Features of Introduction to Asian Religions
Excerpt: I must admit at the outset that I am old-fashioned. While I applaud the myriad of new teaching materials such as audio-visual material, computer programs, the Internet, and the like that are now available to teachers of religion, I firmly believe in the Asian concept that the most meaningful educational experiences are the result of a personal interaction between student and teacher. It is this philosophy that has guided the writing of the present text. It is self-evident that no textbook of any manageable size could be written that would exhaustively treat the magnificent diversity of Asian religious experience. Choices of methodological emphasis, what topics are to be included or excluded, to what depth these topics should be treated, and to what extent one should involve the beginning student in an examination of the many still unresolved scholarly debates associated with the study of Asian religions are all questions that need to be considered when deciding how to structure the tremendous mass of data available on the religions of Asia. Clearly, instructors of the subject will hold different opinions on all of these issues.
Moreover, every class is unique in the mix of its students and the specific expertise of its instructor, not to mention the necessity of contending with the numerous unexpected factors that affect the conduct and evolution of each individual class from term to term. It is impossible to predict what aspects of the study of the Asian traditions will fire the imagination of the students and emerge at any given point as a living concern in the classroom, either for an individual or the group at large. Instructors must be the facilitators and sculptors of this educational experience, since they mediate between the purely intellectual facts of the study and the dreams, aspirations, and concerns of the students. It is through the teacher's inspiration and technical knowledge that students transcend the dry facts of Asian religion and come to understand it for what it truly is—a vital and living force in the lives of much of the human race.
This text, then, is designed to support the instructor's efforts in bringing the Asian religions to life for the students who will use it. As such, it makes no pretense of being exhaustive in its treatment of Asian religious phenomena, nor of being "inspirational" in its own right. Rather it aims at providing a framework within which instructors are free to develop their exposition of the material in the manner most appropriate to their own expertise and inclinations, and the conditions of their individual classrooms. With this goal in mind, I have chosen to present the religions of Asia in a primarily historical manner. As a historian of religion I believe that, far from being a static ahistorical phenomenon, religion is a living and evolving organ-ism, and that examination of the overall historical development of the Asian religions is the clearest way for the beginning student to gain an overview of these thought systems and their place in their societies. Readers of this text will also find that my presentation is conditioned by the assumption that religions are both influenced by the physical and social environments in which they develop and in turn influence those environments.
This should not be taken to mean that I hold the reductionist viewpoint that all religion is nothing more than an outgrowth of human society and the human psyche. But given the intellectual boundaries within which the process of academic analysis takes place, scholars are committed to working with data as it presents itself, and it must be recognized that data can often be interpreted from a secular materialist point of view as well as in a spiritual manner. Nor does this method of interpretation necessarily negate the transcendental origins and possibilities advocated by the religious traditions themselves. As my grandfather used to observe, "The Lord moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform."
Even though the text is primarily structured along historical lines, the tremendous mass of information demands further organization. Consequently, I have divided the book into three main sections—South and Southeast Asia, China, and Northeast Asia. The pan-Asian religions such as Shamanism and Islam are examined at appropriate points throughout the narrative.
Such wide diversity of geographic and cultural areas creates considerable challenges in transliterating the various languages of Asia into English. Since this is a textbook for beginners, I have chosen to use simple phonetic transliteration for the Indic languages. (In more advanced texts, Indic terms and names are transliterated using the excellent system that has been developed for these languages.) Likewise, I have simplified the transliteration of most of the other Asian languages encountered in the text. For Korean, I have adhered to the McCune-Reischauer system with the exception of using "ö" and "ü" to indicate the short sounds of those vowels. In the case of Chinese, I have used Pinyin; however, since so many seminal books on Chinese religion use the significantly different Wade-Giles system, I have also given that form of transliteration when words or names are encountered in the text for the first time.
We live in a world full of electronic information resources, and present-day instructors and students of Asian religions have an immense volume of multimedia material no further away than their computers. I have chosen to use some of these newly available resources to construct what one might describe as a "counter text." Whereas the printed text concentrates primarily on the systematic presentation of the historical and intellectual development of the Asian religions—subjects that are treated very unevenly in the Internet material that I have reviewed—most of the electronic sources quoted in the text are linked to sites that give the students the "feel" of the various religions. This material will hopefully convey a fuller under-standing and appreciation of the non-intellectual components of the various Asian traditions that make them so appealing to their devotees. It is where phenomenological information on festivals, rituals, and so forth is to be found, and here many of the literary and artistic expressions of the various religions are presented. Writings drawn from the various religious traditions of Asia are also printed at the end of this text, to provide immediate access to a representative selection of primary sources.
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