Lecture Objectives: After learning this material you will be able to: 1. Outline the traditional life and essential teaching of the Buddha. 2. Discuss the major schools of Buddhism and how they spread to various parts of Asia. 3. Present the importance of practice, especially meditation, in Buddhism. 4. Talk about why Buddhism can be thought of as a particularly “psychological” religion. 5. Discuss the role of and attitudes toward women in the major schools of Buddhism. 6. Discuss Buddhism’s impact on the American religious landscape. 7. Interpret Buddhism in terms of the three forms of religious expression. 8. Show through what forms a religion ultimately focused on individual liberation also functions as a religion for society. 9. Explain basic Buddhist teaching: the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, No Self, and Nirvana.
Buddhism is based on the life of the historical Buddha, which we will study below. But it is also the result of many influences from many cultures. As Buddhism has traveled to different countries it has taken on many local aspects and customs so that the Buddhist world can look very simple and serene in certain settings, such as a Zen monastery, and elaborate and almost tribal in other contexts, such as in the Tibetan culture. “Buddhism is not rooted in a single culture or area, as is Hinduism, but is an international religion, a movement introduced in historical time into every society where it is now at home. It has deeply pervaded these cultures and deeply identified with them” (Robert S. Ellwood and Barbara A. McGraw, Many Peoples, Many Faiths: Women and Men in the World Religions, Seventh Edition, [Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002], p. 122. Hereafter referred to in the lectures as MPMF.) But always it returns for inspiration to the basically simple and straightforward teaching of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha.
My own interest in Buddhism goes back to my early interest in meditation. For if Buddhism is about anything, it is about meditation. And while all religions have a meditative aspect to one degree or another, with Buddhism meditation will take the primary place as the single most important thing a person can learn. There are many different types of Buddhist meditation taught and if meditation is something that really interests you then you might want to check out a Buddhist practice for your final exam project.
Buddhism emerged in Northern India, but for a variety of reasons it did not remain a strong movement in its native land. “Buddhism has a somewhat different atmosphere than the Hindu context out of which it emerged. Buddhism always combines something of the Indian spiritual tradition with very different cultures. However, instead of the rich, heavy “biological” flavor of Hinduism, Buddhism has a more psychological thrust” (MPMF, p. 122.) It is no surprise that many people who are involved in psychology in one fashion or another are often attracted to Buddhism. When you realize the important place meditation plays, you see that Buddhism looks inward. In the process of this inner examination, Buddhist philosophy developed some profound insights into the nature of the human psyche and how it works.
This psychological orientation can even be seen in Buddhist art and symbols. “What is distinctive about Buddhist altars is that, instead of portraying the archetypal hero, mother, or cosmic pillar, as do Hindu altars, the image communicates a unified psychological state - profound meditation, warm compassion, or even unambiguous fury against illusion. Buddhist practices, too, are focused on strong and clear states of unified consciousness. Either they produce clear states, or they draw power from beings who have achieved unfettered clarity” (MPMF, p. 122.) This peaceful and clear state of consciousness is often seen in the simple and clean design of meditation centers....
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