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Unit information: Mahayana Buddhist Literature in 2014/15

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Unit name Mahayana Buddhist Literature
Unit code THRS30075
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Greene
Open unit status Open




School/department Department of Religion and Theology
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit will examine so-called Mahayana or "great vehicle" Buddhism through the medium of some of its most significant literary outputs. Rather than directly discussing Mahayana Buddhist doctrines as abstract ideas or ideals, we will explore Mahayana scriptures as literary objects and attempt to uncover how the Mahayana vision of the Buddhism, the cosmos, and the path to liberation was presented to its followers in the dramatic literature of its scriptures. We will pay especially close attention to the way that Mahayana scriptures use extended narratives, plot twists, humour, and other literary devices to convey their teachings and entice their readers. We will also consider the question of how the novel literary forms of Mahayana scriptures – and indeed writing itself – may have contributed to the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in India and the rest of Asia.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit students will have

1) Be familiar with, and understand the significance of, key Mahayana Buddhist scriptures.

2) Analyse Mahayana scriptures as literary documents

3) Explain how narrative and literary structures are used by Mahayana scriptures as teaching devices.

4) Engage with scholarly debates about the origin and nature of Mahayana Buddhism and role the writing and literacy may have played

Students will also be expected to show:

(5) skills in critical thinking and in written communication appropriate to level H.

Teaching details

2 hours per week (seminar)

Assessment Details

One summative coursework essay of 3000 words (50%) and one unseen examination of two hours comprising 2 questions out of 6 (50%). Both elements will assess (1) (2) (3). The coursework essay in particular will offer students the opportunity to demonstrate ILOs (4) and (5).

Reading and References

Stephen F. Teiser and Jacqueline Ilyse Stone, Readings of the Lotus Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009)

Watson, Burton. The Lotus Sutra. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Thurman, Robert A. F. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti : A Mahāyāna Scripture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Conze, Edward. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā; [the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Slokas]. Bibliotheca Indica, Issue No. 1592. Work No. 284. Calcutta,: Asiatic Society, 1970.

Gómez, Luis O. Land of Bliss : The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light : Sanskrit and Chinese Versions of the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras. Studies in the Buddhist Traditions. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.