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Winter Academic Term 2002 Course Guide

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Courses in Buddhist Studies

This page was created at 5:16 PM on Fri, Mar 22, 2002.

Winter Academic Term, 2002 (January 7 - April 26)

Open courses in Buddhist Studies
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Wolverine Access Subject listing for BUDDHST

Winter Academic Term '02 Time Schedule for Buddhist Studies.

BUDDHST 481 / ASIAN 481 / RELIGION 483. Zen Buddhism.

Section 001.

Instructor(s): Robert H Sharf (

Prerequisites & Distribution: One previous course in Buddhist Studies recommended. (4). (Excl).

Foreign Lit

Credits: (4).

Course Homepage: No homepage submitted.

This course will introduce students to the Zen Buddhist traditions of China and Japan, drawing on a variety of disciplinary perspectives (history, anthropology, philosophy, and so on). The course will also explore a range of hermeneutic problems (problems involved in interpretation) entailed in understanding a sophisticated religious tradition that emerged in a time and culture very different from our own.

Medieval East Asian Zen masters espoused a radical freedom that results, paradoxically, from the realization that radical freedom is impossible. But freedom from what? The traditional Zen answer is freedom from conditioning, from delusion, from the illusion of an autonomous self, and from the vagaries of language, culture, and history. Accordingly, it would seem that in order to understand Zen we must first come to understand medieval East Asian notions of delusion, self, language, culture, and history, as well as traditional Asian attitudes toward "magic," "ritual," and "religion."

The study of Zen thus involves contextualizing and historicizing our own understanding of who we are and what we can know. In doing so we confront the problem of "radical incommensurability": the notion that there are insurmountable barriers to our understanding of people who speak a different language, and live in a culture, time, and place remote from our own. Such a view would seem to preclude the very possibility of reconstructing medieval Asian Zen. Yet we will find that medieval Zen philosophers were also grappling with problems of linguistic, cultural, and historical contingency. Thus the very obstacle to our understanding of Zen the contingency of all understanding may prove to be a point of common reference, and thus the key that unlocks the tradition.

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