SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — A Wittenberg education exposes students to a wide range of educational opportunities — many of which take place outside the classroom.
In the case of Wittenberg Associate Professor of Religion and Director of East Asian Studies Jennifer Oldstone-Moore, and Kimie Vance of Richmond, Va., and Zach Simon of Franklin, Ind., both class of 2007, the latest educational opportunity takes place 11 time zones away from Wittenberg’s picturesque campus. Oldstone-Moore leaves Monday, May 22, for Japan to join up with Vance and Simon, who have been studying there during the 2005-06 school year.
Oldstone-Moore, Vance and Simon will participate in a unique, three-and-a-half-week collaborative study of a famous pilgrimage circuit in Japan for a project called “Religious Expression and Practice in Japan: The Modern Henro at the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku.” Thanks to a grant from ASIANetwork, a consortium of more than 160 North American colleges that advocates for Asian studies within the framework of a liberal arts education, the three will travel the circuit by foot, taxi and bus, both observing pilgrims and participating in the pilgrimage itself while accumulating separate data for a three-pronged research project.
“There are two levels to our research,” Oldstone-Moore said. “The first is focusing on our individual projects: Zach, who will research whom the pilgrims are and how their demographics compare with pilgrims of old; Kimie, who will study the use of Kobo Daishi (the Buddhist saint of the ninth century who is the patron of the pilgrimage) in commercial ventures along the pilgrimage route; my work on the orthopractic emphasis of Japanese religion and the importance of ritual practice.
“But another part of our research is experiencing what it is like to be pilgrims together: how we are treated by Japanese, how we change over the three-and-a-half weeks that we will be together, how our actual practice of pilgrimage affects us.”
The combination of research and personal observation will shape the educational experience for both the professor and the students. Oldstone-Moore said they will learn much from one another and then continue to collaborate as they write about their experiences and make a presentation at an ASIANetwork conference in Chicago in April 2007.
The firsthand knowledge will benefit Oldstone-Moore and the Wittenberg curriculum in several ways.
“First, I’ll learn a great deal about Japan, the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku, Shingon Buddhism, pilgrimage, and the importance of orthopraxy (right action) in Japanese religion,” she said. “I’m a China specialist but love Japanese religion, and I am excited to have a deeper understanding through this trip.
“Second, I’m very interested in this particular form of experiential learning. I’ll be giving a poster presentation at a national meeting of the American Academy of Religion about this in November. Finally, this will fit into a broader comparative study that looks at orthopraxy and moral formation.”
She said the project became a reality thanks to the students’ initiative. Vance and Simon, who are both East Asian studies majors, responded to Oldstone-Moore’s invitation to students in a class on Japanese religion in 2004 to participate in the project. With the ASIANetwork Freeman Student Faculty Fellowship Grant as a potential source of funding for the project, the trio wrote the grant in 2005.
Vance and Simon both spent the entire 2005-06 school year in Japan.
“I have expertise in East Asian religions and took responsibility for the grant, but they have been taking Japanese and living in Japan for the school year and know how to get around — we will be sharing the whole way,” Oldstone-Moore said. “I think it is singular to find travelling companions who have the same enthusiasm and attitude toward trying this pilgrimage not only as interested observers, but as fellow pilgrims.”
Oldstone-Moore said she is particularly interested in what would make any pilgrim, regardless of religious orientation, undertake such an arduous journey. There is a simplicity and purity of purpose necessary, even as the Shikoku pilgrimage has modernized in recent years (some Japanese pilgrims take charter buses and finish what is normally a two-three month trip in two weeks).
“I have been thinking about this project for many years,” she said. “Maybe the real appeal is that a pilgrim intentionally detaches herself from the everyday life that we take for granted and pares down what she needs to accomplish for that day to the basics: food, shelter, clean clothes, a map, and the will to walk a little farther. By having a simplified and detached life, aspects of life as it is usually lived come into focus.
“It’s a way to take stock of how you live. A pilgrim, especially on this pilgrimage, undertakes the journey with an intention in mind: to pray for health or the healing of someone who is sick, to come to terms with one’s mortality, or maybe simply to purify oneself.”
Oldstone-Moore, who said that she is a Christian interested in the study of other world religions, expects this trip, while relatively short in duration, will expand her understanding of religious practice.
“In going on this pilgrimage, I won’t be worshipping Buddha, but I do expect to walk many miles with the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi and pay my respects to other Buddhist figures and aspects of the Buddhist religion,” Oldstone-Moore said. “I definitely think that Buddhists and Christians — and people of all faiths — can make pilgrimages together in search of healing, self-awareness and purification, and I feel privileged to do so with Japanese fellow life-travellers.
“I know I’ll be fired up from this trip, so I hope that this will encourage more students to find ways to study overseas, for the summer or the regular semester. It’s hard to overstate how much students benefit from an overseas study experience.”
- Ryan Maurer