What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Natasha L. Mikles

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Natasha L. Mikles

A colleague in Islamic Studies and I recently were discussing the fact that we come into classrooms facing opposite problems: he finds students who generally hold a unilaterally negative view of the subject matter at hand, while I—in Buddhist Studies—find students who are already convinced that Buddhism is a wholly positive, and therefore “good,” religious tradition. The majority of my work as an educator is designed at introducing complexity into this unidimensional system. It is tempting to simply undermine this rosy view of Buddhism by giving students pictures of machine-gun toting Burmese monks, descriptions of the horrible deformities Buddhist believe await you for sinful action, or hagiographic stories detailing the foulness of women’s wombs and the subsequent need to prevent the contamination of Buddhist sacred beings while in utero. However, this strategy seems to miss the point slightly; not only do two wrong (understandings) not make a right (understanding), but this further perpetuates the idea that there are either “good” or “bad” religions, and Buddhism merely switches sides from one to the other. Rather, I design my classroom to explicitly foster students’ understanding of Buddhism as a rich, diverse, and multidimensional tradition by selecting readings and planning classroom activities that encourage them to think like Buddhists—i.e. understanding the multidimensional Buddhist responses to quintessentially human problems—rather than about Buddhists—i.e. Buddhism is one thing or the other.

As an example, one pedagogical exercise that I utilize in my Introduction to Buddhism class that helps students think about how Buddhists think through Buddhist ideas is my “re-creation” in class of the Buddhist monastic code. Prior to class, students read several selections about making the Buddhist monastic code from John Strong’s The Experience of Buddhism. Unlike other religious leaders, the Buddha did not initially delineate the protocols and activities of a monastic community. Rather, the rules for monks and nuns arose in a rather ad hoc fashion—as a problem became apparent the Buddha added a new rule for monks and nuns to follow to ensure that the problem would not again arise. To give students a taste of the difficulties of this particular style of monastery management and what it might mean for contemporary monastic communities, I make students think through the same issues as early Buddhists and develop their own “monastic code.” After selecting a few brave volunteers, I nominate one student to be the Buddha, and one each to be the plaintiff and defendant in an actual sixth-century BCE situation the Buddha supposedly handled, as well as any other notable persons in the narrative. Based on cards I give them explaining their character’s personal concern, the students act out the situation, and the Buddha has to make a new monastic rule while also giving his or her reasoning behind it. Everyone changes places and the process is repeated until we have created a set of monastic rules as a class. We then discuss what was difficult or easy about the activity, as well as how the decisions of our “Buddhas” were the same or different from those actual rules created by the historical Buddha in response to the same situations. Through this exercise, students are given the opportunity to understand how early Buddhists thought through Buddhist ideas and made real-world decisions that affected the whole community.

This idea of having students encounter and work through problems in ways similar to Buddhists spreads throughout my Introduction to Buddhism syllabus. After our first half of the course—where we lay the outlines of Buddhism in India—we spend the second half of the course discussing different controversies that arose within Buddhist communities throughout Asia. Mid-semester presentations done by the students on the history, practice, and philosophy of Buddhism in countries outside of India lay the foundation for student understanding of each country-specific tradition of Buddhism, allowing them to focus instead on the details of how Buddhist practice and thought transformed in each country. Students have the opportunity not only to understand how Buddhists marshaled Buddhist ideas to create solutions to the various “problems” or “controversies” Buddhism encountered in Asian countries, but also to give their own reactions and potential solutions to the problem in light of the Buddhist thought and historical constraints at their disposal.

In China, my students consider the interactions between Confucian ideas of filial piety for one’s own parents and Buddhist ideas that every being has been one’s mother and should be treated accordingly. In Thailand, they debate the use of Buddhist amulets as a deviation or logical extension of Buddhist practice. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, they consider how British colonialism created a toxic situation of imported labor and local nationalism that led to contemporary Rohingya Muslim and Tamil Hindu oppression. While exhibiting only one single controversy per country risks flattening the history of Buddhism in that country, the benefit gained from presenting students with a complex, contentious, and composite Buddhism outweighs these risks.

My style of pedagogy where students consider explicitly the diversity of the Buddhist tradition and controversies within Buddhist communities naturally leads to questions of what sorts of textbooks I assign for my students. While I am generally suspicious of textbooks by nature, I find that Donald Mitchell and Sarah Jacoby’s Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience serves as a good foundational text for students to get the outlines of Indian Buddhist thought in the first half of the course. It remains a resource students can consult in their Mid-Semester Presentations and the second half of the course, though I elect to assign primary source readings for those weeks. The second book I assign for students is John Strong’s The Experience of Buddhism. Having a resource of primary sources is critical to my style of teaching, as I want students to hear Buddhist voices in disagreement with other Buddhist voices. While its $150 price tag ($73, if purchased on Amazon) is not only regrettable, but in my opinion bordering on criminal, students have assured me that plenty of more inexpensive used copies are circulating, and I allow students to use either the second or third edition as a way to ensure every student can find a used copy for their study.

While the problem of identifying what is and is not “Buddhist”—or any other religion for that matter—is certainly an important matter of concern, my classroom operates under the auspices of Talal Asad’s concept of “discursive tradition.” Roughly, this means that Buddhism can be identified as those things using the same set of authoritative sources from which to argue and working towards the same end goals with reference to the same set of practices in the present-day. Introducing my students to Buddhism as an explicitly contentious tradition full of controversies, competing arguments, and diametrically opposed voices—but ones arguing with a shared authoritative past for a similar goal—ensures that they leave the classroom aware of the rich multidimensionality of Buddhism discourse both historically and in the present-day.

Natasha L. Mikles (PhD) recently graduated from the University of Virginia, and has been teaching at Texas State University. Her research centers on Tibetan epic literature and the Nyingma school in late nineteenth-century Tibet.

This entry was posted in Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Theory, South Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Natasha L. Mikles

  1. Jane Porter says:

    Excellent discussion Natasha. I want to take your class

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