There is no Capital “T” Truth: Traveling with Students Abroad

By Abra Clawson ‘19

Looking across at the Mihintale Buddha. All photos taken by the author.

“So, the other tour guide was wrong, then?” one of our students asked from the back of the group. The branches of an enormous Bodhi tree stretched above us, the fence around it decorated with strings of Buddhist flags. Located in Anuradhapura, the tree is said to be one of the oldest in the world. It was the first Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka, planted using a branch from the tree in present-day India under which the Buddha reached enlightenment. The colors of the flags woven through the fences and branches were the subject of our discussion.

Our guide had just finished explaining the significance of the flag. Each color represented a different quality of the Buddha, he told the class. In his description, yellow was for the Buddha’s robes, orange for skin, and white for purity. The day before, a different tour guide in Polonnaruwa told us that the colors signified body parts of the Buddha. There, it was blue for eyes, orange for gums, white for teeth and bones, and red for blood. These colors come together in a final stripe to represent the Buddha’s multicolored aura.

Both men had authority as Sri Lankans and as official tour guides, yet the answers they provided conveyed the complications of searching for a single, “true” Sri Lankan reality.

Questions about the colors of monks’ robes elicited similarly mixed responses. One man in a small village near Kandy told us the differences in color is due to a monk’s status, with the head monk in the village wearing maroon while lower-status monks were orange. Days later beneath the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, the class was told that monks are just given whatever robes are available, and that the colors do not mean anything beyond what resources are offered. His answer also implied that some colors were more expensive to produce than others.

Taken aback by the contrast in the multitudes of answers from guides and locals we had talked to, some students immediately sought to find and label one answer as the “correct” one. They were asking questions which should have simple, concrete answers. Or so it seemed. This assumption is ultimately what led to the comment that one of the other guides had given us incorrect information the day before.

Later in the evening, after leaving the Bodhi tree behind, we clambered back onto our bus in order to drive to Mihintale. About a half hour’s drive from Anuradhapura, Mihintale is known as the site where Buddhism first came to Sri Lanka.

 

We were met in the parking lot by a monk who would be our tour guide, and would later be referred to as “everyone’s favorite.” He told us he was a “liberal, open minded” monk, and that he would answer any and all questions candidly.

The students immediately took to his openness, asking questions about the history of Mihintale, his own path as a monk, and the workings of the monastery. As our conversation continued over tea, he challenged some of the assumptions that students brought with them, especially about how and why people become monks. In our guide’s case, he had asked his mother to allow him to join the monastic community when he was 12 years old, going against his family’s wishes.

From the beginning, one of the goals of the UVM travel study course “Travel Writing in Sri Lanka” was to convey the various realities of this South Asian country and its people. In a country that has been involved in a 30-year civil conflict which ended barely a decade ago, it is especially important to acknowledge the differing experiences and stories of people living there. In addition, this context asks us to question why we hear certain kinds of answers, and maybe don’t hear others. Which histories are promoted, and which are pushed to the side as less valid – less “Sri Lankan”?

Over the course of our two weeks in Sri Lanka, this theme of stories and capital “T” Truth kept coming up. This culminated at the International Buddhist Museum in Kandy. As the Teaching Assistant for the travel writing class, I welcomed the opportunity to explore the museum by myself for an hour or so, while our class was observing and writing about the Temple of the Tooth complex across the street. As a religion major, I was intrigued by what information would be offered in the museum, and how it would connect to classes I have taken back in Vermont.

The first four rooms of the museum are all designed to explain the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the significance of various sites around the country. After traveling through this detailed description of Sri Lankan Buddhism, the visitor is expelled into the main hall, from which you can continue through the ground floor through rooms with artifacts from India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Or, you can walk up the central staircase to rooms on Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. This format of the museum in some ways mirrors the spread of Buddhism, and is accompanied by maps showing exactly how the different forms travelled across the continent. What was most interesting to me about this museum was the message conveyed about Buddhism which worked to give further authority to Buddhism in Sri Lanka specifically.

Take, for example, the single room containing objects from Nepal. Of the 15 or so pictures and items on display, the majority were from Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. The introductory panel to the room stated that Theravada monks in Nepal are the most respected, although they consist of a much smaller population than the Tibetan or “Lamaist” monks. The only artefacts related to forms of Buddhism found in the Himalayas were a picture of Swayambhunath stupa and a model of Boudhanath stupa, both of which are in the Kathmandu valley. This dynamic stuck out to me because Theravada Buddhism is what exists in Sri Lanka, and is highlighted in the museum as being most important Nepal, even though it is the minority of Buddhists there. Thus, the museum seemed to be primarily an exercise of nationalism, even as it taught visitors about Buddhism throughout the world.

Museums are spaces which are widely assumed to be secular, objective, and authoritative – or close to it. The International Buddhist Museum calls each of these qualities into question. Walking its halls, I once again found myself questioning how and why certain Sri Lankan realities become more legitimate or popularized than others. Sri Lankan organizations often promote a unified national identity, yet little attention is given to the minority Tamil population that is predominantly Hindu. It has become a recurring discourse of “oh, and also…” which can be seen everywhere from the nation’s constitution (in reference to language and religion) to the conversations of people on the street. Yet in reality there is no single “Sri Lankan” way of life. This was made clear to our class again and again, with every contradicting explanation and every person we met.

Looking back, Mihintale was a turning point at which many students began to realize that they would never find the one capital-t True answer to their questions, and that a more interesting project is to look at the nature of the conflicting responses. Perhaps it was the openness of our favorite Monk-tour guide that allowed them to begin to shed their obsession with objectivity and their grip on Western frames of thinking. Perhaps it was the beauty of the dagobas and mountains at sundown. Either way, we left Mihintale with our energy refocused towards seeking out and accepting difference and small “t” contextual truths.

Alumni Spotlight: Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Rebecca Friedlander

Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Besides her suitcase and backpack, Rebecca Friedlander ’17 had a lot of intellectual interests to unpack when she arrived at UVM as a first year student in 2013. She was curious about psychology and archaeology—her family paid regular visits to the Chicago Science Museum and she participated in digs near her native Chicago.

To fully explore her options, she enrolled in UVM’s Integrated Humanities Program, which offers a series of courses that studies topics in-depth, from several different disciplinary perspectives. Participants live and learn together. By sharing the same intellectual journey under the same roof, she developed close relationships with her peers and faculty mentors.

It was just the sort of academic experience Friendlander was looking for. She had attended Stevenson High School in North Chicago was interested in pulling up stakes and exploring a new environment. UVM popped up as an option during her college search, and a visit to campus confirmed her early impressions—a substantial research university that projected a friendly, progressive vibe. “I ended up meeting a lot of professors on Admitted Student Day,” she recalls. “They were really impressive people, but also very down to earth.”

The program exposed her to courses she otherwise might have overlooked, and she was fascinated by her class in religion. It led her to take more religion courses, and she was especially inspired by classes with professors Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst and Vicki Brennan. “The professors in the department really helped me grow as a person,” she said. “They pushed you academically, while at the same time being very approachable.”

Freindlander completed a double major in anthropology and religion at UVM, and after taking a year off to carefully explore her options, she enrolled in a master’s program in archaeological biology at Brandeis University. She’s interested in paleopathology (particularly osteology, the study of the structure and function of bones) in sites in mesoamerica, particularly those that were invaded by the Spanish. “I want to use the scientific aspects of archaeology to broaden our anthropological understanding of past cultures.”

Now in her first year at Brandeis, her current plan is to earn a PhD and teaching in higher education. She’s convinced that her broad liberal arts background has made her a better learner and deeper thinker.

“Both human development and religion are very closely intertwined–they inform each other,” she said. “Studying both gave me multiple areas of human understanding to draw on.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Spring 2019 Courses: African Gods/Western Museums

NEW COURSE!!

Professor Brennan is excited to offer a new course that will bring Rel@UVM students into conversation with the curators at the UVM Fleming Museum! With the museum scheduled to renovate its Africa and Ancient Egypt Gallery over the next two years, students in this seminar will have an opportunity to help research some of the objects in the museum’s collection and to provide input into how the museum might organize the display of objects in the gallery.

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar will examine African indigenous religions from the perspective of material culture in order to understand how the colonial encounter between Africans and Europeans impacted the creation, use, interpretation, and display of religious objects. At the same time, we will investigate how African religious objects have been displayed and interpreted in Euro-American museums. In doing so we will explore how African religious objects were transformed into “art” as well as the ways in which the value and authenticity of such objects are determined by different participants, including practitioners, scholars, museum professionals, and museum visitors. We will draw on a variety of media—including hands-on workshops with objects from the Fleming Museum’s collection—in order to consider the impact and interpretive work that the display of African religious objects has on the viewer in the Western museum.

Spring 2019 Courses: Religious Literacy

NEW COURSE!!

We are excited to offer this new course on Religious Literacy, taught by Professor Trainor.  Whether you want to better understand the role of religion in current events, or you want to dive deeper into debates such as the relationships between religion and science or religion and law that are central to how we understand life today, this is the course for you.  You will also be asked to consider how the study of religion might help shape your life after college–how it fits in with a variety of careers, such as politics, medicine, law, counseling, journalism, or the arts, and also how it provides preparation for living in an increasingly globalized world.

COURSE DESCRIPTION: Religious literacy entails a basic understanding of the history and contemporary manifestations of religion, including central texts (where applicable), beliefs, and practices as they are shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts, as well as the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place. While all Religion courses speak to issues of religious literacy, this course takes religious literacy as its primary site of investigation. This course is designed, therefore, to introduce students to key topics in the study and application of religious literacy, such as theories and histories of the term itself, public expressions of religion, and profession-specific engagements with religion. For example, during the middle unit of the course, students will undertake a case study of “mindfulness” in North America, exploring its development as a “secular” phenomenon, its uses in medical, educational, and entrepreneurial settings, and its ties (historic and contemporary) to religious practices, texts, and beliefs. This intermediate-level course asks questions about religion in ways that are consistent with contemporary methods and theories in this field and prepares students to apply what they learn to a variety of possible professional settings.

Spring 2019 Courses: Islam & Race

NEW COURSE!

Islam & Race is a new course in Religion
and counts toward University D1 requirements.
Why this course? Why now?
Hate crimes are on the rise against every minority. We have seen calls to ban refugees, ban immigrants, and ban Muslims. We talk about countries as “Muslim states.” When we hear “Muslim” we think “terrorist.” Many Sikh Americans who wear turbans are victims of anti-Muslim crimes.
All of these grim facts reflect a racialization of religion—a process that collapses many identities, ethnicities, languages, nationalities into one overarching race. We can’t understand things like an uptick in hate crimes, how Sikhs are prominent victims of anti-Muslim violence, how whole countries can be seen as the same as each other because of religion, how very different communities are seen as the same, and how “Islamophobia” became real without understanding how Islam and race are conflated, constructed, and operate.

COURSE DESCRIPTION

Islam is not a race—religions are not races—but Islam and religions can and are racialized. In this course, we examine how Islam and Muslims (those who practice Islam) come to be seen as a cogent race. The racialization of Islam and Muslims is global, and in this course we will reference transnational and historical patterns of race, religion, and Islam, but we focus on North America to keep our scope maintainable. The course takes theoretical ideas (definitions of race and religion and the racialization of religion) and explores them in case studies related to Muslims—and those imagined to be Muslims—in North America. We explore notions of “whiteness,” “brownness,” and “blackness” as they play out for Muslims as well as Islamophobia, surveillance, and the category of “Muslim” itself.  This intermediate-level course asks questions about Islam and race in ways that are consistent with contemporary methods and theories of the study of religion and the study of race, preparing students to apply what they learn to other religion courses, other religious traditions, and in daily experiences of a world marked by religious and racial identifiers.

COURSE HIGHLIGHTS

  • Examination of “whiteness,” “brownness,” and “blackness” through primary and secondary materials as well as a lot from films, TV, Twitter, and music!
  • Guest lecturers via Skype and (fingers crossed) in person
  • Skills-focused assignments: writing for multiple audiences; assessment of sources; creative and independent project

COURSE OBJECTIVES

  • Students will develop an awareness of “race” as it relates to North America and Islam/Muslims, which includes historical and contemporary issues .
  • Students will develop an appreciation for their own assumptions of race, religion, and Islam.
  • Students will come to understand the intersection of race, religion, and Islam, including how these ideas come to affect people’s lives, community structures and practices, and institutions.
  • Students will develop critical thinking skills that will empower them to discern diverse viewpoints analytically, thoughtfully, and rigorously.
  • Students will work on transferrable skills, such as critical reading and writing, in order to interpret and evaluate course materials, popular culture, as well as books, articles, media, and more.

Spring 2019 Courses: Comparing Religions

This course uses three “case study” religions to explore the questions of “What is religion?” and how can we begin to compare religions? We’ll look at stories, rituals, beliefs, and social roles from Buddhism, Islam, and Navajo religion, using the theories of scholars of religion. We’ll explore how religion can be intensely personal, involving visions and experiences that change a person, and change the course of history. We’ll grapple with the ways religions shape our understanding of what it means to be good or evil, and what it means to be a human, or a god, or an animal, and what happens to us after we die. We will work together to explore the diversity we find within religious traditions, reflecting complicated relationships between religion and culture, demonstrating that religion, far from being a fixed object that we can pin down, is fluid over time and across the globe.

Spring 2019 Courses: Introducing Islam

Islam is, in our post-9/11 world, a feature of the daily news; nearly 2 billion people worldwide identify as Muslims; and Muslims have been a part of the American religious landscape since the slave trade moved Muslim Africans to our shores. No doubt, this is an historic and yet timely topic, very much worthy of our attention. But how much do you really know about Muslims or Islam? This course examines the history of Islam, focusing especially on its variation over time and location. By examining practices and writings of Muslims in multiple locations, we will complicate the idea that Islam is a discrete, universal set of ideas, practices, or beliefs.

Spring 2019 Courses: Religion, Health, & Healing

NEW COURSE!

Professor Brennan is excited to offer a new intro-level course on “Religion, Health, and Healing” this spring. Given Professor Brennan’s areas of expertise, the course will emphasize religious cultures found on the African continent. However, the case studies considered center on the role of religion in ideas about health and healing, as well as how disease and illness are interpreted and acted on through religious means.

COURSE DESCRIPTION:

This course is a comparative and cross-cultural exploration of the relationships between religion, health, and healing. Through a consideration of case studies from the US, South Africa, Niger, Ethiopia, and Egypt (among others), we will examine how religion shapes people’s understanding of health and well-being and provides them with a means of interpreting and responding to illness, suffering, and death. Drawing upon interdisciplinary approaches that include religious studies, anthropology, history, music, and ethnic and gender studies, we will consider the diversity of ways in which religion both reflects and shapes ideas about health, well-begin, illness and disease. We will consider topics such as: spirit possession and altered states of consciousness, the importance of sound and music to healing processes, issues of race, gender, and sexuality in relation to religious worldviews and healing systems, and the possibilities and potentials for integrating indigenous healing practices with Western bio-medicine.

COURSE OBJECTIVES

• Students will develop an awareness of the diversity of attitudes towards religion, health, and healing in both Euro-American and non-European cultural contexts.

• Students will develop an appreciation for the assumptions upon which their own ideas about religion, health, and healing are based.

• Students will come to understand the intersection between religion and healing in a variety of contexts, including how such ideas came to be, how ideas about religion and healing are articulated in a variety of forms including ritual, biography, and political action, and how they are represented in a variety of media including scholarly writing, popular media, and films.

• Students will develop critical thinking skills that will enable them to analyze information and evaluate arguments from diverse viewpoints and multiple perspectives.

• Students will develop critical reading and writing skills that will allow them to interpret and apply the knowledge acquired in this class.

Alumni Spotlight: Jillian Ward ’11

MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT*

If a university education is meant to build not just a career but a productive and meaningful life, Jillian Ward’s UVM experience provides a compelling example. A native of Woodbridge, Conn., Ward ’11 was interested in entering the helping professions and declared psychology as her UVM major. It wasn’t until her second semester that she took an introduction to Asian religions class. She liked it so much, she took a few more religion courses, including sections on African religion and Buddhism. After a while she realized she was accumulating enough credits to earn a double major.

“They were the best classes I ever took, so I just kept taking them. By the time I got to upper level classes, I felt this amazing sense of community shared by a small cohort of students and professors.”

When it came to deep discussions, developing ideas for a thesis project or getting advice on writing and other academic projects, it was mostly faculty in the religion department whom she turned to for guidance. “The department became a sort of a sanctuary for me,” she said.

After UVM, Ward graduated from the University of San Diego with a master’s degree in nursing, and now works as a trauma and neurology RN at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. The perspectives she gained in her religion courses at UVM, and her interest in yoga, have informed her holistic approach to healing. “I did yoga at UVM and enjoyed it. Then I did it more intensely as a way of dealing with the stress of graduate school. I received my certification as a RYT (registered yoga teacher) and teach part time at Core Power YogaI. Now I see yoga as a key part of providing care that treats the patient’s mind, body, and inner spirit.”

As she becomes grounded in her career, Ward is looking forward: “My goal is to work in palliative care and hospice nursing…One of the reasons why my experience in the religion department was so powerful was the passion the instructors—every one of them—had for the subject matter and for their students,” Ward recalls. “They showed me how important it is to find something to be passionate about.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Shakir Stephen ’15

INTELLECTUAL JOURNEY LEADS TO NYU*

Shakir Stephen was born in Montreal and grew up in Southeast London, and his intellectual journey reflects a broad set of interests and potential career paths. After working in as an academic coach in Burlington for three years after graduation, he is bound for New York University where he begins an M.A. program in religion.

Stephen was a talented science student, and his interests in high school seemed to lead him towards the STEM disciplines. “The educational system in the UK is different: the choices for undergraduate study are narrower, and you need to make a decision about your path for studies at a pretty young age, around 16.”

Stephen declared physics as his major upon entering UVM, but something was tugging him  towards the humanities. In his first year at UVM he took several liberal arts courses and found his home in the religion department.

“I took a course on the bible with Anne Clark and she really focused on writing, which I was OK at but because I was concentrating on the sciences I was a little rusty,” he recalls. “She emphasized how important writing was for success in college and beyond, and that really resonated with me.”

Stephen discovered that religion was an ideal prism that brought together perspectives from other disciplines that interested him, including history, philosophy,  sociology and anthropology. At the same time he developed critical thinking, reasoning, writing and presentation skills important for any post-graduate undertaking.

Stephen works as an academic coach at Mansfield Hall in Burlington, an organization offering academic support to college-aged students with learning differences and executive functioning challenges. “These are often high functioning people with executive challenges who need help building skills that set them up for success sin higher education,” Stephen explains.

The job draws on Stephen’s broad educational background, and he’s discovered that he’s a talented teacher. He sought out religion department members Kevin Trainor and Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst for advice on graduate programs and he settled on NYU. He received a fellowship that covers tuition and fees for the two-year program.

“If it feels right I’d consider going on to get my PhD. Eventually I see myself in the education field in some capacity.”

See a post Shakir Stephen wrote before he left UVM for NYU!

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!