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Life Lessons from Hungry Ghosts: An Ethical Reading of Buddhist Narratives
Dates: Nov 06, 2020 - Nov 08, 2020
Days: Fri - Sun (2 Nights)

Instructor(s): Andy Rotman

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Many of the most famous Buddhist narratives are much more than mere “stories.” One can read them to better understand Buddhist philosophy and ethics, but one can also read them as an ethical practice in their own right. This kind of ethical reading allows one to be transformed by reflecting on the characters, their struggles, triumphs, and realizations. Reading them in this way can facilitate one’s own ethical and spiritual transformation.

This course will focus specifically on the Buddhist narratives of hungry ghosts (preta) who are like modern felons who participate in “scared straight” programs. In the past, they broke the law (dharma), and now they suffer the terrible consequences because of justice (karma). And since they don’t want others to make the same mistakes, they speak passionately and honestly, hoping to scare humanity straight. By reading these stories together, we can avoid the cause of all this misery: the cultivation of meanness (mātsarya), which makes people miserly, spiteful, and cruel, immoral and oblivious to their own self-righteousness.

Through close textual reading, discussion, and meditation this course will offer participants a better sense of Buddhist ethics—in particular, why early Buddhists thought “meanness” was so dangerous, how it leads people astray, and how it might be overcome.

Learning Intentions:

To deepen understanding of Buddhist ethics through a close reading of the literature about hungry ghosts (preta); recognize how "meanness" (mātsarya) operates in one's experience in relating to self and other; and become familiar with how narrative in the Buddhist canon can inform spiritual transformation.

Noble Silence and Mindful Speech:

Noble silence will be observed following the evening session through breakfast the following morning.

Experience Level:

Suitable for both beginning and experienced practitioners.

  • Andy Rotman is a professor of Religion, Buddhism, and South Asian Studies at Smith College. His publications include Divine Stories: Translations from the Divyāvadāna, part 1 and part 2 (Wisdom Publications, 2008, 2017) and Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2009). He has been engaged in textual and ethnographic work on life in South Asia for more than 25 years.