Nara period, 8th century
Toshodaiji, Nara (via: wikimedia commons)
In reading the current issue of PARABOLA, there are several examples of individuals who have been able to navigate their lives through the stormy seas of desire and temptation.
Another example that comes to mind is the fascinating story of Jianzhen or Ganjin (688–763), a Chinese monk who helped to propagate Buddhism in Japan. In autumn 742, an emissary invited Jianzhen to travel to Japan to give lectures on Buddhism. Despite protests from his disciples, Jianzhen made preparations for his first voyage. The crossing failed and in the following years, he would attempt to cross to Japan six times.
In the summer of 748, Jianzhen made his fifth attempt to reach Japan. Leaving from Yangzhou, he made it to the Zhoushan Archipelago off the coast of modern Zhejiang province. But the ship was blown off course taking the lives of 36 members of Jianzhen’s crew including Eiei, one of the Japanese monks who had accompanied him. Shortly thereafter, more than 200 others in the crew abandoned him out of fear and frustration. Jianzhen was then forced to make his way back home to Yangzhou by land, lecturing at a number of monasteries on the way. It took him three years to eventually return home to Yangzhou, and by this time he was blind from an infection he had contracted in his journey. Nevertheless, he was still determined to make it to Japan.
Undeterred, Jianzhen made the sixth attempt five years later at the age of 66, after a horrific 40 day journey at sea, he arrived in Japan on December 20th, 753. Jianzhen died a year later on May 6th, 763.
This story fits with Mathew J. Stills’ description of desire as action in our Fall 2010 Issue: “Desire, to be true, must be efficacious. It must have the power to take hold of someone and move him or her.” How does one harness this power of desire so that it is transformed into a determination or a wish as the story of Jianzhen clearly describes? Maybe this story is true or maybe it has been blown up to mythological proportions, but nonetheless it is a story that shows us the true place of desire.
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