Interview with Steven Heine, author of From Chinese Chan to Japanese Zen

Zen Buddhism is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated from Chinese Chan Buddhism. This transmission, which occurred between the mid-thirteenth and mid-fourteenth centuries, not only entailed the transfer of religion, but also, as Steven Heine in From Chinese Chan to Japanese Zen shows, involved the exchange of culture, art, and literature. On November 20th, 2017, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston, I had the pleasure to meet with Dr. Heine to discuss his recent book.  –Kirsten Boles, Assistant Editor

KB: What is the central message of your book?

SH: Most scholarship in East Asian Buddhism has looked at Zen from a Japanese angle and Chan from a Chinese angle. But Zen starts in Japan in the thirteenth century because it was brought there from China. While some attention is paid to that in the existing scholarship, there is rarely a thorough discussion of how the Chinese Chan approach continued to influence the Zen approach as it developed and became a separate school. What were the connections and disconnections that were evolving as time went by? What I try to do in this book is look at that kind of continuity. 

Also, an important area of study both for this region and worldwide religious traditions are maritime connections: looking at sea water not as a barrier but as something producing cultural interactions. We see a lot of activity in a couple of major port cities in Japan and China where the monks were traveling back and forth because they were well educated. Sometimes they served as translators, interpreters, and diplomats, or they were involved in commercial enterprises. These monks weren't just bringing religion in an isolated way. Transmission of Buddhism was part of a whole package of social, cultural, and political interactions. While my focus in the book, of course, is on the development of the religious institution, I try to situate this development within its broader social and historical context. 

KB: What do you think made Chan/Zen attractive to people in East Asia during this period?

SH: Both countries were going through, in different ways, a balancing act between what they would call “the sword” and “the brush.” The sword meant the military, of course, and the brush referred to writing, calligraphy, poetry, artwork—the cultural side. But, there was a recognition that both were crucial for the development of society. The question then is, what came first or was the main priority? Zen’s emphasis on self-reliance, self-discipline, and self-control seemed to be a great vehicle to rulers in both China and Japan. You had very different styles of rulers in the thirteenth century because China was still under imperial rule until the Mongol invasion while Japan had transferred from the imperial to the military or to Shogun rule. But both societies embraced the emphasis on self-discipline in Chan and Zen as a vehicle to develop their country’s ability to balance the sword and brush. 

KB: How did Chan Buddhism change when it was moved into the Japanese context?

SH: First of all, Chan tried to change the Japanese context more than adapt to it. You can see very clearly in the first fifty to seventy years of the process of transplanting that it wasn't very successful. One of the passages that I find very interesting concerns a story about a Zen monk walking down the streets of Kyoto wearing a Chinese-style robe, on which the sleeves were much bigger than the typical Japanese Buddhist robe at the time. The rival sects that felt threatened by this monk were ridiculing him. They said when he walked by there was barely enough room on the street for anyone else to get by because his sleeves took up so much space. They said the sleeves caused a wind and made other sorts of sarcastic comments. And that criticism was fairly effective, because you can see the early Zen monks in Japan struggled quite a bit. Then as the Mongols started to make their power known and completed their invasion of China in the 1270s, numerous Chinese monks became very motivated to go to Japan. This resulted in what they call the period of “émigré monks,” priests who came from China and brought “pure” Buddhism to Japan. The Shoguns were very positive about this because it gave them a certain kind of prestige to support the “continental style.” The Japanese were still adapting to Chan, but now it had become favored to do so rather than being a point of skepticism. 

KB: How do you see this book contributing to the field of Buddhist studies?

SH: Looking at China and Japan and the maritime connections side-by-side, or in an integrated way, is one of the book’s main features. This book was designed to be usable in the classroom but also sophisticated enough for specialists. In order to achieve this, one simple point I added, which I hope has an impact, is that I started all the chapters with the letter “T”—for instance, “Teachers,” “Temples,” “Transplantation,” “Transmission,” and so on. I particularly like the last chapter, “Tones,” because a key part of the transfer from China to Japan was art and literature: the visual arts and literary arts were transferred in one package. The Chinese tonal system was key to poetry, because its lines had to rhyme based on tones. Japan already had a rich poetry tradition, but the way the Japanese language works, there's no rhyming. So the Japanese had to reinvent what poetry meant from a rhyming standpoint. In a later development, Japanese haiku has a very complicated rhetorical structure, but that is another sense of “tone” used in an oral way in terms of sound resonances that differs from the medieval appropriation of Chinese tonal patterns by Japanese Zen monk-poets. “Tones” also refer to the black and white ink drawings, or sumi-e, that Zen is especially known for, as well as the calligraphy that transmits the Chan/Zen spiritual message.