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.

The books I picked & why

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Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice

By Kristin Surak,

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

Why 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.


Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance

By Tomie Hahn,

Book cover of Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance

Why 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.


Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

By Shems Friedlander,

Book cover of Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

Why 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.


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

By Charlotte Eubanks,

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

Why 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.


Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

By Mircea Eliade,

Book cover of Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

Why 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.


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