‘Kukai the Universal’, Ryotaro Shiba

Kūkai was born in 774 in Sanuki Province, which faced the central provinces with the easternmost part of the Seto Inland Sea in between. Visitors to what used to be Sanuki Province (present-day Kagawa Prefecture) will surely find their eyes drawn to conical green hills dotted on the spacious plains usually crowned with a bright broad canopy of sea-lit skies that often turn into a grand stage for ever-changing clouds. An attractive setting like this might be a fine cradle for a child dreamer.

I recently managed to finish the most excellent book on the life of Kūkai, or O-Daishi-san. And then I went to Goodreads, and I saw that the score of the book was 2.80. That was based on 5 rankings (which in itself shows that the rankings and scores are quite useless unless you know what you have to check) but I also saw the comments there.

What astonished me (or, rather, amused me, I have to say) was that their main complaint was going into the book and expecting to find something. What they found was thoroughly different, and they didn’t like it. For me, when I went into the book I expected to find one of the finest novels I had seen with more historical truth than most any other novel I had read (for, if I have to bring an example, if Mr Sienkiewicz illustrates without reservation then Mr Shiba would say that he illustrates said point). My only question was that if even the translation was as readable, then what brilliance would the original be!

But to address those comments there, as I feel I have to do…

  • We start out with a notion that Mr Shiba writes historical novels, and then the next part of the same sentence makes me think that this person has not read a single historical novel. Authors as varied as Bernard Cornwell to Stepehen Saylor to whoever really — as long as they write historical novels, they are writing fiction. It is not a secret, so one should not really be surprised if everything does not match “real” history 100%.
  • But… Real history at 100%? How could we possibly even do that for a person who lived for more than sixty years and twelve centuries ago? Could we compile one with no factual information about a person who died yesterday after sixty-two years of life? I doubt that very much.
  • Likewise, it seems interesting that people are reluctant to think that people in the past may have had their faults. Mind you, none of what is said in the book is an actual fault if just an aspect of the characteristic — but I would ascribe that to the Western upbringing and civilizational thought apparent in that sentence — as soon as someone is not entirely pure, say lived five centuries on air and wheat and having actually lived a day, then something is wrong and that person could possibly not be a “saint”.
  • Translations are not meant to be synonymous. I actually took up a bit of looking into the term abhisheka after seeing that comment, and I find nothing particularly wrong with the use of baptism as the translator has done. Sure, it is not ideal — but for what it is, namely, a rite of passage, baptism into _____ suits the purpose of the book perfectly. There could potentially be better words, but in no way was this a damaging translational error.

For the second comment, which looks even more comical to my eyes, I would respond thus:

  • I highly do not believe the comment that he learned nothing new about Kūkai after reading this book. Due to the wide and varied range of sources as well as scope that is drawn upon by Mr Shiba, I simply think that this is a gross misconception on the commentators part.
  • Nor could I ever say that a book written like this one was dry and uninspirational… We see poetry by the Tang officials Kūkai met in China, we hear of the multicultural nature of Chang’an, and the difficulties of sea travel. There are anecdotes and legends put into the story, and retellings of events from Mr Shiba’s travels on Kūkai’s trail. I would hardly say that this all together makes for a “dry” story… “Uninspirational” is probably up as much to the reader as to anyone else — I found the entire biography most enlightening and uplifting!
  • Nowhere did anything about this book actually say that it was going to delve into Kūkai’s influence in Japan. So it didn’t. I find hard to put grievance to the book for something it didn’t say it would do — plus, if you can read between the lines then you can see why people would admire the monk as they did. Maybe it is harder to see why that has remained the same for twelve centuries, but quite probably that comes down to a difference in the Western-Eastern philosophic outlooks as anything else.
  • Again, the book didn’t say that it would be an introduction into Shingon. It was supposed to be a story of Kūkai’s life, and Kūkai did far more than found Shingon.
  • In general, I find most biographies as chronological re-tellings of facts, but that might just be me. One notable exception that I am working my way through is a take on von Bismarck, but even that bases itself very much in time — the difference is made by having people tell the story and the facts have less of a role. The second part of the last sentence comes back to my original point — any facts about someone who lived twelve centuries ago would be difficult to confirm so that there is no doubt in it. For what it is, I believe that most of what is definite is in this book — and we also have a smaller range of legends and stories of mythical origin put in to display the character of the man whose biography we are reading…

This would be my answer to those two distasteful comments — I would say that people should read this book to see how a biography can be written without concerning itself only with the one person but also the times, and how to explain to an unfamiliar audience the complexity of a society nearly fourteen centuries older in its origins (and outlook to life) than our modern 21st century’s globalized (Western) civilization.

To finish, I believe once more a quote:

Jichie took great pains in sending a letter to Qinglong-si temple in Chang’an, China, informing them of his master’s death. This sort of thing had never been done before or since …
… As for his death that occurred “in late spring in 835,”, Jichie wrote:
“The wood has run out, and the fire has died. It was in his sixty-second year…. What grief we have to bear!….”

On receiving this letter, the whole of Qinglong-si temple in Chang’an was struck into silence and everyone, dressed in white, mourned the death of their revered priest.

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