Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Buddhism: Part 1

Great Courses:  Buddhism:  Part 1, by Professor Malcolm David Eckel

As someone who has listened to a wide variety of faith-based Great Courses so far [1], one aspect that I have noticed is a consistent difficulty is the way that many instructors assume that the people listening to these courses are those who are members of or sympathizers with the religious traditions involved.  While this may be true of many people who take such course, it is generally not the case for me because there are as far as I know no sympathetic mentions of, much less explorations of, my own faith tradition in this collection of audiobooks.  This book in particular suffers from assuming the listener is familiar with or interested with Buddhism because it does not give a portrayal that is sympathetic to Buddhism at all for someone who comes to it from a biblical worldview.  Enough is discussed in enough detail that someone who does have a biblical worldview is going to be even more unsympathetic of Buddhism than they would before, and admittedly I did not come to this course particularly sympathetic to the Buddhist worldview, especially given the way that Buddhist meditation is a common element of treatments that are encouraged for PTSD and related issues.

After introducing what Buddhism is in the first lecture, the professor of this course spends a considerable amount of time discussing the context of India at the time of the Buddha and the importance of the reprehensible doctrine of reincarnation within Indian religion and the defective cosmology of an infinite past with an infinite amount of lives for souls wandering in the misery of death and rebirth.  After this the author gives an overly credulous discussion of the story of the Buddha, not only his life, but also some truly ridiculous stories about supposed previous lives.  After this there are discussions of the passing and temporary nature of life and the supposed absence of anything permanent like identity, the immensely long and difficult path to Nirvana, an ideal of nothingness and annihilation, as well as discussions of the Buddhist monastic community and their idolatrous art and architecture.  It is at this part that the course gets even stranger than it was–and it was already pretty disturbingly strange–in talking about the main schisms of Buddhism with Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia and Mahayana Boddhism and the truly bizarre ideal of the bodhisattva.  The next lecture discusses various imaginary celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas that are invoked in ways that seem to be a horrible parody of Roman Catholic sainthood.  The lectures close with a view of emptiness that appear to contradict what the original Buddha himself said, demonstrative of the wide diversity of contradictory belief systems within Buddhism.

As the professor expresses it, Buddhism differs from biblical religion in a lot of fundamental ways for faiths which are often viewed as being close.  For one, the doctrine of karmic debt is a horrifying way of blaming the victim/survivor of life’s tragedies for some supposed debt from past lives that have to be repaid through present or future suffering.  The lack of a permanent identity contrasts negatively with the biblical truth of people being created in the image and likeness of God with the opportunity to enjoy eternal life, as permanent an identity as one could have.  At its best, the supposed wisdom of the professor and the worldview he is promoting here merely approaches the cynical and despairing paradoxes of Solomon in Ecclesiastes in thinking that under the sun all is vanity and futility, which is the same sort of view that Buddhism possesses, with the additional handicap that it does not view of a life above the sun but rather views things only from under the sun, in a world that is supposed to be without beginning and without end, nothing but turtles all the way down.  That such a pathetic and ridiculous worldview could command the assent of hundreds of millions of people only demonstrates the depths of superstition and idolatry and folly that humanity can fall into.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Buddhism: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Zen Vows For Daily Life | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: An Introduction To The Biblical Meditation Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

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