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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.

It is often said that Buddhist stories are simply ways to present Buddhist doctrine in a simple, popular form. This is wrong. Narratives can do things that systematic thought cannot: for example, explore moral problems and dilemmas rather than try to solve them and entertain rather than proselytise. Educated people like to read stories too, and not all Buddhist texts have something to sell. This paper will read and discuss Buddhist stories translated from the Pali Jātaka collection. The Pali Jātaka-s, 'Birth Stories', are often dismissed as 'folklore' or as at best teaching a simplistic moral code intended for children. This is also wrong. In fact they are linguistically and conceptually very sophisticated. In the practice of Buddhist intellectual historiography narratives are as important as systematic thought as a repository for ideas and for understanding the context(s) in which ideas were constructed and the circumstances to which they were responses. They are also important in understanding the concepts of wisdom (quotidian and supererogatory) and civilization.

The paper will be in three parts, all involving the close reading and discussion of stories and some secondary sources. First, we will look at two stories: the great Vessantara Jātaka, the most popular text (and ritual) in South and Southeast Asia (and known throughout the Asian Buddhist world), where the Future Buddha, as Prince Vessantara, gives away kingship, his children and his wife (apparently demonstrating 'Excellence in Generosity'); and the Mūgapakkha Jātaka, the Birth Story of the Dumb Cripple (also known as the Temīya Jātaka, from the name of its lead character), a tale of kingship and renunciation. Second, we will look at Birth Stories where the main or only characters are animals. We will discuss and critique the idea that these are 'folktales' and will ask what animal stories ('fables') are as a genre. Third, we will look at stories about wisdom, including those designated as exemplifying Excellence in Wisdom (paññā-pāramī), where we will also ask what 'wisdom literature' is, cross-culturally and comparatively.

The paper will approach academic work in the spirit of Michel Foucault, who described it as: 'that which is susceptible of introducing a significant difference in the field of knowledge, at the cost of a certain difficulty for the author and the reader, with, however, the possible recompense of a certain pleasure, that is to say of access to a new figure of truth'.

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 (1 February 2018 - 20 June 2018), 1st Non standard period (1 February 2018 - 20 June 2018)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $1,967.75
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $5,250.00

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Limited to
Limited to: MA
Teaching staff
Lecturer: Prof Steven Collins, from the University of Chicago
Teaching Arrangements
This paper will be taught by Prof Steven Collins, a visiting professor from the University of Chicago. Prof Collins is one of the world's leading scholars of Buddhism.

The paper will be delivered as an intensive course in Dunedin 2:00-5:00 pm on 7-10, 13-16 February 2018. Assessments will be completed during the semester.
Also available in library:
  • H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2nd edition, 2008)
  • M. Cone and R.F. Gombrich, The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara (Pali Text Society, 2011)
  • S. Collins (ed.) Readings of the Vessantara Jātaka (Columbia Readings in Buddhist Literatures, 2015)
  • S. Shaw, The Jātakas (Penguin Classics, 2006)
  • T. Curnow, Wisdom: a History (Reaktion Books, 2015)
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, 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
Paper Co-ordinator: Dr Ben Schonthal (

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1st Non standard period (1 February 2018 - 20 June 2018)

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

1st Non standard period (1 February 2018 - 20 June 2018)

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system