The best books that make you wish you lived in Asia

Bryan S. Turner Author Of The Body in Asia
By Bryan S. Turner

Who am I?

As an undergraduate at the University of Leeds in the 1960s the principal influence on my life and thinking was Trevor Ling an Anglican Priest and Buddhist who eventually became a Professor of comparative religion at the University of Manchester. He was the start of my research on Islam and Asia and my peripatetic career having lived in Scotland, Germany, Holland, America, Australia and Singapore. I became a professor of the sociology of religion in the Asia Research Center at the National University of Singapore. I have published two books on Singapore, a handbook of religions in Asia, and several works on the body, medicine, ageing and human vulnerability.

I wrote...

The Body in Asia

By Bryan S. Turner (editor), Zheng Yangwen (editor),

Book cover of The Body in Asia

What is my book about?

This edited collection emerged from a conference on the body in Asia at the National University of Singapore in 2007. Some of my favourite chapters are on female dragons, fasting rituals in Java, Kokutai and the imperial body in Japan, and hook-swinging bodies in Kerala. The cover features ten beautiful round stones set in water. They have an erotic appeal, but they are after all only stones within a Buddhist imagination. They raise an obvious question that the book seeks to answer: what is a body? In the West we tend to think of religion as a collection of beliefs. In Asia we have to think of an assembly of beliefs and practices. Religion becomes embodied as a way of life.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice

Why did I love this book?

For me book covers are part of the joy of owning books. My choices are all partly connected to the message conveyed by their covers. On this cover there are the objects associated with the ritual of tea drinking. In my view, we (in the West) have lost too many everyday rituals that make life meaningful. Surak shows the historical connections between the rituals that surround Japanese tea making and the making of society itself.

By Kristin Surak,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Making Tea, Making Japan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The tea ceremony persists as one of the most evocative symbols of Japan. Originally a pastime of elite warriors in premodern society, it was later recast as an emblem of the modern Japanese state, only to be transformed again into its current incarnation, largely the hobby of middle-class housewives. How does the cultural practice of a few come to represent a nation as a whole?

Although few non-Japanese scholars have peered behind the walls of a tea room, sociologist Kristin Surak came to know the inner workings of the tea world over the course of ten years of tea training.…

Book cover of Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance

Why did I love this book?

It concerns the complex and demanding process of becoming proficient in dance procedures. The stages involve becoming deeply mindful of the body. The novice has to become attached and subordinated to a ‘master’ who can of course be a woman. Through these rituals the novice becomes enculturated into the dance aesthetic and the wider culture. The core energy required by dance comes from the abdomen to empower the dancer. The training involves self-cultivation. Eventually the mind no longer hinders the expressivity of the body.

By Tomie Hahn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sensational Knowledge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How do music and dance reveal the ways in which a community interacts with the world? How are the senses used in communicating cultural knowledge? In Sensational Knowledge, ethnomusicologist and dancer Tomie Hahn uncovers the process and nuances of learning nihon buyo, a traditional Japanese dance form. She uses case studies of dancers at all levels, as well as her own firsthand experiences, to investigate the complex language of bodies, especially across cultural divides. Paying particular attention to the effect of body-to-body transmission, and how culturally constructed processes of transmission influence our sense of self, Hahn argues that the senses…

Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

By Shems Friedlander,

Book cover of Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

Why did I love this book?

I am including Turkey as located in Asia Minor. As a frequent visitor to Istanbul in the past, I watched with fascination the whirling Dervishes. I know it is corrupted by tourism. The dance reflects the legacy of Rumi the 13 century Persian poet. The beauty of Rumi’s philosophy and the world of Sufism comes through as does the grace of the body.

By Shems Friedlander,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This brings together, in English, for the first time a number of articles in one volume that have been published in various books and journals and are reprinted with permission. Through this work, Rumi and his poetry as well as the whirling dervishes, will hopefully become more widely known in Western countries than they are at present. The whirling dervishes are famous for their ecstatic dance and but here it is hoped that their role within Sufism will become more clearly understood. The book is an attempt to suggest a renewed manner of thinking about one of the most celebrated…

Book cover of Miracles of Book and Body: Buddhist Textual Culture and Medieval Japan

Why did I love this book?

Most of us probably grew up with the idea that above all Buddhism rejects the body to attain spiritualty. It is actually the reverse. This study looks at the idea of the materiality of Buddhist texts (sutras) and the narratives and sermons that accompany them (setsuwa). Both body and book are corruptible , and hence great efforts are made to protect these ancient texts. Eubanks argues that there is an intimate connection between book and body as matter. The human body (especially the brain) is thus a container of Buddhist teaching. Scroll and stupa are critical for protecting this precious wisdom of the Buddha. Body and book are the witnesses to our suffering and impermanence. The stupa may contain the relics of past buddhas (and ash) just as the scroll contains the wisdom of buddha teaching.

By Charlotte Eubanks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Miracles of Book and Body as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Miracles of Book and Body is the first book to explore the intersection of two key genres of sacred literature in medieval Japan: sutras, or sacred Buddhist texts, and setsuwa, or "explanatory tales," used in sermons and collected in written compilations. For most of East Asia, Buddhist sutras were written in classical Chinese and inaccessible to many devotees. How, then, did such devotees access these texts? Charlotte D. Eubanks argues that the medieval genre of "explanatory tales" illuminates the link between human body (devotee) and sacred text (sutra). Her highly original approach to understanding Buddhist textuality focuses on the sensual…

Book cover of Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

Why did I love this book?

When I say to you ‘Religions of Asia’ you will automatically think of the usual suspects: Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and so on. Here is something different from Prof Eliade one of the great scholars of his generation. Shamanism is a major influence across the whole of the northern hemisphere from Canada through Siberia and into eastern and central Asia. The cover of the paperback has an Eskimo ceremonial mask. The shaman is medicine man, magician, miracle worker, priest, mystic and poet. We immediately think of the drum and the ecstatic body, but think also of eagle feathers, rattle, and robe of an animal. Shamanism is still practiced but has suffered from commercial exploitation and the general erosion of native cultures. As a religion of fire and ice, climate change may be its final blow.

By Mircea Eliade,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shamanism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The foundational work on shamanism now available as a Princeton Classics paperback

Shamanism is an essential work on the study of this mysterious and fascinating phenomenon. The founder of the modern study of the history of religion, Mircea Eliade surveys the tradition through two and a half millennia of human history, moving from the shamanic traditions of Siberia and Central Asia-where shamanism was first observed-to North and South America, Indonesia, Tibet, China, and beyond. In this authoritative survey, Eliade illuminates the magico-religious life of societies that give primacy of place to the figure of the shaman-at once magician and medicine…

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