Reading Guide

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 religious stories?

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 studies.
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

Key Themes:

  1. For those new to the study of Buddhism, Peter Harvey's Introduction gives basic background, categories, and concepts
  2. Nagarjuna is the first Mahayana philosopher, who articulated the two-fold truth.
  3. 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

Key Themes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 suffering beings).

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:

  1. 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 play?
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 beings.
  3. 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 highest realization.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

Reading Guide:

  1. 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 gender/sex distinctions.
  2. 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.
  3. John McCrae, Shen-hui and the Teaching of Sudden Enlightenment. This provides historical and ideological background on the Platform Sutra of Hui-neng.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Guiding Questions:

  1. 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 Buddhism.
  2. What are similarities between Bodhidharma and Hui-neng; what are some differences?
  3. Key words to consider: nature, intuition, spontaneity, language skepticism; embodiment; iconoclastic; anti-establishment; individualistic
Week 5: Zen Master Dogen

Reading Guide:
  1. 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 English.
  2. 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.
  3. 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" notes.
  4. You may also find notes on Sudden Awakening, Dogen, and Shinran from my other class, REL 444/544 Medieval Japanese Buddhism, to be helpful.
Guiding Questions
  1. 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?
  2. 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 the body?
  3. 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 Chan/Zen?
  4. What are some of the assumptions concerning gender at work in the Ruch and Meeks readings?
Week 6: Shinran and Shin Buddhism

Reading Guide:
  1. 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.
  2. 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."
  3. 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.
Guiding Questions:
  1. 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?
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
Week 7: Natalie Goldberg, A Long Quiet Highway

Reading Guide and Guiding Questions:
  1. 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.
  2. 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 articles?
  3. 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?
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Infinite light (Amitabha) is a prominent theme throughout Coffinman as well as in Pure Land tradition; trace this theme in terms of Buddhist scriptures.
  3. Turning points: Continuing from last week, what are some of the key turning points in the narrative of Coffinman?
  4. 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?
  5. How does his view of LifeDeath (including the metaphor of mizore, sleet) relate to the Mahayana notion of the two-fold truth?