Take Harvard’s Introductory Course on Buddhism, One of Five World Religions Classes Offered Free Online

A friend of mine describes her child­hood as, in part, resem­bling a real-world com­par­a­tive reli­gions course. Her broad-mind­ed moth­er encour­aged her to choose her own reli­gious iden­ti­ty, or none at all. This required her to do inde­pen­dent research, not only in libraries, but in the church­es, mosques, syn­a­gogues, and tem­ples of an unusu­al­ly reli­gious­ly diverse group of friends and acquain­tances. It’s an expe­ri­ence that dif­fers from that of most peo­ple, and one not with­out its own pressures—how does one know what to believe with­out an author­i­ty fig­ure to dic­tate, many may won­der?

She did just fine, acquir­ing con­sid­er­able under­stand­ing of world reli­gions while her­self set­tling on a Bud­dhist path, the only one of the big five, it seems, that encour­ages peo­ple to try out spir­i­tu­al meth­ods for them­selves and deter­mine what seems true or not. At least the Bud­dha sup­pos­ed­ly rec­om­mend­ed this in one “Sut­ta” (or “sutra”)—an ancient form of writ­ing prac­ticed by ear­ly Indi­an philo­soph­i­cal schools and a word whose mean­ing takes on a very mod­ern res­o­nance for 21st cen­tu­ry dig­i­tal read­ers: “thread.”

In the “Kala­ma Sut­ta,” which one trans­la­tor describes as “The Buddha’s Char­ter of Free Inquiry,” the reli­gious founder and for­mer prince attempts to set­tle reli­gious dis­putes by explain­ing to some per­plexed vil­lagers that one must use one’s own moral and intel­lec­tu­al rea­son­ing to find the truth. It’s a dis­course that cap­tures the Socrat­ic style of many Bud­dhist texts, and a famous one for West­ern­ers for obvi­ous rea­sons, but to say that it is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of all kinds of Bud­dhism would be myopic.

Bud­dhist scrip­tures “num­ber in the thou­sands,” says Pro­fes­sor Charles Hal­lisey of Har­vard Divin­i­ty School, mak­ing their study a hum­bling life­long activ­i­ty that can nev­er be exhaust­ed. “What you have is a dif­fer­ent phe­nom­e­non in which no one can ever say, ‘I know it all.’” Pro­fes­sor Hal­lisey leads a new online course from Harvard’s edX, which you can audit for free, called “Bud­dhism through its Scrip­tures.” The course looks at dis­tinc­tive prop­er­ties of this world reli­gion through sev­er­al impor­tant texts, his­tor­i­cal con­text, and com­men­tary from notable schol­ars like Thanis­saro Bhikkhu.

You can reg­is­ter now for Pro­fes­sor Hallisey’s fas­ci­nat­ing sur­vey course on Bud­dhist scrip­tures here. “Bud­dhism through its Scrip­tures” is one of five such rig­or­ous, yet high­ly acces­si­ble cours­es offered by edX, under the umbrel­la pro­gram “Reli­gious Lit­er­a­cy: Tra­di­tions and Scrip­tures” (see an intro­duc­to­ry video above), which offers stu­dents and spir­i­tu­al seek­ers a sym­pa­thet­ic yet schol­ar­ly overview of each of the largest world reli­gions: Chris­tian­i­tyIslamJudaismHin­duism  and Bud­dhism. These cours­es are designed and taught by accom­plished Har­vard pro­fes­sors, and they intro­duce stu­dents to his­tor­i­cal, the­o­log­i­cal, soci­o­log­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and tex­tu­al issues with­in each tra­di­tion.

The approach of these cours­es is summed up by Reli­gious Lit­er­a­cy Project Direc­tor Diane L. Moore in a doc­u­ment called “Our Method.” Reli­gious schol­ars, she writes, rec­og­nize “the valid­i­ty of nor­ma­tive the­o­log­i­cal asser­tions with­out equat­ing them with uni­ver­sal truths about the tra­di­tion itself.” One can study reli­gions with a crit­i­cal, yet char­i­ta­ble, eye, allow­ing them to speak for them­selves while remain­ing skep­ti­cal of their claims, and while acknowl­edg­ing their “full range of agency from the heinous to the hero­ic.” In his intro­duc­to­ry video lec­tures, Pro­fes­sor Hal­lisey admits this isn’t always easy.

It almost goes with­out say­ing, as he does say, that “con­ver­sa­tions about reli­gious mat­ters can be con­tentious, even painful—sometimes intense­ly so.” But like the best reli­gious teach­ers, Hal­lisey urges his stu­dents to think for them­selves, and to place the study of reli­gion “firm­ly in the Human­i­ties,” a dis­ci­pline in which “we not only… learn about oth­er men and women, but also… learn about our­selves…. When we look back at what has hap­pened to us, we can say that we ‘have grown.’” We can study some or all of the world reli­gions and have this expe­ri­ence, even if we end up adopt­ing none of them.

Sign up to take “Bud­dhism and its Scrip­tures” here, either as a free audit­ed course or for a Ver­i­fied Cer­tifi­cate for $50.

This course will be added to our col­lec­tion of Free Reli­gion Cours­es, a sub­set of our larg­er col­lec­tion 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dalai Lama’s Intro­duc­tion to Bud­dhism

Bud­dhism 101: A Short Intro­duc­to­ry Lec­ture by Jorge Luis Borges

Free Online Reli­gion Cours­es 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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