Introduction: Religion in Asia Today

By Winfield, Pamela D. | Cross Currents, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Religion in Asia Today


Winfield, Pamela D., Cross Currents


This issue of Crosscurrents is dedicated to the modern challenges facing Asia today and to the creative ways in which religions of the region are responding to natural, social and global stressors. It stems from a deliberate and intentional expansion in scope as Crosscurrents1 readership expands via its electronic format to a worldwide audience. It also deliberately strives to introduce lesser known traditions, figures, and movements into the mainstream Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim discourses of Asia. It is our sincere wish that these essays, which touch upon the environmental, hyper-urban, economic, gendered, educational, and political dimensions of religion in Asia and "transnational Asia'5 today, both instruct and inspire readers to shape informed and nuanced opinions that may ripple out to impact others.

East Asia

When the seed for this issue first germinated many months ago, no one could have anticipated that the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, Japan would present itself as perhaps the most pressing contemporary challenge to the countiy and to its religious groups today. Scholar of Japanese religions Levi McLaughlin (Wofford College, SC) outlines the events of March 11, 2011, and highlights the relief efforts, memorial ceremonies, and humanitarian motivations of the well-established and especially more recently established religious groups in Japan. In his brief and timely piece, McLaughlin underscores the religious ethos at the heart of secular Japan as it begins to rebuild.

Environmental scholar and activist Mark McGuire (John Abbott College, Montreal) also opens his essay with a religious response to the natural and nuclear devastation in Japan. Nestled deep in the UNESCO-protected Kumano mountain range, Tateishi Kosho leads a special Shugendo rite and eco-pilgrimage to pray for lost souls and responsible government cleanup. Shugendo is Japan's age-old blend of mountain veneration, esoteric Buddhism, and asceticism that is designed to empower individual and collective well-being. Tateishi is now updating and offering these nature practices anew to the hyper-urbanized and increasingly disaffected (and often female) casualties of neo-liberal competition and global economic forces. As McGuire reflects on his own role in bringing Tateishi's movement to light as a scholar and film producer of the 2010 ethnographic documentary Shugendo Now, he engages with philosopher Ernest Bloch and cultural critic Henri Giroux's theories of "hope" to analyze the transformative potential of eco-pilgrimage for modern-day seekers.

The urban-rural divide and other effects of globalization are further taken up by anthropologist Laurel Kendall (American Museum of Natural History, NY). In an excerpt from her 2010 award-winning Shamans, Nostalgias and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion, Kendall demonstrates how contemporary female shamans (mansin) have adapted to shifting religious landscapes and to new global realities during and after the IMF Crisis of 1997-1998. Even as urban sprawl has pushed these women out of the cities to rent mountainside kuttang shrines for kut diagnostic and remedial rituals, so too have improved trade relations between mainland China and South Korea since the 1990s facilitated the mansins1 empowerment pilgrimages to Mt. Paektu from the Chinese side (the North Korean side is still impassible to southerners). The linkages between the global economy and the local religious practice have never been more clearly elucidated.

The next two essays extend the theme of women's power and agency in today's Asian and transnational Asian religious scenes. Jennifer Eichman (Moravian College, PA) features four pioneering Buddhist nuns in contemporary Taiwan who have been inspired by so-called humanistic or engaged Buddhism (renjian fojiao in Chinese). While the personalities and impact-strategies differ radically among Chen Yeng the traditionalist, Chao Hwei the activist, Kuan Ch'ien the academic aesthete, and Ching Hai the New Age guru, they all have garnered international acclaim and support for their relief efforts, charitable works, public welfare institutions, structural justice initiatives, ecological activism, feminist leadership, food consciousness, and yes, even spiritual fashion-forwardness. …

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