Review of the FREE Coursera “Tibetan Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World: Lesser Vehicle” course, given by UVA.

I recently took the FREE Coursera course, “Tibetan Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World”. ( From the course catalog: ” Tibetan Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World explores the immense variety of meditation practices past and present. We present their histories, their philosophical underpinnings, their transformations in the modern global world, and we give you a chance to reflect upon meditation practices through secular contemplations designed just for this course.” (Note: In the class overview, it is noted that the term “Lesser Vehicle” is “perjorative” but they use it anyway. ??”)

There are many FREE reasons to take this FREE “Lesser Vehicle” course (the first of four):

#1 – An awesome, wonderful hour-long interview with Sharon Salzberg, one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society. What an awesome lady. I was not aware that she is also a Dzogchen student. (Did I mention it was FREE?) Worth signing up for the course just to skip to Week 6 to watch this interview.

#2 – Guided Meditations by Dr. Anne Klein and Anam Thubten. Very, very, very nice. FREE, it’s ALL FREE.

#3 – The Science of Mindfulness against the Background of the Scientific Study of Meditation videos with Dr. Clifford Saron, neuroscientist. His videos start in Week 1 and continue through Week 6 in building a basis for understanding the scientific research on meditation. He (and the course) demonstrates what can and cannot (presently) be scientifically proven about meditation. One excellent example: Two trained pianists were told to learn a complicated piece of music, one with the piano, and the other only in his imagination. After 2 weeks (I think) of practice, their brains’ MRI patterns exhibited almost the exact same changes. Dr. Saron noted that the results are not definitive but still may have implications for the compassion/bodhicitta meditations we do.

#4: An interview on “Buddhist Modernism”, with David McMahan. Very much academic-oriented. One statement, in particular, struck me since, the more I think about it, the more I think it might be true: “The Buddhist Tantra teachings are not accepted nor are they popular in the West.”

There are also short 5-10 minute interviews with Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro (a short “snapshot” of the Tibetan take on the week’s particular subject, which was often better (to me) than the 90min-long “talking head” version ) and Ven. Tsoknyi Rinpoche (“How does Buddhism change in a New Culture” and “Benefits and Dangers of Secularing Buddhism”, the TB rebuttal, as it were. He did note that motivation is the key. Bad agenda = bad results, good motivation will cause good results.)

Have I noted the course is FREE? So you can take the course, and the following courses, without doing any of the assignments/quizzes. Watch (or download) any video or transcript to your heart’s content whenever you wish in any order you wish. (That assumes the courses are not taken off-line at a future date.) Further in the course description is a blurb that may point to at least 3 future courses in “Mahāyāna, …Vajrayāna, …and a fourth vehicle, which is explicit in many Tibetan materials, though no standard term ever emerged that was accepted by all sectarian traditions – we will thus term it as the “Natural Vehicle” or “Post Tantra”.” If the quality of guided meditations (GM) in following classes are even half the quality of this course’s GM’s, then that’s all the reason I need to continue the future classes, too.

Course gotchas:

#1. That said (other shoe dropping here), the other half of the course was videos of people reading their prepared academic papers, in monotone or semi-monotone voices. (Transcripts are available. I figure I can read a paper in 5% of the time someone else reads it to me in a video. Ugh.) However, they would probably need the voice of Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, B. Cumberbatch or James Spader to keep me awake. To be fair, the content is golden, although the papers seems to be geared to the academic community, rather than the student community. Books and Videos on these subjects are all over Amazon, YouTube, FPMT, Dharma-Documentaries, etc.

#2. The Sharon Salzberg (SS), in her interview, brought up an excellent point. She noted that she and a noted clinical psychology (CP) scientist (researcher) (whose name I have forgotten) were at a conference where the issue on the table was that someone was having trouble with “loving kindness” meditation as a first meditation class. SS noted that she would instantly recommend the student change to “calm abiding” meditation whereas the CP could not change that student’s meditation technique to another technique (such as calm abiding) as her research findings would then be invalid. Similarly, many of the non-Buddhist guided meditations that I viewed in this course felt like a physical education or “How To” class. Do this. Do that. It did not feel as though they lived the material, just taught it. (Whereas it was patently obvious Dr. Klein & Anam Thubten were definitely “walking the walk”, so to speak, so were able to speak from the heart.)

Interviews I did not watch, that may be of great interest to others, include meditation in the school system by Tish Jennings, meditation in the Business Community (an interview with David Mick), the Burmese meditation tradition in an interview with Erik Braun, the MBSR (Meditation Based Stress Reduction) with Susan Bauer-Wu, and meditation in the legal community with Rhonda Magee.

And all that is just the first course. Many of it’s “failings” may just be my karmic opinions. The course is worth checking out and watching/reading/meditating on those parts that interest you. In that respect, the breadth of the course content is quite nice and so well done. Grade: B-.

(guest author: Paul Stevenson)

Feel free to share your feedback about the course in the comments.


One thought on “Review of the FREE Coursera “Tibetan Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World: Lesser Vehicle” course, given by UVA.

  1. I am taking the course now, and much preferred, “Buddhism and Modern Psychology,” taught by Richard Wright. There is a great deal of information, but it is just dumped on you, and as you mentioned, one could just visit if they wanted to read an academic paper. The assumption with these courses should be that a student has little or no background.

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