REL 440/540 Fall 2016 Final Paper Topics

Final Paper, December 1, due in class

* Double-spaced, 8-11 pages (12-15 for REL540). 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.
* 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.
* 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 (The Goddess and Hui-neng, Bodhidharma and Hui-neng ) 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," and "Writing: The Bridge between Consciousness and Unconsciousness."


1. Sudden and Gradual 1. According to the logic of emptiness articulated by most of the texts we have studied, the realization of emptiness is inseparable from the present moment. This is due to emptiness being the true nature of any perceived form. In that sense, the doctrine of sudden awakening advocated by the Platform Sutra may have implicit precedents in earlier Mahayana literature. Discuss the applicability of sudden versus gradual paths to two or three episodes from Mahayana sutras (such as the dialogue between the Goddess and Sariputra from the Vimalakirti Sutra, Queen Vaidehi's awakening to the Pure Land teachings in the Sutra of Contemplation on Amitayus, and Sudhana's journey in the Flower Ornament Scripture). (Suggestion: You might consider the definition of sudden awakening given in Unno's article, "The Nembutsu as the Path of the Sudden Teaching.") What are some of the problems posed by the sudden and gradual elements as presented in these cases?

2. Sudden and Gradual 2. Compare and contrast the view of sudden and gradual awakening as evident in two or all three of the following: the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Hui-neng, Zen master Dogen, the Pure Land figure Shinran. (Suggestion: Dogen incorporates affirmation of delusion as part of his understanding, Shinran incorporates blind passions, and Myoe emphasizes gradual awakening). What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach to this problem? The main sources for this topic are, respectively, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, "Genjokoan" chapter of Dogen's Shobogenzo, and sources cited in Mark Unno's article, "The Nembutsu as the Path of the Sudden Teaching." You may, of course, go beyond these sources.

3. Gender and Buddhism 1. 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. Gender and Buddhism 2. Take the perspective of the Goddess from The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, and have her discuss the view of women and gender presented in several readings throughout the course. These readings may be either primary sources or secondary scholarly literature. The Goddess' views must accurately reflect her philosophy as presented in The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti.

5. Upaya and illusion. Upaya, or skillful means, carries important implications for the status of "teachings" in Mahayana Buddhism. It implies that there can be no single, fixed, exclusive path to enlightenment; at some level, all teachings are just as illusory as any other form or conventional truth. Nevertheless, some are deemed superior to others. Compare and contrast the discussion of illusion used in the context of upaya in the following three episodes: The exchange of gender in the "Goddess" chapter from The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, the parable of the burning house from the Lotus Sutra, and one other source from the readings. What are their strengths and weaknesses, and what problems, if any, do they reveal about the concept of upaya itself.

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.