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Buddhist sacred texts: Buddhism and psychology, advanced course


Admission requirements

Recommended: Introduction to Buddhism (Silk en Blezer, 5 ECTS, 100).


Buddhist doctrine and theory, in modern and late-modern contexts, is preferentially read and rephrased in psychological terms, certainly outside Asia, but inclreasingly within Asia as well. Why is that? This course, emphatically, is not a seminar on or from psychological disciplines as such, but instead looks at the ubiquitous phenomena of framing Buddhism as if it were some pre-modern variety of psychology (which, as we will see, may well be a contradiction in terms). Nonetheless, students of psychology who are interested in this major hermeneutical inetrface of Buddhism are more than welcome; in fact, this course is specifically designed to cater interests in Buddhism by students from the social sciences.

This marked preference for a psychological hermeneutical interface, when interpreting, framing and translating Buddhism, has an interesting history that—how else indeed—seems to be approximately as old as the discipline of psychology itself. This prefered modernist reading of Buddhism perhaps indicates more about our western history of ideas and our specific modernist discourses of self, religious experience and views of religion—as evident in main cultural themes, such the rationality and enlightenment, secularisation, individualisation, the increasing, at times stunning hights of self-reflexivity of modernity, and, of course, the history of reception of Buddhism in the ‘West’ (which is much involved with the previous)—more so than it would indicate much about Buddhism in non-modern Asian contexts as such.

In this seminar we will first briefly, but critically, sample a few preferred psychologising strategies of interpretation, extracted from documemts that mark key points in the history of reception of Buddhism. Subsequently, we will will dig in deeper, into a number of typical Buddhist texts; “typical” in the sense that they (could) have contributed to the assumption that Buddhism, au fond, is some non-modern type of psychology. We shall read copious Buddhist materials in translation (indeed, the “Buddhist Sacred Texts”-part of the course title) on theories of perception, on the overwhelming fount of buddhist conceptualisations and categorisations of elements from the ‘mental domain’, on Buddhist theories regarding presumed functioning of the human mind and thinking (feeling etc.), on conceptualisations of so-called ‘disturbing emotions’ and ‘transcendent wisdom’, ‘samsaric’ and ‘nirvanic’ mental categories; on Buddhist theory of knowledge; and the like.

Students are encouraged to examine critically the reading materials and framings of this course—or, if needs be, tear them down completely—for example, to question the seemingly natural chemistry between Buddhism and psychology—or, on the contrary, to underpin it—or even found and rethink it anew in brilliant impromptu discourse. In any case, in this course there will be ample opportunity to do so: in the time allotted for discussion; because of the informal format, with generous space for personal contribution; and y means of the concluding essay.

Course objectives

  • Take note of the most important Buddhist theories and doctrines that have given rise to the hermeneutical engagements of Buddhism and psychology.

  • Gain insight into the history of framing Buddhism in psychological terms and its backgrounds and resonances in modern Asia.

  • Appreciation of the embedding of psychologisation of Buddhism in the wider phenomenon of modernisaion movements in Buddhism.

  • Insight into ‘what appears in the eye of the beholder’: our own history of religious ideas and our culturally determined tendency “to psychologise religion and sacralise the psychological”.

  • Insight into problematic nature of the notion of meditative ‘experience’ in Buddhism and the related paradox of ‘immediate experience’.

  • Insight into first en third person perspectives in science.

  • Training in selective reading of extensive and greatly varied primary and secondary sources; for instance, developing skills in extracting relevant parts from articles and chapters that are written from at time widely diverging perspectives, and managing the relevant divide between doctrinary and narrative primary sources on the one hand and their secondary analyses and further reflection on the other.

  • Learn to articulate academic questions and to develop academic discourse and argumentation in formal oral presentation and in academic writing.


See website.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

Each student: reads the mandatory literature; prepares a one page (1 A4) summary with critical reflections on the reading materials, to be handed in at least one day ahead of every meeting; and holds an oral presentation, during the second half of the seminar. There will moreover be a concluding essay of approximately 2500-3500 words (5 ECTS). The essay will be based on the materials that were read and discussed during class, but also involves substantially new materials, on the highest level, to be selected in consultation with the instructor. There is an option to extend the essay to 10 ECTS: a larger paper of 5000–7500 words, plus extra reading materials.

  • Active participation 20% (including at least 10 critically reflected summaries)

  • Oral presentation 20%

  • Essay 60% 5 ECTS; or larger paper 80% etc. at 10 ECTS.



Reading list

Will be announced later.


Registration via uSis is mandatory.

Registration Contractonderwijs


Dr. Henk W.A. Blezer


In a nutshell:
MA seminar, first semester.
5 (or 10 ECTS), level 500, in Dutch or English.
Oral presentation and essay or larger paper.
Deficiencies can be resolved by means of a pensum.