Teaching Religion

Below is an archive of pedagogical reflections I’ve written while teaching religious studies classes. They range from designing courses to implementing in-class teaching strategies, from theoretical ponderings to practical advice, and from classroom successes to classroom failures. Docendo disco, scribendo cogito! [For posts about my teaching workshops, please scroll to the end of my CV.]


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Zen Buddhism: Mind and Material Practices

A variant of my survey course on the history of Zen with a focus on the ever-shifting Buddhist explorations of the mind and material expressions of religious practice. We explore such questions as: What is the nature and functioning of the mind and how did views on contemplative practices change in Zen? How were material objects produced and used? What purpose do they serve in Zen? What is this elusive entity called “Zen”?

I further explored some of my teaching strategies through the lenses of Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL) in the posts below.

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Religions of Japan

A survey course on Japanese Religions motivated by a perennial question asked by scholars of Japanese religion – are religions primarily directed towards mundane, “this-worldly” concerns or more transcendent, “other-worldly” goals?

This course was designed in conjunction with a seminar on pedagogy. Some of my reflections on designing this course were published as blog posts under the series: Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design (listed below).

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Asian Religious Traditions

A survey course that interrogates the common assumptions of the term “religion” through a focused examination and comparison of South Asian and East Asian traditions. Comparison is accomplished through the lenses of selected “threshold concepts” which aid the students in creating their own definition of religion based solely on traditions covered in this course. We explore such questions as: What is a good definition of religion when we only consider Asian religious traditions? Can we learn anything about the category of religion by taking this approach?

This course provided much fodder for my blog and was the impetus for my certification through the UCSB Summer Teaching Institute for Associates. I first taught this course at Ventura Community College and revamped it for a summer class at UCSB in 2017.

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Zen Buddhism

A course that explores the history and innovative practices of Zen Buddhism as it developed in China, Japan, and North America. In the process, students develop a keen insight into the hallmarks of this East Asian tradition, differentiating it from its predecessors and contemporaries. We explore such questions as: How does myth play a role that may be more important than historical fact? How are certain ideas and traditions empowered through myth, while others are obscured?

I’ve had a lot of fun with this material over the years, developing it out of a series of Woodenfish lectures (see below) and expanding it into a full course for UCSB in the summer of 2016 and revising it for Ventura Community College.

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A survey course covering the transformation of Buddhism as Buddhists creatively (and pragmatically) responded to local cultural conditions across Asian and in the West. Students grapple with the philosophical implications of Buddhist doctrine and explore the impact it had on ethical, artistic, and religious practices. We explore such questions as: Is Buddhism a religion, philosophy, or a “mind science”? Do all Buddhists meditate? What is this thing called “Buddhism” and is there only one of them or are there many Buddhisms?

Much of this material, first conceived as a course in the Summer of 2014, derived from my lectures at the Woodenfish program years earlier.

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Buddhism in China

An upper-division course focused on the contours of Buddhism in China, highlighting both important doctrinal and practice-oriented innovations (as exemplified through Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan) as well as significant cultural shifts (as found in apocryphal texts, artistic expressions, pilgrimage practices, and elite literary compositions). I first taught this at the University of the West (Rosemead, CA) in the Spring of 2008.

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Woodenfish Program Lectures

I cut my teeth teaching for the Woodenfish Program, a non-profit organization that brings university students to China to live and study in a traditional Chinese Buddhist monastery for a month during the summer. Envisioned as an “experiential education,” the program provides instruction on the academic study of Buddhism as well as traditional meditation practice and monastic discipline.

I first taught in 2005 while also working administration as Chief of Staff, but since 2013 I have been in charge of developing programming curriculum in coordination with other  instructors. Starting in 2013, the Woodenfish Program could be taken for college credit through Whittier College (its cross-listed as Chinese Buddhism: Philosophy and Practice). Additionally, since 2016 the Woodenfish Foundation has been granted Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

Selected Lectures (between 90 minutes and 3 hours)

  • Orienting the Buddha: Academic Study of Buddhism in the West (2019, 2018, 2017)
  • The Western Construction of Buddhism (2013)
  • The Buddhist Cosmos: What is a Buddha Exactly? (2013)
  • Buddhist Abhidharma (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015)
  • Introduction to Early Mahāyāna (2019, 2018)
  • Emptiness and the Two Truths (2018)
  • The Mind’s Eye/I: Yogācāra (2019)
  • Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2019, 2017, 2015, 2006, 2005)
  • Brief History of Buddhist Meditation (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015)
  • Buddhist Mindfulness and Modern Mindlessness (2016)
  • Silk Road & Spice Route: Transmission of Buddhism to China (2015)
  • Early Chinese Buddhism: Missionaries, Merchants, and Early Controversy (2018, 2017)
  • The Chinese Cosmos: Immortals and Early Chinese Buddhism (2019, 2013)
  • Buddhism Between Empire: India/China & Han/Tang (2016)
  • Introduction to Chinese Religious Traditions (2019, 2018, 2017, 2015)
  • The Eight Schools of Chinese Buddhism (2016, 2015)
  • Huayan Buddhism: Entering the Dharmadhātu (2018, 2017)
  • Tiantai and Zhiyi’s Threefold Truth (2015)
  • Emptiness in China: Madhyamaka, Tiantai, and Huayan
  • Chan Buddhism: Legend and Lore (2019, 2018, 2017, 2015)
  • Chan & Kōan (2016)
  • Buddha Nature and Three Minds of Chan (One Mind, No Mind, Ordinary Mind) (2013)
  • Amituofo: An Introduction to Pure Land Buddhism (2018)
  • Buddhist Visual and Material Culture (2016, 2015, 2007, 2006)
  • Chinese Buddhist Sacred Architecture (2018)
  • Prajñā Philosophy of Emptiness (2007, 2006)
  • The Diamond Sūtra (2007)
  • History of the Heart Sūtra: A Cultural Biography (2018, 2016, 2015, 2013)
  • Introduction to the Cognitive Science of Religion (2016)
  • Martial Monks and the Southern Shaolin Temple (2019)

Teaching Philosophy

In teaching Religious Studies courses my primary goal is to foster critical thinking through cross-cultural and multi-sensorial modes of active, collaborative student learning. Ultimately, I believe students who critically engage the material and apply it in new contexts develop a greater personal resonance with the concepts and emerge as more thought-provoking writers and effective problem solvers.