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Department of the Study of Religions

Critical Concepts in Buddhist Studies

Course Code:
Course Not Running 2015/2016
Unit value:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

“Critical Concepts in Buddhist Studies” constitutes the core course for the MA Buddhist Studies. It is a half Unit course, to be taken on the first term of this MA. It is designed to provide students with a broad understanding of the major processes and dynamics at work in the growth and development of Buddhism as a world religion and with the key methodological tools required to approach this major cultural force in its fascinating diversity. This course is co-taught by the four key scholars of Buddhism in the Department of the Study of Religions, whose regional and disciplinary expertise fully complement each other, thereby offering the course its unique breadth. As a foundation in Buddhist Studies, the course will offer the necessary background to the other courses of the MA, which possess a more regional, thematic or disciplinary focus.

While the first lecture will provide a general introduction and a welcoming orientation for the new students of the programme, the following nine lectures offer an itinerary through a set of as many key concepts, whose understanding is critical in approaching Buddhist traditions. The first of these (“Buddha”) will be dedicated to the figure of the founder, to its centrality for Buddhist lineages, claims and practices and to the diversity of its conceptions. The next unit (“Academia”) will retrace the encounter of the academic world with Buddhism and its founder, the advent of Buddhist Studies as a scholarly discipline, and the recent trends of the latter. Of the remaining topics, two (“History” and “Transmission”) will provide students with a broad and up-to-date narrative of the growth and the trans-regional spread of Buddhism, as well as with an understanding of Buddhist perceptions of the Dharma’s transmission and of spiritual continuity. Two sessions (“Text” and “Image & Material Culture”) will focus on major sources for the study of Buddhism, in order for students to understand how these categories were received by Buddhist societies, and how modern scholars can assess them critically. Beyond these sources, the performative and experiential dimension of Buddhism will be explored in yet another session (“Ritual”). Finally, two sessions (“Institution”, “Society”) will approach professional Buddhists as members of a well-organised and successful institution, itself being a crucial agent of society at large.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

On successful completion of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate:

  • A critical awareness of Buddhist Studies as a scholarly discipline, of its presuppositions and the main present trends in the field
  • An awareness of the wide variety of sources available for the study of Buddhism and of the specific way each type of source can be assessed.
  • The ability to identify the main patterns and dynamics of the transmission of the Buddhist traditions throughout Asia.
  • An understanding of the centrality of Buddha figures, and of the ways by which distinct lineages derive authority from them.
  • The ability to apprehend Buddhist institutions in their wider societal contexts, and to analyse their complex interactions with key actors of the socio-religious sphere.
  • The ability to evaluate scholarly interpretations critically, and to take an informed position within a scholarly debate.
  • The ability to approach a religious tradition broadly in its doctrinal, experiential, devotional and ritual dimensions.


Two hours Lecture

Method of assessment

One 2,000-word essay (20%), one 4,000-word essay (80%).