Review of the some of the central themes from the first two weeks.
The approach for this course involves the following:
1. Classical approach to Buddhist scriptures: Tripitaka - Three
Baskets of Sacred Literature: Sutra, Sastra, Vinaya
2. Scholarly questions about 'What is scripture?'
Christian-Buddhist comparisons such as Gospels vs. Sutras; divine
revelation vs forbidden documents (early Buddhism).
Doctrine vs. Narrative: How do religious ideas relate to
3. Transformations over time: Sutta -> Sutra -> India, China,
Japan -> Western culture and contemporary Buddhist accounts. This
course begins with a sampling of sutta and sutra literatures
in particular. In terms of tracing literary developments over time,
examples from Zen and Pure Land traditions are presented as case
4. Basic Teachings:
Nikaya Buddhism (early Buddhism): 4 Noble
Truths; 3 Marks of Existence; Interdependent Co-origination
Mahayana Buddhism (1-2 century A.D. onwards): Two-fold truth (conventional
& highest, form & emptiness); Bodhisattva Ideal
5. Indian Mahayana Sutras: In Weeks 1 & 2, this course samples
Mahayana Sutras that are usually given an Indian provenance, as
opposed to those that were clearly developed in other Mahayana
cultures, such as China and Korea. Although there are strands of
religious thought that develop around sutra clusters in Indian
Mahayana literature, schools and sects are not
solidified until Chinese, and especially Japanese developments, as far
as East Asia is concerned. Specific schools/sects identify a single or
a cluster of sutras as authoritative:
China and Japan: (Ch.) Huayan and (Jpn.)
Kegon: Avatamsaka Sutra;
Chan/Zen: disavows sutras but creates own "Saying of the Masters" genre
(Ch. yulu, Jpn. goroku) and even one 'sutra': The
Platform Sutra of Hui-neng.
China: Sanlun (Emptiness School): Wisdom sutras, including Heart
Sutra; Tiantai - Lotus Sutra.
Japan: Pure Land: Three Pure Land Sutras.
Week 1: Basic Buddhist Categories; Nagarjuna and the Two-Fold
Truth; Heart Sutra and Vimalakirti Sutra
- For those new to the study of Buddhism, Peter Harvey's Introduction
gives basic background, categories, and concepts
- Nagarjuna is the first Mahayana philosopher, who articulated the
- The Heart Sutra, derived from the group of Wisdom sutras in
Sanskrit, is the most commonly recited sutra in East Asia, and its
primary refrain is: "Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form." It may
have been compiled in China, according to Jan Nattier. The Wisdom sutras
become the scriptural authority for the Emptiness school in China
(San-lun, literally "Three Treatises [of Nagarjuna]).
Week 2: Avatamsaka Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Narratives
involving Devadatta, Ajatasatru, women, and gender
- The Avatamsaka Sutra (Ch. Huayan Jing; Jpn. Kegon-kyo)
become the basis for the Chinese and Japanese Huayan and Kegon
schools/sects. Its central deity is the cosmic Sun Buddha,
Mahavairocana. It's predominant theme is the cosmic brilliance of the
light of awakening, and in the section called the "Gandavyuha," which
was originally likely an independent sutra, the bodhisattva journey of
the seeker Sudhana, who goes to visit 52 teachers, later adapted to the
52 stages of bodhisattvahood.
- The Lotus Sutra becomes the central scripture of the
Chinese and Japanese Tiantai and Tendai schools/sects. Its central deity
is Sakyamuni Buddha although in this case, he is depicted is having a
very long life, nearly eternal in scope, and so quite different from the
historical Buddha of the early Nikaya literature. Two key features of
the Lotus Sutra are: a) emphasis on upaya-kausalya (Ch.
fangbian; Jpn. hoben), skillful means, or the
Buddha's ability to adapt the teachings according to the varying
capacities and limitations of the student, and b) its self-referential
nature, in which the Lotus Sutra touts itself as the supreme
scripture and teaching. The parable of the burning house is often cited
as an example of upaya from the Lotus Sutra, sometimes
viewed problematically, as an means (lie) that justifies the end (save
Week 3: Pure Land Sutras and Shandao's Commentary,
Chinese Philosophical Schools referring back to Wisdom
Sutras, Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka
Guiding Questions for Week 3:
- In The Three Pure Land Sutras, Inagaki presents an
outline of the sutras, and excerpts from his translations are included
in the present course, along with a discussion of the work Shan-tao,
the Chinese Pure Land master who also became central to the
development of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. Who or what is Amida
(Amitabha/Amitayus) and his Original Vow? What is the Pure Land
(Sukhavati)? What roles do the figures of Devadatta and Ajatasatru
- In the article "Chinese Philosophical Schools," T. Unno discusses
three schools of Chinese Buddhism that developed out of Indian
Mahayana Buddhism. Can you identify which sutra or sutras each school
is associated with? All three schools, being Mahayana, are based on
the two-fold truth of conventional and highest truth, form and
emptiness. Yet, each one interprets the two-fold truth differently. In
the article, these schools are represented by three key "masters" of
each tradition: Chi-ts'ang of the San-lun (Emptiness) school; Chih-yi
of the T'ian-t'ai school; and Fa-ts'ang of the Hua-yen. What is one
key point of each that differentiates his interpretation from that of
the other two?
Review and Additional Points for Week 3:
- In Weeks 2 and 3, we were introduced to key sutras from Indian
Mahayana literature, and we began to see how individual sutras and
clusters of sutras became authoritative for different schools (see
above, right before "Week 1". There were a variety of reasons for
selecting key sutras as authoritative, not always philosophical or
ideological. For example, we saw with the Tiantai master Zhih-yi that,
although the main sutra was the Lotus, one of his key
practices pertained to the Buddha Amitabha, leading the practitioner
from the most basic meditation on Amitabha in the seated posture
through progressive stages of integrating all aspects of life, until
the meditation on 'neither sitting nor walking' signified the stage of
contemplative practice free from any fixed ritual forms.
- The Mahayana sutras expressed themselves on a cosmic scale, to
indicate the all-encompassing nature of key Mahayana concepts such as
the two-fold truth and the bodhisattva ideal. Thus, emptiness is a
cosmic emptiness/oneness, and the bodhisattva ideal becomes a kind of
endless unfolding of the religious path, where the self becomes
identified with the flow of emptiness/oneness that encompasses all
- One of the theories we did not discuss in class, that may be helpful
in understanding this cosmic dimension is the theory of the three
buddha-bodies (trikaya), in which there are three levels of
the buddha-body described: nirmanakaya (transformation
body), sambhogakaya (bliss body), and dharmakaya (dharma
body). The nirmanakaya is the visible, physical, earthly,
human body, which is subject to change and transformation: birth,
growth, decay, death. The sambhogakaya is the blissful body
that radiates the subtle energy of the buddhas' wisdom and compassion;
it can be visualized in meditation, in the form of such buddhas as
Amitabha (Infinite Light), Mahavairocana (Great Sun), and
Bhaijasyaguru (Medicine Guru), but it can also be sensed, felt, and
heard, like the warmth of a person's smile, voice, or personality,
which is manifested through the physical body but cannot be directly
perceived with the senses. The dharmakaya is the
ultimate buddha-body, formless, and virtually equivalent to cosmic
emptiness/oneness. The other two bodies belong to the realm of form;
through these forms, one can gain access to the dharmakaya, the
- Upaya or skillful means is found throughout Mahayana
Buddhism, as we have seen in such sutras as the Vimalakirti and
Pure Land sutras. One of the most famous episodes of upaya
is the parable of the burning house in the Lotus Sutra. In
this episode, toys are used to lead children out of a burning house,
where the toys are metaphors for upaya and the father the
Buddha. A question was raised in class as to whether this was a white
lie, a case of the end justifying a morally ambiguous means. That may
in fact be the case. Are there other possibilities?
For example, what about the deity in Vimalakirti
taking on the form of a woman even though in emptiness 'there
is neither male nor female,' and the manifestation of men and women is
like a magical illusion? In this line of thinking, all upaya are
necessary fictions, since emptiness cannot be accurately represented
by any form, even though form is inseparable from emptiness. As such
as, this can be seen as a shift in the registers of perception, where
it is more an issue of indirect vs direct expression
rather than true vs false. An analogy may be
drawn with the presentation of a love poem. A man writes a love poem
on a card and gives it to his lover. The card, the words of the poem,
and his reading the poem are all expressions of his love, yet the love
itself, 'beyond words' in a sense, cannot be found by dissecting the
card, words on the page, or in the profession of love, represented by
the reading of the poem by the man.
- Textual Interpretation. One of the things to keep in mind in reading
these texts as that there may not be one right way to interpret them.
In fact, they have been interpreted in many ways by many people in
history. As we saw in the case of the visualization of the Pure Land,
some have taken it as upaya (Shan-tao, Honen), others as
transcendent reality (those who commited suicide by drowning to reach
the Pure Land more quickly.) Likewise, there are those who have both
used and abused the parable of the burning house from the Lotus
Sutra; as the end justifying their own self-serving needs, and
as a more sophisticated rendering of upaya.
Week 4: The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirt; Early Chan/Zen
Buddhism and the Problem of Scripture
- The Vimalakirti Sutra (Skt. Vimalakirti-nirdesa-sutra
(The Sutra of the Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti), and Indian
Mahayana scripture, is related to the Wisdom sutras in its emphasis on
form and emptiness. It features a) a layman as protagonist, the
merchant and family man Vimalakirti, and b) the bodhisattva ideal, as
represented by Vimalakirti and others. The "Goddess" chapter clearly
focuses on the two-fold truth, especially in relation to a) the
'emptiness' of religious doctrine, and b) the 'emptiness' of
- Heinrich Dumoulin, The History of Zen Buddhism. This
introduces the early legends and history of the founding of Chan/Zen
(Chan is Chinese; Zen is the Japanese reading for the same character),
in particular the founder, Bodhidharma, a mysterious, semi-legendary
figure to this day. Two exchanges in particular in this short reading
you should focus on: Bodhidharma's dialogue with Emperor Wu, and his
transmission of the Dharma to his disciple Hui-k'o.
- John McCrae, Shen-hui and the Teaching of Sudden Enlightenment.
This provides historical and ideological background on the Platform
Sutra of Hui-neng.
- The Platform Sutra of Hui-neng. Hui-neng is the sixth
generation Zen master (Chan master) since the founder Bodhidharma.
This is the only work given the status of a sutra in the Zen
tradition, which instead emphasizes "A teaching outside the
scriptures; transmitted from mind to mind; directly pointing to the
nature of mind." McCrae suspects that Hui-neng is at least partially a
creation of Shen-hui, who is presented as Hui-neng's disciple. Notice
that Hui-neng is an illiterate layman, a woodcutter, and is only
allowed into the temple as a laborer or servant. Key passages include
the exchange of poems that occurs when the Fifth Patriarch Hung-jen
asks for a poem of enlightenment so that he can name a successor; the
key distinction between Sudden and Gradual Enlightenment; Hung-jen's
transmission of the Dharma to Hui-neng, symbolized by the tranfer of
his robe and begging bowl; and Hui-neng going into hiding for three
years, to later emerge as the Sixth Patriarch.
- Themes shared between early Daoism (e.g. Zhuangzi) and early
Chan/Zen Buddhist figures such as Bodhidharma and Hui-neng: nature,
simplicity, intuition, spontaneity, language skepticism; iconoclastic;
anti-establishment; individualistic; embodiment. In particular, both
the stories of Bodhidharma's transmission of the seal of awakening to
Hui-k'o (who bows) and Hui-neng (who is the illiterate woodcutter)
signify the Chan/Zen emphasis on embodiment over explanation,
living the Dharma over talking about it.
Week 5: Zen Master Dogen
- What are some features and religious ideas that carry over from
earlier reading, Indian Mahayana Buddhism as well as Chinese
Philosphical Schools? What seem different or distinctive of Chan/Zen
- What are similarities between Bodhidharma and Hui-neng; what are
- Key words to consider: nature, intuition, spontaneity, language
skepticism; embodiment; iconoclastic; anti-establishment;
- During this three-week period, we are looking at the work of three
Japanese Buddhist contemporaries: Myoe (11173-1232), Dogen
(1200-1253), and Shinran (1173-1262), the latter two who would go on
to be regarded as the founders of the two largest sects of Japanese
Buddhism, Soto Zen and Jodo Shinshu, known as Shin Buddhism in
- In terms of Buddhist scriptures, note how Dogen in his writings
picks up the theme of Sudden Awakening enunciated earlier in the Platform
Sutra of Hui-neng, especially in the "Genjokoan" reading.
- The Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Eye of the Dharma)
is the most famous work by Dogen. We are reading two chapters
(fascicles) from this work. The "Genjokoan" chapter is the most famous
is often referenced as expressing the core of his understanding. Here
are some notes on this chapter: "Genjokoan"
may also find notes on Sudden Awakening, Dogen, and Shinran from my
other class, REL
444/544 Medieval Japanese Buddhism, to be helpful.
Week 6: Shinran and Shin Buddhism
- Examine throughout the readings to see the continuation of themes
from early Chan/Zen Buddhism, such as not relying on sutras, but then
using sutras and other scriptural sources. What counts as scripture,
and what is scripture in Dogen?
- Look for continuation of Daoist influences in Dogen, and elements
that are distinctly not Daoist-flavored. Daoism and Zen Buddhism,
emphasize embodiment in specific ways. Can scripture be inscribed in
- Refining Your Life by Uchiyama is based on Dogen's Tenzo
kyokun, instructions for the Zen cook. What are the
implications of this work as Buddhist scripture, historically in
relation to Indian Mahayana, to Daoism, and to the development of
- What are some of the assumptions concerning gender at work in the
Ruch and Meeks readings?
- M. Unno, "The Nembutsu of No-Meaning and the Problem of Genres."
This work examines the different genres of Buddhist scriptures in
which Shinran, the founding figure of Shin Buddhism, composed his
works. Notice how many different genres of Buddhist scriptures there
are. In particular, this article highlights the significance of
letters and records of Shinran's statements, of which the Tannisho,
compiled by his follower Yuien, is featured. The Tannisho
is the most widely read and translated work of Japanese Buddhism.
- Taitetsu Unno, trans., Tannisho-A Shin Buddhist Classic.
This work is divided into two parts: Sections I-X, XI-XVIII plus
Epilogue. The former purportedly present verbatim statements by
Shinran. The latter contains some direct statements by Shinran but
consists primarily of commentary by his follower Yuien. Note in
particular sections I, II, III, X, XIII, IV, and VIII. Some of the key
terminology is explained in the "Afterword."
- M. Unno, "The Nembutsu as the Path of the Sudden Teaching." This
continues the discussion of Sudden Awakening versus Gradual Awakening
that originated with the Platform Sutra.
Week 7: Natalie Goldberg, A Long Quiet Highway
- What themes can be traced from Week 3 (Three Pure Land Sutras
and Chih-yi's T'ien-t'ai school from "Chnese Philosophical Schools)
through Week 5 (Pure Land themes in sacred scritptures from Shingon
Refractions) to this week and Shinran's Shin Buddhism?
- What themes are shared between Shinran's Shin Buddhism and Dogen's
Zen Buddhism (single simple practice, rejection of corrupt Buddhism of
the dominant Tendai School, rejection of over-ritualistic Buddhism,
overly intellectualized Buddhism).
- What themes differ between Shinran's Shin Buddhism and Dogen's Zen
Buddhism (lay-centered Buddhism versus monasto-centric Buddhism;
emphasis on blind passions as entry point into Dharma versus pure
practice; egalitarianism versus awakened master).
Reading Guide and Guiding Questions:
- The readings for this week focus around women and gender in
Buddhism, in addition to broader themes covered earlier in the course,
each with its own emphases.
- Natalie Goldberg is a Western feminist woman, Jewish by background,
who studies with a Japanese Zen Master. Shosan Victoria Austin writes
about Suzuki Sensei, who expresses much of her Buddhist spirit through
her role as teacher of the Japanese Way of Tea as well as in role as
the wife of Suzuki Roshi, founder of San Francisco Zen Center, the
same center where Natalie Goldberg's teacher, Katagiri Roshi taught
before founding Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. Paula Arai writes
about Zen nuns at Aichi Convent in Japan. What are the specific
gender-related challenges faced by these women in their diverse
cultural and religious contexts? What are the assumptions behind the
model of selfhood at work in each persons' case? Can you relate the
challenges they face and the assumptions behind their models of
selfhood to earlier writings, both Buddhist scriptures and scholarly
- Natalie Goldberg's work focuses on her life as a Writer and her life
as a Zen Buddhist Practitioner. Her teacher Katagiri Roshi tells her
she must choose between them. Why does he force this choice? At the
end of the work, in mourning her teacher, she says that she would give
up writing if she could have "just one cup of tea" with him. What does
this mean? Isn't this attachment to her teacher? Does this provide any
insights regarding the status and function of Buddhist scriptures
specifically, or sacred scriptures more broadly?
- Turning points: We have seen examples of stories from diverse
Buddhist scriptures. In these stories or narratives, there are often
key turning points that carry religious or sacred significance. In the
narrative of A Long Quiet Highway, are there key turning
points that carry sacred significance? Other kinds of significance?
Week 8: Shinmon Aoki, Coffinman
Reading Guide and Guiding Questions:
- Shinmon Aoki is a mortifician serving an area where there are many
Shin Buddhists who follow the path of chanting the Nembutsu as laid
out by Shinran, whose sayings are recorded in the Tannisho (Week
7). In terms of socio-economic class distinctions, Aoki represents the
lowly and outcasts embraced by Shinran (toko no gerui no gotoku
warera nari - "We are lowly like hunters and peddlers.") Trace
this line of development and see how it does or does not relate to
early Pure Land scriptures such as the Contemplation Sutra.
- Infinite light (Amitabha) is a prominent theme throughout Coffinman
as well as in Pure Land tradition; trace this theme in terms of
- Turning points: Continuing from last week, what are some of the key
turning points in the narrative of Coffinman?
- Shinran and his wife Eshinni departed from the traditional Buddhist
monastic path by openly marrying and yet carrying on a partnership in
ministry. In departing from traditional monasticism yet continuing to
minister, Shinran describes himself as "neither monk nor layman." How
might this relate to Aoki, and what kind of light does this cast upon
the Shin Buddhist priests in his area?
- How does his view of LifeDeath (including the metaphor of mizore,
sleet) relate to the Mahayana notion of the two-fold truth?