The Tao of Studying Religion
The author of this article, Hayden Lizotte, is from Easton, Massachusetts and member of the Class of 2015.
In the first week of my Asian Religions class, Professor Hatcher asked why studying religious practice was important.
I was completely stumped.
I took Asian Religions to learn about the ideologies that drive religions, not the practices that people happen to do. Even as a yoga teacher, I've always been interested in the philosophy of yoga more than the actual poses. My interest in this class came from my interest in the Good Life. I want to know how a person can live happily, and what aspects of government and culture are truly necessary. I expected to read the foundational texts of each religion, analyze them, extract the overarching ideas they proposed, and figure out how they apply to the Good Life.
The syllabus for Asian Religions seemed to confirm my beliefs. I purchased the Analects, the Daodejing, which I had already read some of in my high school philosophy class, the Dhammapada, and the Upanisads – four central texts to Asian religions. But Dr. Hatcher shocked me with the first reading he assigned: a personal anecdote about a Muslim/Hindu healer living in a remote Indian village. What could I learn from this?
Although I assumed the purest form of a religion could only be found in the texts, my classmates had answers I never considered. One said that religion cannot be understood simply as something we read in a book, as something “dead.” Religious tradition grows, evolves, merges, flourishes. Another claimed that even when practices deviate from the texts, they answer questions the texts cannot. How do people relate to their religion? What impact does religion have on its practitioners' daily lives?
The class textbook captured this duality with a metaphor. The doctrines and ideologies are like rocks on a shoreline, while the practices of people become the waves rolling in. The rocks shape the movement of the waves, pushing them in certain directions and sometimes blocking them, causing turmoil. But as the tides role in and out and time passes, the waves can pass over the rocks, sometimes even moving them around or wearing them away.
While the ideologies of a religion may contribute to my conception of the good life, religious daily practice has been the face of religion for millions of people for millennia. Whether or not they have deviated from orthodoxy, their practices have become their good lives. If I want to understand the nature of the good life, I must consider the importance of the practices that people have been performing for thousands of years.