Frieda Wildy Riggs Chair in Religious Studies
on leave spring semester
BA, Williams College. MA, PhD, University of Michigan. Trained in Zen monasteries in Japan; active in Buddhist studies, with research interest in philosophical, literary, social, and historical aspects of East Asian Buddhism, especially the Ch’an/Zen tradition. Co-editor in chief, Soto Zen Text Project (Tokyo); American Academy of Religion Buddhism Section steering committee, 1987-1994, 2003-; board member, Kuroda Institute for the Study of Buddhism and Human Values. Recipient of Fulbright, Eiheiji, and Japan Foundation fellowships and grants from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities. SLC, 1995–
Current undergraduate courses
This course explores the diverse terrain of religious life in Japan, investigating as much of the amazing spectrum of Japanese beliefs, practices, and institutions as possible without actually visiting the country. To this end, it makes extensive use of audio-visual materials, as well as primary sources (Japanese texts in English translation) and secondary scholarship. The course covers all of the major religious traditions and movements found in Japan today, including Shintō, the various schools of Buddhism, and the so-called New Religions, as well as numerous elements of "folk" or "popular" religion and culture that are not readily subsumed under any of the preceding labels. The emphasis is on religion in contemporary Japan, with particular focus on religious rituals and the art and architecture that facilitate them, but a modicum of historical background will be given when necessary.
Related Cross-Discipline Paths
This course is an in-depth, historical examination of the philosophy, mythology, literature, institutional arrangements, religious practices, art, and architecture associated with this most famous and widely misunderstood branch of East Asian Buddhism. The Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism arose in China as the result of a cross-cultural exchange of epic proportions: the gradual intrusion of an alien set of religious ideas, values, and practices—those belonging to Indian Buddhism—into China between the first and the eighth centuries of the Common Era and the subsequent efforts of some 20 generations of Chinese Buddhists to defend, adapt, domesticate, and finally make the foreign religion entirely their own. Chan became the most “Chinese” school of Buddhism by defining itself in terms of indigenous concepts of clan genealogy, by exalting members of its spiritual lineage as native-born buddhas, and by allowing those buddhas to speak in the vernacular, using a mode of rhetoric that was heavily influenced by the Confucian and Daoist traditions. The course begins by outlining the Indian Buddhist doctrines and practices that were imported into China and by summarizing the indigenous cultural milieu that was initially quite hostile to the alien religion. We then explore the various compromises and adaptations of Indian Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions that took shape within the Chan tradition and enabled it to emerge in the Song dynasty (960-1278) as the predominant school of Chinese Buddhism. The main theme of the second semester is the transmission of the Chan school of Buddhism to Japan, where it became known as Zen, and the subsequent development of the tradition in that country from the 13th century to the present.
The concept of a “thing”—a distinct entity that exists in and of itself whether or not human beings attach a name to it—is nothing but a useful fiction. In the final analysis, there are no such things as “things.” This, in a nutshell, is the startling proposition advanced by the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata or “emptiness,” as the Sanskrit term is usually translated. Often misconstrued by critics as a form of nihilism (“nothing exists”), idealism (“it is all in the mind”), or skepticism (“we cannot know anything with certainty”), the emptiness doctrine is better interpreted as a radical critique of the fundamental conceptual categories that we habitually use to talk about and make sense of the world. This course has several specific aims. The first is to impart a clear, accurate understanding of the emptiness doctrine, as it developed in the context of Buddhist intellectual history and found expression in various genres of classical Buddhist literature. The second is to engage in serious criticism and debate concerning the “truth” of the doctrine: Is it merely an article of Buddhist faith, or does it also stand up to the standards of logical consistency and empirical verification that have been established in Western traditions of philosophy and science? The third aim of the course is to explore ways in which the emptiness doctrine, if taken seriously as a critique of the mechanisms and inherent limitations of human knowledge, might impact a variety of contemporary academic disciplines. More generally, the course is designed to help first-year students gain the kind of advanced analytical, research, and writing skills that will serve them well in whatever areas of academic study they may pursue in the future. Both in class and in conference work, students will be encouraged to apply the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness in creative ways to whatever fields in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences that interest them.
The religion of Buddhism, first imported from Korea and China in the sixth century CE, has had a huge impact on every aspect of Japanese culture from ancient times to the present. The sponsorship of monks and monasteries belonging to different schools of Buddhism has been a major factor throughout the history of Japan in struggles for political and economic power, resulting in an outpouring of related art and architecture. In the eighth century, the Emperor Shomu constructed a massive bronze buddha image in the capital city of Nara in an attempt to consolidate the fledgling imperial system (modeled on that of China) by mobilizing his followers in an awesome display of wealth and power. Throughout the Heian period (794-1185), courtiers and landowning aristocrats patronized the Tendai and Shingon schools of Buddhism with their elaborate Tantric rites for worldly benefits, and Buddhist ideas informed the poetry writing that was a favorite pastime of the elites. The Kamakura period (1185-1333) was ushered in by samurai warlords, who seized power and sponsored an entirely new style of monastic institution imported from China, under the name of “Zen,” to legitimize their rule and foster an elite artistic culture based on that of the Confucian literati. Around the same time, Buddhism filtered down to the common people who, by faith in the saving power of Amida Buddha, were assured of rebirth in his Pure Land (paradise). That faith, spread via paintings and folktales, led to peasant revolts and helped to produce yet another wave of temple building on a grand scale. During the Edo period (1603-1868), every family in Japan was required to patronize a Buddhist temple and its mortuary rites, and the religion reached its apogee of cultural influence. The Meiji period (1868-1912) saw a severe persecution of Buddhism, as Japan rushed to modernize on the Western model; but it bounced back in a number of new cultural formulations (e.g., as Japan’s only native tradition of “fine art”) and has survived to the present. In the modern period, Japanese novels, films, and animated cartoons have continued to be informed by Buddhist themes. This course focuses on the Buddhist art and architecture of Japan and on various genres of Japanese literature that have promoted or been influenced by Buddhist beliefs and practices. Subjects covered include: paintings and sculptures of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and monks; styles of monastery architecture produced in different historical periods; ink painting and calligraphy; tea ceremony; landscape gardens; Noh theatre; martial arts; classical poetry; folklore and popular narratives; sutra literature; and doctrinal treatises produced by the monk founders of various schools of Buddhism. No prior knowledge of Japanese is required; all readings are in English or English translations of primary texts. The course is designed, however, to accommodate students with established interests in things Japanese, including those who wish to continue their Japanese language study at an advanced (fourth year or higher) level. Such language study will be organized on an individual basis in the context of conference work.
This introductory course focuses on the Buddhism of East Asia: China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Buddhism first began to take root in China in the early centuries of the Common Era, having been transmitted from India via Central Asia and the maritime states of Southeast Asia. Buddhism initially met with much resistance, being branded an “alien” cult that was at odds with native Chinese (especially Confucian) values. Eventually, however, the Indian religion adapted to Chinese culture and came to have a profound influence on it, spawning new schools of Buddhism such as Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan (called Zen in Japan). The smaller, neighboring countries that fell under the sway of Chinese civilization—Korea, Japan, and Vietnam—first imported forms of Buddhism that had taken shape in China, not India; but each, in turn, further changed the religion in ways that accorded with their own indigenous cultures. Equal attention is paid in this course to (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audiovisual materials. The course has no prerequisite; it is suitable for students who have already taken the companion lecture—The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia—offered in the fall.
This intoductory course treats the evolution of Buddhism in India from the origins of the religion as a group of “world-renouncing” ascetics through the development of large, state-supported monastic communities and the emergence of the major reform movements known as Mahāyāna and Tantra. The course also focuses on the Buddhism of two regions of the world—Southeast Asia and the Tibetan plateau—where the respective traditions have been most self-consciously concerned with maintaining precedents inherited from India. Equal attention is paid to (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audiovisual materials. For students who wish to continue studying the development of the Buddhist tradition in other parts of the world. The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia, a companion lecture, is offered in the spring semester.