A Japanese Mandala of Chinese Literary Genres: Interpreting Kūkai’s Earliest Literary Composition

Event time: 
Tuesday, December 12, 2023 - 12:00pm to 1:15pm
Rosenkranz Hall (RKZ), 202 See map
115 Prospect Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

The earliest extant composition by the patriarch of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, Kūkai 空海 (774–835), is the “Sangō shiiki” 三教指帰 (The ultimate meaning of the three teachings). This elaborate work in kanbun presents an outline of the Three Teachings transmitted from China in hierarchical arrangement, with Confucianism first shown to be inferior to Daoism, and Daoism in turn giving way to Buddhism. The rhetorical achievement of the “Sangō shiiki” is visible first of all in its epideictic rhetoric, rich in rhyming and alliterative compounds as well as creative adaptation of allusions from the classics, histories, and “Wenxuan” 文選 anthology. Though richly studded with references to the Chinese textual tradition, “Sangō shiiki” does not really belong to any single Chinese that has ever existed before or since. Borrowing its overall structure from the grand fu of the Han, and components from the “Disquisition” or lun 論 of the Six Dynasties, it is a gargantuan work of parallel verse that also incorporates within itself two separate fu, a letter, a eulogy, and a pentasyllabic poem. Thus the work does not only progress through the Three Teachings themselves, but also incorporates a message about the interrelation and compatibility of genres. While the “Sangō shiiki” is banal in terms of content, it is highly original in genre and style, and its ultimate message is not about the Three Teachings themselves so much as the nondualistic relation between writing and Buddhism.
Nicholas Morrow Williams is an associate professor of Chinese literature at Arizona State University. He studies and translates classical Chinese poetry, and also works in related areas such as medieval Buddhism, Sino-Japanese literature, and translation studies. His forthcoming publications include a monograph on “Chinese Poetry as Soul Summoning” and a translation of the “Elegies of Chu” for the “Oxford World’s Classics” series.

Nicholas Williams - Associate Professor of Chinese Literature, Arizona State University