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Confucius was useless. To a disciple inquiring, “May I ask about death?” he’d replied, “You do not even understand life. How can you understand death?”

Growing up in rural Shikoku in the late eighth century, a boy destined for greatness rebelled against being trained for distinguished mediocrity. His name was Kukai. We know him better as Kobo Daishi, a title posthumously bestowed, meaning roughly “great Buddhist sage.” What could Confucianism teach of life if it shrank from facing death? Was death not universal? Kukai sought — demanded — universal, all-encompassing truth. Nothing less would do.

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