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Mahāyāna Buddhism MPhil Module

Mahāyāna Buddhism MPhil

Course Coordination: Dr Matthew Neale

Michaelmas Term 2015

Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Profound View

Prerequisites: None.

4 Seminars

The way of life of bodhisattvas constituted a new approach in Indian Buddhism, focused intensely on developing compassion based on a profound insight into the interconnectedness and illusory nature of all phenomena.  In these seminars we will investigate the doctrines of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra (Introduction to the Way of Life of Awakening), by far the most influential text on the bodhisattva career in Indian Buddhism, and experience the traditional Nālandā transmission method (as used in all Tibetan philosophy colleges).  We will work from an English version of the root text, and in parallel with the original Sanskrit, although no prior knowledge of Sanskrit is expected.

Objectives

(1) to develop a thorough familiarity with this text, and thus a confident understanding of the doctrines of the so-called Mañjuśrī or “profound view” tradition of Mahāyāna, such that at the end of the course the student is able to explain any of its contents in detail and with confidence, and approach subsequent studies of sūtras and treatises with an authoritative voice;

(2) to taste the living experience of a real Buddhist tradition by experiencing first-hand the traditional Nālandā transmission method (namely the five-point presentation of the treatise; framed by the guidance of the so-called three Mahāyāna excellences, in the motivation for and attitude to study and in the conduct supportive of study; and clarified by critical investigative debate sessions) and gain facility in it, such that the by the end of course the student is able to teach the text in this manner, and can speak critically and with confidence not only about the doctrines and their application but also about the Buddhist pedagogical method itself.

These seminars are likely to be of interest not just to students of Buddhist doctrine but also to those studying Sanskrit, the history of Buddhism, Madhyamaka philosophy (of which our text is a prime exponent), psychology, and the anthropology of the living practice Mahāyāna across Asia and now Europe and America.

Seminars

1.    Ch. I-III: benefits of bodhicitta, confession, embracing bodhicitta

2.    Ch. IV-VI: attending to and guarding bodhicitta, the perfection of patience

3.    Ch. VII-VIII: the perfections of zeal and meditative absorption

4.    Ch. IX-X: the perfection of wisdom, and dedication of the merit

Essay Titles

1.    The presentation of the various kinds of awakening spirit (bodhicitta) in the Bodhicaryāvatāra, their characteristics, and the location of these doctrines in the history of the development of the Mahāyāna.

2.    Śāntideva’s text’s advocacy of the strategic use (upāya kauśalyam) of the afflictive processes (kleśa) against each other, and how this relates to the broader Mahāyāna context.

3.    The Bodhicaryāvatāra’s establishment of the superiority of the Mahāyāna, and in particular the Madhyamaka, in the chapter on the perfection of wisdom, its presentation of the relationship between emptiness and compassion and its use of logical arguments to dismiss objections from the various non-Buddhist and Buddhist schools.

Lent Term 2016

Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Vast Activity

Prerequisites: None.  In particular it should be noted that it is not necessary to have completed the module on Mahāyāna: The Profound View.

4 seminars

Buddhism developed a sophisticated technology of spiritual training based on but limited to meditation techniques for transformation of the mind.  In these seminars we will explore the difficult but hugely influential central text on spiritual training in the Yogācāra tradition, Maitreyanātha and Asaṅga’s Madhyāntavibhāga (Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes), and experience the tradition Nālandā transmission method (as used in all Tibetan philosophy colleges).  We will work from an English version of the root text, and in parallel with the original Sanskrit, although no prior knowledge of Sanskrit is expected.

Objectives

(1) to develop a thorough familiarity with this text, and thus a confident understanding of the doctrines of the so-called Maitreya or “vast activity” tradition of Mahāyāna, such that at the end of the course the student is able to explain any of its contents in detail and with confidence, and approach subsequent studies of sūtras and treatises with an authoritative voice;

(2) to taste the living experience of a real Buddhist tradition by experiencing first-hand the traditional Nālandā transmission method (namely the five-point presentation of the treatise; framed by the guidance of the so-called three Mahāyāna excellences, in the motivation for and attitude to study and in the conduct supportive of study; and clarified by critical investigative debate sessions) and gain facility in it, such that by the end of the course the student is able to teach the text in this manner, and can speak critically and with confidence not only about the doctrines and their application but also about the Buddhist pedagogical method itself.

These seminars are likely to be of interest not just to students of Buddhist doctrine but also to those studying Sanskrit, the history of Buddhism, Yogācāra philosophy (of which our text is one of the most important sources), technologies of spiritual practice, psychology, and the anthropology the living practice of Mahāyāna across Asia and now Europe and America.

Seminars

1.    Introduction to Yogācāra and Ch. 1: definitions

2.    Ch. II-III: obstructions and reality

3.    Ch. IV: cultivation of antidotes, and its states and results

4.    Ch. V: the unsurpassed vehicle

Essay Questions

1.    The recognizably Yogācāra features of the Madhyāntavibhāga, the characteristics of those distinctive doctrines, and their relation to the history of the development of the Yogācāra.

2.    An analysis and explanation of Maitreyanātha and Asaṅga’s text’s presentation of a sophisticated technology of cultivation of antidotes to obscurations of reality, and its relation to the broader Mahāyāna context.

3.    The Madhyāntavibhāga’s way of establishing the eminence of the Mahāyāna, with especially regard to its method of directing the mind, its deployment of concordant factors on the path, and its overcoming the extreme of dualism.            

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