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Manpukiji cherry blossom

What is ‘Zen’ diplomacy? From Chinese monk to ambassador

In 1654, a Chinese monk arrived in Japan. His name was Yinyuan Longqi (1592-1673), a Zen master who claimed to have inherited the authentic dharma transmission—the passing of the Buddha’s teaching from teacher to student—from the Linji (Rinzai) sect in China. This claim gave him tremendous authority in China, as without it a Zen teacher cannot be considered for leading a Zen community.

Considering the long history of interactions between China and Japan, Chinese monks arriving in Japan with teachings, scriptures, relics and such were very common, and were welcomed by Japanese monks and rulers. Before Yinyuan, there were already eminent Chinese monks who had established themselves in Japan, and Yinyuan was simply one among many. So why was Yinyuan’s arrival so important?

Before we address this question, let us first cover a few examples of similar seemingly ‘insignificant’ historical events that became hugely important in the long term. In 1971, a group of American table tennis players arrived in Beijing after competing in the 31st World Table Tennis Championship in Japan. They were welcomed by the Chinese government and played table tennis with Chinese players. Nothing particularly extraordinary, right? And yet, today this event is now known as ‘Pingpong Diplomacy,’ which opened the door to President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the first visit of a US President since China’s Communist Revolution of 1949. Similarly, in early 2014, in an event now referred to as ‘Basketball Diplomacy,’ a group of retired NBA players led by ex-star Dennis Rodman arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea to play basketball with a North Korean team. While it is still not clear what this will mean for American and North Korean relations, the common characteristic of these two events is that at the time when these groups of American civilians arrived, there was no formal diplomatic relationship between the United States and either China or North Korea. This lack of formal connection necessitated an urge to manipulate ordinary civilian activities to achieve symbolic advantage for cultural and political gains.

Yinyuan_Longqi
“Portrait of Yinyuan Longgi” by Kita Chobei at Kobe City Museum. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This can also be said about the Chinese Zen master Yinyuan’s arrival in Japan in 1654. China and Japan did not have formal relationship at that time and had different visions of the political future of East Asia. For centuries, Chinese diplomatic relationships with other countries had been handled within a concentric tribute system with China in the center. China would only have a relationship with countries that accepted a China-centric world order; this would mean recognizing the Chinese emperor as the ruler of the Universe, paying regular tributes to China, having leaders accept the title of vassal kings bestowed by the Chinese emperor, and adopting the Chinese calendar and reign names for international and domestic use. Since the fourteenth century, many East and Southeast Asian countries were accepted into this system except Japan, which vehemently resisted the Chinese notion of world order. After the reunification of the country under Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it is clear that Japan developed its own thoughts about the international order—they wanted a Japan-centered world order in East Asia, mimicking the Chinese version.

At this juncture, the Chinese monk Yinyuan arrived with a claim of the authentic transmission from China. The honor and prestige the Tokugawa shoguns (the ‘de facto’ rulers of Japan at that time) lavished onto Yinyuan was quite remarkable; Yinyuan was granted audience with the fourth shogun in 1658 and was given land in Uji, Kyoto to build a new Chinese-style temple, Manpukuji, in 1660, which still stands today. His sect was allowed to proselytize in Japan, finally resulting in a new Zen sect called Obaku, the third sect of Japanese Zen alongside Rinzai and Soto. More extraordinary was the government regulation passed that allowed only Chinese monks to be abbots of Manpukuji until 1784 when the last Chinese monk passed away and the Tokugawa government was unable to recruit more monks from China. These Chinese monks were requested to visit Edo castle regularly, especially on the occasion of a new shogun’s accession ceremony and a dead shogun’s funeral service, similar to the missions carried out by the Korean and Ryukyu (now Okinawa) embassies at that time. This unusually preferential treatment of Chinese monks in Tokugawa Japan points to a strong Japanese intention to manipulate the presence of the monks as a symbolic representation of China at that time.

Although Yinyuan was a monk living in the seventeenth century, his legacy is prolonged and eventful, as Japanese emperors bestowed him many honorific titles after his death​. The most recent of these was given by the Showa emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) on 27 March 1972, entitled ‘the Light of China.’ Six months after this, on 29 September 1972, China and Japan restored formal diplomatic relations after a long period of antagonism between the two since the end of the nineteenth century. Coincidence? Possibly, but it proves once again that many things can happen when a monk arrives in a foreign land.

Image Credit: “Manpuku temple cherry” by sdkfz183. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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