Five Ideas for Teaching East Asian Religions

Whew! My classes have made it through our unit on East Asian Religions, taught half by my student teacher and half by myself. Hopefully they saw past the shifting teaching styles and gained some understanding of Confucanism, Daoism, and Shinto. Here are some ideas I thought worked well:

1) Is Confucianism a Religion or a Philosophy? This was a discussion led by my student teacher that linked back to our conversations earlier in the year about what it means to really be a religion. She used excerpts from a Useless Tree blog post that responded to this article by Peter Berger, as well as another short excerpt from Prothero’s Book, God Is Not One. While I think the readings themselves can be challenging for students, I enjoyed how they got students to re-evaluate the question of what is a religion. While Useless Tree notes that “there is little, if any, concern for cosmological origins or after lives” in Confucianism, I would challenge my students (and Useless Tree) to consider whether spirituality must be confined to questions of our beginnings and endings. Like Prothero, it seems to me there is some sense in a spirituality that aids in the “individual transformation” (his words) that is the mark of our living experience. On the heels of learning about Buddhism, which, depending on the branch, can be similarly removed from deities and the cosmos, and as we prepare for diving into the religions deriving from the Middle East, this conversation was particularly useful as a means for discussing what it means to be a religion and to stretch our original definitions even further.

2) Mulan: A Film Analysis Sometimes, you just have to show a Disney movie. Especially when you are diving back into planning and teaching all three preps. In this case, I showed Mulan to wrap up the Chinese religions. As they watched, students had a chart to complete noting elements of indigenous Chinese beliefs, Daoism, and Confucianism. Then they wrote a movie review that indicated which religion they believed was best depicted, and assessed the accuracy of the film. Is it actually useful as an educational too? Or is Ms. Harris just buying time? 🙂

3) Incorporating more Zen Buddhism When teaching about religion in Japan, it has always felt a bit odd to just talk about Shinto, when Buddhism plays such an important role. This year I decided to spend some time reviewing Zen Buddhism as one of the many forms of Buddhism that influences Japanese society and culture. This site was useful to help students remember what distinguised Zen Buddhism and view some Japanese art. This also led us to a discussion of

4) Wabi Sabi Inspired by the article and lesson plans available on the Global Oneness Project site, I asked students to make a list of characteristics that make something beautiful. Then we read about wabi-sabi, and I showed them some examples. Can Americans really incorporate this appreciation for imperfections and impermanence into our lives? This led to a good discussion of the ways in which it does not seem to fit into American culture (the impulse to keep sneakers perfectly “fresh” and the times when it does). It also served as a warm-up for our larger discussion of whether or not Shinto could exist outside of Japan. To what extent are values entrenched in and specific to different cultures?

5) Can Shinto exist outside of Japan? This became the guiding question for the last few days of our unit on Shintoism. We explored State Shinto and how that changed the meaning of religion in Japan and discussed the controversy regarding the Yasukuni Shrine. Justin Bieber just made a visit there, and then apologized, so that provided some fun connections for the students. Beyond Shinto as a form of a nationalism (which would definitely link it to Japan), I asked students to evaluate whether the four affirmations of Shinto had a place in American culture. Responses varied, but the discussion helped make the four affirmations stick in the students’ heads, and let us think about how religious values and ideas spread.

Teenage wishes on the Ema wall.

Two Bonus Ideas: One day, we pretended we were on a visit to a Shinto Shrine. We made wishes on an ema wall, found our omikuji fortunes, and practiced the cleansing ritual on the way in. Finally, we watched some clips from Spirited Away to talk about the rule of cleanliness and water and get an idea for the variety of kami, or spirits, out there. This article helped give me some background for that conversation. It is so fun to watch teenagers get drawn into (and completely scared by) that movie!


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