[Quick plug: ask your library to buy it!]
If I may digress, my first fieldwork lasted two an a half years and I thought I became better at it all the time, more sophisticated as a linguist, in social relations, interviewing etc. But when I went back to my fieldnotes, the only parts I ever used came from the first 12 months. This was when I was discovering big new things, asking questions and chasing the answers. At times it read like a detective story. Later on I just became an expert in parish pump politics who knew all the details and lost sight of the big questions.
Turn back the clock a century. You have graduated from university and accepted a post with one of the great British trading companies that operate out of Hong Kong. To reach China from England, you must travel by ship. En route, your ship will stop in Italy, Egypt, India. Wherever it stops, you have a few days to explore the countryside and pursue your interest in comparative religion. Italy is strange but also familiar. With its crucifixes, candles, incense, priestly vestments, carnivals and saints days, Italian Catholicism may seem a bit exotic. Still, it is Christianity, the most common form of religion in Europe. Its churches, priests and doctrines are not all that different from what you imagine when you think of religion in the West.
In Egypt you encounter Islam. Mosques replace churches. Friday not Sunday is the holy day, and religious images are forbidden. But Islam also has its saints and festivals. Islam is, like Christianity and Judaism, a religion of the Book. All three are monotheistic religions rooted in belief in one, transcendent God, who exists apart from His creation and reveals His will through prophets whose words are recorded in canonical, sacred texts: Torah for the Jews, the Bible for Christians, the Koran for Muslims. For believers in all three religions, their faith is the mark of membership in an exclusive religious community.
In India you encounter Hinduism. Here, too, there are temples, rites, and festivals. The division between Brahmin and warrior castes recalls a familiar division between priestly and secular authorities. But instead of one God there are many—goddesses as well as gods, and a seemingly endless variety of both. Stranger still, devotion to one does not preclude the worship of others. Instead of one sacred Book, you find a seemingly endless list of scriptures, commentaries, folktales and myths. There are, to be sure, similarities between their content and what you find in the sacred Books of the monotheistic religions of Europe and the Middle East. There are, however, no rabbis, priests or judges with the power to determine which are canonical and which are not.
You may note, too, that Hindu creation myths do not describe a singular event. Instead of a one, definitive pronouncement, "Let there be light," creation in Hindu thought is an endlessly repeated dream. Mystics of all schools seek to free themselves from the dream by losing their mortal selves in the great Self that is God. In this archetypically mystical religion, the mystic's search for that true Self has replaced submission to God's revealed Word .
Then, at last, you arrive in China. Here, again, there are temples, rites and festivals; images like those of Catholic saints or Hindu gods and goddesses; fire, incense and offerings. When, however, you ask, "What is the religion of China?" you hear two surprising answers. Some say that China has three religions: Confucianism and Daoism, both indigenous to China, and Buddhism, imported from India. The other says that China has no religion. The three religions aren't religions at all, but schools of moral philosophy. The customs of the masses are only superstitious magic.
If you live long enough—to the middle of the twentieth century—you will also hear some scholars say that there is, after all, one Chinese religion . It is not, however, a monotheistic religion; there is no single high God. Like Hinduism, Chinese religion is polytheistic and only in one of its many dimensions—the worship of ancestors—exclusive. But in contrast to Hinduism, there is no Creator who exists apart from His creation. The world does have an invisible dimension, the realm of spirits; all spirits—whether gods, ghosts, or ancestors—exist, like the human beings they resemble, inside the one, self-sustaining, natural order of things.