Posted by: Ken Brown | March 10, 2009

The Teaching Company Lectures on Buddhism: Reflections

This past weekend I drove across the state for my mom’s 50th birthday, and along the way I listened to an interesting series of lectures on Buddhism produced by The Teaching Company (checked out from our local library). In 12 lectures, Dr. Malcome David Eckel, of Boston University, offers an excellent introduction to Buddhism. He covers the life of the Buddha (born as Siddhartha Gautama, ca. 566 BCE), and helpfully  introduces traditional doctrines, such as the Buddhist views of suffering, Nirvana and Emptiness. Eckel also spends considerable time discussing the later history of Buddhism, particularly the development of Mahayana (beginning in the 1st C. CE) and Theravada (beginning in the 3rd C. BCE–I’m not sure why he discussed this after Mahayana), and closes with lectures on Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.

I have to admit that apart from reading Siddartha in High School, I know very little about Buddhism, so most of the material in these lectures was new to me, and I quite enjoyed them. Eckel is a fine speaker and clearly passionate about his subject (he also has a fuller, 24 lecture series on Buddhism, which I may try to track down next). Given my comparative ignorance, then, I won’t attempt to criticize of Buddhism itself (which seems quite diverse), but I wanted to reflect on a few aspects of the subject that struck me as particularly noteworthy and/or questionable, and I would welcome any interaction (or correction) from those who know more:

First, and most superficially, I had to smile at the various connections with LOST: Dharma, Namaste, the 8-spoked wheel, etc. I’m not sure of the deeper significance to these connections, but Dharma and the Wheel are clearly central to the show, and give it added depth.

Second, and more importantly, I was particularly struck by the Buddhist understanding of suffering. On the one hand, the recognition that suffering comes not only from the “obvious” (physical and emotional pain), but also from change and from unrealistic expectations, is profound. Indeed, much of the suffering in our world is caused by various self-delusions and (often unconscious) attempts to impose them on others. On the other hand, the broader claim that “all is suffering” does (despite Eckel’s protestations) seem to me to be extremely pessimistic, and is made all the worse by the proffered solution: nirvana, which (as I understand it) means the complete dissolution not only of all suffering but of everything about conscious life and personality.

Third, and along the same lines, the concept of Emptiness is especially puzzling to me. Apparently Theravada Buddhism claims that the personality is an illusion; the so-called “self” is merely a series of momentary phenomena which only give the appearance of continuity (this is compared to a river or a flame, though I am not entirely sure of the force of these analogies). Mahayana Buddhism, however, goes further to claim that everything is an illusion: not only is there no permenant self, but there are no moments either. All our experience of time and extension and identity are illusions that must be overcome on the road to Awakening.

Now Eckel emphasizes the “positive” nature of this doctrine, which means that (if we could only see it) there is no difference between our current situation and nirvana, between ourselves and the Buddha: “this means that nirvana is right here, at this moment, if we can only understand it.” But the negative implications of this view seem to me far more important: it seems to imply not only that all that keeps us from nirvana is our faulty perspective, but that there is no difference between nirvana and the most abject suffering; indeed, there is no difference between good and evil themselves. This not only strikes me as absurd and deeply problematic, but seems to undermine the whole point and purpose of Buddhism itself–how is it a solution to the suffering that the Buddha was so struck by, to conclude that it is all an illusion? Nevertheless, I admit being rather unclear about this aspect of the tradition, so maybe I am just misunderstanding it.

Finally, and more postiviely, then, I was struck by the many parallels between the controversies within Christianity and those within Buddhism, at least as Eckel describes it. For instance, certain strands of Buddhism seem quite legalistic, stressing the importance of earning “merit” (karma?) through ritual and good deeds in order to improve one’s prospects for the next life, whereas others sound very Protestant, insisting on the need for “faith” in the “grace” of the Buddha (“one only need chant his name”). Similarly, certain streams of the tradition seem very superstitious, attributing all manner of powers to various “cosmic buddhas,” while others are so philosophical that they hardly resemble a religion at all. Some stress the importance of compassion and humanitarian service, while others spurn the world for private meditation. Some are adamantly pacifistic, while others have been co-opted by imperialistic governments, etc., etc.

Now I don’t know how much of this is just Eckel’s attempt to describe things in familiar terms, but the connections with various Catholic-Protestant, Conservative-Progressive and other debates within Christiniaty seem profound, and strongly affirmed for me that, however distinctive some of Christianity’s answers may be, the questions it faces are universal.



  1. this is helpful, ken–thanks!

    i just had a conversation with someone recently about how we find peace in the midst of life in general and suffering in the more specific. i boiled it down to trusting God and suggested that the idea of “nirvana” is misleading to us–that we will find a place where we finally “arrive” and are at permanent rest in this part of the Story (though now i’m not sure if i had the right idea of nirvana? probably a more popular understanding versus an accurate one, i’m thinking). i think walking with God is a moment by moment, day to day, thing, a constant turning to him and placing our trust in him, that he is who he says and can and will do what he says. as we are in the already-but-not-yet, that will take constant intention and even vigilance (some times more than others). not that a good segment of it can’t become habit, but we live yet in a place where darkness strives to do as much destruction as it can in the throes of it’s own demise.

    also, the “Lost” connections are interesting, heh.

  2. That’s good stuff, Carmen! I’m not sure I really understand nirvana either, but something that may help is the way Eckel describes the Buddhist view of time and creation as virtually the opposite of the Christian one.

    Whereas Christianity claims God creates order out of nothing, and sees the goal as the completion of creation and the fullness of life, Buddhism insists that there has always been order and life (the world is eternal), and sees its goal as the the achievement of nothingness–the end of life and creation (striving).

    To be honest, I really don’t see the attraction of such a view (maybe because I live in a comfortable house in a relatively stable part of the world, and not in the abject poverty of India), but (once again) it may be that I am misunderstanding Eckel’s point–the whole Buddhist worldview is just so foreign, it’s hard to wrap my mind around it.

  3. I’ve seen those Teaching CDs at my library also–maybe the ones on Buddhism, but definately ones on Islam, C.S. Lewis, evolution, and lots of other things. I should check on of them out next time I go.

  4. Besides this one on Buddhism, I’ve listened to their series on Ancient Greek Literature (36 lectures) and am currently in the middle of one on the Philosophy of Religion (also 36 lectures), and all of them have been excellent–definitely worth checking out!

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