Chinese Buddhism in Three Objects: The Memory Palace Approach

Chinese Buddhism in Three Objects: The Memory Palace Approach

Chinese Buddhism in Three Objects: The Memory Palace Approach

On Friday 21st of February, IE hosted the opening talk of the IE Humanities China Lecture Series, which is an initiative of professor Regina Llamas and IE Arts & Humanities Division. This first lecture was called “Chinese Buddhism in Three Objects: The Memory Palace Approach” and it was conducted by John Kieschnick, H.N. Ho Family Foundation Chair in Buddhist Studies in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University.

Chinese Buddhism in Three Objects: The Memory Palace Approach

The lecture was divided in two parts, and in the first part, Professor Kieschnick introduced the audience to Chinese Buddhism through three objects: a low relief of Buddha, a prayer beads drawing and a watercolour painting of a chair. These three objects reflected how religions and physical object are interconnected and influence societies. This was demonstrated by the case study of the watercolour painting of the chair that was introduced to China by the Buddhists – before that, everyone in China was rather sitting on the mattresses, like in Japan. The chair was brought by Buddhists from India and became a symbol of status and a mean of meditation. The three objects also showed how different religions are not isolated but rather have shaped each other throughout the time. Such a thesis was supported by the case study of the prayer beads that are common in all the world’s big religions and are used to keep track of prayers. John showed how their use spread first in China in the 5th century AD, later in in the Islamic Middle East the 8th century AD, and finally they were introduced in Christian Western Europe in the 13th century AD (which might have been thanks to the inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula, as the speaker noted).

In the second part of the talk, John shared with IE faculty a few tips on how to incorporate images into the teaching of Humanities courses. As Professor Kieschnick says, he borrowed the Palace of Memory approach from Matteo Ricci- a Western missionary known in China for his outstanding memory and for sharing an ancient technique that consisted in relating words or concepts to a physical object inside a room. John shared with the audience how he uses images of objects to improve the pedagogic approach in his courses, for example in his thematic-driven Religious Studies. Each of his sessions is dedicated to a topic (e.g. things, clothes, buildings, prayers, etc.) which is linked to an image that students most of the times have never seen before. Using that technique and uncovering a new image each week, Professor Kieschnick makes sure that the student that sees that image is able to identify the topic and its place within the course.

After sharing his academic knowledge and experience on how to use images to teach humanities courses, Professor Kieschnick, through a dynamic Q&A session, exchanged ideas with the audience comprised of IE faculty members and other Humanities enthusiasts.