Sasha Chanko, M.A. '21, is pursuing his master’s degree at the Center for East Asian Studies. At Stanford, Sasha’s research centers on a combination of religious studies, history and international relation, with a focus on secularization in contemporary Japan and how it is affecting Buddhist practice in the country. As an undergraduate, he double majored in math and Asian studies. Sasha completed a BA thesis on Zen Buddhism, its relationship to Japanese nationalism and how that impacted Zen Buddhism in the United States. “[Zen Buddhism] had been transported from Japan by a lot of individuals who had close ties to Zen Buddhism at a time when it was in its nationalist fervor,” he says, “so I wanted to continue [research] along those lines—to think more about the relationship between the Buddhist establishment and political power and how that affects religious practice and everyday living in Japan.”
This fall, as part of his studies at CEAS, Sasha will be joining the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies (IUC), a program in Yokohama, Japan, that provides an intensive 10-month training in advanced Japanese. “The first half or so of the program is focused on general skill: being able to read, being able to write, vocab, being able to express yourself, being able to listen,” Sasha explains, “The second half focuses more on your particular interest, research area and professional area. I will learn more of the vocabulary and phraseology specific to my area of study and then complete a research project in Japanese on a certain topic. At the end I’ll have been able to not only become better at Japanese, but also produce serious research in Japanese, which interests me a lot.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first two months of the program, this September and October, will be held remotely, but Sasha looks forward to going to Japan to complete the IUC program once it is safe to do so. He has traveled to Japan before, including a class study trip as an undergraduate. “The summer after my sophomore year in college there was a trip attached to a Zen Buddhist class that I took.” Sasha recalls, “I ended up in Japan for ten weeks. The first two weeks was to experience monastic life. This was a very unique experience that was only available to people from this class [that I took]. We were in Engakuji and Kenchoji, which are some very important temples in Kamakura. We stayed there overnight, woke up at 4 or 5 AM and meditated.”
He hopes to build on this experience and his five years of Japanese study once he is able to travel to Japan for the IUC program. Sasha explains that “now that I’ve actually done all this research and I’ve learned how to write more, I’ve become more adept at actually thinking about what I’m seeing, and reading about and hearing about. Part of going back to Japan is actually getting to be there as a more sophisticated academic and being able to think more deeply about what I’m experiencing and what I’m seeing. I don’t have any specific goals for my trip necessarily in terms of what I hope to get out of it. Maybe a way of expressing this is that I’m hoping to be able to apply not what I’ve learned but apply how I’ve learned to think and digest my experiences more.”
Sasha remained in campus housing during the pandemic. He has lived alone for the last three months, but has maintained his friendships and connections with the CEAS community through social media, video chats, and planned virtual social activities. “Something I’ve really enjoyed is when we’ve had a few zoom video chats together, such as the CEAS happy hour, I think that was really nice, just to be able to reconnect with people in a social setting, and not in a ‘how are we dealing with this’ situation,” he says.
As he wraps up his first year at CEAS, Sasha looks back on one of his favorite memories from the program. At the end of the fall quarter, he attended the opening of the exhibit “The Japanese Garden - A Historical Account of Japanese Culture and Tradition” held at the East Asia Library. The exhibit, curated and designed by the students of Professor Michaela Mross’ introductory seminar RELIGST 8N: Gardens and Sacred Spaces in Japan, showcased the evolution of Japanese gardens from the Heian period (794 - 1185) to the modern day. Sasha reflects that through this experience “I could also sense the whole spectrum of what makes up CEAS—from being in place where people explored different cultures or ideas, to professors who have devoted their entire lives to their studies, to people like me who are in between and thinking about what type of path they want.”