Coursera’s Buddhism and Modern Psychology : week one

Buddhism and Modern Psychology, a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), started yesterday. So far it is excellent, with Prof. Wright laying out some foundations of Buddhism, trying to narrow the scope of what is used with terms like supernatural (which is excluded) and secular (included) and science (the method of choosing which is which). He also gives overviews of a few psychology experiments that have proven relevant to Buddhist understandings of the first two noble truths.

Questions of rebirth are explicitly set aside. As too, I presume, are any Western psychology ideas that have failed to meet the demands of evidence (Freud and Jung come to mind). 

The videos are around one hour in total and have  short quizzes at the end. It’s free, it’s open to everyone, and regarding one of my ongoing research interests, I see that one of the discussion forum headings is: Wondering if any of the students approach Buddhism more as a philosophical stance than as a religion? (if you’re logged in, you can go right to it with that link).

In terms of how Buddhism is approached today, what do we call someone who does Buddhist practices such as meditation and accepts at least some main ideas from the tradition? In my own early education on Buddhism, I was taught that Buddhism has generally been a religion of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy, meaning that those who do the practices and agree to a given set of rules are ‘in’ while those who do not might be legitimately considered ‘out’.

Early on in India, Sautrantika monks (those who followed the sutras alone) could cohabitate with Pudgalavadins (those who believed that despite the anatman doctrine, that there still was a ‘person’ that existed as a real thing), and alongside both could have been monks and nuns who were reading and reproducing the earliest Mahayana texts.

Today there are some Western Buddhists who assert that you must believe in x to be a Buddhist.  No doubt there is some precedent for this in Buddhism, but today this may in many cases be more due to Christian creedal influences.

The reason I ask the question above is because Owen Flanagan (Buddhism without Superstition…), who practices meditation and clearly has a deep appreciation for the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism, seems to upset many of these Buddhists. And my guess is that Prof. Wright, who likewise espouses to have a meditation practice and appreciation of Buddhist teachings, will fall prey to the same ire or dismissal for finding ‘superstitious’ believes irrelevant.

Again, such ‘creedal’ turf-battles have played out in Buddhism in the past, especially when sect x thought that sect y’s beliefs led to immoraity.

In any case, I’m enjoying the class immensely so far, and I’ll keep an eye out for any mindful snipers or google executives amongst my fellow classmates.

~

They have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed you can follow and here’s the overview of week one:

Week 1: March 20

Lecture One: The Buddhist Diagnosis

  1. Introduction: Religious Buddhism and ‘Secular’ Buddhism
  2. Feelings and Illusions
  3. The First Two Noble Truths
  4. Evolutionary Psychology and the First Two Noble Truths
And I couldn’t help add this as a helpful visual introduction to the class:

Screenshot from a video at Coursera’s Buddhism and Modern Psychology course in which dukkha is described in terms of never getting satisfaction (Mick Jagger and Prof. Robert Wright).

  • AshokaHan

    I saw this course a few weeks back and signed up, also, and I have been pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it is. Wright’s approach is strikingly similar too my own, and I often find myself referring to my brand of practice as “secular Buddhism”. However, I often wonder if such a distinction is necessary.

    In my mind, I am a Buddhist. I may not find the teachings on rebirth to be particularly important to my practice, but I see the Four Noble Truths as the guiding principles in my life and walk the Eightfold Path detailed in the Fourth Noble Truth as best as I can. I have attended Buddhist retreats since the age of sixteen and had a somewhat steady meditation practice since then.

    As of yet, I have had no reason to either reject nor adopt the Buddhist idea of rebirth, and as such I have set rebirth aside until either my personal meditative experience or scientific study allows me to verify it. Until that time comes, I see no reason why I should refrain from calling myself a Buddhist. I am happy to call myself a “secular Buddhist” if it clarifies for others what it is I believe, but I think simply “Buddhist” is all that is necessary to describe what I do.

    And now off to watch the lecture for week two! Maybe I’ll see you on the forums!


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