Official Blog Entry #5: The Buddhist Tradition

buddhistsThe Buddhist tradition (s) can be dated back 2,500 years to the time of the Buddha who supposedly lived from 563-483 B.C.E. Over the centuries, variations in Buddhist rituals and practices have emerged that have enriched the religion, but at the same time, have produced distinct differences between different peoples. Buddhism first reached areas, such as the region of China of the time, through the Silk routes. The Silk Road was always important to the transfer of ideas and customs from one region to another. It can be attributed to the Silk Road the rich and diverse tradition of Buddhism.

Reading the texts of Donald S. Lopez Jr., Sally Hovey Wriggins, and the translation of some excerpts from the Lotus Sutra by Burton Watson, has made me understand the true diverse nature of Buddhism. It is a highly spiritual religion, with a belief in the mystical and the unseen. Each Buddhist holds dear three ‘jewels’ of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In a way, these three jewels are typical of any religion. The founder of the religion, the message he preached, and the first followers of the religion, are always kept in high regard by anyone who follows the religious institution. The Buddhists view the Buddha as the doctor, the dharma as the medicine, and finally the sangha as the nurses. All three are ideal to the propagation of the Buddhist tradition.

Buddhism is in no doubt, a polytheistic religion. Indeed there are different levels of power, but early Buddhists definitely rejected the notion of an ultimate power. There are 33 gods, who surprisingly are not immortal. How can a god be immortal? Buddhists answer this by claiming that one day for a god is about a hundred human years. Gods are in a way personified. They are subject to re-birth, the samsara, just like all humans are. I concluded from this that the Buddha is in fact held in a higher status than these gods. The prince Siddhartha, who became the first Buddha, escaped the cycle of re-birth and achieved nirvana, while these gods do not. Nirvana is achieved by destroying ignorance, not so easily achieved.

There are many similarities between Buddhism and other religions. The Buddhists believe in the asuras who are demigods or titans, mean-spirited lesser deities who bring harm to humans. This is the notion of the evil one, or the Satan in other religious traditions. Buddhists also believe in the succession of Buddhas, and the future fourth Buddha, Maitreya, is waiting in the fourth of the six godly realms. This notion of awaiting the arrival of a promised one is definitely present in other religious traditions, such as the Messiah in Christianity and Islam, or the Imam in Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. I also found another similarity while reading these texts. The Buddhist tradition holds the notion that when people started eating food that society first began to corrupt. Intercourse was introduced and waste became rampant. Other religions have the concept of the consumption of food such as an apple, or forbidden fruit, leading to the committing of the first sin.

I found it surprising that in the realm of desire, where humans are found, hell can be found too. An extensive system of hells is present in Bodhgaya in the realm of desire where humans dwell. Contrary to other beliefs though, Buddhists believe that the universe never came to be. It just never had a beginning. As the Dalai Lama said, Buddhists do not believe in one Big Bang, they believe in many Big Bangs.

When I was studying the whole concept of religion, and the study of religion, I read that most anthropologists held a negative view of the religions of earlier people because it appeared as they believed in the ‘magical’. Reading about some of the beliefs of the Buddhists has made me understand why early anthropologists would have thought so. In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha could utter the letter ‘a’ and everybody could hear a discourse in his or her native tongue. The Buddha could also emit a ray of light from a tuft of white hair between his eyebrows, and that would light up eighteen thousand worlds in the east. I can see from this why some early anthropologists would have arrived to the conclusions they did.

Overall, the Buddha’s teachings were very flexible, and this added to his absence after his death, created rituals unheard of before. An example of such a ritual is the chanting of the name Amitabha, which helps the Buddhist follower experience the religious experience. When a people deviate from the original meaning of the message that the founder preached, many rituals emerge that were never present in the ‘original’ tradition. This, to me, sounds very similar to Sufism, where Sufis chant specific words over and over again until they faint, or they enter a ‘spiritual realm’ to experience the unseen, completely unheard of in early Islam.

As time goes on, and centuries go by, the Buddhist traditions will continue to get diverse. But is the diversification of religion really such a good thing? Do not the variations that emerge deviate from the original message of the religion? That is a question each believer must ponder, and must make the conscious decision of what to believe and what to reject in the face of increasing skepticism in our times.


Official Blog Entry #4: Zoroastrianism

One of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism is practiced in many parts of the world.  Originating in the present geographical region of Iran, Zoroastrians have continued to remain as a tight-knit community, even though they are moving to all corners of the world.  With their numbers dwindling, Zoroastrians, or those who follow the teachings of their prophet Zarathustra, are trying to, and many have indeed succeeded, to rise to prominent positions.

Inspite of being one of the world’s oldest religions, there is not much known on Zoroastrianism.  Following the break of Zoroastrians into Iranian Zoroastrians, and the Parsis in India and Pakistan, the community’s adherence to their rituals, customs and beliefs started to come under extreme questioning and scrutiny, especially with the rise of western scholars specializing in the ancient Avestan language.  Due to the complexity of the language, Zoroastrians or Parsis themselves have begun to have theological doubts about the actual meanings of their texts, and the actual teachings that Zarathustra preached.  This has opened a new area of research for western and Zoroastrian scholars, who are still trying to comprehend the Avestan texts in their entirety.

I find it surprising that despite Zoroastrianism being one of the oldest religions in the world, not much is known on them other than the basic rituals and rites they perform.  Despite having a strong community in India and Pakistan, Muslims and Hindus do not know much on the Zoroastrian faith.  Only basic stereotypes have formed, such as the notion of all Zoroastrians being “fire worshippers”, and that Zoroastrians are the ones who leave their deceased behind on mountains to be devoured by vultures.  Not much is known on the theology of the belief, and so not many similarities or contrasts have been made with regards to Zoroastrianism and Islam.

I found it surprising that Zoroastrians believe that the world was made in seven stages, where in Christianity and Islam, there exists the belief that God created the Earth in six days, with God either resting or returning to His throne on the seventh day.  Zoroastrians also believed in the final day, the Day of Judgment, where those who have died will be brought back to life and great fires will ravage the Earth.  This belief is followed by Muslims, Jews, and Christians as well.  Zoroastrians also had the belief in the Evil Spirit, the Angra Mainyu, similar to other monotheistic religions which entitle the Satan, or Shaitan as the embodiment of evil.  Spenta Mainyu, or the Holy Spirit, could easily be seen as similar to the Angel Gabriel, again present in the monotheistic religions.  Zoroastrians also performed ritual ablutions.  Overall, there are many similarities between Zoroastrianism and the world’s three main monotheistic religions, which raises the issue of how much one religion can affect another.

Overall Zoroastrians were more than just “fire worshippers”, they ultimately revered nature.  Fire being one of the most holy creations (its “birth” is still celebrated in Iran as Now Roz, which is surprising since modern day Iran is under a very strict version of Shi’ite Islam), Zoroastrians respected nature and tried to understand it.  Man came from Earth, and to it he will return.  The relationship between man and nature is to be respected and always honoured.  Even after many centuries, Zoroastrians or Parsis have still managed to hold on to many of their ancient traditions, making the oral tradition of zorastrianism live on in the modern age of technological advancements.

Norouzetan- Mobarak

A common Persian greeting for the holiday of Nowroz. Assumed to be founded by Zoroaster himself, it is surprising that Nowroz is still celebrated in modern day Iran under its strict Shi'ite regime.

Group Topic: The Study of Religion

Religion can be officially defined as ‘a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. It usually involves devotional and ritual observances, and often contains a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs’. Anthropologists have long tried to research the phenomenon of religion and the immense power it holds over people. Even though religion is considered vital to a society’s evolutionary progress, anthropologists have not looked much into how religion is actually shaping society, rather they are being held back by notions that previous anthropologists adhered to. It comes as a shock to say that much of the academic world today considers anthropologists to research ‘primitive’ religion over anything else. Anthropologists of the past researched beliefs in unseen spiritual agencies, witches, and demons, and concluded these all to constitute the belief systems of uncivilized peoples. If that was not a blow to the traditions and cultures (primarily shaped by religion) of people of the past, addressing their rituals as associating with magic rather than in an omnipotent deity definitely is. Hence, it is not a surprise that such notions which were held by such figures as John Lubbock, or James Frazer, are actually detrimental to the anthropological study of religion of today.

Scholars of today have tried to change the way that religion is academically perceived. Not only is the actual belief system, and the rituals/customs that pertain to it, analyzed, but rather the way it affects people is becoming increasingly well-researched. In other words, it is not what religion is, but rather how people are changed by it, that is of utmost importance. A strong example is that of the monk Thich Quang Duc, who showed no emotion as he slowly burned to death in protest. Religion can make man transcend all boundaries, and this still remains a mystery to many scholars.

Anthropologists have had different theories regarding religion. From Frazer’s theory of magic, to that of animism, animatism, nature-worship, idolatry, fetishism, and superstition of others, many theories have formulated over the years. The focus is slowly shifting from only the constitution of the religion, to the interaction between the religion and the believer.

One concern that many have towards anthropologists today is whether those in academia actually understand the power that religion has over the common folk. Many scholars of today claim that religion can mainly be understood from within. One has to ‘fully appreciate the experience of people for whom religious experiences are real’. Many of the anthropologists research the phenomena from the outside, rather than from within, and that in a way distances the researcher from his research. It is understandable to see that such views are forming, especially in light of such views as Weston La Barre’s (1991) of religion mainly contributing to human biological neoteny.

boyTherefore we end with two views. One of religion contributing to the evolution of society, while the other of religion actually inhibiting the natural development of society. That is left now for the present generation of scholars and anthropologists to fully research and either acknowledge or condemn. Recently, it has become quite the research to determine whether females are more religiously inclined than men, but that is another topic of its own.

I have to agree with Phillips Stevens, Jr. in that religion must overall be considered as extremely powerful and absolutely central to the human experience. The question remains whether this power will actually be beneficial, or detrimental, to society at large.

Official Blog Entry #3: The Sogdians of Sogdiana – a People who shaped history

Ancient Sogdian Letter

Ancient Sogdian Letter

The Sogdians (Old Persian: Suguda-; Ancient Greek: Σογδιανή; Chinese: 粟特 – Sùtè; New Persian: سغد – Sōġd) were an ancient Eastern Iranian people who were deeply involved in trade on the Silk Road.  From the very beginning, the Silk Route was controlled by Sogdian merchants.  The Sogdians had such great influence on the series of trade routes that comprised the Silk Road that their language became the lingua franca of the Silk Route long before the sixth century.  This was while the Chinese Tang Dynasty was in power.  To understand why the usage of the Sogdian language became so wide-spread, one must look at the language itself, and the location of the Sogdians along the Silk Road, along with the religions they adhered to.

Sogdian is a Middle Iranian language belonging in the Indo-Iranian family which in turn falls under the Indo-European family.  The Sogdian script derives from the Aramaic script, and is similar to the Uyghur and Mongolian scripts.  When Aurel Stein, the British archaeologist discovered the Sogdian Ancient letters deserted in a Chinese watch tower in 1907, the modern world got its first glimpse at Sogdian way of life; their attitudes, customs, and their day-to-day lives.  Through the Sogdian ancient letters, one can get a very personal understanding of what the authors of these letters felt, and thus it becomes easy to relate to peoples who dwelled on this Earth many centuries ago.  From the lady abandoned in Dun Huang without clothing and without money, to the man appealing to Lord Varzakk in distributing some wealth, the Sogdian letters help to decrease the years – gap between reader and writer.

Another aspect of Sogdian life was religious life.  The Sogdians were a group of people that held diverse beliefs throughout history, and yet maintained a vibrant culture.  The three main religions in the areas where the Sogdians dwelled were Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian Christianity. Frances Wood in Chapter 5 of The Silk Road:  Two Thousand Years in the Heart of China clearly explains the significance of Zoroastrianism in Sogdian life.  Sogdians on the Silk Road were mainly responsible for the spread of Zoroastrianism along the Silk Roads, and eastwards to China.  According to Wood, there is evidence that there were Iranian soothsayers in China as early as the eighth century BC.  Manichaeism was also spread mainly through Sogdians.  It is worth mentioning that some of the figures and statues present in China, such as the one in the temple at Caoan, near Quanzhou, contains inscriptions and images elevating and depicting Mani (a Parthian), but to ‘pious old women’, these are just Buddhist images.

So it is clearly evident that the Sogdians of Sogdiana were clearly integral in the flow of trade from one region to the next.  Their language traversed the routes, and their customs and rituals migrated along with silk, linen, silver, and other kinds of cloth.  I would conclude then, that the two most important aspects of Sogdian life were their language and their religions.  These two clearly affected their art, documents, and all other artifacts that are left behind to this day, which exist as our only witness to these peoples who were integral in commerce that brought the east of Asia closer to the west.

Official Blog Entry #2: The Han Histories

A Xiangnu warrior

A Xiongnu warrior

The following is a reflection on the Han Histories as found in the Hou Hanshu, and Chapter 4 of The Silk Road:  A Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, written by Frances Wood.

Ethnography is a branch of anthropology used to provide descriptions of human societies.  That much we know.  It is a strategy used to describe people through writing.  Ethnographic writing is holistic, and tends to not take biases.  Historical writing on the other hand is more scientific.  It presents historical events (defining what constitutes an historical event varies), along with the appropriate sources, arguments, and interpretations.  Can the Hou Hanshu, the official history of the Later (or ‘Eastern’) Han Dynasty (25-221 CE) compiled by Fan Ye, classify as historical writing?  I would say yes.  Read on.

I found the Hou Hanshu to state facts, be them bold or meek.  The not so revered events of China’s past were stated, regardless of the outcomes.  These included beheadings, hostage taken, and plain massacres of people.  Of course the text was from a Chinese perspective, but it can be seen from such descriptions like that of Da Qin (the Roman Empire), that the first hand impressions were stated without personal opinion involved.  From Hopkirk’s book, I remembered
the account of the wife of the consul general who had tried to describe the people found in the open market of kashgar.  She had described them as madmen and having the eyes of people without minds!  This account can also be found in Wood’s book page 25.  Yes, the inhabitants of Da Qin were described as tall and honest appearing, but at least their mental states weren’t questioned.  Such unbiased writing that tries to depict in a first hand account what is being
seen without judging others is what, to me, constitutes historical writing.  Of course the Hou Hanshu is not completely unbiased.  But considering the times it was written in, and later compiled, it can be considered to be historial writing.

Now the ethnographic descriptions in the Hou Hansu is very significant.  The author, Fan Ye, has compared peoples to try to give a better understanding of the peoples.  This writing was originally meant for Chinese readers, most likely Chinese rulers, so the comparisons are chosen so that the reader would understand.  For example, the people of the kingdom of Gaofu (present day Kabul) are considered to have a “way of life [that] is similar to that of Tianzhu (Northwestern India), but they are weak and easy to subdue”.  Such information is important for the ruling dynasty of
China.  People are described as accurately as possibly so that such information can be considered as military intelligence, that can be used in politics to make rulings and decisions regarding cities and regions.

There is so much history packed into chapter 4 of Wood’s book The Silk Road, and the Hou Hanshu writings.  There were battles, betrayals, deaths, sorrows, and victories.  Such a topsy turvy train of events is all presented, to attempt to give an idea of China and its vicinities of the time to the reader.  I enjoyed reading the descriptions, and I have to conclude from reading them that it is necessary to take the various locations and its peoples and their way of life into consideration to fully understand the decisions they undertook, and in turn, to understand the chain of events that took place.

The following is the epilogue presented in the Hou Hanshu regarding the Hu or the Xiangnu, considered to be barbarians by the Chinese.  It shows what the state of mind of the Chinese was, and how they approached the Hu.

The Western Hu are far away.
They live in an outer zone.

Their countries’ products are beautiful and precious,
But their character is debauched and frivolous.

They do not follow the rites of China.
Han has the canonical books.

They do not obey the Way of the Gods.
How pitiful!
How obstinate!

Taxila, Pakistan

A great clip showing ruins in Taxila, the ancient Buddhist capital.  Traditional Gandaharan architecture can be seen.  Taxila is located near Islamabad, in what is now Pakistan.  In the clip, one can see ruins, art, sculptures, and other artifacts.  Taxila (Urdu: ٹیکسلا, Sanskrit: तक्षशिला Takṣaśilā, Pali:Takkasilā) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

Official Blog Entry #1: The Great Asian Highway: An Introduction

camels_desertThe following is a personal reflection on the first three chapters of The Silk Road:  Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia by Frances Wood.

Seidenstrasse or Silk Road was the great Asian highway of its time which encompassed diverse regions and was traversed by people of all backgrounds.  The British consul-general in Chinese Turkestan, C. P. Skrine, who maintained the role from 1922 to 1924, described the various peoples he saw on the streets of Yarkand.  Peoples who range from Badakhshis, to Chitralis, Kashmiris, Hindu and Mussulman (Muslim) Punjabis, and the Turkis (Uighurs), just to name a few, demonstrate the complex diversity of the people who dealt trade in the region.  Merchants from present-day Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran, the disputed Kashmir, olden Turkestan and of course, China, conducted trade on these routes, and brought back treasures from one corner of Asia to another.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, one person’s trash can be another’s treasure.  One person’s usual day-to-day item can be a novelty to another in a completely different region.  It is interesting to note that rhubarb was mentioned alongside with rubies, pearls, and diamonds.  It must have been very dear and held in high regard for Marco Polo who thought to mention rhubarb in his will.  Rhubarb was exported from China to western regions, and it was just one of the many commodities that passed through the Silk Road.

The Silk Road wasn’t just one single road, neither was it an easy feat to cross.  Marco Polo, on his journey to the Tarim Basin, mentioned the full forty days they had to travel without an animal or bird in sight, carrying their own stock of provisions.  It is hard to imagine in today’s times crossing on animal back a desert with no life in sight for a full forty days.  But such journeys were undertaken by man to explore the earth’s lands and to uncover the treasures which to him was shielded by mountains, rivers, or barren lands.  Marco Polo, one of the most famous European to leave an account of the Silk Road, was one such a man, who though being a mere man, left such a great influence that the Asiatic wild sheep, Ovis Poli, were named after him.

Of course, one of the main items that traversed the silk road was silk itself, along with jade, rubies, diamonds, and gold.  Wood gives the account of Chiang Yee, who spent his boyhood days in the Yangtze town of Juijiang and his fascination with silk worms.  Learning how to handle silk worms was a way to hold on to the country ways, and thus to gain skilful hands and careful minds for dealing with bigger things.  That is intriguing in so many ways, mainly because the notion to pay attention to the small things in one’s life is re-inforced at such a young age.  In today’s societies, we seem to have forgotten about the small things around us.  Perhaps it is time that we kept some silkworms too to re-ignite our hearts into caring for those big and small.  To me, it proves that we can always learn from the past, from small actions that were conducted, to large scale operations that took place.

Other than that, I believe it is worth mentioning that the names of places show the complex diversity of the regions.  These names derive from Chinese, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, and other Turkic languages.  I found it surprising that Wood referred to Tarim and Khotan Darya Rivers, while the word ‘darya’ means ‘river’ in present-day Urdu and Persian (Farsi).

I would assume it is now best to say that the journey to fully understand the silk road has started.  These initial chapters of Wood’s book has opened my mind to the vastness of the Silk Road, and also made me understand that there is so much more to this great Asian highway, so much more that it would take a lot more than three chapters, or even a whole book, to make the reader fully comprehend the immensity of the Silk Road.