ExEAS Teaching Unit
Foundations and Transformations of Buddhism: An Overview
John M. Koller
Professor of Asian and Comparative Philosophy
Department of Cognitive Science
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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These materials are designed to serve as background materials on what Buddhism is, how it developed and spread, and how Buddhist traditions differ. The reading has been adapted from Chapter 11 of Asian Philosophies, Fourth Edition, by John M. Koller ( Upper Saddle River , N.J. : Prentice Hall, 2002.)

Instructors and students can use these materials as background reading for courses on Buddhism, Asian Religions, Asian History, Asian Civilization, and Asian Literature featuring Buddhist themes, among others.

The reading also provides useful background and supplementary information for the following ExEAS teaching units:


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  1. Buddhism in India: Beginnings and Spread
  2. India at the Time of the Buddha
  3. Central Teachings: The Noble Fourfold Truth and the Noble Eightfold Path
  4. Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism
  5. Buddhism in China
  6. Buddhism in Korea and Japan


Additional Online Resources
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Buddhism Digital Library & Museum, a joint project of National Taiwan University and Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies (Taiwan)

Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library, edited by T. Matthew Ciolek ( The Australian National University), Joe Bransford Wilson (U. of North Carolina at Wilmington) and Jerome Ducor (Ethnographic Museum, Geneva).

Digital Dictionary of Buddhism by Charles Muller (Toyo Gakuen University)

Korean Buddhism Resources by Charles Muller (Toyo Gakuen University)

“The Origins of Buddhism,” by Lise F. Vail featured on the Asia Society's Ask Asia website

A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (University of Washington)


Further Reading
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Batchelor, Stephen. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture . Berkeley , CA : Parallax Press, 1994.

A highly readable history of Western encounters with Buddhism.

Buswell Jr, Robert Evans. The Korean Approaches to Zen: The Collected Works of Chinul. Honolulu : University of Hawaii , 1983.

Contains an excellent early history of Korean Buddhism.

Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China . Princeton , NJ : Princeton University Press, 1964.

This text was the standard history of Chinese Buddhism for many years. The same author's The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), was the standard explanation of the transformations that Buddhism underwent in China . Both are now somewhat out of date.

De Bary, William Theodore et al.:

  • Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume 1. New York , NY : Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Sources of Indian Tradition, Volume 1. NY: Columbia UP, 1988.
  • Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume 1. NY: Columbia UP, 2001.
  • Sources of Korean Tradition, Volume 1. NY: Columbia UP, 1997.

See these volumes for excellent brief introductions to various Buddhist developments in different Asian cultures as well as valuable translations from important primary texts.

Gombrich, Richard F. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History From Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo . London and New York : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988.

Explains the early development of Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka .

Hershock, Peter D. Chan Buddhism . Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press, 2005.

A lucid account of the development of Chan thought and practice from its Indian origins to its flowering in the great masters, Huineng, Mazu, and Linji.

Hirakawa Akira. A History of Indian Buddhism From Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

Focuses on the first five centuries of Indian Buddhism.

Kalupahana, David J. A History of Buddhist Philosophy. Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1992.

An excellent historical introduction to Buddhism. The first half deals with the history of early Buddhism from a philosophical perspective. The second half deals with the development of the Mahayana in India , with special attention to Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and Dignaga.

Koller, John M. Asian Philosophies. 4 th Edition. Upper Saddle River , N.J. : Prentice Hall, 2002.

This text provides a good introduction to the philosophies of India and China . Much of the text featured here has been adapted from Chapter 11 .

McRae, John R. Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2003.

Presents ground-breaking interpretations of the development of Chan Buddhism.

Powers, John. A Concise Encyclopedia of Buddhism . Oxford : Oneworld Publications, 2000.

A well-organized digest of important information about almost every facet of Buddhism. Has a good, brief bibliography.

Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. 2 nd Edition. Birmingham , England : Windhorse Publications: 1997.

A well-informed and highly readable history of Buddhism. Contains a good bibliography on Buddhist history.

The History and Culture of Buddhism in Korea . E dited by the Korean Buddhist Research Institute (Chae, Taeg-su). Seoul : Dongguk University Press, 1993.

The best book available on Korean Buddhism.

Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London and New York : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1989.

This text is probably the best introduction to the development of Mahayana thought.


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