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  • Xianduo Zhao

Kukai and Language


In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Mizumura Minae expressed her concern over the rapid expansion of the English language. Ever since the 18th century, English as a language has been drastic growth due to the expansion of the British Empire, which is further catalyzed by the invention of internet and mass media. With the help of commercialization of our society, it has become more and more convenience and profitable to write, sing, and speak in English, the universal language of today. Mizumura worries that this convenience will lead to a decline in the use of other smaller languages in literature and daily activity. This is not the first time in history where a culture's native language underwent dramatic change brought by either political or economical factors.


I was struck by the writings of Kukai, a student from Japan sent abroad to China that returned later with not only extensive knowledge of Buddhist teachings, but also played a huge role in the invention of kana for the Japanese language. Not only was he able to pick up Chinese calligraphy during his time in Chang'an, but he also brought back a wealth of texts in Sanskrit and Siddam to Japan, giving the country more exposure to literature and culture from other nations. One thing that I found particularly interesting was how open he was to new things and spiritual enrichment: not only did he want to distribute his newfound knowledge of Buddism to others upon his return, making what was once "esoteric" "exoteric", but he also put a tremendous amount of effort into assimilating with Chinese culture at the temple he studied at. Later in his life, Kukai was able to present various documents to the nation, as well as writing his own poetry and holding Buddhist rituals. He eventually established his own monastery in Japan that preceded one of the most popular sets of Japanese Buddhism. Kukai was also able to oversee other Buddhist establishments in Japan and did great work on public infrastructure. He eventually wrote the Juju Shinron, which stands for "Ten Stages of Consciousness", in Chinese, which proved to be an extremely valuable document for Buddhism and literature itself.


The prosperity that Kukai played a role in bringing Japan, improving quality of life by building schools, reservoirs, and temples, were made possible by what he had learned in China. Furthermore, his contributions to Japanese literature and culture is absolutely amazing. By making his sect available to people of all classes and backgrounds, he was not only able to spread Buddhism but also his knowledge of Sanskrit texts and other traditions. Additionally, his training allowed later monks to continue the journey overseas to China, where they also enriched the Japanese language culture by obtaining and learning texts.

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