Buddhist Hermeneutics

These three courses [9 units] are designed to introduce students to the theoretical framework, interpretive models, and experiential elements of learning derived from Buddhist sources and the Buddhist tradition itself. To fathom the Buddhist sources within their own paradigm is to acknowledge that the intent of these texts was not merely intellectual debate or religious belief, but a pragmatic search for living a meaningful existence. They are orthopraxic in scope: concerned with a purposeful and exemplary way of living which balances knowledge with virtue.

Each course emphasizes critical subjectivity—an approach that entails close reading of primary sources done in conjunction with a “laboratory” experience consisting of meditation and mindfulness exercises. This unique hermeneutical tool, where intellectual inquiry is informed and enhanced by contemplative practice, allows students to gain a fuller appreciation of the Buddhist texts as both philosophical treatises and dynamic methods of inquiry.

Included in this study is the body of literature centering on the lives of self-cultivation pursued by Buddhist practitioners [teachers and students] from the beginnings of Buddhism to the present. The emphasis is on examining the intersection and interaction between theory and practice. This collection of works forms an indispensable complement to the study of Buddhist classics as it records actual attempts to interpret and integrate those teachings into a firsthand, lived experience. The genre of personal diaries, records, journals, poetry, and stories [often regarded as classics in their own right] adds an invaluable dimension to a reading of the formal texts, as it presents yet another interpretive lens—direct experience. The concrete attempt to fuse gnosis and praxis, to regard philosophy as a way of life, which lies at the heart of the Buddhist soteriological methodology, is tested, challenged, and brought to life in these biographical and autobiographical accounts.

A final dimension of the Buddhist hermeneutical system is śīla, meaning “morality” or “virtue.” In Buddhism, śīla describes the normative behavioral and psychological guidelines for self-cultivation held to be essential both for contemplative practice and textual insight. The ethical teachings are central to all schools of Buddhism and underpin the broad range of its various practices: devotional, contemplative, esoteric, doctrinal study, and discipline-training. As such, they cover both the letter and the spirit of śīla. Works include: Cullavagga, Asaṅga’s “Morality Chapter” from Bodhisattvabhūmi, Brahma Net Sūtra, and chapters from both sūtra and śāstra works, as well selections from the biographical records.

General readings include: Mahāpadesa [Discourse on the Great Authorities]; Catuḥpratisaraṇasūtra [Sūtra of the Four Refuges]; CullavaggaAṅguttara NikāyaThe Ten Doors of the Avataṃsaka Prologue by Qing Liang; selections from the Śūraṅgama-sūtra; and Prajñāpāramitā texts: Diamond Sūtra [Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra]; and Heart Sūtra[Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya]; Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha SūtraLonger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, and theAmitāyurdhyāna Sūtra. Supplementary works include: Lopez, Donald S. Jr., ed. Buddhist Hermeneutics. Vol. 6. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988. Jackson, Roger, and John Maransky, eds. Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars. London: Routledge Curzon, 2000.

Biographical and autobiographical works include: Therīgāthā [Verses and Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns]; The Jātakas; The Dhamma Teaching of Acariya Maha BoowaThe Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta TheraThe Autobiography of Phra Ajaan Lee; The Autobiography of a Forest Monk by Ajahn Tate; The Autobiography of Ch’an Master Han ShanEmpty Cloud: The Autobiography of the Chinese Zen Master by Xuyun; The Sixth Patriarch Platform Sūtra; Xuanzang’s Si-yu-ki Buddhist Records of the Western World; The Ten Foot Square Hut [Hōjōki] by Kamo no Chōmei; Biographies from the Divyāvadāna; and poetry selections.