Whether I am teaching Indian monasticism, Chinese Zen, Tibetan ritual, or theories of religion, I value diverse perspectives, helping students to see that there are many ways to think about any topic. I approach the learning process as connective and cumulative. I see my classes as fitting into a network of knowledge whose pathways and nodes are different for each student. I encourage students to discern commonalities and divergences in research paradigms, analytic models, and writing styles as they map connections across their semester’s course schedule.
I plan class readings, mini-lectures, pair and group discussions, as well as writing assignments to help students investigate the connections between expressions of religious worlds and questions about human experience. I encourage students to consider how religious expressions challenge or affirm their attitudes toward scripture, ritual, practice, and place; and to ask new questions about what they thought they already knew.
I have been teaching throughout my professional and graduate career, serving as leading instructor for an intermediate course on Chinese thought and religion and for an upper-level course on Tibetan religion, and as a teaching assistant in courses about Buddhism in India, Tibet, and China, as well as in an introductory Chinese philosophy class. I was able to develop diverse teaching exercises that were successful in helping students engage with course concepts through writing and reflection based assignments.
For example, in “Magicians and Mystics in Tibet,” to situate the course within its broader cultural and academic contexts, I asked a student to draw a river on the board. I then populated the two banks of the river with stylized figures representing different observers such as a biologist, a fisherman, a painter, and a religious mendicant. We discussed the distinct ways in which each of these people might view the river and its waters. We asked questions about different perceptions of the same object, and built a common understanding about their possible relations. Students took turns to add more figures representing their own areas of study, developing a series of questions they would ask about this river from the standpoints of their discipline.
Kyle, a Business major from Detroit, developed questions on the river’s flow rate in order to build a dam and a power plant in order to make a profit. Emily, a junior majoring in Psychology and raised in Shanghai, asked how living by a river might affect someone’s emotional life. And Molly, a Chicago native interested in the anthropology of magic in the Caribbean, posed questions about initiations, purification rites, and death rituals performed at the river in order to understand the relation between culture and place. I then asked students to consider what type of language each observer of the river might employ to communicate ideas to an audience.
I have come to believe that this exercise best suits small classes, although I was also able to adapt it to suit discussion sections in larger lecture classes. The sixteen students enrolled in “Magicians and Mystics in Tibet,” including those majoring in Engineering, Gender Studies, and American Culture, responded favorably. They presented their own disciplinary standpoints and formulated a medium of expression that was accessible to other students, building a community that was respectful of individual backgrounds.
The river thus became an anchor for concepts to which we returned throughout the course. Each time the reading materials introduced categories such as nature, society, life, death, initiation, rebirth, magic, and technology, students inquired into the intentions behind the authors’ statements. As students then engaged the writing assignments for each class, they gained insight into their own rhetorical choices, and how others might interpret them. Regardless of their majors, students became more open to learning how to develop a cogent academic argument once considerations of discipline, language, and audience for their analytical tasks had been made explicit.
In this regard, my approach to teaching was challenged when, during the required midterm conference, Molly asked, “How do I write about magic and religion, if not scientifically?” The class had discussed Malinowski’s view (in Magic, Science and Religion) of magic as a false symbolic reality and Harry West’s view (in Ethnographic Sorcery) of magic as a discursive practice. Molly was concerned that, through the very act of writing, her essay about the Tibetan saint Milarepa might turn a Buddhist practice in an object of academic analysis.
I had no ready answer. We began talking about the river. Molly and I eventually agreed on the following: as far as the writer develops a reflexive attitude about the many ways in which she continually makes, unmakes, and remakes her views and the views of others, and how others unmake and remake her views, she may build bridges between the realms of scientific study, magic, and religion, writing from a fresh standpoint.
Molly’s term paper “The Magic of Science – The Science of Magic” succeeded in her analytical task, observing that “the world of sorcery has no conventional rationale; it transcends objectivity and calls for subjective participation in order to truly understand;” and that this understanding leads to “the legitimacy of other’s worldview and means of understanding.” The insights that resulted from our dialogue have informed not only the ways I engage students about writing in other courses, but also the ways I write myself, for it helps me convey to students a sense that I, too, am learning from them.
My classes provide toolkits for discerning the classical foundations of Buddhism and the religious traditions of East Asia as well as their transformations in the modern world, and encourage awareness of everyday life as a site for critical analysis of scripture, ritual, practice, and place that can be undertaken by any student regardless of background. The river is a shorthand for the values that underlie my teaching practice as I aim to bring Buddhism and the religions of East Asia into an interdisciplinary dialogue, equipping students to think critically about religion through their academic careers, and beyond.