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RELS521 Readings in Buddhist Texts

A critical study of a selected Buddhist text or texts. Provides an introduction to the methods appropriate to the study of ancient texts.

This paper seeks to introduce advanced students to the diversity of texts, textual practices, and textual communities in Buddhist Asia. Although there is a famous Buddhist maxim that states "you should burn your books before crossing the ocean to Nirvana", Buddhist nuns, monks, and lay thinkers have been composing texts copiously for over two thousand years. First we begin with a serious reflection on the thing we call a "text". We will look at the physical features, socio-historical context, intended audience, life of the composer, and the worlds created in the text and in the reader/listener. Next we will consider Buddhist education and how students of Buddhism come to know their literature. Then we will focus on the oral composition of texts and the types of textual communities that create, teach, ritualise, worship, and sustain particular textual works.

Our intention is not only to think about what the texts are "about", but also what they "do" and how they are "treated" in a particular community in a particular place and time. From there we move on to look at one particular set of texts - the cosmological texts, particularly the Traibhumikatha and related texts on cosmology, hells, heavens, and protective texts to ensure favourable births. We will trace how these texts have been translated, taught, ritualised, worshipped, and transformed over the past two millennia. Our goal will be to hear the cacophony of voices in Buddhist texts and textual communities. These voices are varied and many. They create new persons and new realities and force us to reflect upon our own.

Paper title Readings in Buddhist Texts
Paper code RELS521
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.2500
Points 30 points 30 points
Teaching period(s) 1st Non standard period (4 February 2019 - 19 June 2019), 1st Non standard period (4 February 2019 - 19 June 2019)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $2,007.00
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $5,250.00

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Limited to
Limited to: MA

Dr Elizabeth Guthrie-Higbee:

Teaching staff

Professor Justin McDaniel (University of Pennsylvania)

Professor McDaniel works on Lao, Thai, Pali and Sanskrit literature, art and architecture, and manuscript studies. His first book, Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words (2008), won the Harry Benda Prize. His second book, The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magic Monk (2011), won the Kahin Prize. He has received grants from the NEH, Mellon, Rockefeller, Fulbright, PACRIM, Luce, and the SSRC, among others. He is the co-editor of the journals Buddhism Compass and Journal of Lao Studies and Associate Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies. He has won teaching and advising awards at Harvard U, Ohio U and the University of California and has won the Ludwig Prize for Teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. He was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2012 and a fellow of Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies in 2014. He is the editor of four books on Asian Manuscript Cultures, Buddhist Biographies, Buddhist Ritual, and Thai rare book and manuscript collections. His new book, Architects of Buddhist Leisure (2016), is a study of modern Buddhist architecture in across Asia.

Teaching Arrangements

This paper will be taught as an intensive course. Students (including distance students) will be required to complete preparatory reading and then be present on campus in Dunedin for a week of intensive seminars (11-16 February 2019). Assessment will be completed during the course of the first semester.


To be advised

Graduate Attributes Emphasised

Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Cultural understanding, Ethics, Information literacy, Research.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of this paper, learners will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an informed understanding of key concepts and major themes within the text(s) studied
  • Discuss critically the context of origin, history of transmission and reception of the text
  • Outline the traditional methods of exegesis of the text and its place within the wider canon of Buddhist literature
  • Critically analyse the doctrinal stance of the text and its relation to other Buddhist traditions and to Buddhist practice
  • Assess the secondary literature on the text and evaluate the different approaches to the text in contemporary scholarship
  • Demonstrate that they have acquired the basic methodological skills to undertake independent research on Buddhist texts, working on primary sources

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1st Non standard period (4 February 2019 - 19 June 2019)

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

1st Non standard period (4 February 2019 - 19 June 2019)

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system