Kukai the Universal: Scenes from His Life
The review by “Crazy Fox,” from January 24, 2010, completely misses the bigger picture, so I am posting a counterweight.
The legacy of Kukai permeates the very fabric of the Japanese culture. He is the greatest Japanese Buddhist saint of all times. He introduced Esoteric Buddhism to Japan, founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism and nourished other branches of Buddhism as well. He is credited with the creation of hiragana, a Japanese syllabary modeled on Sanskrit. He is the founder of temples and centers of higher learning. He is the author of numerous religious tracts. He is a paragon of calligraphy, both in Japan and in China. The list goes on and on.
The trouble is, he lived over a thousand years ago. After such a long time, verifiable historical information about Kukai is scant, while legends about him would fill volumes. How, then, does an honest, meticulous historian with a poetic flair, who is passionate about his subject, as Ryotaro Shiba obviously was, approach Kukai?
Shiba spent over ten years working on this book. He understood that he would not be able to recreate Kukai’s life in minute detail, but instead focused, masterfully, on recreating the atmosphere in which Kukai was steeped and which influenced his world-view and endeavors. In Shiba’s book we see Japan of the end of Nara period, a culture in turmoil, trying to absorb and assimilate immigrant clans from the Continent and newly conquered “barbarian” tribes from Japan’s own frontier. Buddhist sects jockey with each other and with Taoism and Confucianism for influence with the imperial court. The government, eager to follow the path of culture and civilization, establishes a university to train scholars and administrators and sends embassies to China with missions of political, cultural and religious exchange.
Into this society in flux was born Kukai, a scion of an influential provincial clan, who was brilliant from the start and seemed destined for great things in life. Contrary to his family’s expectations, instead of following the established career path of civil service, he drops out of the university and, drawn to Buddhism, spends years living in obscurity, working on his original theological research that would lay down the framework of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. But in order to give his future school the legitimacy of the direct continuity of the tradition, which is extremely important in Buddhism, Kukai has to travel to China to receive the transmission of Dharma from Master Huiguo, the head of the school of Esoteric Buddhism there.
Shiba’s description of Kukai’s stay in Chang’an is, in my opinion, the real treasure of this book. Kukai, a previously unknown young monk from a country that was culturally, at that time, a little more than a satellite of the T’ang China, thanks to his previous preparatory work and natural talent, shot up like a rocket in the lavish, cosmopolitan scene of the T’ang capital city, which at that time boasted the ultimate political and economic power and literary and theological sophistication second to none in Asia. He was quickly able to round off his studies with Sanskrit, Indian Buddhism, poetry and calligraphy, to become a complete scholar of his time. The fact that he was able to receive the Dharma transmission from the ailing Master Huiguo in a few months speaks volumes about Kukai’s attainments in his chosen path. Furthermore, the fact that Kukai’s company and friendship were sought by famous scholars, poets, calligraphers, courtiers and religious leaders in China shows what kind of a phenomenon he had become in a country that was very hard to impress at that time. But it is Shiba’s crowning achievement to be able to reproduce in his book, from an untold number of primary sources and his own poetic vision of history, a picture of Chang’an that almost makes the spectacular early 9th century city, and Kukai in it, come to life, to the reader’s delight.
In Shiba’s opinion, this stay in Chang’an was the centerpiece of Kukai’s life, which made him who he was, gave him a tremendous leverage with the Japanese imperial court and the Buddhist community and allowed him to proceed unimpeded to becoming what he ultimately became in the history of Japan. To experience this and other circumstances in Kukai’s life, simply read this book and be transported by the masterful author to a time, place and state of mind far from our own.