Brandon University students studying Buddhism have found a wide audience for some of their assignments this year — they’re being shared as blog posts on the website of the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies.
The assignments require students to choose a Buddhist doctrine, express it with a piece of art, and then write a critical reflection paper that elaborates on their artistic process and how their composition expresses their chosen doctrine, explains Dr. Alison Marshall, a religion professor at BU who is teaching the students in a second-year online asynchronous Buddhism course.
“Students produced incredible work that exceeded my expectations,” she said. “They demonstrated such excellence, enthusiasm and success with practice-based learning, especially during COVID-19 lockdown.”
Students say the assignment was a fun brain-stretching exercise that helped them explore and absorb much more of Buddhist concepts by combining creation with analysis.
“As a painter, I was thrilled about this assignment from the start,” said student Bethany Leslie, a first-year BU student from Melita and Virden who is working towards a degree in Religion and Psychology. “What I found interesting, though, was how my initial ideas and feelings regarding the Buddhist doctrines evolved as the painting came into fruition.”
Leslie’s art piece was a painting that explores traditional Buddhist ideas towards suffering, death and the afterlife.
“Throughout the creative process, my mind had time to wander in a different way than if I was writing a traditional research paper,” she said. “Working on my painting with Buddhist doctrines in mind felt almost akin to a meditation and this unconventional approach to learning allowed me to develop my ideas more fully.”
Another student, Rachel Burnett, produced a poem reflecting on Buddhist understandings of consciousness and enlightenment through the imagery of a single grain of sand that is part of a mass of sand in an hourglass.
“For an arts student with a predominantly creative brain, this was a phenomenal way to learn a complex concept,” said Burnett, who is working on her second BU degree. “As a poet I have the artistic skills to emotionally connect to a subject, which allowed for me to intimately connect with my chosen material, in this case, the Buddhist concept of the Bodhicitta. With the reflection paper, I learned how to articulate what I learned through the artistic process.”
Burnett, who plans to pursue a career providing spiritual care, says that the approach is something she will apply to other courses as well.
“It is especially useful to pay attention to how you articulate your knowledge in a first draft of any paper,” she said. “It was a little unnerving to get emotionally close to an academic subject, but as I already have an appreciation for Buddhism, I was excited for the challenge! And I enjoyed the process.”
The creative aspect of the assignment gave latitude for students to explore angles that attracted them.
“What was nice about the artistic element of this piece is that I was given an opportunity to provide an added dimension of empathy to a more ‘human’ side of the experience. This was a great learning experience for understanding the topic from both the scholarly as well as humanistic perspectives,” said Joshua Beaudin, a Mathematics student at BU who is minoring in both Computer Science and Religion. “In Mathematics, one usually applies the many techniques and concepts that they’ve learned in various unique ways to construct new ideas and results. I tend to approach religious studies in the same way which is why my analysis places a large focus on the doctrines of Buddhism.”
For his assignment, Beaudin submitted a piano composition.
“When I found out I could express the piece through any artistic medium I knew that this would be a great opportunity to do a musical composition,” he said. “Admittedly, most of my compositions are improvisation with a slight preplanned structure to give the piece direction and form. However, that style seems to fit well with how there are key goals for Buddhists to aspire towards and everything else is just a temporary part of the flow to get there.”
Dr. Marshall says the assignment itself draws on traditional approaches, having been partially inspired by a phrase from Chinese literary history: “Poetry Expresses What is Intent Upon the Mind” 詩言志 (pinyin: shiyan zhi), which is from the Classic of Documents (Shang Shu Zhengyi, 13).
“Through rhythm and imagery, poetry is able to capture and communicate profound ideas and feelings that might otherwise be left unexpressed,” Dr. Marshall said. “Students were not restricted to using just poetry to communicate a doctrine. Their art piece could also be a painting, sculpture, or piece of music.”
Drawing from her research and teaching experience, Dr. Marshall redesigned the online course to focus on experiential learning and critical reflection.
“Texts and traditions are important, but it is difficult to understand them unless you are exposed to the lived practice of a religion,” she said. “Students not only practiced communicating a Buddhist doctrine through art, they also meditated and reflected on that experience of meditation and its relationship to doctrine in a weekly forum.”
The series of student works is now being posted online to the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies’ blog site at cjbuddhist.wordpress.com, where they are all tagged with “Doing Buddhism at Brandon University.”
- Brandon University
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