Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Buddhism: Part 2

Great Courses:  Buddhism:  Part 2, taught by Professor Malcolm David Eckel

I must admit that going into this particular course I did not know a lot about the specific subject matter of the aspects of Buddhism that the professor was teaching, although it turned out that I knew more than I had expected, whether that was about the author’s fondness for Tibet [1] or the importance of Buddhism to Japanese culture, or even the role of Buddhism in spreading the occult to the United States, something the instructor seems strangely proud of.  One of the upsides of listening to or reading something where the person presenting the material thinks that they are writing to an insider audience of fellow believers or sympathizers is that they are more honest and more outspoken than they would be if they felt that people were being critical or negative.  In this case the instructor’s honesty and enthusiasm demonstrates his fondness for syncretism and his love of fake deep religious thinking and his general interest in the influence of Buddhism on contemporary world culture, without thinking whether that is a good thing or not.  Most of the people listening to these lectures, I would think, would at least be likely to agree with him.

The contents of this particular series of 12 lectures in six hours of presentation are varied.  The professor spends a lecture each on Buddhist philosophy and tantra in particular, which he tends to soft-pedal the sexual nature of and focus on the way that it gives power through experience.  After that the professor discusses the theory and practice of the mandala and the way that it appears in ideas like that of the various chakras.  Three lectures follow on different aspects of Buddhism in Tibet:  the first efforts at conversion during the short-lived Tibetan Empire, the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama.  Two more lectures follow on the origins and classical period of Chinese Buddhism with its blend with Taoism and Confucianism.  After this comes three lectures of Japanese Buddhism, with the origins of its blend with native Shinto religion, a discussion of Honen, Shinran, and Nichiren Buddhism, and a separate lecture on the familiar Zen Buddhism, before the instructor ends with an intriguing and odd look at Buddhism in America.  Whatever can be said about the instructor’s view of the protean nature of Buddhism and its tendency to change even as it seeks to change the cultures it is in, the instructor at least appears pretty honest even if not completely so.

One area where I have some significant disagreement with the instructor is the nature of the appeal of Buddhism.  The author tends to think that the view that everyone suffers and that Buddhism offers some kind of illusory escape from suffering is the main reason for Buddhism’s appeal in all of its many and varied forms.  In my mind, though, there are a few things that make Buddhism appealing.  For one, Buddhist philosophers have always grafted Buddhism onto local traditions and sought to blend certain elements of Buddhism with what was already present in the host society.  For another, Buddhism appears to be most interested, at least in its Western incarnations, with trying to appeal to people who want to avoid taking responsibility for the state of their life.  Buddhist beliefs in endless reincarnation offer a chance for people to try to blame the suffering of their lives on some kind of karmic debt that they have to pay off, or alternatively for them to justify how well off they are relative to the rest of the world by appealing to the more noble state of their own souls relative to that of others who are less well off.  This seems to me a rather artful but shabby dodge of the real nature of things.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/10/04/book-review-tibet-an-enduring-civilization/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/10/04/book-review-vanishing-tibet/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/07/18/book-review-japanese-death-poems/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/03/18/ghosts-of-the-taira-the-relationship-between-the-wars-of-the-gempei-and-the-warrior-ghost-noh-dramas/

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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