Teaching Buddhism

New Insights on Understanding and Presenting the Traditions

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Todd T. Lewis, Gary DeAngelis
AAR Teaching Religious Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     432 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Teaching Buddhism: New Insights on Understanding and Presenting the Traditions Todd Lewis and Gary DeAngelis have gathered together a selection of nineteen essays intended to update instructors of Buddhism on current scholarship. The essays cover new research in commonly taught Buddhist areas, highlight important new areas of study, and discuss pragmatic issues concerning teaching and the classroom. This volume, like others in the American Academy of Religion Teaching Religious Studies series, is preeminently a practical volume, with chapters highlighting immediately useable information such as new literature, important ideas, pedagogical strategies, bibliographies, further readings, sample syllabi, and films. Some discuss further pedagogical issues, such as how (and if) to discuss one’s own religion in the classroom context.

The book is separated into five parts. The first, “Updating Perennial Course Subjects” contains five chapters. These chapters address Buddhism as philosophy, Nāgārjuna, Yogācāra, Tantric Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism, respectively. These chapters are written for non-specialists, taking into account that many people teach Buddhism or elements of Buddhism with which they are unfamiliar. For example, the first chapter “Teaching Buddhism as Philosophy” by Matt Siderits, takes into account that both philosophers untrained in Buddhism and Buddhist scholars untrained in philosophy may find themselves in the position, for a variety of reasons, of teaching Buddhist philosophy. Similarly, chapter 3 “Teaching Yogācāra Buddhism Using Cognitive Science” by William S. Waldron introduces the domain of cognitive science as a fruitful area with which to compare the Yogācāra school.

The second part “Reimagining the Content of Buddhism” has two chapters: “In Defense of the Dharma: Buddhists and Politics” by Thomas Borchert and Ian Harris and “Conveying Buddhist Tradition Through Its Rituals” by Todd Lewis. This section enriches our understanding of the wider context of Buddhism by highlighting case studies and ethnographies concerning the involvement of Buddhist practitioners or groups in politics and a variety of ritual practices, respectively.

Part 3, “Issues in Teaching, Practice, and Connecting Students with the Tradition,” contains four chapters. It is this section that addresses issues such as teaching as a scholar-practitioner in the Western Academy, teaching Buddhism to Buddhists, Buddhism and feminism, and teaching Buddhism compellingly as part of a World Religions course. These chapters touch thoughtfully on a variety of issues that may arise through contact with students in various institutional contexts. For example, Rita Gross (chapter 9, “Teaching Buddhist History to the Buddhist Practitioner”) writes about distinguishing between the religious “truth” of Buddhist stories (i.e., revelation) and historical understandings of the texts in her role outside the university as a dharma teacher.

“Buddhism in the American Context,” the fourth part, has three chapters. This section focuses on growing fields and recent scholarship, such as Buddhism in America, Buddhism and family, and Engaged Buddhism, respectively. Chapter 13, for example, “Conveying Buddhism in the Classroom: Working with Assumptions on Family and Children” by Vanessa R. Sasson, draws our attention to often-overlooked textual sources that challenge our assumptions about familial relationships and the Buddhist monastic community. (Spoiler: there is a lot more interaction and overlap than scholars generally acknowledge.) 

The final part is called “Buddhism in New Academic Fields.” Its five chapters and placement at the end of the book indicate that the contents—Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, Bioethics, Environmentalism, Economic Development, and Social Justice—are issues that are can and should be addressed in the classroom context. These are urgent and timely issues to which Buddhist practitioners and scholars have contributed in provoking ways. For example, “Buddhism and Economic Development,” chapter 18 by Laszlo Zsolnai, offers an alternative way at looking at economic models, one that most students will probably not been exposed to earlier. Similarly, chapter 17, “Buddhism Environmentalism” by Leslie E. Sponsel and Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel explores the ways in which Buddhism engages with environmental issues and crises.

If not clear from the above, I highly recommend this book for instructors of Buddhism for many reasons. First, the editors have done a good job of including a variety of important topics by specialists on which most courses on Buddhism will (or should) touch. That makes this a solid one-stop volume for instructors looking to either create new courses on Buddhism or update existing ones. The authors write clearly and specifically for non-specialists and instructors, with the result that the essays contain information and approaches easily incorporated into existing lessons and courses. 

Secondly, the authors (meritoriously) generally include a bounty of recommended readings, films, and pedagogical strategies that are all exceedingly useful. For example, chapters 4, 11, 16, and 17 offer model syllabi or lay out the authors’s own courses in detail. Most chapters offer bibliographies of further readings, some of them quite comprehensive (see chapter 16 on bioethics by Damien Keown). Many others include pedagogical techniques and considerations, such as how to create a positive classroom experience when addressing negative issues, as Anna Broom does with regard to social issues in chapter 19 and pedagogical areas of mindfulness, as Hsiao-Lan Hu does with regard to feminism in chapter 10.

The book also includes an index of names and a subject index that make it easy to locate areas of specific interest. The only possible improvement would be to include more topical essays, such as one specifically discussing changes in the status of nuns and other female practitioners of Buddhism in southeast Asia. Overall, this thoughtful book will prove welcome and useful to a variety of instructors and scholars.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Keely Sutton is Assistant Professor of Religion at Birmingham-Southern College.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Todd T. Lewis is the Murray Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities in the Religious Studies Department at The College of the Holy Cross, where he has taught since 1990. Professor Lewis is one of the world's leading authorities on the religions of the central Himalayan region and the social history of Buddhism.

Gary DeAngelis has taught Asian Religions for forty-six years at Boston University, Brandeis University, Clark University and for the last twenty-nine years at Holy Cross College, also serving as the Associate Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at Holy Cross. His primary areas of teaching and scholarship have been Chinese and Japanese religions with a particular emphasis on scared space, pilgrimage, and ritual.



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