Contemplative Practice East & West
(Religion 117)

Overview & Objectives

This course explores the basic elements of contemplative practices (what most people these days call “meditation”) found in the Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions (which feature such practices most heavily) through in-depth reading of historical sources. This survey will include the (pseudonymous) works of Dionysius the Areopagite, Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (unit 1), and selected ancient Upanishads and Buddhist Suttas (unit 2). Although we will initially focus on ascertaining the historical and religious contexts for these written works, we will then to consider in detail the various subtleties of their approaches to contemplative practice. Students will have the option of establishing and maintaining their own daily contemplative practice, and using this experience to supplement their understanding of the above-mentioned historical texts as recorded in a weekly journal. Others may prefer to approach the texts from an exclusively analytical perspective, and will express their skill in doing so by submitting written analyses of the major texts. In either case, throughout the term I will collect reading notes to assess the degree of attentiveness with which students approach the assigned sources. On March 7-9th and May 2nd-5th we will hold weekend retreats at the nearby Johnston Wilderness Retreat Center--led by a Christian and a Buddhist teacher, respectively--in order to experience for ourselves the kind of contemplative atmosphere in which traditional practictioners have cultivated their inward faculties.

In order to identify clearly the context of contemplative practice in each of these traditions, I find it helpful to distinguish three different dimensions of religious life:

(a) religious practice: these are activities (including the "speech acts" of recitation, and even the mental articulation of intention and focus) performed in the same way on a regular basis, including not only formal rituals but also less formal everyday actions thatare somehow linked to religious ideals and concepts. While we will focus on inwardly directed practices in this course, for each tradition we will also spend some time becoming familiar with more outwardly directed rituals, since traditional contemplatives have almost always relied on such rites to motivate and shape their inward focus.

(b) depiction of cosmic powers and forces: this refers to the verbal description, in one of the many diverse genres of expression (poetry, prose, commentary--sung, orally recited or written), and/or to the illustration in some visual medium, of cosmic forces and powers that, while invisible to most, are felt to be subtly present to the religious practitioner. Such powers and forces are thus central to understanding both the general goal(s) and particular form(s) of ritual practice--especially inwardly directed ones. Cosmic powers are usually divine personalities--either celestial deities or deified humans--whereas cosmic forces are the hidden fundamental causes or factors (e.g., "fate") that give rise to all that we see and experience; but note that the two often overlap.

(c) social networks: this refers to the innumerable roles and relationships in which religious practitioners engage with those both inside and outside their religious communities. Generally in this class such networks will only be implied in the texts we read, but we should still be sensitive to their presence. The fact is that even a contemplative lives her or his life in relationship to a religious community.

In reviewing the writings of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist contemplatives of past ages, you may often find yourself skeptical of the way they approach dimensions (b) and (c). Still, you may at the same time find that much of the advice they give regarding dimension (a)--specifically about contemplative practice--is both insightful and helpful in terms of developing your own contemplative faculties.


As a result of completing this course you should be able to:

1. successfully differentiate and identify distinct styles of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist contemplative practice, and optionally (if you yourself decide to pursue contemplative practice during this course) decide which elements of these practices are helpful to you in maintaining your own practice.

2. accurately relate the contemplative practices of these traditions to their specific ritual and historical contexts.

3. demonstrate a basic level of competence in the following general skills
(which are broadly applicable to a wide range of both academic and work situations) as an integral part of achieving the above-mentioned objectives:

(a) systematic reflection: clarifying and examining assumptions, with particular emphasis on pursuing a single train of thought as far as possible; and using diagrams to clarify the relationship of your concepts. (See "Guidelines for Writing Exercises" for a specific written application of this skill.)

(b) accurate representation: summarizing clearly and concisely the content of a particular text in its own terms, using both quotation and paraphrase; and making a clear distinction between that presentation and your own evaluation of and reflections about it. (See "Guidelines for Reading Notes" for a specific written application of this skill.)

(c) basic word use: regular use of a dictionary to explore unknown terms; attention to the mechanics of your speech (most obviously by proofreading written work, but also being aware of words used in discussion); and consistent referencing of specific sources in your discussions (most obviously via citations in your writing, but also by calling attention to specific passages in discussion settings).  Inattention to these basic skills will lower your scores on written assignments, though during most of the term you will be allowed to submit corrections to reverse this penalty (see Notes on Written Work, #19-23).

4. access & savor the tremendous reservoir of strength and peace which is accessible to a human being at all times if (s)he simply takes the time to find it!

Overview & Objectives (TOP)

Attendance Policy

Required Texts

Schedule of Topics & Readings

Writing Exercises & Reading Notes

Notes on Written Work