Asian Thought


Gordon Ziniewicz


Asian Thought is as rich and as encompassing as the Western philosophical tradition.  It includes, among others, the great philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.  This course will begin with a study of Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism passed on orally by the elders who transmitted the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or awakened one.  We will study the Buddhist penetrating insight into the nature of human suffering and the self-transformation that leads to liberation of suffering.  We will explore the notion of nirvana in its this-worldly connotations, and we will examine the threefold roots of suffering -- ignorance, hatred, and greed -- and their noble counterparts of wisdom, love, and renunciation.  We will try to figure out why what we call the self, an identity working behind the scenes of our actions, words, and thoughts, is so problematic for Buddhism.  We will try to grasp the eightfold path to enlightenment and compare it to many Western philosophical and Christian notions.  We will conclude our study of Buddhism with a look at the techniques and phases of Buddhist meditation.

In Part Two of the course, we will study the humanist philosophy of Confucius, who in many ways resembles Socrates and Plato in their search for moral order in the face of moral disorder and injustice.  Confucius, like Socrates and Plato, believed in the importance of acting in accordance with principles or pursuing an almost ceremonial order and arrangement in everyday life, feeling, thinking, and acting.  We will try to gain an overall view of Confucius by means of two important documents written by followers of Confucius, The Doctrine of the Mean and The Great Learning.  Then we will look carefully at sayings (Analects) most directly attributed to Confucius.  We will examine the thought of the idealistic Confucian, Mencius, who believed that all human beings are born with original compassion and have only to preserve and nurture it to achieve fully-developed humanity or jen (love).  Finally, we will conclude Confucianism with a brief look at certain neo-Confucian thinkers.

In Part Three of the course, we will try to fathom the unfathomable Tao or Way of the universe, as suggested in the Book of the Tao.  We will study the complementary forces of Yin (the female) and Yang (the male), as they are played out in the rhythms of things coming to be and perishing, rising and falling, reaching up to heaven and returning to mother earth.  We will try to understand how nature works, according to the Taoist, and how we should accord ourselves with nature.  We will look, in addition, at the pragmatic and political sides of Taoism and the best way to act so as to ensure a long life.  We will contrast the themes of spontaneous or natural action in Taoism with adherence to principles in Confucianism.   We will also try to see how different Taoism is from Western technological approaches to nature, both non-human and human.  We will find some similarities between Taoism and the ancient Greek philosophy of Heraclitus.  Our study of Taoism will conclude with a reading of the works of Chuang-Tzu, a humorous and quite individualistic critic of the folly of human ambition.  Then, as time permits, we will devote two or three sessions to an all-too-brief look at Zen Buddhism, which developed in China from Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism and which travelled to the island of Japan.

The purpose of this course will be to acquire an appreciation for the richness and depth of Asian thought.  Very often, in Western philosophical circles, Asian thought is thought to be interesting as poetry, religion, or intuition, but is not taken seriously as philosophy.  With better acquaintance comes greater appreciation, and it is hoped that time spent with Asian thinkers will lead to a life-long interest in their ways of thinking.

General Requirements

In general, to succeed in this course, you will be expected to  --

  • read all of the assigned readings,
  • attend class regularly,
  • participate enthusiastically,
  • prepare well for oral presentations,
  • write a reflection paper,
  • do well on three major tests,
  • do well on quizzes,
  • smile and help all the rest of us to do well.

Grading for this course will be broken down into the following categories, with their corresponding values (tentative):

  • Test on Buddhism -- 20%
  • Test on Confucianism -- 20%
  • Test (take-home) on Taoism and Zen Buddhism -- 20%
  • Reflection Paper -- 20%
  • Quizzes, Participation, and Oral presentations -- 20%

Required Reading

Readings will include:

  • Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught
  • Bhikku Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path
  • Wing-Tsit Chan, Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Selections)
  • All paper handouts


I can't stress enough the importance of participation.  In philosophy, the best way to learn and to gain insight is through the give and take of dialogue with other learners.  Since I am not an expert in Asian thought, I count myself among the learners.  In addition, since attendance is required in order to participate, your attendance will be taken into account in the final reckoning of your participation grade.

Reflection Paper

You will be expected to write one reflection or thought paper (minimum four pages typewritten).  Papers will be graded on the basis of (1) understanding of the material content studied, (2) ability to think beyond the course content and to add one's own insight into the topics studied, and (3) ability to defend a thesis and to answer objections to it.  You will be allowed to choose from a variety of topics.  One further note: Plagiarism, intentional use of (theft of) another person's published words (verbatim or close paraphrase) without  proper reference, will result in a "zero" for that assignment.

Tests And Quizzes

There will one major test following the completion of each major area of Asian Thought:  Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism (with Zen Buddhism).  The tests on Buddhism and Confucianism will include both objective and essay type questions.  See the Course Calendar for the scheduling of these examinations.  The Test on Taoism and Zen Buddhism will be a take-home written assignment.

We will have regular short true/false or multiple choice quizzes on the required readings.  These may be announced or unannounced.  These quizzes may cover the previous day's material or readings assigned for that same day.  Review old material and prepare new material each day, and you will experience fewer anxieties.

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Copyright © 1995 - 2012 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.