Relg385: Buddhist Traditions

Fall, 2009
Instructor: Dr. James S. Dalton.
Office hours:  By appointment

Course Description

This course concerns the history, development and structure of the religious traditions of Buddhism. It is an introductory and survey course which will examine the roles of these traditions in shaping both individual and communal experience as well as their interaction with various cultures and peoples. Special attention will be paid to the three Jewels, consisting of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Samgha within the traditions of Buddhism. The course will also raise issues surrounding the specifically Buddhist experience of the Sacred and, consequently, its religious character. The relationship of Buddhism to modern societies and the impact of Buddhism upon Euro-American culture will also be considered.

Course Objectives

The primary objective of this course is to give the student an appreciation of the major forms of religious experience exhibited within Buddhism. Special attention will be paid to the ways in which the various Buddhist traditions contribute to an understanding of the religious dimension of the human situation in history and in the contemporary world. Thus, the objectives of this course are three fold:

                1. to introduce the student to a religious and cultural tradition possibly differing from his or her own.

                2. to examine Buddhism as a religious tradition in its cultural and historical settings.

                3. to observe the situation of Buddhism in the modern world and its presence in Euro-American culture.

Course Requirements

A. All students will be required to have computer accounts and will be expected to utilize electronic mail, word processing and the World Wide Web. The course will also utilize the Blackboard online management program so students will also need to have Blackboard accounts. 

B. During the semester there will be a quiz and two examinations. The quiz will be held on Wednesday, September 30. The mid semester examination is scheduled for Wednesday, October 28. Final examinations are to be held during the week of December 16-19 and 21-22.

C. Quiz and test make-up Policy: I will offer make-up quizzes or tests under the following conditions:

    1. A documented family emergency situation that I agree is compelling such as a death in the immediate family.
    2. An absence where you are representing Siena College in an official capacity. Documentation is required and I must be notified in advance.
    3. Significant illness or injury. Documentation is required.
    4. Severe weather conditions. I must agree.
    5. Circumstances (described to me in advance) that I agree are compelling.

D. All students will be expected to go beyond the materials presented in class through a research project  which will be submitted to the professor one week prior to the last class. Projects will be due on Wednesday, December 2. A preliminary progress report will be due, via Blackboard Assignments function on Wednesday, November 18. You should notify the instructor of your choice of topic by Wednesday, October 7 . For information on the project see the attached criteria. 

E. Students will be required to attend classes on a regular basis. If the student is unable to attend, he or she will still be responsible for what occurs during that class period. As a general guideline, any more than two absences will be considered excessive. Further absences might effect the student's final grade.

F. The instructor presupposes that every student will do his or her own work according to accepted academic standards. Any student who copies someone else's work or is in any other way guilty of cheating or plagiarism will be subject to the penalties outlined in the Siena College Statement on Academic Integrity. At a minimum, the student will receive a grade of "F" for the course.

G. In the event of an influenza pandemic or other national emergency that requires Siena College to close for an extended period, this course will continue on the basis of the Pandemic Plan.


Lopez, Donald S., Jr. The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings. HarperOne. Harper Collins Publishers, 2001.

Mattheissen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. Penguin Classics, 2008.

Grading Policy

I. My touchstone grade is a "C". This grade is awarded for performance which is expected of all students in a particular course. It means that the student's work is "ok" (no significant problems or special promise). It is not a negative grade but reflects what can be expected of a typical student doing adequate work.

II. A "B" reflects my judgment that the student's work is better than what I would expect from my "typical" student. The student's work is "good" and shows promise.

III. An "A" exhibits outstanding work or, better put, work that "stands out" from typical students in a course such as this. It displays characteristics such as original thinking, a firm grasp of materials and an ability to critique these materials. It is attainable, not only by students who are "brilliant" but by any student who works hard and is engaged with the materials of the course. It also reflects an ability to communicate clearly and thoughtfully.

IV. A "D" is given to communicate to a student that there are "problems" with the student's work. Such problems might be in communication or understanding of course materials and could arise due to inadequate study habits, poor preparation, or social difficulties. It is important for the student to locate the source of these problems. Students are strongly encouraged to discuss this grade with the coordinator.

V. An "F" is my "do it over again" grade. It means that there are so many problems that we (the student and I) need to go back to the beginning of the process and walk our way through it again.

Course Outline

1. Introduction: Buddha, Buddhism and the study of Buddhism.
    Film: "Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East"

    A. Religious experience and Sacred Realities.

    B. Buddha and the Study of Buddhism.

2. The Buddha in India: Turning the Wheel of the Dharma.
    Video: "In the Footsteps of the Buddha"

    A. India at the time of the Buddha.

    B. The Biography of the Buddha.
         Video: "Little Buddha" (excerpts)

    C. Early Buddhism: Rebirth and Karma.

    D. Preaching the first sermon: the Four Noble Truths.

    E. The rise of the Sangha and early Buddhism.

3. The Southern Tradition: Theravada.

    A. Emergence of the Theravada.

    B. The Dhamma (Dharma) in Theravada.

    C. The Sangha (Samgha) in Theravada

    D. Living as a Buddhist: the Five Precepts.

    E. Meditation in Theravada: Calming (Samatha) and Insight (Vipassana).

    F. Buddhism and the Political Order in Theravada.

4. The Northern Tradition: Mahayana.

    A. The Emergence of Mahayana.

    B. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana.

    C. The Dharma and Emptiness (the Void).

    D. Buddhist devotion (puja) in the Mahayana.

    E. The Chinese, Korean and Japanese traditions of Buddhism.

5. The Diamond Vehicle (Vajrayana, Mantrayana, Tantric, Shingon, Tibetan).

    A. Buddhism in Tibet and Central Asia.

    Video: "The Tibetan Book of the Dead"

6. Zen Buddhism: Nirvana in the events of life.
    Film: "The Scent of Green Papaya"

    A. From Dhyana to Chan to Zen: India to Japan.

    B. Satori and Emptiness: Presence and Meditation.

    C. Zen Buddhism and the Arts.

7. Buddhism in the West and in America.

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