What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is the religion founded by the Buddha in approximately the 5th century BCE in the Ganges River Valley. The Buddha’s philosophy may be summed up as “every effect has a cause”. The Buddha then applied this philosophy to the problems at the heart of the human condition: mortality, anxiety, suffering and evil.

He discovered that the cause of our spiritual disease is our erroneous, subconscious perception that we are at the center of the universe. And why not? Everything we hear, see, touch, smell, taste, feel or think happens to us! We are, in every moment, at the center of our own experience, so it’s natural that we should think of ourselves as a real being at the center of things.

But this perspective, which the Buddha called “ignorance,” causes us to suffer when the things that we cling to or identify with (our body, our career, etc) inevitably decay and die. Being associated with what we don’t like, being separated from what we like — trying to grasp, pin down and build a “self” out of the constantly changing, flowing things of the world is an inherently stressful project, no matter how it’s conceived.

The religion the Buddha founded is thus the set of contemplations, practices, and yes, even rituals and beliefs, which have been designed to help the practitioner to overcome these “selfish” tendencies and to attain liberation from the tyranny of “me” and “mine.”

Prerequisites

This course assumes English language proficiency.

Time Commitment

This is a self-paced course, which is estimated to take a few months to complete depending on your reading pace.

Course Outline

Introduction

“There are two conditions for the arising of right view. What two? The words of another and proper attention.” ~ AN2.126

  • This work by Bhikkhu Bodhi gives a brief overview of Buddhism and summarizes what we’ll cover in this course.
  • Start here!

Next, we listen to a couple talks by two of my own dear teachers, giving us an introduction to Buddhism.

What do you notice about these talks? What surprises you? What’s interesting? Jot down whatever observations and questions you have after listening, and as we go through the course we’ll refer back to these notes.

Textbook

For those looking for a thorough, academic introduction to Buddhism, I recommend:

An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices – Peter Harvey


This textbook can be read alongside the course, providing the basic framing for the rest of the course. The class is arranged according to its outline and some of its topics — rituals, history, sects — will not be covered by the other works.

The textbook remains, however, optional, as the free materials below provide an excellent overview of the Buddha and his teachings all on their own. Feel free to just read the rest without the “connective tissue” of Harvey’s textbook, though total beginners to Buddhism might well be advised to give the textbook a chance, as its framing and contextualization will be helpful, if somewhat dry.

Who was the Buddha?

Readings parallel to Chapters 1–2 of Harvey

Biography of Shakyamuni Buddha – Ven Master Hsing Yun (pdf)

A deeply human, simple but powerful retelling of the Buddha’s life story from a renowned modern master. My most highly recommended biography of the Buddha.

  • A short introduction to Buddhism from a more secular perspective.
  • Who was the Buddha in his own words? In this story, he calls himself the “Tathagata” or “Truth-Arriver”, and he responds to a question on what will become of him after his death. The Buddha explains that he doesn’t talk in such terms, as he has overcome all such notions as “I am the body” or “I am the mind” so how could such a question ever be answered? He ends the discourse by famously saying that all he teaches is suffering and the end of suffering, thus redirecting our attention from empty philosophical musings to the things that matter most.

What did the Buddha teach?

Readings parallel to Ch 3–5 of Harvey

The next part of the class tackles the Buddha’s teachings. As this section is the primary focus of the course, it will be the longest.

The Buddha taught us how to be happy: not by chasing after it but by giving.

In this beautiful letter to a friend (and one of my favorite books period), Thay offers practical advice and encouragement to cultivate mindfulness: the quality of presence and wakefulness in our life. From washing the dishes to answering the phone, he reminds us that each moment holds within it the seeds of understanding and peace. Highly recommended for all, especially newcomers to Buddhism or meditation, or anyone looking to brighten their day.

  • The emotional heart of this course. Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of “Buddhist Philosophy” proper, we first explore the emotional experience of the Buddhist path, catching a glimpse of its beauty through the eyes and words of these celebrated Buddhist teachers.

Alternative Presentations of the Dhamma

  • An example of the many popular press articles reporting on the benefits of meditation
  • In this early discourse from the Buddhist Canon, the Buddha contextualizes his teachings by listing the character traits that the practice should produce if practiced correctly.
  • Compare this list with the feeling you got from Thich Nhat Hanh and with the benefits described in the popular article above (and any other information you may have read). Do you notice any differences? Similarities? Does anything on this list surprise you? Are these three sources (the sutta, the monk and the media) saying the same thing in different words or has something been “lost in translation”?
  • This discourse is one of the few teachings in the canon (along with the teachings on mindfulness) which the Buddha declared as “categorical”: always applicable and useful in any situation. This sutta gives, better than any other, the overall direction of the teachings, and is a helpful rubric to refer back to.
  • Ven Hong Ci invites us to get off the treadmill of pursuing sense pleasures, and to live fully in the present moment, thus tying together the threads from the above: renunciation, mindfulness and fulfilment.

A classic introduction to Buddhist philosophy for a modern audience. Walpola Rahula’s book has had a dramatic impact on the shape of Buddhist thought in the West but its interest is far from merely historical: it remains one of the most lucid and sympathetic introductions available in English, even today. Highly recommended for newcomers to Buddhism or anyone looking for a solid grounding in Buddhist doctrine.

  • The main text for the doctrinal and philosophical content of this course, but don’t worry: it is very well written. The class may breeze through or dwell on this book as short or as long as time and interest permits.
  • One of the hallmarks of Buddhism as a religion is that the Buddha emphatically rejected salvation through faith and prayers alone. In this sutta, the Buddha illustrates this with a humorous simile.

Reflection Questions

After finishing the above, it’s now a good time to go back to your notes from the introduction and see how your understanding has changed. Have your questions been answered? Is anything that was surprising now obvious? Do any new questions arise for you?

Buddhist History and the Mahayana

Readings parallel to Chapters 6–7 of Harvey

  • Gives some vivid imagery to illustrate the Buddhist outlook on life. The class might take a brief look at Buddhist artwork here and a skilled teacher might explain the relationship between art, metaphor and self-transformation across the Buddhist traditions. (I’ll add such a lecture here if I can find a good one)
  • Mostly this text is included here to note that vivid metaphors have always been a part of Buddhism, even in the oldest texts of the Theravada Tradition.
  • These themes will return vividly at the end of chapter 11 for those reading Harvey.

The Practice of Buddhism

Readings parallel to Chapters 8–11

Coming down from the clouds, what do these teachings actually mean, and how do we practice them?

  • A beautiful Discourse, roughly equivalent to the (rightly) much celebrated passage on love in the Christian Bible, 1 Corinthians 13.
  • Notice, though, how the Buddha’s description of love explicitly extends our compassionate circle of concern to all sentient beings.
  • Also, rather than framing the sermon as a description of what love is (“patient, kind” etc) notice how the Buddha instead describes love as a practice, giving us instructions on what “should be done.” This shift away from descriptive philosophy and towards ethical praxis is one of the hallmarks of Buddhism, especially in contrast with Western philosophy.
  • Also, consider reading this passage out loud, remembering that the Buddha’s words were passed down primarily by oral recitation. How does reading it out loud change your experience of the text?
  • Now, listen to it chanted in the traditional style by a group of monks in California.
  • What benefits do you see in chanting this way, as compared to simply reading the text?
  • Ajahn Jayasaro beautifully explains how we might apply Buddhist wisdom to an area of our lives we all care deeply about: our relationships.
  • While reading, I encourage you to really engage with this text. Think about your own relationships while you read. Is there any wisdom here you can take home with you?

Ideally, the chapter on meditation would be accompanied by in-person meditation instruction. I encourage the digital student to seek out a local meditation group at this point if you haven’t done so already to get first-hand experience with this very important part of Buddhist practice if you haven’t already.

It’s also a good time to revisit your questions from the introduction one more time. How has engaging with Buddhist practice changed your understanding of the doctrine? What do you make of Buddhism now?

Buddhism and Modernity

Readings parallel to Chapters 12–13

I supplement the final chapters in Harvey on the recent history of Buddhism with a few essays on the unique cultural challenges and opportunities which Western Buddhists now face:

  • Individualism, science, freedom and morality — four contemporary conversations which Buddhism has much to contribute to
  • A defense of Buddhism in light of some Western critiques and an encouragement to try out one particular Eastern practice.
  • A provocative essay on thinking more critically about our scientific, materialistic assumptions before we instinctively “reform” Buddhism to conform to them.

And Lastly,

Khp 5: The Highest Blessings (pdf)
  • The Buddha’s own overview of “the good life” (and a traditional blessing chant) I would like to end the class by offering you this summary of every good blessing. May your life thus be blessed!

Further Reading

Monographs

A classic translation of this classic book of poetry from the Pāli Canon.

Just as the sun is valued not only for its own intrinsic radiance but also for its ability to illuminate the world, so the brilliance of the Buddha is determined not only by the clarity of his Teaching but by his ability to illuminate those who came to him for refuge

Then one day, [the young man] utters these three words. When the young lady hears this, she trembles, because it is such an important statement. When you say something like that with your whole being, not just with your mouth or your intellect, but with your whole being, it can transform the world. A statement that has such power of transformation is called a mantra.

The classic introduction to Buddhist meditation.

Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature. Strictly speaking, for a human being, there is no other practice than this

Booklets

To be female is to have the dukkha of a female. To be male is to have the dukkha of a male. […] If we deludedly think ‘I am happy’ then we must suffer accordingly.

My most highly recommended introduction to Buddhist meditation.

A lucid and compelling explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path by a renowned contemporary scholar of Pāli and Early Buddhism. Highly recommended for everyone interested in Buddhism.

This book is intended to provide an introduction to the teachings of the Buddha which will shed some light on a subject that, to non-Buddhists, can appear both unexpectedly rational and exotically strange.

Canonical Works

This epic poem on grasping firmly the intention to awaken has inspired many generations of Buddhists to live a more ethical and spiritual life and it captures beautifully the aesthetic of Buddhist ethics. Well worth reading again and again and again.

It is wrong perception that leads to the concepts of being and nonbeing.

Papers

Articles

Audio/Video

The text jumps inside me and helps. me. out.

So, when you’re studying Buddhism, what are you studying?
I know the answer. I’m studying me.
I’m studying me.

Advanced Courses

The Early Buddhist Texts
Dig deeper into the Buddha’s own words and learn how it is that we know them at all.
The Function of Buddhism
A guide into the heart of the Dhamma, Buddhist philosophy and practice.
The Form(s) of Buddhism
A history of the Sangha and what it means to be a Buddhist.
or feel free to check out any of our University's other fine offerings.