Course Examines Buddhism Through Storytelling

UVA Today, January 6, 2009

Charlottesville, VA (USA) -- In Kurtis R. Schaeffer's January-Term course at the University of Virginia, old-fashioned storytelling illuminates one of the world's most ancient religions.

"It is getting into Buddhism through novels and films," said Schaeffer of his course, Buddhism in Fiction and Film. "Through these narratives we see how people test religious beliefs in daily life."

He said he selected works that "explicitly deal with Buddhism, and they have a dramatic narrative where the characters are grappling with problems and their Buddhist practices in a modern setting."

Among Schaeffer's film selections is "The Cup," a 1999 film by Khyentse Norbu about two young Tibetan refugees whose contemplation at a monastery in India is interrupted by World Cup soccer fever.

He is also screening Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha," a 1993 film about a monk seeking the reincarnation of his dead teacher. The story interlaces the testing of three children, one of whom maybe the late teacher, with the story of the Buddha's journey to enlightenment.

Also on his list is Yong-Kyun Bae's 1989 South Korean film about three people in a remote monastery, "Why Did Bodhi-Dharma Leave the for East?"

"A lot of them are set in Buddhist cultures and deal with specific problems, such a family obligations," said Schaeffer, an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies.

By focusing on Buddhist themes in contemporary novels and films, Schaeffer wants to encourage students to consider Buddhism, as well as religion in general, not as ancient, monolithic and isolated, but as a vibrant, adaptable and contested aspect of modern global culture. And fiction is a good way to teach abstract doctrines in a living context.

"Stories are a great place to see how problems are worked out," he said.

More films than contemporary novels present Buddhism, Schaeffer said, and film has a more immediate impact on the students. "They can watch the films and react, as a group, immediately," he said.

January Term is a good time to teach such a course, Schaeffer said. Longer class sessions allow for more in-depth discussions. And since there are fewer students on Grounds, those in the class tend to bond more with each other.

The topic has proved popular, because the class fills quickly.

"The January Term is a great way to do something different," Schaeffer said.