REL 260: Buddhist Thought

MW 1:10-2:20

Constance Kassor           

Dewey 213                               413-585-3429

Office hours: Tues/Thurs 11-12, and by appointment



Course Description

This course will examine the origins of Buddhist thought, and explore some of its developments as it spread throughout Asia and eventually into North America. This course is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of Buddhism; we will begin by examining Buddhist thought during and shortly after the Buddha’s lifetime, and then we will turn our attention to the two principal schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism: Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. The Madhyamaka school is characterized by the view of emptiness (the view that all things are devoid of independent, inherently existing essences). The Yogācāra school reinterprets the concept of emptiness, emphasizing the idea that nothing is ultimately separate from the mind. We will then turn our attention to modern interpretations of Buddhist thought.




All readings will be posted on Moodle. You are required to bring the assigned reading with you to every class meeting. (It doesn’t matter to me whether you print out your readings or save them electronically, as long as you bring them to class.)



Course Requirements

  • Participation (10%)

Students are expected to come to class prepared to discuss the readings. This means being able to summarize and discuss the main argument(s) presented in the reading, as well as having insights or questions about particularly intriguing or difficult passages.


  • Short papers and comments (40%; papers = 30%, comments = 10%)

– Students are required to writethree short papers(approx. 500 words each) and post them on our course blog ( at assigned times throughout the semester, indicated on the class schedule. Groups are determined by students’ last names:

  • Group A = last name A-I
  • Group B = last name J-Q
  • group C = last name R-Z

– If you do not write a paper in any given week, you are required to comment on at least one of your fellow classmates’ papers. Comments do not have to be extensive, but should be at least 2-3 sentences, and should raise a question or offer a critical insight into the content of the paper. In other words, comments should contribute to the discussion in a constructive way; they should say something more than simply, “This is an interesting idea!”

– Papers are due each week by Sunday at 11:59pm; comments are due by the following Tuesday at 5pm.


  • Long paper (30%)

A longer paper (8-10 pages), due after Spring Break, can be written on any topic of your choosing, provided that it is relevant to the class. A thesis statement and a draft of your paper are required in advance of the final due date, both of which count toward your overall grade for this assignment.


  • In-class Presentation(20%)

At the end of the semester, all students will give a “PechaKucha”-style presentation in class, elaborating on a topic that we have covered during the first half of the semester. More information on this style of presentation will be given in class, but in short, this is a concise style of presentation in which one presents exactly 20 slides for exactly 20 seconds each.



Technology Policy:

Laptops, tablets, and smartphones are welcome in class, provided that you are using them for class-related activities. In other words, you are welcome to use these devices to refer to class readings, type notes, or follow our course blog. You should not, however, use these tools to read your email, check Facebook, send text messages, etc. Misuse of technology may result in the banning of all electronics in class.


This course relies on technology. Readings will be posted online, and all assignments and essays will be submitted electronically. Sometimes when you’re working with computers, things can go wrong. Computers crash, servers go down, and files get lost. These will not be acceptable excuses for late work or missed assignments. Please be sure to regularly back up your work and complete your assignments well enough in advance that you can avoid these problems.



Policy on late assignments:

I’ve designed this class with your stress levels in mind; if you keep up with readings and adhere to due dates, this class should be less stress-inducing than many of your other classes! For that reason, I do not grant extensions on assignments,* except in emergency circumstances. (Being in the hospital constitutes an emergency; having a headache the night before an assignment is due does not.) A fraction of a letter grade will be deducted for each 24-hour period that an assignment is late. E.g., an A- will become a B+ if it is submitted up to 24 hours late, a B if it is submitted 24-48 hours late, etc.


*There is one exception to this rule: all students are allowed one 72-hour extension on any written assignment this semester. This is a no-questions-asked, no-excuses-necessary extension. All that you need to do is email me before the deadline for the assignment, and let me know that you’d like to use your extension. This extension applies to all short papers, comments on the blog, or drafts of your final papers. This cannot be applied to your in-class presentation.




Class Schedule


Week 1: Introduction

Jan 26 – Introductions

  • No reading

Jan 28 – Buddhist thought in context

  • Bronkhorst, Buddhist Teaching in India, 1-60


Week 2:

Group A papers due by Sunday (2/8)

Feb 2 – The Four Noble Truths

  • Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism, 58-84

Feb 4 – Interpreting the meaning of teachings: Nītārtha and Neyārtha

  • Lamotte, “Assessment of Textual Interpretation in Buddhism”


Week 3:

Group B papers due by Sunday (2/15)

Feb 9 – No class

  • Get a head-start on the reading for Wednesday’s class!

Feb 11 – Buddhist practitioners

  • Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism, chapter 4

Week 4:

Group C papers due by Sunday (2/22)

Feb 16 – Women and Buddhist thought

  • Theragatha / Therigatha, selections

Feb 18 – Rally Day – No class!



Week 5:

Group A papers due by Sunday (3/1)

Feb 23 – Madhyamaka and the two truths

  • Buddhist Philosophy, chapter 2
  • Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, selections

Feb 25 – Yogācāra and the three natures

  • Buddhist Philosophy, chapter 3
  • D’Amato, “Three Natures, Three Stages”


Week 6:

Group B papers due by Sunday (3/9)

Mar 2 – Writing workshop

  • Read the websites posted on Moodle
  • Thesis statements due in class

Mar 4 – Development of the Buddhist theory of Selflessness

  • Buddhist Philosophy, chapters 23, 24, 25


Week 7:

Group C papers due by Sunday (3/15)

Mar 9 – Candrakīrti’s refutation of the self

  • Buddhist Philosophy, chapter 27
  • Duerlinger, “Candrakīrti’s Denial of the Self”

Mar 11 – Śāntarakṣita on selflessness

  • Buddhist Philosophy, chapter 28

Drafts of long papers due




Week 8:

Mar 23 – Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

  • Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, chapter 11

Mar 25 – Tsongkhapa’s interpretation of Madhyamaka

  • Buddhist Philosophy, chapter 20
  • Jinpa, Self, Reality, and Reason, pp. 12-36


Week 9:

Mar 30 – Tibetan Buddhism

Long papers due

  • No reading! We’ll be watching the film The Cup in class.

Apr 1 – Tsongkhapa’s interpretation, continued

  • Jinpa, Self, Reality, and Reason, pp. 148-183


Week 10:

Group A papers due by Sunday (4/12)

Apr 6 – Gorampa’s critique of Tsongkhapa

  • Cabezón, Freedom from Extremes, pp. 115-201

Apr 8 – Gorampa’s critique, continued

  • Reading TBA


Week 11:

Group B papers due by Sunday (4/19)

Apr 13 – Kedrup’s reply to Gorampa

  • Buddhist Philosophy, chapter 11
  • Cabezón, A Dose of Emptiness, pp. 357-380

Apr 15 – Mipham’s synthesis

  • Duckworth, “Two Models of the Two Truths”
  • Duckworth, Jamgön Mipham, pp. 67-98


Week 12:

Group C papers due by Sunday (4/26)

Apr 20 – Buddhist thought in America

  • No reading! We’ll watch the film Dhamma Brothers in class

Apr 22 – Buddhist thought in America, continued

  • Hasenkamp, “Is Delusion Hardwired?”


Week 13: Final Presentations

Apr 27 – Presentations in class

Apr 29 – Presentations in class