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Module VPR-2400:
Buddhism in the Modern World

Module Facts

Run by School of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences

20 Credits or 10 ECTS Credits

Semester 1

Organiser: Dr Joshua Andrews

Overall aims and purpose

Since its inception in India in the sixth century BC, Buddhism has become one of the great missionary religions, spreading first throughout Asia, before gaining prominence within the West throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This global spread of Buddhism has ensured that it has become a religion of evaluation and synthesis, continually adapting in order to assimilate with different social, cultural, political and economic traditions. It is this inclusive outlook that shall be the focus of this module, examining how the global spread of Buddhism has led to the development of a diverse range of religious traditions, which remain centred around the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. In particular, it will examine the central differences between the Theravada and the Mahayana traditions, before surveying the tantric practices of Vajrayana Buddhism, the social ethics of engaged Buddhism and Stephen Bachelor’s atheistic Buddhism. The course will finally explore how these diverse traditions approach contemporary world issues, discussing the role of Buddhism in politics and contemporary ethical debates.

Course content

Throughout the module students will examine:

• The historical origins of Buddhism – This aspect of the module will explore the life and philosophy of Siddhārtha Gautama. In particular, students will focus on the significance of the Four Noble Truths, Three Marks of Existence and Buddhist cosmology in order to assess how Buddhism differs from other dharmic traditions.

• Buddhist schools - Throughout this section of the course students will analyse the spread of Buddhism, discussing how the traditional teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama have evolved as Buddhism has established itself in new regions. It will analyse how Buddhism has adapted to local ideologies to formulate new schools of Buddhist thought, with students evaluating how Vajrayana and Engaged Buddhism differ from the earlier Theravada and Mahayana traditions.

•Buddhism in the West – Students will then examine how Buddhism has developed in the West, exploring a range of diverse traditions such as atheistic Buddhism and mindfulness. Students will be required to assess how these traditions differ from those previously explored.

•Buddhism and contemporary issues – This final aspect of the course will examine how the different Buddhist schools respond to a range of contemporary issues, in particular, we shall examine how different Buddhist schools have responded to political issues such as China’s occupation of Tibet and the recent conflicts in Burma. We shall then explore issues linked to developments in science, discussing Buddhist responses to ethical concerns linked to embryology, transplants and vivisection.

Assessment Criteria


Very Good B- - B+. Submitted work is competent throughout and distinguished by superior style, approach and choice of supporting materials. It demonstrates: - Very good structure and logically developed arguments. - Draws on material that has been sourced and assessed as a result of independent study, or in a way unique to the student. - Assertions are backed by evidence and sound reasoning. - Accuracy and presentation in an appropriate academic style.

C- to C+

Good C- - C +. Submitted work is competent throughout and occasionally distinguished by superior style, approach and choice of supporting materials. It demonstrates: - Good structure and logically developed arguments. - At least in parts draws on material that has been sourced and assessed as a result of independent study, or in a way unique to the student. - Assertions are, in the main, backed by evidence and sound reasoning. - Accuracy and presentation in an appropriate academic style.


A - - A*. Submitted work is of an outstanding quality and excellent in one or more of the following ways: - Has originality of exposition with the student’s own thinking being readily apparent. - Provides clear evidence of extensive and relevant independent study. - Arguments are laid down with clarity and provide the reader with successive stages of consideration to reach conclusions.


D- - D +. Submitted work is adequate and shows an acceptable level of competence as follows:

Generally accurate but with omissions and errors.
Assertions are made without clear supporting evidence or reasoning.
Has structure but is lacking in clarity and therefore relies on the reader to make links and assumptions.
Draws on a relatively narrow range of material.

Learning outcomes

  1. • Discuss and demonstrate knowledge of the Buddhism’s classic sources and their subsequent articulations by some central interpreters of the tradition(s).

  2. • Demonstrate comprehension of and intelligent engagement with the rich philosophical traditions of Buddhism in its varied and central forms.

  3. • Apply philosophical insights, themes and debates from different Buddhist schools appropriately to broader social and disciplinary contexts, including the medical and biological sciences.

  4. • Demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the multi-faceted complexity of Buddhism, for example, in the relationship between specifically religious beliefs, texts, practices and institutions, and wider social and cultural structures, norms, aesthetics and aspirations.

Assessment Methods

Type Name Description Weight
ESSAY Essay 40
ORAL Group Presentation 30
Written assignment, including essay Glossary of Key Terms 30

Teaching and Learning Strategy


There will be two hours of lectures each week (weeks 1-12).


There will be a one-hour seminar held every week. Seminars will enable students to take an active role in their own learning by employing a range of student centred activities, which encourage them to develop a host of transferable skills while they critically engage with topics discussed in their previous lectures. In particular, students will be invited to analyse specific case studies to help them apply the philosophical knowledge discussed in their previous classes to contemporary ethical issues. Seminars will utilize both group and individual activities to ensure that students are able to develop both their independent learning skills, but also skills such as teamwork and effective communication.

Private study

Students will be given directed reading to complete each week, these readings will be linked to specific topics that will be discussed in their subsequent lectures and seminars. Students will also be required to undertake detailed research in order to complete their written assignment, being encouraged to access a range of online publications and library resources. A selection of documentary films will be made available to them and it will be expected that students watch these during within a specified time frame.


Transferable skills

  • Literacy - Proficiency in reading and writing through a variety of media
  • Self-Management - Able to work unsupervised in an efficient, punctual and structured manner. To examine the outcomes of tasks and events, and judge levels of quality and importance
  • Exploring - Able to investigate, research and consider alternatives
  • Information retrieval - Able to access different and multiple sources of information
  • Inter-personal - Able to question, actively listen, examine given answers and interact sensitevely with others
  • Critical analysis & Problem Solving - Able to deconstruct and analyse problems or complex situations. To find solutions to problems through analyses and exploration of all possibilities using appropriate methods, rescources and creativity.
  • Safety-Consciousness - Having an awareness of your immediate environment, and confidence in adhering to health and safety regulations
  • Presentation - Able to clearly present information and explanations to an audience. Through the written or oral mode of communication accurately and concisely.
  • Teamwork - Able to constructively cooperate with others on a common task, and/or be part of a day-to-day working team
  • Mentoring - Able to support, help, guide, inspire and/or coach others
  • Management - Able to utilise, coordinate and control resources (human, physical and/or financial)
  • Argument - Able to put forward, debate and justify an opinion or a course of action, with an individual or in a wider group setting
  • Self-awareness & Reflectivity - Having an awareness of your own strengths, weaknesses, aims and objectives. Able to regularly review, evaluate and reflect upon the performance of yourself and others
  • Leadership - Able to lead and manage, develop action plans and objectives, offer guidance and direction to others, and cope with the related pressures such authority can result in

Subject specific skills

  • Articulacy in identifying underlying issues in a wide variety of debates.
  • Precision of thought and expression in the analysis and formulation of complex and controversial problems.
  • Sensitivity in interpretation of religious and philosophical texts drawn from a variety of ages and/or traditions.
  • Clarity and rigour in the critical assessment of arguments presented in such texts.
  • The ability to use and criticise specialised religious and philosophical terminology.
  • The ability to abstract and analyse arguments, and to identify flaws in them, such as false premises and invalid reasoning.
  • The ability to construct rationally persuasive arguments for or against specific religious and philosophical claims.
  • The ability to move between generalisation and appropriately detailed discussion, inventing or discovering examples to support or challenge a position, and distinguishing relevant and irrelevant considerations.
  • The ability to consider unfamiliar ideas and ways of thinking, and to examine critically presuppositions and methods within the disciplines of philosophy and religion.


Reading list

Paul Williams with Tribe, Anthony, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (Oxford: Routledge, 2000).

Peter Harvey, Buddhism (London: Continuum, 2001).

Damien Keown, Buddhism (London: Sterling, 2009).

Courses including this module

Optional in courses: