice tempered by her compassion? How is her erotic passion related to her compassion? Is there a moment in which her passion for justice, erotic passion, and compassion come together in a seamless whole? If so, how do they come together. If not, how might they eventually be brought together. Or will their always be some tension between the three? If so, why?

10. Analyze the life of one of the figures we studied as if it were a piece of music: a symphony, concerto, jazz improvisation. Identify themes, variations, silences and climax (spiritual experiences) , movements, and primary melodies and secondary harmonies. Devote one page at the end describing how this musical analogy helps one to understand the significance of mystical experiences in relation to the problem of death, love, and meaning. You may want to choose a specific musical composition as the matrix for your account, such as Beethoven's Appassionata or Miles Davis' So What.

11. Choose any two authors we read and compare their understandings of the relationship between spirituality, sexuality, and oppression/bias based on gender. In doing so, identify the common concerns they share, the significant differences in their method and understanding, and the possible ways in which their differences in similarity illuminate one another. Some themes you might examine in pursuing this topic are the relationships between: immanence and transcendence, adaptation and confrontation, self-transformation and social transformation, experience and ideology.

12. Select any one author and examine the levels of understanding operative in her discourse: intellectual, intuitive, affective, and somatic. How might these levels be related to one another? Is there a hierarchy of understanding? Do they move in and out of one another fluidly? Are there progressive stages of development as seen, for example, in such figures as Etty Hillesum and Celie in The Color Purple?