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Embodying Nirvana



When beings become Buddhas, what happens? What does it mean to be a Buddha? What is lost in attaining awakening, and what is gained? How is nirvana embodied? The nature of the end point of the Buddhist path as attainable and attained by sentient beings has long been an object of controversy among Buddhists. Some representatives of the tradition hold that Buddhas are simply human beings who are no longer afflicted by lust, hatred, and delusion; others portray Buddhas in non-human (or super-human) terms, as beings who simultaneously possess multiple embodiments, are omniscient, can disappear and reappear at will, speak multiple languages at the same time, and emanate whole universes without breaking a sweat. This course addresses the divergent ways in which Buddhists have understood the figure of the Buddha and the nature of Buddhahood. We will read a number of primary texts in translation (together with several secondary studies), and will explore a number of interrelated topics: Buddhas as human and/or superhuman; Buddhas as moral exemplars and/or moral exceptions; the notion of a Buddha’s “skill in means” and its range of applicability; the vexed question of whether a Buddha can have thoughts and intentions; a Buddha’s multiple bodies and their characteristics; the controversy over “Buddha nature” as metaphysical and/or soteriological postulate; the occasionally divergent emphases of narrative and doctrinal texts; and the question of whether -- and what -- historical conclusions regarding Buddhist traditions might justifiably be drawn from the extant data. We’ll be concentrating principally (although not exclusively) on Indian Buddhist materials, though I will welcome course contributions that draw from other Buddhist traditions of reflection and practice.

Regions Covered

Historical Central Eurasia

When Taught

Fall 2013


Department of Religious Studies