Students reflect on final projects from Buddhism course

May 31, 2022

James Edmonds, an Arizona State University alumnus who earned his PhD in religious studies in 2021, taught a course as a faculty associate on Buddhism this spring for the first time and opened the final project up to artistic interpretations. 

The course was originally designed by Associate Professor of religious studies Huaiyu Chen and provides an overview of the historical, sociocultural and textual life of Buddhism. The topics include the life of the historical Buddha, the development and movement of Buddhism into East Asia and the way in which Western colonialism has often used, appropriated and created Buddhism as a religion that fits into the category of religion as a colonial invention. Photo of a Buddha statue alone on leaves in a wooded area. Photo courtesy of Pexels Download Full Image

For the final project of the course, Edmunds assigned students to either write an essay or develop an artistic way to demonstrate what they learned during the semester. Many of his students, however, were drawing their understanding of Buddhism from popular American culture, and this final project was his attempt to nourish the students’ individual desires to study Buddhism while countering what they thought was true about things such as karma, dhamma — which is loosely translated to mean natural law or moral order — and meditation.

“In my experience, students have felt even more uncertain than before,” said Edmunds. “I began the project with ‘life is hard,’ because for most people, life has been very difficult. I wanted to help students understand or reorient themselves to the history and lived reality of Buddhism while doing things that were personally interesting or fulfilling to them.”

Their final projects exceeded his expectations, with students creating paintings, documentary-style film productions, lesson plans and papers that were five to 10 pages over the required amount.

“This allows them to learn while also developing skills that are more in line with what they want to do with their education,” said Edmunds. “I have found that flexibility in the final project allows students the freedom that they want to be themselves, and students usually do more work and more learning when given the opportunity to create something that makes sense to them.”

A few of the students shared their reason for signing up for the class, their experience with the final project and what they learned throughout the course.

Images of happiness

Megan Richard is an undergraduate student earning her bachelor’s in integrative health from the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. She registered for the course because of her genuine interest in religious studies and wanted to evaluate what other cultures define as the “ultimate truth.”

“Personally, I have several friends who began their bodhisattvaSomeone who has achieved enlightenment but puts off entering nirvana in order to help others. journey years ago who have experienced remarkable changes in their lives, so I wanted to acquire more knowledge about Buddhism,” said Richard.

Her final project focused on comparing different interpretations of how happiness is defined in various cultures. She researched Eastern and Western ideologies and assessed their differences and what they shared in common.

“This was a challenging project, as it dealt with such an ambiguous topic with a multiplicity of interpretations,” said Richard.

She decided to conduct interviews with a variety of people and asked them each to draw a quick sketch of what they perceived as happiness. The people involved were a middle-aged Mormon man, an elderly Baptist woman, a 30-year-old agnostic, an 8-year-old girl, a bodhisattva of 10 years and a 2-year-old boy. 

After completing their sketches, Richard asked them to describe what their images meant to them and how they believed happiness could be achieved. See their answers in the gallery below.

Comparing the idea of ‘self’

Aidan Fox is an undergraduate earning his bachelor’s degree in film (film and media studies) from the Department of English. In the summer of 2020, he converted to Zen Buddhism and enrolled in the course to pursue an academic approach to understanding Buddhism and Buddhist historical development.

“I converted to Zen Buddhism as a means of changing my worldview and addressing my developing mental health conditions as a result of the pandemic,” said Fox. “This class filled much-needed elective credits while also covering subject matter near and dear to my heart.”

He wrote an essay for his final project on the commonalities between Buddhism and Marxism, specifically their understanding of human suffering. His essay focused on the Marxist idea of rejecting individualism and the importance of learning how humans are all connected and the Buddhist concept of emptiness and the rejection of there being a “true self.”

“I begin to philosophically analyze what conclusions these respective schools of thought come to as a result of their observations regarding ‘self’ and ‘individuality,’” said Fox. “I truly believe that everyone, regardless of their faith, should research Buddhism. I think Buddhism has core principles that can be applied to virtually anyone's lifestyle without having to radically convert to it.”

The Noble Truths and Alcoholics Anonymous

Nicholas Tkachyk is earning his bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. He enrolled in the class in part because he was nervous to jump back into his college education after taking some time away and assumed the class would be easier than enrolling in math or psychology. The other part of his enrollment came from an enthusiasm for spirituality and learning how different groups of people seek God and themselves.

“The title of my final project was, ‘Buddhism and Alcoholics Anonymous: Parallels to Awakening,’” said Tkachyk. “The paper explored various similarities between the path of a Buddhist and the path of a recovering alcoholic.”

After his own experience with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), he realized the methods and principles involved in the program may have originated from the Buddhist way of life. 

Photo of Nicholas Tkachyk playing the drums

Nicholas Tkachyk plays the drums with his band, Spafford. Photo courtesy Paul Citone

“Exploring the topic of similar paths to awakening was challenging in that it seemed like everything was the same,” said Tkachyk. “Therefore, I had to pick and choose which specific points to highlight in my paper.” 

He chose to compare three ideas of AA and Buddhism. The first parallel he drew was between Buddhism's First Noble Truth, known as the truth of suffering, and AA's first step, admitting powerlessness over alcohol. 

The second comparison looked at the Buddhist Eightfold Path, which is the path of adopting the right view, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration, against AA's Twelve Steps, the full program used by AA.

His final parallel was between the bodhisattva, a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings, compared to the AA's Twelfth Step, which is to carry the message to others.

“This is an interesting topic to me, and in the future I would like to expand on parallels between all spiritual and religious paths,” said Tkachyk. “I would highly recommend anyone interested in religion, spirituality, history, science, God, humans, the universe, etc., to experience this course with an open mind and an open heart. It felt fun, liberating and exciting to take this course.”

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

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NASA’s top official, US senator see ASU’s space chops in action

May 31, 2022

Bill Nelson, Mark Kelly praise how ASU involves students in missions

Both men have been blasted into space and have served in the U.S. Senate. But NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly were “back in school” during a visit to Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration on Friday, May 27.

The pair got to see details of the university’s more than 20 space missions — ASU is leading the NASA space missions Psyche and LunaH-Map while also developing instruments for scientific missions to the moon, asteroids and planets, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, OSIRIS-REx, Lucy and the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. And it’s not just faculty; students take part in work both directly involved and inspired by these missions.

Among the hands-on lessons during Friday’s visit: strapping in for a ride on Tycho, a vehicle that can drive forward, backward and side to side. It can even spin itself a full 360 degrees around a single point. Tycho is a modern training vehicle designed and built to meet the needs of 21st-century human exploration of the moon and Mars. It was built by a team of staff and students at ASU.

“ASU is one of NASA’s premier universities as a partner. They build space hardware here,” says Kelly. “That’s pretty new. Universities typically don’t build the stuff that gets launched into space. They build the stuff here now instead of having some private or defense company do it. And that’s great for the students here. They’re going to leave here, and they’re going to be ready for these high-tech jobs of the future. We need more of that.”

People sit around a conference table with lunar photos on the walls

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson (foreground) makes a comment during ASU Professor Mark Robinson’s (standing) presentation about Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera images and data during a tour of the various NASA projects in progress at ASU on May 27. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

Like Tycho, much of what the men saw Friday is directly connected to upcoming NASA goals and launches. Several of those missions involve the moon.

The Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper — LunaH-Map for short — is a CubeSat mission led by School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) Assistant Professor Craig Hardgrove. LunaH-Map, which will ride into space on the Artemis 1 rocket later this summer, is a miniaturized spacecraft about the size of a shoebox that will orbit the moon to map water-ice in permanently shadowed regions of the lunar south pole.

Professor Mark Robinson — who has been developing detailed maps of the moon for over 20 years as principal investigator for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) — brought Nelson and Kelly up to date Friday on the next steps for LunaH-Map, whose discoveries could let scientists determine whether there’s enough water to support future human and robotic exploration of the solar system. Robinson also spoke about how LROC fits into some of the next steps for what NASA can do with robotic landers on the moon. NASA’s Artemis program aims to put humans back on the moon by the end of 2025.

Sen. Mark Kelly grimaces as he lifts a large meteorite

Sen. Mark Kelly hams it up a bit while lifting a large meteorite sample in the Buseck Center for Meteorite Studies at ISTB4 on the Tempe campus May 27. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

The visitors got the chance to tour the school’s Buseck Center for Meteorite Studies, which houses one of the world’s largest university-based meteorite collections.

Nelson says that for him, one the most vivid moments of the ASU visit was holding a chunky black diamond inside the center’s vault.

“And I’m telling you, if we ever find in quantities that can be harvested diamonds or titanium or gold or any other precious metals, can you imagine the amount of exploration? The California gold rush will just be a distant memory of what you'll see going on out in space,” he says.

A man smiles as he holds a meteorite

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson holds up a meteorite at the center, which houses one of the world’s largest university-based meteorite collections. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

No diamonds are expected to come from samples to be collected by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. But when those samples do come to Earth, SESE Director Meenakshi Wadhwa will serve as Mars Sample Return program scientist to unravel the sample compositions.

Kelly and Nelson learned more about Mars inside SESE’s mission control room. This is where the Mastcam-Z camera team gathers images from Mars. That team is led by ASU Professor Jim Bell. The camera system onboard the Perseverance rover can zoom from wide angle to telephoto, take 3D images and video, and take photos in up to 11 unique colors. It’s part of the rover’s mission to document rock and sediment samples, search for signs of ancient microbial life and characterize the planet’s geology and climate.

No one’s sure exactly what NASA will find with the Psyche and Europa Clipper missions, which is why the agency is sending spacecraft to both places.

A man stands and talks to students seated in front of computer monitors

Sen. Mark Kelly speaks with ASU employees and students working in the Mission Operations for Lunar and Mars Sciences Laboratory during the May 27 tour of various NASA projects in progress at the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

Psyche is a metal-rich asteroid orbiting the sun in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Psyche is also the name of the spacecraft which will go there, led by ASU Regents Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton. The mission, which offers a unique window into the building blocks of planet formation, is scheduled to launch this fall. The Psyche team will investigate whether the asteroid is the core of an early planet and whether it formed in similar ways to the Earth’s core.

Europa is a moon of Jupiter, where an ASU-designed and -built thermal imaging instrument led by Regents Professor Phil Christensen is headed as part of the Europa Clipper spacecraft. The Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) will scan temperatures across Europa’s surface, including regions where the moon’s presumed ocean may lie close to the surface. The Europa Clipper will make about 50 flybys of Europa to investigate whether the moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.

Students wearing Psyche team shirts stand behind a table with various mission items on it

Associate Research Professor Cassie Bowman (fourth from right) and Psyche mission student interns talk about their outreach work and educational work during the May 27 tour at ISTB4. The Psyche spacecraft, the first ASU-led deep-space mission, is scheduled to launch this fall on its way to a metal-rich asteroid. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

Nelson says he likes that SESE combines students fresh to space work with experienced people at the top of their NASA careers.

“If I have anything to do with it, we are actually going to expand the internships, and a huge percentage of those interns come to work for NASA because they're so turned on to the work,” says Nelson. “It’s a rich source of extraordinary talent. As we move more and more into the commercial sector, that just all the more magnifies the use of universities, whether directly in a contract with NASA or through one of NASA’s commercial partners. I see this as a model for the future that's going to not only continue, it's going to grow.”

Two men sit in a lunar rover prototype on a sidewalk

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson (left) and Sen. Mark Kelly take a test drive in Tycho, a lunar rover prototype built by a team of ASU students and researchers. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

Top photo: As numerous media members watch, Sen. Mark Kelly (seated, left) and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson take a test drive in Tycho, a lunar rover prototype that can drive forward, backward, sideways and with a tight turning radius during a tour of the various NASA projects in progress at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration on May 27 on the Tempe campus. ASU researchers and students are involved in more than 20 space missions. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU

Steve Filmer

Manager , Media Relations and Strategic Communications