South and Southeast Asian Studies 250 Sec. 1: Buddhism and Modernity in Theravada Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka

Category: Graduate Seminars
Course #: 28349
Units: 4
Times and Locations:

M 9-12

Dwinelle 288

Once dismissed as the “lesser vehicle”, Theravada Buddhism is a dynamic field of belief and practice whose responses to modernity have included moral reform, textual purification, anti-colonial protest, passive disobedience, meditation movements, and militant nationalism. In the past two decades, methodological innovations and theoretical interventions in the cultural, literary, and religious history of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka have reframed the field, overturning longstanding presumptions about this complex and multi-textual arena, challenging categories, critiquing historiography, and inviting a broader, more inclusive and extra-canonical interpretation of what constitutes Theravada. This seminar introduces students to the current state of the field through critical readings and discussion of twelve book-length works encompassing Burma, Cambodia, Lanna, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The course is structured in three modules: Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, framed by introductory readings that consider the origins of the field and question the very category of Theravada. Module One: Buddha, considers folk, visual, scriptural and literary narratives as ways of telling history through past lives of the Buddha. Module Two: Dhamma, explores interpretations and delivery of the teachings of Buddha across and between different schools. Module Three: Sangha, examines the role of monks and other spiritual leaders in galvanizing collective action to protect the sasana; mediating the trauma of colonialism and navigating modernity. We will close with a reflection on the violent and destructive Buddhist nationalist movements that have wracked Burma and Sri Lanka in recent years. In tandem with our weekly seminar discussions, students will conduct individual research in primary sources, and develop a long research paper on a topic of their choosing, in consultation with Professor Edwards. Students of earlier and more recent periods or of other religious traditions may apply critical approaches from our readings to their research paper. Our Spring 2022 seminar will include a class visit by Professor Anne Blackburn.


Penny Edwards