Buddhism course has enduring appeal for UCLA undergrads

Buddhism course has enduring appeal for UCLA undergrads

Donghwasa (on Palgong mountain), Kyeongsang Bukdo, Korea. (Photo: Christina L. Buswell.)

"Introduction to Buddhism" is a popular UCLA course that regularly fills up whenever it is offered.

“What drew me to Buddhism, and thus this course, was its emphasis on the mind as the gatekeeper of experience (and reality as we know it)." Sergio Garcia (UCLA 2016)

International Institute, July 12, 2013 — An introductory course on Buddhism is consistently popular with UCLA undergraduates, filling up every time it is offered — regardless of whether it is taught as a lecture course (Asian M60) or one that fulfills an undergraduate writing requirement (Asian M60W).

“Introduction to Buddhism” is so popular, in fact, that the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures offered it in all three quarters of the 2012–2013 academic year. A whopping 96 students registered for the course in spring 2013 (leading to four discussion sections), when it was offered without the writing requirement for the first time in over five years.

Magoksa, Chungcheong Namdo, Korea. (Photo: Christina L. Buswell).

Teaching an overview of a 2,500-year-old religion

It is a tall order to teach how Buddhism developed in India, as well as explain the religious doctrines and meditative practices common to the various strands of Asian Buddhism, in only 10 weeks. But it’s one the instructors seem to enjoy.

“I’d worked as a teaching assistant for this course many times, and then later taught my own version of the course, and I still find it intriguing and rewarding to teach,” says Karen M. Muldoon-Hules (UCLA Ph.D. 2011, Buddhist Studies), who taught the course in 2010–2011 and the three preceding summers.

“In my class we look at the beginnings of Buddhism in India, [where I tried] to convey a sense of the rich religious ‘incubator’ that early India was at the time Buddhism arose,” says Muldoon-Hules. “I also make sure there is a section on women, since often women have [been] shortchanged in treatments of religion. A look at the roles for women in Buddhist provides a useful counterpoint to roles students may be more familiar with in their own or others’ religious traditions.

In addition to discussions of primary materials, she says, “I like the idea of having students visit local Buddhist groups and report back in the discussion section or on a discussion board about what they observed there.”

Jason McCombs (UCLA MA 2009, now a doctoral candidate in Buddhist Studies) taught the course throughout the 2012–2013 year. “I really like teaching the class,” he says. McCombs, who has a master’s in education from Harvard University, stresses discussion and student participation in his classes.

“I try to use only primary material for readings — original works in translation or ethnographies,” he notes. “I prefer that students make up their own minds about the material rather than being told how to interpret it.”

McCombs also tries to include a visit to a Thai temple in the San Fernando Valley. “It allows students to get an ‘insider’s’ presentation by a real Buddhist,” he remarks. “In the past, students have raved about the experience.”

Daeheungsa, Cholla Namdo, Korea. (Photo: Christina L. Buswell).

Both Muldoon-Hules and McCombs are students of Professor Gregory Schopen, whose work focuses on Indian Buddhist monastic life and early Mahayana movements. (Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism are the major two traditions of the religion; Vajrayana is yet another tradition that is sometimes included in the Mahayana category.) Schopen is also known on campus for leading boisterous basketball games.

Muldoon-Hules originally became interested in Buddhism when she lived in Japan for six years and traveled in Asia, managing to visit a number of ancient temples and monasteries in western India prior to starting her graduate work at UCLA. Her dissertation focused on a group of women’s stories in a north Indian collection of Buddhist narratives that, she says, “are part of a rich, large corpus of understudied material.”

Her current research interests include the forging of a global Buddhist identity and religious developments in Japan, Nepal and Tibet, particularly as they are reflected in media and film. “Having just taught Religion, Film and Media (Religion 160) for the Study of Religion Program,” she said, “I would love to use more media in the Introduction to Buddhism course to focus attention on key Buddhist concepts and history by pairing films with authentic Buddhist texts and background discussions.”

“I don’t really have a good answer as to why I started studying Buddhism,” confessed McCombs, who earned a B.A. in biology and religion from the University of Michigan. “My first interest was and is India, especially Sanskrit — I was serious about studying Sanskrit before Indian Buddhism.” After reflecting, he says, “Really it was Dr. Schopen who drew me into the field. I found his essays compelling and —refreshingly — funny.”

McCombs is currently writing a dissertation on gift-giving in Indian Mahayana Buddhism, using material from some of his own translated texts in addition to Mahayana inscriptions that record gifts. His research interests include Indian epigraphy, Mahayana Sutra literature and Mahayana history in India.

Study of Buddhism attracts students for a variety of reasons

Students are drawn to the introductory course for different reasons. Some are Study of Religion majors, who in Muldoon-Hules’s experience, seem to enjoy the readings the most. Some are art history students, sometimes with a specific interest in Buddhist art.

A number of students are first-generation Asian Americans with a Buddhist background who wish to gain a greater comprehension of the tradition and their respective cultures. For these students, notes Muldoon-Hules, the course provides a broader understanding of “the rich tapestry of Buddhist traditions in the world.” For example, she notes that “a Taiwanese student was surprised to learn that many Tibetans were Buddhist.”

Other students have been exposed to Buddhist images and ideas in American popular culture and seek deeper information about the religion. And still others seek to better understand themselves, and/or their own religious orientation, by studying another tradition.

“Buddhism is a ‘sexy’ topic for young people,” says Ph.D. candidate McCombs. “You won’t find the same level of enrollment, I don’t think, for introductory classes on western religions.”

Sergio Garcia (UCLA 2016) took the course this spring as a first-year student, saying, “What drew me to Buddhism, and thus this course, was its emphasis on the mind as the gatekeeper of experience (and reality as we know it). After taking this course,” he notes, “I am most interested in Buddhist philosophy, particularly of the Ch’an/Zen traditions, and how these philosophies can be applied to holistically better one’s life.”

Unable to register for the course until her final year at UCLA because it kept filling up, Shannon Daly (UCLA 2012, psychobiology) finally succeeded in taking Intro to Buddhism in her senior year:

“Although the saying by George Bernard Shaw — ‘there is only one religion, although there are hundreds of versions of it’ — resonates with me, one unique and interesting thing about Buddhism is that anyone can eventually become a Buddha,” she remarks.

Kristen Michelle Pojunis (UCLA 2016, biochemistry) comments,

“I took the course to gain insight about a religion outside of the Judeo-Christian realm, which I’ve been exposed to since elementary school. While I hadn’t studied Buddhism much at all, I’ve come in contact with images and quotes of the Buddha through a variety of mediums. . . Ultimately, I’ve found women’s place in Buddhism to be one of the most interesting topics discussed [ and] I'm particularly fond of the lectures and discussions [of] the three characteristics of existence: suffering, impermanence and selflessness [non-self].”

The motivation of Pojunis was echoed by Heather Rosen (UCLA 2016, political science):

“I took the class mostly to combat the ignorance I had about non-western cultures. . . Because Buddhism is such a popular religion and culture, I thought it would be beneficial to have a basic understanding of another perspective on life that did not revolve around Jesus and Original Sin.”

Like Garcia, the most interesting part of the class for Rosen was learning about Zen tradition. “Men and women following the Zen way,” she observes, “say that humans need to enter every experience with an empty mind clear of judgment and unnecessary analysis. I found this interesting because it completely goes against what I believe to be human nature.”

Neda Ashtari (UCLA 2016, fine art and psychobiology) came to the course believing she was a Buddhist. However, she says,

“[A]fter studying actual Buddhist doctrines and being exposed to the mysticism and the rituals of the religion, I have come to understand I cannot identify myself as a Buddhist. In the western world we are so eager to call Buddhism a ‘philosophy’ or ‘a way of life’ that we neglect the true underpinnings of the religion — the rituals, the practices, the rules and regulations that comprise the religion. . . I have come to understand that I cannot read books written from a secular Western perspective and treat them as doctrinal documentation.”

Interest in Buddhism unlikely to diminish

The increasing popularity of the Buddhism in western countries, California’s large Asian American population and the ethos of diversity on the UCLA campus all seem to contribute to the course’s popularity. And lest we forget, it offers an interesting way to fulfill an undergraduate writing requirement.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the enduring appeal of “Introduction to Buddhism,” however, is the genuine intellectual curiosity of UCLA students, who recognize the need to learn about beliefs and cultures other than their own, often gaining a better comprehension of their own religious backgrounds in the process.


Published: Friday, July 12, 2013