This course was a third-year undergraduate course taught in the fall of 2019. What follows here is a summary of some aspects of the course, taken from the syllabus. I discuss the course in its planning stage in this podcast interview, and you can listen to students discuss their experiences in the course six months after it concluded in this audio compilation.

Course Description

This course is an exploration of the Buddhist concept of interdependence, or interdependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit), from doctrinal and contemplative perspectives. We will survey the development of interdependent origination in Buddhist philosophy, looking more closely at Mahāyāna presentations and philosophical writings of Nāgārjuna. We will study how the concept of interdependence has been transformed in Buddhist modernist contexts, and how contemporary environmental, scientific, and activist movements globally have relied on the concept. Our readings will include original Buddhist source texts in translation, writings by contemporary Buddhists, and work by philosophers and scientists who have been influenced by Buddhism. Our class discussions will consider how a diversity of voices have worked with Buddhist philosophical and ethical issues and how these may intersect with our own lives. Coursework will include reading assignments, participation in classroom discussions and activities, participation in experiential contemplative and wellness practices in class and at home, and regular philosophically-oriented reflective writing.

Required Readings and Materials

  • Ethan Nichtern, One City: A Declaration of Interdependence (Wisdom Publications, 2007)
  • Ogyen Trinley Dorje Karmapa, Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society (Wisdom Publications, 2017)
  • Kriti Sharma, Interdependence: Biology and Beyond (Fordham University Press, 2015)
  • Other readings included the following:
    • Donald Mitchell and Sarah Jacoby, Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 3rd Edition (Oxford University Press, 2013) – Chapter 2, “The Teachings of the Buddha” (pgs 31-63) and Chapter 5, “Indian Experiences of Buddhism” (pgs 149-176).
    • Rupert Gethin, (Oxford University Press, 1998) – Chapter 6 “No Self: Personal The Foundations of Buddhism Continuity and Dependent Arising” (pgs 133-162).
    • W. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika (University of Hawaii Press (1995) – Section on “The philosophical language of the Madhyamika” (pgs 25-59) and Section on “Philosophy as Propaganda” (pgs 105-142).
    • Jay Garfield, Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika commentary (Oxford University Press, 1998), selected sections.
    • Alexis Shotwell Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), selections.
  • Choose an app for self-practice throughout the semester:
    • Strategic Breathing
    • Ten Percent Happier
    • Waking Up

Assignments and Grading

20%     Active and meaningful participation

15%     Written responses to questions about readings

15%     Home practice and written Practice Log

40%     Iterative autobiographical writing

10%     Final project and presentation

What is “Active and meaningful participation”?

A relatively large portion of your grade for this course is based on your active and meaningful participation in the course. This means:

  • Attendance: prompt arrival and positive presence in all class meetings and field trips.
  • Active listening: paying attention during class and during field excursions, asking appropriate questions, engaging in discussion, sharing comments, demonstrating interest and enthusiasm (this includes body language), exercising critical thinking, note taking, entertaining contradictory perspectives, engaging and acknowledging guest speakers.
  • Involvement in group discussion: doing the readings attentively and thoughtfully; sharing knowledge and information; challenging yourself to speak up if you usually don’t, and allowing others to speak if you are a person who tends to dominate discussions; sharing your thoughts or writing when invited to do so during the semester.
  • Group accountability: participating positively as part of a group during all activities.
  • Respect: interacting in an appropriate manner with other students, classroom guests, and communities outside the classroom.

What are “Reading responses”?

For each class meeting you will be asked to write a brief response to a couple of questions about the readings assigned for that day. You will be given time in class to do this, and it will help us organize our discussion time in class. This means you must have done the readings before you come to class. You will hand these in, and I will return them to you the following class. You will not be graded on how well you have understood the readings, since sometimes they may be quite difficult, but rather on how effectively you demonstrate that you did indeed do the readings and did your best to try to understand them. If you have done the readings, you will do well on this assignment!

What are the “Home practice” and “Practice log”?

For this course you will be required to maintain a consistent mind training, breathing, or contemplative movement practice outside of class. You will learn a variety of techniques in the first few weeks of class and you can choose which you want to practice outside of class. You will maintain a record of this work in your Practice Log, which will document what you did, how long you spent doing it, and how you feel it to have (or not have) an impact on your life or schoolwork. In your brief comments, for example, you might notice how a breathing practice changes your mental activities and/or makes you think differently about your body/mind. In the Log you will make a brief note of this, and you can then reflect on the experience more substantially in your autobiographical writing work if you want to.

For a full mark, you should do your practice for at least 15 minutes per day for at least five days of every week and complete the Log for each session. You will not be evaluated on the quality of your practice, but rather simply on whether you made the effort to maintain the practice and keep careful notes and observations in your Log. I will look at your Log twice during the semester and once at the end of the semester.

What is “Iterative autobiographical writing”?

In this ongoing writing assignment, you will write about your changing or multiple understandings of “self” in relation to the course materials and your own experience. As you think about your own life story using active philosophical thinking, you will contemplate your autobiography in the context of your own historical, social, educational and cultural circumstances. In our class discussions, I will understand your individual voices and your life experiences as rich sources of “data” for introspection and discussion, and this writing assignment, together with the course readings and home practices, will help you articulate and try out different ideas. As you write, I hope that you will reflect deeply on the meanings of subjectivity, objectivity, and intersubjectivity in the context of your own experience and our course readings. For example, as you work through our study of Buddhism, you may choose to explore questions like the following in your writing:

  • What kind of “self” do you discover as you write? Are you discovering yourself, or creating yourself? What would the difference be?
  • Does the self you’re writing exist beyond the words written?
  • As you write, do you feel like you’re being honest? Or are you lying or playing a role? What would the difference be?
  • Where do your ideas for what it means to be yourself come from?
  • In order to write about ourselves, do we need to believe that we have a coherent self?

You will be required to complete at least eleven entries in your writing journal, one per week. You may write by hand in a notebook or use a computer. Each entry should be 800-1000 words in length (this is about 1.5-2 pages of single-spaced writing in a word processor). Each entry should contain at least one reference to something in that week’s reading assignment, and reference to class discussions and home practice is also encouraged. Your overarching guiding question for each entry is “What is my understanding or experience of ‘self’?”, but you may take that in many different directions, and you may change your mind as many times as you like. You may be asked to read selections from your journal in class, so be sure to bring what you have written with you. You may also have a chance to write in your journal during class meetings, so you should carry it (the notebook or your computer) with you.

In the middle of the semester you will submit your journal to me for a preliminary, ungraded review. At the end of the semester, you will submit your full collection of entries so that your final journal covers the entire semester. Your full collection may be comprised of your original entries, or you may choose to revise some or all of them. Although your journal writing must be legible (if it is handwritten) and written in comprehensible English, for this writing assignment you will not be graded on things like grammar or spelling. Instead, in evaluating your journals I’ll be looking for:

  1. Regularity of Entries: Is there at least one entry a week?
  2. Length of Entries: Are the entries a 1.5-2 pages in length or longer?
  3. Appropriateness of Entries: Are the entries relevant to the course? For each week, have you addressed the readings, the class meeting, and/or your own practice experiences?
  4. Engaged Vitality of Entries: Do the entries make serious efforts to explore or come to terms with an idea?

This type of writing can engender “deep learning,” since it comes from your own self-analysis, in the context of course learning. Thoughtful introspection can help you better understand who you are, how you learn, and what talents and interests you possess. It can help you establish habits of regular writing and deep thinking that may make coursework throughout your University career a bit easier. Regular sessions of thought and writing can allow you to become more invested in your own, independent thinking, and it will help you to achieve richer insights. Developing habits of imagining and reflecting on experience (including school work!) are arts that have to be learned and practiced—they don’t emerge by themselves.

If you would like to read more about this kind of assignment, you may want to review the discussion here, (An essay originally published in Teaching Philosophy, 2006).

What are the Final project and presentation?

The final day of class will be devoted not to an exam, but to a celebration of our experience together in this course.

The image below depicts one aspect of the final class celebration, the “no-selfie sphere.” Students brought in a collection of “no-selfie” images (images that represented their identities in some way, without being “selfies”) and hung them all from this sphere. Standing inside the sphere had a surprising emotional impact.