Week 3: A Smorgasbord of Beliefs

7 May 2016: collisions at religious crossroads, long walks, found in translation

Encountering some of the best and most fascinating journeys ever recorded, we’ll read about decades-long searches for sacred texts, misinformed missionary efforts, never-before-encountered religious customs and attempts to retrace legendary adventures. This week’s reading should be some of our most memorable.

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Readings for Week 3:

  1. Excerpt from William of Rubruck’s Mongol Mission. William of Rubruck must have been an unpleasant man. This excerpt is taken from the report to Louis IX (Saint Louis) of William’s 1253 mission to the court of Mongke Khan (“Mangu Chan,” in his account). William was a Franciscan monk, like John of Plano Carpini before him, who we read for Week 2. William’s stubborn insistence on being shown respect and his righteous indignation at his off-handed treatment by everyone he meets never seem to soften. His report is as interesting for his account of travel as it is for the study of the intermixture of the many religions and their followers that he is so careful to record.
  2. Christoph Baumer on Nestorian Christians from Traces in the Desert. Baumer is a Swiss archaeologist and an excellent photographer. This is one of his earlier books, when the magic and mystery were more evident in his writing. Compare what Baumer has to say about the Nestorians to William of Rubruck’s observations of them seven centuries earlier.
  3. Sir Aurel Stein on some of his earliest discoveries of Buddhist sites from On Central-Asian Tracks. This is a little different than the other readings in that Stein is talking about his encounter with Buddhism through artifacts. His descriptions, however, are magnificent and his youthful enthusiasm is infectious.
  4. Franc and Jean Shor’s 1951 National Geographic article on the Dunhuang caves is a great adventure account and contains a few nice color photos.
  5. Reza’s 1996 National Geographic article and photographs of the Dunhuang caves came 45 years after the Shors’ and shows that fascination with the site has yet to wane.
  6. Fan Jinshi’s chapter on Dunhuang (with a nice map) will help orient you to the place and history that led to its special mixture of styles and religions.
  7. Dalai Lama on the unrest that preceded his flight to India from My Land and My People. A slightly different look at religion in Central Eurasia from arguably the most central religious figure in the region.
  8. Mildred Cable, “In the Chapel of Meditation” from The Gobi Desert. An introspective and beautifully written reflection on her travels. I think you’ll like this one.
  9. A biography of Xuanzang’s early years. This is a little background on the 7th century Buddhist monk who traveled from China to India on a 16-year trip to gather Buddhist scriptures. Most of our travelers mention him at some point and he was influential in many ways. His travel account, as I mentioned in class, is not exactly an adventure story, heavily laden with theology as it is. It’s better to read about Xuanzang than to try to read his account.
  10. Finally, Sven Hedin’s account of his travels in Iran and his encounter with dead Zoroastrians. I can’t believe he did this.

Supplementary Materials:

For this week, I’ve provided a lot of supplementary readings and media that might help form a better sense of the material.

1.     The Smart Museum exhibition: Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan
This 2010/2011 exhibit at the Smart Museum of Art was a recreation of Buddhist cave temples like those at Dunhuang. The caves exhibited are from Xiangtangshan (响堂山), in modern Hebei Province. This exhibition site has several links of interest and content that you may find helpful in understanding the design and function of the caves at Dunhuang.

2.     There is a series of excellent documentaries filmed in the 1970s and 1980s by NHK (Japan) and CCTV (China Central Television) that are widely available online and you can still purchase them secondhand online. I know that the Chicago Public Library system has at least one full set of the original 12 episodes.

The first twelve episodes can be seen here: Silk Road I
The second set of eighteen episodes are here: Silk Road II

For this week, Episode 3: Art Gallery in the Desert is the one we want to watch, but for some sort of music rights issue, all of the copies available on the internet are blocked in the US. So, I uploaded the whole episode to another place and you can watch it here: Episode 3: Art Gallery in the Desert.

3.     Huston Smith’s chapter on Buddhism from The World’s Religions. I’m a devoted reader of Huston Smith and find all of his reading insightful and illuminating. His explanation of Buddhism is the clearest, most sympathetic and complete one out there. Smith has led an interesting life and wrote a wonderful memoir titled, Tales of Wonder that I highly recommend. He did a long series of interviews with Bill Moyer in the 1990s called The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith that is a master class in world religions. Here is a clip from one of the episodes of that series.

4.     There was a question in last week’s class about religion among the nomadic pastoralists of Central Eurasia. Below, you’ll find some materials that explain some of it–or maybe make it more confusing. Both of these are about the Mongols, but much that has been written about them and their beliefs are similar to other pastoral nomadic peoples of Central Eurasia.

A. The first chapter of The Secret History of the Mongols in which the Mongols’ mythical origin is explained and the events that preceded the birth of Temujin (Chinggis Khan). The Secret History is an important exception to the generality I made about lacking sources that reveal nomadic pastoralists’ own voices.

B. Mongol religious beliefs from David Morgan’s The Mongols. A couple of pages that help sum it all up.

5.     Here’s the website for the Cave Temples of Dunhuang exhibition at the Getty Research Institute. The timing is perfect!

6.     A short summary of the religious traditions you’ll encounter from Traveling the Silk Road, a volume published in conjunction with the 2009/2010 exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History by the same title.

7.      Finally, something I’d like to see as a traveling exhibit for those who can not or will never be able to experience Dunhuang for themselves:

Last week: The Farmer and the Cowman

Next week: Hordes of Mounted Archers and Pyramids of Skulls

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