Chinese Buddhist: Past and Present

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Chinese Buddhist: Past and Present” (THE 1931)
(Please note: This course is a version of the regularly offered course, Theology 1931: Mahayana Buddhism, and will appear as such on your transcipt. It fulfills a second level GER requirement for Theology, and you may also petition to have it count as a third level GER in Theology. The version to be offered in China has been re-designed to focus on Chinese Buddhism, as described below, hence the modified title above.)
China is one of the biggest stories of the 21st century. Its recent economic growth in historically unprecedented, and has brought Chinese products into virtually every American home. Many economists expect the Chinese ecomomy to surpass that of the United States during the first half of the present century, i.e., during the careers of those now in college. For this reason alone it would be a good idea to become more familiar with this “rising dragon” of Asia. But while China’s massive role in the global economy is a recent development, China itself is ancient. Indeed, it has one of the oldest continuous civilizations on the planet. One of the most facinating aspects of the “China story” is the story of conflicts and accommodations between the “new China” and its traditional past.
An important element of that past is the religion of Buddhism, which has been present in China for approximately 2000 of its 2500 year history, arriving there from India during the Han Dynasty (contemporary with the Roman Empire in the West). Together with the indigenous traditions of Confucianism and Daoism, Buddhism has had a major impact on the development of Chinese culture, just as Chinese culture has had a major impact on the development of Buddhism. Indeed, one of the forms of Buddhism best known in the West, Zen Buddhism, actually originated in China; it is a specifially Chinese (and later Japanese) form of Buddhism unknown to India.
In this course you will learn the basic beliefs and practices of Buddhism, and how these beliefs and practices interacted with traditional Chinese culture to produce distinctive forms of Chinese Buddhism. In addition to studying “official” schools of Chinese Buddhism such an Zen (known in China as Chan), we will also look at popular manifestations of Buddhism, in particular the role of Buddhist characters and ideals in the classic Chinese novel the Journey to the West, in which one of the best loved characters in Chinese literature, the Monkey King, accompanies one of the most famous of Chinese Buddhists, Xuan Zang, on his pilgrimage to India and back. This fictionalized account of a real historical event will provide an entertaining look at the place of Buddhism in the popular Chinese imagination. We will also consider the role of Buddhism (and religion generally) in contemporary China and visit a number of functioning Buddhist temples.
Our home base in China will be Nanjing, an ancient southern captial of China and a site of very important developments both in the history of China and in the history of Chinese Buddhism. We will also visit the ancient capital of Chang’an (present day Xi’an), home of the world-famous “Terracotta Warriors” and the point of origin of the pilgrimage recounted in the Journey to the West. We will end our visit to China in the modern capital of China, Beijing. While the exact itinerary has not yet to be set, we hope to be able take a cruise through China’s famous Three Gorges on the Yangze River, and visit the southern city of Hangzhou, with its scenic West Lake. Finally, en route to Beijing we hope to have time to stop over at the ancient northern capital of Louyang to see the nearby Longmen Grottoes, of major importance for our understanding of Buddhist art and the devotion that it fostered.
Student will be asked to do as much of the basic course reading as possible prior to departure, and attend one or two preliminary class sessions during the course of Spring semester 2010. We will have regular class meetings each morning while in Nanjing, but study time outside class will be limited so as not to conflict with the experience of being in China! Also, many of our site visits will help to bring the course content alive and enhance your understanding of formal, text-based study.
Finally, there will be opportunties to meet and interact with English-speaking Chinese college students and form friendships. Some of these students will be coming to Saint Joseph’s as students in the Fall of 2010.

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