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RELS316 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 Surfing. 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 RELS316
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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18 200-level RELS or RELX points
RELS 216, RELX 216, RELX 316
Schedule C
Arts and Music, Theology
(i) May not be credited together with RELS 231 or 331 passed in 2008. (ii) Students who have not passed the normal prerequisite may be admitted with approval from the Head of Department.
Dr Benjamin Schonthal:
Teaching staff
Course co-ordinator: Dr Ben Schonthal
Lecturer: Keziah Wallis
Paper Structure
This class covers the following topics:
  • The Buddhist roots of Zen
  • Ch'an Buddhism in China
  • Rinzai and Soto Zen in Japan
  • Zen in Modern Japan
  • Zen and 'the West'
The assessment at 300-level has three components:
  • A one-page (max 500-word) outline of the essay 10%
  • A 3,500-word essay 40%
  • A more rigorous two-hour exam 50%
Teaching Arrangements
Campus: Weekly lectures
Distance: Online discussion
A coursebook has been developed for this paper.
Course outline
View the sample course outline for RELS 316
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
300-level students who successfully complete the paper will be
  • Able to demonstrate knowledge of terminology, key theories and debates that lie behind contemporary literature on Zen Buddhism
  • Able to explore, through critical analysis, the history and development of Zen Buddhism
  • Familiar with theories of and critical approaches to Zen Buddhism
  • Able to develop creative and critical approaches by analysing texts and primary sources
  • Able to present an extended analysis in essay form using appropriate literature on a chosen topic

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Not offered in 2020

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