HY3262 Buddhism in Southeast Asian History – Exploring religious traditions and practices

In this interview, Dr Jack Chia gives us a glimpse into the module, HY3262 Buddhism in Southeast Asia, which will be offered to undergraduates in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

Tell us a bit more about the module! Could you share some memorable experiences you had while teaching it?

The module aims to trace the development of Buddhism in Southeast Asian history. I’m interested in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism in both mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. In this module, I’ll cover a range of topics including the spread of Buddhism from India to Southeast Asia, the rise of Buddhist kingdoms, the development of popular traditions and local practices, the impact of colonialism on Buddhism, the relationship between Buddhism and nationalism, and the emergence of reformist and modernist movements in the region. Students will also learn about the Buddhist minorities in Southeast Asia. In other words, the module will cover a broad range of topics.

It’s important to note that this module is not a Dharma class – you will not come here to learn Buddhism as a religion. Instead, it is a Buddhist studies class where we will learn about Buddhism from an academic/scholarly perspective and get to know more about the critical theories and concepts related to the study of religion.

In terms of memorable experiences, I’ve actually only taught the module once last year since I joined NUS in 2019. I would say that the most memorable experience was the students’ presentation on their field report. One of the assignments back then was a group project where students conducted research and visited different Buddhist organisations in Singapore. I thought the interactions, questions and conversations among the students were great. The students didn’t just learn from me, as the lecturer, but also from vibrant classroom discussions and presentations.

The course has been “upgraded” from a Level 2000 module to a Level 3000 module. What are some changes and new challenges that students might expect?

In terms of the module structure and readings, they are pretty similar to the previous syllabus. However, the assignments are quite different. Last year, there was a final exam. Since the module is now taught at Level-3000, I wanted to put more emphasis on research and writing. 

The assignments are divided into five parts. Of course, there’s tutorial participation where students need to come for tutorials and prepare for class discussions by doing their readings. Then, there’s the group component – a group project. Unlike last year, when the situation was still okay in February and students were able to visit Buddhist organisations and interview monks and practitioners, students will now submit a group research project based on online and library research. Students will write a report on a Buddhist organisation and then do a group presentation in tutorial.

There are two new components. There is a research proposal – a short one with a brief introduction, literature review and bibliography of their proposed research topic. Another new component would be a 3000-word research essay on any aspect of Buddhism in Southeast Asian history. The purpose of having these two assignments is to help students prepare for their Honours year, where there will be more independent research and writing assignments. 

Would you consider this module to be accessible to non-History majors?

The module is accessible to FASS students in general, because a lot of skills you learn in History modules are quite similar to other disciplines that require a lot of reading, research and writing. Since there are a lot more readings, writing and class discussions, it’s something that students from other faculties might have to take note of when they enroll in this module.

How did you chance upon this research topic or interest?

One of the main reasons why I enjoy teaching this module is because it’s exactly my area of research expertise. I’ve worked on Buddhism in East and Southeast Asian history for many years, so teaching this module is a chance for me to impart my research knowledge to my students. 

On a broader level, I strongly believe that religious studies modules can serve as a platform for students to learn and discuss issues pertaining to race, religion, and culture. In a religiously diverse country like Singapore, opportunities for students to learn about Buddhism – one of the main religions practised here and in Southeast Asia in general – will deepen their appreciation of different cultural perspectives and values. So, it’s important to engage in the academic study of religion to understand the kind of issues and problems surrounding religion, not only in Singapore but in the region as well.

What can students look forward to in your class? (e.g. field trips, guest lectures)

I would love to conduct field trips, but given the situation we’re unlikely to have conventional temple visits. Instead, I will be using videos, social media and other resources to create virtual field trips to offer a better understanding of the diverse Buddhist traditions and practices in Southeast Asia. 

Another thing that students can look forward to is to think about Buddhism not just as a textual or canonical tradition but also how it is practiced as a lived religion. Students will learn about how people in Southeast Asia practice the religion, at both the local and popular levels.

Could you share one cool trivia about the module topic?

A trivia, LOL! I think the coolest part is that students will learn about Buddhist rock bands. When you first think about Buddhism and rock bands, you think they are an oxymoron but you will get to learn about these new forms of Buddhist practices in my module.

If students want to learn more about Buddhism in Southeast Asia, what advice would you have for them?

I don’t want to overload students with too many readings during the summer break. However, it will be useful for students to have a bit of background on Southeast Asian history to understand the different historical contexts covered in the module. That being said, this will be helpful but not necessary. Students also shouldn’t be too worried about learning new terminologies or names; this module does not require you to memorise all these terms. 

If you enjoy readings, I will recommend the first reading that I will assign for the module, The Story of Buddhism (2001) by Donald Lopez. It’s a short book that offers readers a good background to the history and teachings of Buddhism, and is quite an easy read for students who want to learn about Buddhism from an academic perspective. 

This interview is a part of the Humans of History series, which spotlights the stories of the people that make up the NUS History community.

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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