Source: The Teaching Company
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 them 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.
One of the highlights of the course is Dr. Mark W. Muesse’s description of untarnished Monotheism, in the message of the prophet Muhammad:
Islamic theology distinguishes between the divine essence, which is beyond comprehension, and the divine attributes, which name certain qualities that assist in appropriately orienting the mind toward God. This distinction between a god’s essence and his attributes is a common one in the history of world religions.
A well-known list of al-Lah’s unique characteristics is known as the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. Two of them appear at the start of every sura (except Sura 9) as the bismillah: ‘In the name of God, the all-compassionate, the all-merciful.’ The other beautiful names complement and supplement these attributes. The bismillah is recited as part of Muslim daily prayers, and it is often spoken as one undertakes a new task. Some Muslims think the bismillah contains the very essence of the Qur’an.
Misappropriating the divine attributes is part of what Islam considers to be the most heinous of sins: shirk—that is, connecting with al-Lah something that is less than ultimate or giving to something less than ultimate what belongs to al-Lah alone. Shirk is the only sin al-Lah cannot forgive, although only if one dies in this state of unbelief. Shirk is idolatry in its broadest sense – not just images of the divine, but whatever finite object becomes the locus of our highest values—money, country, self, religion.
This is a 36 lecture course by Dr. Mark W. Muesse, who is W. J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies, Director of the Asian Studies Program, and Director of the Life: Then and Now Program at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He earned a B.A., summa cum laude, in English Literature from Baylor University and a Master of Theological Studies, a Master of Arts, and a Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University. Before taking his position at Rhodes, Professor Muesse held positions at Harvard College, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Southern Maine, where he served as Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He is a recipient of the 2008 Clarence Day Award for Outstanding Teaching, Rhodes College’s highest faculty honor. Known for his experiential teaching style, Professor Muesse was honored for his effective use of imaginative and creative pedagogy as well as his ability to motivate his students toward lifelong study. Professor Muesse has written many articles, papers, and reviews in world religions, spirituality, theology, and gender studies and has coedited a collection of essays titled Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities. He is currently compiling an anthology of prayers from around the world. Professor Muesse is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Indian Philosophy and Religion and has been Visiting Professor at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai, India. He has traveled extensively throughout Asia and has studied at Wat Mahadhatu, Bangkok, Thailand; the Himalayan Yogic Institute, Kathmandu, Nepal; the Subodhi Institute of Integral Education, Sri Lanka; and Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.
Dr. Mark W. Muesse concludes this lecture series in the following words:
The noble life as practiced by our sages also entails sensitivity to suffering, both our own and that of others. The great emphasis placed on awareness of suffering by these teachers invites us to examine our lives as individuals and cultures to determine the ways we desensitize ourselves to this fundamental dimension of experience.
Finally, the four sages recognized that the core problem of self-centeredness was manifested in many ways, not simply in the tendency of the individual to act selﬁshly. Although explained and presented in different ways, for all four sages, the solution to the predicament of self-centeredness lies in transforming our conditioned ways of thinking and acting: Transformation begins in waking up to reality, to gaining clear apprehension.
While on certain aspects of the noble life the four sages appear to come close to one another, in other areas each has something unique to offer. Perhaps Confucius’s most interesting belief is his faith in the near-magical power of virtue. Confucius thought that virtuous persons would effortlessly inspire others to act morally. We actually see that phenomenon displayed in the lives of our four teachers. The Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment are clear and compelling arguments for the dangers of holding on too tightly to anything —not just material objects but ideas as well. This warning, coupled with his rigorous criteria for approaching claims of truth, seems particularly appropriate for our information-saturated world. Much of Christian belief focuses on the divinity of Jesus; without setting that aside, the view of Jesus presented in these lectures invites us to focus on his humanity for a time, particularly his affirmation of life in the face of death and the courage he showed in practicing his own convictions. Muhammad, like the Buddha, reminds us of our own forgetfulness and demonstrates through his spiritual discipline how to remember to remember. He also invites us to accept the inscrutability of the ultimate reality.
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.