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RELS216 Zen Buddhism

2021 information for papers will be published in early September. 

The history, doctrines, and practices of Chan Buddhism in China and Zen Buddhism in Japan. Zen practices, as meditation and koan, and the encounter with the "West".

The Zen of Flamenco Dancing. The Zen of Martial Arts. The Zen of Yoda.

Images of Zen Buddhism are everywhere in pop culture, giving one the impression of a profound, austere, mystery-filled religion that epitomises the 'wisdom of the East'. But what is Zen Buddhism really all about? This paper explores Zen Buddhism from two angles. On the one hand, it examines the historical development of Zen, offering students a chance to place Zen Buddhism within a longer trajectory of Buddhist thought in South and East Asia. On the other hand, it examines Zen Buddhism thematically, looking at important and surprising themes within Zen Buddhism, including the nature of Zen meditation, the links between Zen and war, the role of women in Zen, the spread of Zen Buddhism outside Japan and the rise of the 'Zen aesthetic' as a conceit of twentieth-century counterculture in North America and Europe.

Course materials include writings from Zen teachers, academic literature on Zen, popular literature and film. While investigating Zen Buddhism, students will also consider a set of broader issues pertaining to the study of Asia and religion. These include questions about Orientalism and secondary Orientalism, Western and Asian imperialism, religious reform, religious violence, asceticism, monastic life, religion and politics, romanticism, myth-making, practices of mental cultivation and others.

Paper title Zen Buddhism
Paper code RELS216
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.1500
Points 18 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2020
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $904.05
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $3,954.75

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36 points
RELS 316, RELX 216, RELX 316
Schedule C
Arts and Music, Theology
May not be credited together with RELS 231 or 331 passed in 2008.
Teaching staff
Lecturer: Keziah Wallis
Paper Structure
This class covers the following topics:
  • Historical and Cultural Context of Zen Buddhism
  • Rinzai and Soto Zen in Japan
  • Living Zen Buddhism
  • Zen out of Context
The assessment at 200 level has three components:
  • A Source Analysis (500 words) 10%
  • A 3,000-word essay 40%
  • A two-hour exam 50%
Teaching Arrangements
Campus: Weekly lectures and tutorials
Distance: Online discussion
A coursebook containing lecture notes and readings is available for this paper. Printed copies will be provided for distance students and are also available through the printshop. The coursebook is also available as a PDF through Blackboard.
Course outline
View the sample course outline for RELS 216
Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Ethics, Research, Self-motivation.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes
200-level students who successfully complete the paper will be:
  • Able to demonstrate knowledge of concepts and ideas concerning Zen Buddhism
  • Able to describe the historical development of Ch'an and Zen Buddhism
  • Familiar with important literature in English language concerning Zen Buddhism
  • Familiar with contemporary debates about Zen's (re)invention and interpretations
  • Able to present an analytical argument in essay form on a chosen topic

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Not offered in 2020

Teaching method
This paper is taught through Distance Learning
Learning management system