Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad course no. 6380
Taught By Professor Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D., Harvard University, Rhodes College.
Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad—four extraordinary sages who influenced world civilization more deeply than any other human beings in history.
As just one measure of their importance, current rankings of the most influential people in history consistently put Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad at or near the top of the list. Four centuries after the rise of the scientific worldview, their influence in human affairs continues to be fundamental, underscoring issues ranging from questions of ethics and justice to religious and political conflicts to other issues that dominate today's headlines.
In the 21st century, much of humanity still looks to the lives, teachings, and actions of these four sages for guidance on how to live, for their conceptions of morality, and for understanding the most crucial human values.
Never merely historical figures, as models of human living they remain dynamically alive for countless millions of people around the world, exemplifying the moral and spiritual precepts our civilizations are built on. Taken together, their influence extends over most of the human population, from Asia to the Middle East and from Europe to the New World.
No understanding of human life, individual or collective, could be complete without factoring in the role and contribution of these history-shaping teachers.
Now, in Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad, award-winning Professor Mark W. Muesse of Rhodes College takes you deep into the life stories and legacies of these four iconic figures, revealing the core, original teachings, and thoughts of each, and shedding light on the historical processes that underlie their phenomenal, enduring impact.
Two Compelling Streams of Knowledge
Speaking from multilevel personal experience with these teachings, Professor Muesse leads you in an inquiry with a dynamic double thrust.
First, in his presentation of the vital wisdom of each sage, he offers you the chance to reflect in depth on the most essential values of spirituality and the art of living, seen from four archetypal perspectives. Regardless of your own religious or philosophical orientation, you draw crucial distinctions from the teaching of the four sages that bear directly on the fundamental perception of selfhood and on what it is to live a meaningful life, both in thought and action.
Second, you complete the course with far-reaching insight into the historical contexts and individual lives of the four sages, and how the religious and philosophical traditions we associate them with came into being. The lectures serve as a unique window on the origins of these traditions, through their focus on the teachings, actions, and historical roles of the sages who inspired them.
Four Exemplars of Noble Living
Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad were all born into ancient cultures in the midst of tumultuous changes. Each addressed fundamental existential problems within their societies, developing codes of ethics and behavior that broke with the past, and offering bold new visions of human life.
Grounding your inquiry in the dramatic historical settings of their teachings, you explore and define the unique contributions of each man:
* Confucius: China's primordial philosopher/sage, whose teaching integrally shaped the Chinese constructs of government, human relations, culture, and history. You study the system of Confucian thought that formed the basis of Chinese education for 2,000 years, founded on the sage's core precepts of "uncommon" humaneness, reciprocity, and the creative power of virtue.
* The Buddha: The high-born prince who turned his back on a life of privilege to follow an unrelenting quest for the "supreme state of sublime peace." You dig deeply into the Buddha's teachings on the nature of reality, the delusions of human perception, and the practical means for ending suffering.
* Jesus of Nazareth: Beloved icon of Christianity, a revered prophet in Islam, and the dominant figure in Western culture for nearly two millennia. You explore his archetypal dual role as both harbinger of God's kingdom and spiritual teacher, and you see how his teachings revealed a liberating alternative to humanity's oppressive inequities.
* Muhammad: Al-Lah's "last" prophet and the central example of the faithful Muslim. His teachings brought Islam into being even as he struggled with the roles of both political and military leader of his community. You study Muhammad's teachings on the oneness and inscrutability of the absolute, his dynamic vision of ethical action, and Islam's complex spiritual disciplines.
Teachings that Shaped Human Civilization
In uncovering the original wisdom and practices of each sage, you grapple with these key questions:
* How did each man understand the nature of the universe and ultimate reality?
* How did each envision the human self and the matter of human fulfillment?
* What moral and ethical principles did each advocate, and why?
* What spiritual disciplines did each practice and teach as a means of self-realization?
Drawing from texts including the Confucian Analects, the Buddhist Pali Canon, the Gospels, and the Hadith of Islam, Professor Muesse immerses you in the teachings, which include the following:
* You see how Confucius's precepts, including ren (humaneness), humility, and filial piety, were inextricably tied to specific behavior—to disciplined actions, etiquette, and ritual. You probe the dialectical connection between external acts and internal states; the experiential shaping and transforming of character through conscious action.
* You see how the Buddha located the source of suffering in a deceptive conception of reality—the human mind's reduction of the universe and its organic processes to an illusory world of "things" and a "self" that is perceived as separate and alone. You learn how his path of contemplation and compassion worked to transcend this perception.
* You witness how Jesus's teaching challenged and disrupted his listeners' beliefs, especially in his use of parables that reversed the apparent order of the world—making clear that in God's kingdom, "what the world calls power will be revealed as weakness; the losers will be declared winners; the first shall be last."
* You probe Muhammad's essential doctrine of human fulfillment through willing, devoted submission to al-Lah—the absolute, eternal ground of being prior to all existence. You observe how he submitted to the absolute through deliberate acts of witnessing to God's unity and revelation, generosity, ritual prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage.
Lives of Struggle and Revelation
A thrilling storyteller, Professor Muesse enriches the teachings with the historical background and the pivotal moments of insight that fired their development.
You learn about early Arabian religious and tribal culture, and how Muhammad's emergence threatened a centuries-old way of life. You track the evolution of Indian spirituality preceding the Buddha, including the cultural origins of belief in rebirth and karma. You study the culture and political struggles of the ancient Jews in Palestine, and the divine cosmology of the Zhou dynasty that informed Confucius's thinking.
You hear the words of Muhammad's revelations on the Mountain of Light, and the stories of his military leadership and his actions promoting the legal and marital rights of women. You follow Confucius through the trials of his years in exile, which refined his character and his insight into humanity.
In Jesus's conception of God's kingdom as present reality, you find evidence of deep spiritual experience. And you follow the Buddha's path of unyielding spiritual practice, leading to his final awakening and liberation from the conditioned mind.
Finally, you compare the sages' lives and teachings, finding the defining differences but also their common ground on the practice of contemplation and on the "self" as a prime factor in unhappiness.
This uniquely designed course takes you to the core of four majestic wisdom traditions within a single, penetrating inquiry. In words reflecting profound and compassionate insight, Professor Muesse brings the teachings vividly alive as they speak to their essential purpose—as a guide to the realities, challenges, and possibilities of life—and as they shed light on the critical and creative choices we all face, moment by moment, in living deliberately and savoring life to the fullest.
Take this rare chance, in Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad, to taste the authentic, living wisdom of these visionary sages and to understand the sources of their monumental role in our world.
About Your Professor
Dr. Mark W. Muesse is the W. J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Asian Studies Program and the Life: Then and Now Program at Rhodes College.
Professor Muesse earned his B.A. summa cum laude in English from Baylor University and an M.T.S, an M.A., and a Ph.D. in Religion from Harvard University.
In 2007, Professor Muesse received Fortress Press's Undergraduate Teaching Award at the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting. In 2008, he received the Clarence Day Award for Outstanding Teaching, Rhodes College's highest honor for a member of its faculty.
Professor Muesse has taught at Harvard College, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Southern Maine. He has also been Visiting Professor of Theology at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai, India. He has traveled extensively throughout Asia and has studied at the International Buddhist Meditation Centre in Wat Mahadhat, Bangkok, Thailand; the Himalayan Yogic Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal; and the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey.
He is the author of many articles on comparative religion and theology, the coeditor of Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities, and author of The Hindu Traditions: A Concise Introduction.
Should I Buy Audio or DVD?
While this course works well in all formats, the DVD version features more than 400 images and video clips to enhance your experience.
Course Lecture Titles
30 minutes / lecture
1. A Quartet of Sages
Begin by establishing guidelines for your journey into the lives and legacies of Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. Consider the "lenses" of metaphysics, philosophical anthropology, ethics, and spiritual practice for assessing their teaching and contribution, and in establishing a basis for comparing the vision and wisdom of these extraordinary sages.
2. Confucius's China
Explore the nature of Chinese identity in Confucius's time as cultural rather than political, and the Chinese orientation to the past, based in the conception of an earlier era of moral kingship. Trace social and political upheavals in the Zhou dynasty that sparked intense intellectual debate, setting the stage for Confucius's teaching.
3. Becoming a Sage
This lecture reviews key sources for reconstructing the life of Confucius, centering on the famous Analects, a compendium of conversations and sayings. Investigate the known facts of his lineage, the unusual circumstances of his birth, his poverty-stricken childhood, and the great love of learning that defined his character.
4. A Gentleman and a Scholar
Confucius's personal journey reveals the traits and actions that underlay his teaching. Learn about the qualities of humility, empathy, and love of virtue that informed his life as a state official, the hardships of his period of self-imposed exile, and his final years of teaching and introspection.
5. Heaven and Earth
Confucian metaphysics stood on the foundation of the ancient Chinese view of ultimate reality. Examine Zhou dynasty cosmology, its conception of Tian (Heaven) and Di (Earth), and the hierarchy of divine beings. Contrast this with Confucius's nontheocentric view of Heaven as a dynamic, moral force in creative collaboration with human beings.
6. Doing unto Others
Confucius envisioned human fulfillment as rooted in the attainment of moral excellence. Investigate the core precepts of his teaching, including ren, or uncommon humaneness, reciprocity, and filial piety as the root of human love. Consider also his conception of the junzi or "superior man"—a person of compassion, wisdom, and equanimity.
7. How to Rule a Kingdom
This lecture explores legalism and Daoism in Chinese political thought, to introduce core Confucian principles of humane, ethical leadership. Delve into Confucius's conception of virtue as a force with the power to transform others, and the value of ceremony and ritual in refining humaneness and creating social harmony.
8. What a Sage Does
Confucian spiritual practice was grounded in his view of all life as a grand or sacred ritual. Learn the details of his discipline of self-awareness and introspection, and his teachings on the shaping of character through appropriate behavior, the spiritual significance of life's daily routines, and the moral value of art.
9. Confucius and Confucianism
The legacy of Confucian teaching is seen in its enduring influence in China over 2,000 years. Contrast the divergent perspectives of Confucian philosophers Mencius and Xunzi on the moral nature of humanity, examine their views on Confucian practice, and trace the spread and history of Confucianism in Chinese and Asian society.
10. India at the Time of the Buddha
This lecture probes profound shifts in Indian religious thought in the era preceding the Buddha's birth. Examine the developing conceptions of rebirth, karma, and the religious movements aimed at freedom from the cycle of rebirth. Also investigate the notions of atman (soul) and Brahman (ultimate reality), and the critical relationship between them.
11. Siddhattha Gotama
Texts preserving the early oral tradition of Buddhist teaching allow us to reconstruct the life of the Buddha. Here, compare the mythic versions of the Buddha's birth and youth with the available historical information, and consider how the legends surrounding his early life serve as literary expressions of his teachings.
12. The First and Second Great Awakenings
In this lecture, explore the circumstances under which the Buddha renounced his life of privilege in order to seek the "supreme state of sublime peace." Then follow his itinerant life of spiritual practice, including his period of extreme asceticism, leading to the transformative realization that formed the wellspring of his teaching.
13. Knowing the World
The Buddha insisted that all knowledge claims be based in direct, empirical experience. Study his views on the nature of reality, including his distinction between nibbana (the unconditioned absolute) and samsara (conditioned, worldly experience). Conclude with an in-depth look at his notion of impermanence as one of three fundamental features of existence.
14. Can't Get No Satisfaction
Completing the Buddha's "three marks of existence," grasp the notion of insubstantiality or "no-self," challenging the illusory perception of the self as a separate entity standing apart from the environment that gives it existence. Grapple also with insatiability, the resulting impulse to satisfy the self through endless possessions and experiences.
15. Getting to the Farther Shore
The Buddha's teaching comprised numerous practices designed to free the practitioner from attachments and to dispel the illusion of the "individual" self. Study his approach to perfecting wisdom and compassion through his Five Precepts of wholesome action and core practices of dana, or generosity, and meditation.
16. How the Buddha Taught
The Buddha's life as a teacher reveals his insight in action. First, learn about the foundation of his teaching, the Four Noble Truths, and his open embrace of people of all backgrounds as students. Then, see vivid examples of how he shaped his communication of the dhamma to the needs of different listeners.
17. The Buddha and Buddhism
The Buddha's preparations for his own death served as another expression of his principles. Study the final events of his life, the aftermath of his death, and the eventual spread of his teaching. Mark the distinct traditions of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism; their geographic reach; and Buddhism's appearance in the West.
18. The Jewish and Roman Worlds of Jesus
Setting the stage for the appearance of Jesus, this lecture discusses the turbulent times into which he was born. Learn about the complex history of ancient Judaism, the multiple political displacements and divisions within the faith, and the trials of Jewish life in Palestine under Roman rule.
19. The Son of Mary
The available sources on the life of Jesus present markedly differing interpretations. Compare the accounts of his lineage and birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, noting the contrasting emphasis and portrayal of events, and consider what these differences may reveal about Jesus and about the intended audience of the Gospels.
20. The First 30 Years
In assessing the scant information about Jesus's early life, trace theological and popular conjecture about his childhood, the origins of his teaching, and the possibility of his marriage. Finally, contemplate the enigmatic connection between Jesus and John the Baptist, and their parallel declarations of the coming of God's kingdom.
21. The Kingdom of God
Jesus proclaimed the nature of God's kingdom through his teaching and deeds. First, investigate the indications that Jesus viewed God's kingdom as an earthly reality. Then, witness his teaching through his parables and healings, as they disrupt the apparent order of the world, dissolving oppressive divisions of rich/poor, powerful/weak, and pure/impure.
22. Back to the Future
Digging deeper into Jesus's practices and teachings, see the ways in which his conception of God's kingdom as present reality indicates deep, direct spiritual experience. Learn about his practice of contemplative prayer, the spiritual meaning he attached to communal meals, and his ethical principles of nonretaliation, generosity, and the discipline of forgiveness.
23. Jesus's Christology
This lecture further illuminates Jesus's life by exploring his conception of his own role in God's kingdom. Examine two parallel biblical identities of Jesus—as a prophet foretelling a divine age and as a spiritual teacher. Also investigate his historical characterizations as Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man.
24. The Last Days in Jerusalem
The final events of Jesus's life enact the central thrust of his teaching. Follow the dramatic unfolding of Jesus's public actions leading to his arrest, and the details of his crucifixion and resurrection as they embody his message of God's kingdom and his vision of a new world order.
25. How Jesus Became Christ
Examine the diverse accounts of the resurrection, their meaning to Jesus's contemporaries, and the critical contrast between Paul's view of Jesus and Jesus's self-conception. Then consider a "theory" of Jesus, exploring the role or "task" of his death, the question of his divinity, and his followers' ultimate proclamation of him as Messiah.
26. Arabia in the Days of Ignorance
Introducing the life of Muhammad, Professor Muesse outlines pre-Islamic Arabian culture and religion. Learn about the society of warring Arab tribes, their customs, and the social ills Islam later sought to correct. Then chart the tribal pantheon of divine beings, tribal religious practices, and the culture's assimilation of Jews and Christians.
27. The Trustworthy One
Muhammad's early life reveals patterns that later defined his prophetic calling. Probe the circumstances of his birth and difficult childhood, including experiences that sensitized him to the downtrodden. Follow his developing character and reputation for integrity, his long marriage and family life, and the contemplative practice that led to his dramatic revelation.
28. "I Am Only a Messenger"
Witness the compelling events of Muhammad's revelation on the Mountain of Light, his struggle to accept his calling as prophet, and the embodying of his message as the Qur'an. Then follow his emergence as a teacher and the birth of Islam, as Muhammad faces severe opposition and pressure to remain silent.
The city of Madinah played a vital symbolic role in the prophet's journey. Investigate the ways in which Muhammad's teaching threatened traditional Arabian life, and his efforts to secure his community in Makkah. Then follow the difficult challenges of its migration to Madinah and Muhammad's eventual embrace of military leadership and "just" war.
30. "There Is No God but al-Lah"
Study the doctrine of tawhid, the oneness and inscrutability of al-Lah, and the distinction between divine essence and the divine attributes through which humans can approach the absolute. Also grasp the Islamic conceptions of the sin of shirk (idolatry), of Jesus as prophet, and the end-time Day of Requital.
31. The Ethics of Islam
Trace the Islamic view of the human being to the Qur'anic story of Adam and Eve and the core conceptions of human fallibility and equality. Then study the Islamic precepts of submission to God and ethical action, and the ways Muhammad's principles improved the marital and legal status of women.
32. The Greater Jihad
The internal or "greater" jihad comprises the spiritual disciplines of Islam. Grasp the essential practices, beginning with ritual prayer, embodying choreographed physical gesture and movement, and fasting as it awakens self-awareness and compassion. Conclude with the deep spiritual significance and complex rituals of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah.
33. The Conquest of Makkah
The last years of Muhammad's life saw the rise of Islam as a dominant force in Arabia. Follow the prophet's tumultuous military campaigns leading to his conquest of Makkah and political unifying of Arabia. Also study the critical events of Muhammad's death, its aftermath, and the subsequent Shi'a/Sunni split within Islam.
34. Their Lives Compared
Professor Muesse compares the life stories of the four sages, beginning an assessment of their significance for our contemporary lives. See how each sage redefined nobility as a matter of character and demonstrated a fearless commitment to truth, living simply, and the practice of quieting the mind.
35. Their Teachings Compared
In their conceptions of heaven, nibbana , and God, were the four sages talking about the same thing? Compare their teachings on the structure of reality, the fundamental human predicament, and the ethical dimension of life, noting their common view of self-centeredness as the source of misery and their contrasting methodologies for liberation.
36. Their Enduring Significance
In this final lecture, reflect on the qualities of noble living that the sages exemplified, seen in their commitment to truthful understanding, humility, contemplation, sensitivity to the suffering of others, and the transcendence of self-involvement. Conclude with Professor Muesse's personal view of the essential teaching of each sage.
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