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Book: Buddhist Violence and Religious Authority

Chapter: 5. De-Centering the Normative in the Introduction to Buddhism Class

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.40726


In this paper, I present an alternative method for teaching the Intro to Buddhism class, inspired in part by Michael Jerryson’s work on Buddhism and violence. The standard way of teaching this class is to divide the semester into two halves. The first half gives a three-fold doctrinal history of Buddhism in India: early Buddhism, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna. The second half of the semester then explores the three major regional traditions of Buddhism outside of India: Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Tibet and Mongolia. This model allows little room for non-normative aspects of Buddhism such as violence, and insofar as it does, it implicitly frames them as “aberrations” from “real Buddhism.” In my syllabus, I began by having students read The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, which teaches them about Buddhist doctrine with a seductively modernist approach. At the mid-point of the semester, I then reveal to them that Thich Nhat Hanh’s book leaves out a great deal of what is found in actual traditional Buddhist practice, including reincarnation, gods, spirits, miracles, the supernatural, patriarchy, and violence. We then do a brief theoretical excursus into “Protestant presuppositions” and Orientalism so as to understand how the modernist view of Buddhism came about and why we need to take traditional forms of Buddhism seriously. In the second half of the semester, we then study regional forms of Buddhism, with a special eye towards practice, including the practice of violence.

Chapter Contributors

  • Nathan McGovern ( - nmcgovern) 'Franklin Marshall College'