“This course is a survey of the history of Buddhism from its origin in India in the sixth century B.C.E. to contemporary times. 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.
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 Siddharta 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 pattern 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 missionairies to Sri Lanka. Asoka 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 (18 October 1804 – 1 October 1868) in Thailand and Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent resistance to military repression in Burma.
Buddhism entered China in the second century of the common era, at a time when the Chinese people had become 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 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.
Since the end of the 19th 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. In its 2.500-year history, from the time of the Buddha to the present day, Buddhism has grown from a tiny religious community in northern India into a movement that now spans the globe. It has shaped the development of civilizations in India and Southeast Asia; has had a major influence on the civilizations of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan; and today has become a major part of the multi-religious world of Europe and North America.
In the following lectures (watch the videos below) we’ll explore the Buddhist tradition as the unfolding of a story. It is the story of the Buddha himself and the story of generations of people who have used the model of the Buddha’s life to shape not only their own lives but the societies in which they live…”
Professor Malcolm David Eckel, Course Guidebook.
INFO ON THE AUTHOR: Professor Malcolm David Eckel holds two bachelor’s degrees, one in English from Harvard University and a second in Theology from Oxford University. Professor Eckel earned his master’s degree in theology at Oxford University and his Ph.D. in the Study of Comparative Religion at Harvard University. He held teaching positions at Ohio Wesleyan University, Middlebury College in Vermont, and the Harvard Divinity School, where he served as acting director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. At Boston University, Professor Eckel teaches courses on Buddhism, comparative religion, and the religions of Asia. In 1998, Professor Eckel received the Metcalf Award for Teaching Excellence, the university’s highest award for teaching. In addition to writing many articles, Professor Eckel has published two books on Buddhist philosophy: “To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness” and “Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places”. – www.thegreatcourses.com
to be continued…
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