REL 444/544 Fall 2015 Final Paper Topics

Final Paper due November 28 in class

* Double-spaced, 8-11 pages (12-15 for REL544). You may do one of the suggested topics or formulate one of your own. If you wish to do your own topic, then you must submit a one paragraph description by email at least one week prior to the due date. The instructor will review your topic for approval. You may proceed once you have received feedback.
* REL 444 Students: You are not required to do any outside research for the final paper. However, if you would like to use additional sources, you may do so. I would be happy to recommend some sources if you wish.
* REL 544 Students: You should write a research paper for your final project. Find at least one article or book chapter from related scholarship that illuminates the topic you would like to write on, and make at least two citations from that source.
* I encourage you to discuss these topics with one another.
* Be sure to write your name, the name of the class, and the title of your topic at the top of the page.
* Please read the essays on my Writing web pages, especially "Four Keys to Writing in the Humanities," "Paper Writing Guidelines," "Checklist for Papers," "Writing: The Bridge between Consciousness and Unconsciousness," "Clauses and Commas."


1. Coffinman. Coffinman is the story of a mortician named Shinmon Aoki whose work unexpectedly leads to a life of spiritual self-discovery. Discuss three key turning points in Aoki's journey in light of Shinran's religious thought. Be sure to discuss both the philosophical dimension of individual practice and spiritual cultivation and Shinran's social vision. Are there any ways in which Aoki's life does not conform to Shinran's Shin Buddhist thought? Hints: a) The main dynamic in Shinran's Shin Buddhist thought can be considered as occurring in the simultaneous realization of blind passion and boundless compassion, or foolish being and Amida Buddha as the awakening of infinite light. This is embodied in the chanting or saying of the Name, Namu Amida Butsu. This is Shinran's articulation of the two-fold truth. b) Shinran took the side of those who were considered by the "learned" elite monks as foolish and ignorant: peasants, fisherman, butchers, and the like.

2. Passages from The Tale of the Heike , Barbara Ruch's "The Other Side of Culture in Medieval Japan," and "Chapter 5: Gendered Power of Light" from Unno's Shingon Refractions contain discussions of the lives of Medieval Japanese Buddhist women. Create a dialogue among the women from these sources discussing the relation between individual spirituality, Buddhist institutions and society, and gender. Include both philosophical and social reflections that examine women and men's religious potential and social possibilities and limitations. Be sure to document your sources.

3. Gender and Buddhism. On the one hand, religious realization of enlightenment is often described in terms of internalizing what are seen as external faults and seeing them within oneself. On the other, various social issues including unequal treatment of women within Buddhist communities may require external changes in those communities. Discuss the relation between inner realization and external social or organizational change based on the findings of two or three scholars. What do these scholars say or imply about this relationship, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of their views?

4. Dogen and Uchiyama. Find three passages from Uchiyama's Opening the Hand of Tbought that correspond to three passages from Dogen's writings. These may or may not be direct quotations from Dogen, but Uchiyama's ideas should at least closely correspond to the meaning conveyed by the passages you select from Dogen. Show how Uchiyama interprets these passages in ways that closely follow some of Dogen's core philosophical ideas, such as "sitting-only," "practice as awakening," and "dropping off body-mind." Then, discuss how Uchiyama's contemporary, lay-centered interpretations may or may not vary from Dogen's monastery-centered views in their social ramifications.

5. Shinran and Myoe: Compare and contrast Shinran's practice of receiving the other-power Name of Amida Buddha through the realization of Namu Amida Butsu, and Myoe's practice of the Mantra of Light. Discuss how both attempt to express the two-fold truth, to achieve realization in this life (faith, true entrusting), birth in Amida's Pure Land in the afterlife, and address the needs of lay novices as well as seasoned practitioners. Examine similarities and differences.

6. Emptiness and transgression. Emptiness as a critical term is designed to break down dogmatic assumptions and barriers. On the positive or creative side, the realization of emptiness is an all-encompassing oneness. In terms of both its critical and positive functions, emptiness implies that, ultimately, nothing is excluded in Buddhist awareness, and that all phenomena are included. Historically, this has led to the questioning of distinctions of lay and ordained, pure and defiled, male and female, celibate and non-celibate, and so on. Compare and contrast two or more transgressive figures that we have studied and how their transgressive practices and behaviors reflect the dynamic of emptiness.

7. For REL 444 students only: Near Death. You have a terminal case of liver cancer. Several months have passed since the diagnosis and now the end is near. Your lover/partner is far away and is unable to share this time with you, caught in a foreign land with an invalid passport. You are writing a letter to your lover/partner expressing what the past has meant to you, what you have learned as you struggled with the illness and impending death, and how you now see life and death. Write this letter drawing on the works we have read. You may combine insights from more than one text if you like, but it is recommended that you restrict your sources to two or three sources and not try to do too much.