This is the first Coursera class that I have enrolled knowing that it would not award any certificate of accomplishment even though we were required to do two essays, one at mid-course and another after the final lecture. I can safely say my thirst for knowledge succeeded in motivating me to complete watching all six weeks of lectures and to not only submit both papers, but have done well enough to be awarded full marks each by five of my peers. The fact that there was no certification did lessen the stress but knowing that also gave me a laissez-faire attitude towards the course.
My interest in this course is sparked separately by my interest in Buddhism and psychology. To combine both subjects helps answer many questions on Buddhism, and also confirms that Buddhism is less a religion and more a philosophy. And now through this course, we have introduced the Buddha as a psychologist of his time.
This objective of this course is about the scientific evaluation of Buddhist ideas. By scientific, the lecture refers to modern psychology, evolution and natural selection.
We were given a the basic idea of Buddhism, mainly the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold path, no-self, meditation and Enlightenment. These ideas are then investigated and explored using modern psychology studies, and evolution helps explain the reasons behind them. What was excluded is reincarnation, as no current scientific method is able to prove that as yet. (Individual experience do not count as scientific studies.)
The idea of suffering or dissatisfaction due to craving and attachment for things which are impermanent is easily demonstrated by numerous psychological experiments (say, the rise and fall of happy hormone dopamine in mice) and explained by evolution theory.
What was a difficult concept to grasp for me is the idea of non-self, that there is not one single controlling CEO in us but the fact that there exist many things that are beyond our control, and thus not one single self. We were introduced to the modular mind theory of modern science as well as experiments done on split-brain patients to prove that.
Neuroscience imaging of the brain confirms a default-mode-network in the brain that is active when we are not focused on a task, which evolution theory explains why. This is the reason why during meditation, our mind wanders incessantly. The same study of the brains of monks who had meditated showed a quiet default network, proving that we are able to train our mind through meditation.
The peers in the class comprise a good mix of people who has little prior knowledge (like me!) and others who are very well-read about Buddhism. There is even a thread in the forum titled Ask The Buddhists for those of us who want more answers on Buddhism, which was helpful.
My take-away from this course is that many who claim to be Buddhists in S E Asia are either practising the religion wrongly, as they are paying more attention to the rituals, than the study itself. Among my associates who are Buddhists, their attachment to impermanent things like health, youth and finance are evident that when faced with these losses, their despair is a puzzle to me. One can argue that these people are not enlightened yet and thus display such behaviours. I think the truth is that they have not been taught the true philosophy of Buddhism and that is what is most regrettable.