People have sought knowledge for centuries. To understand one’s surroundings and the occurrences in them may be a way to understand oneself, to find a meaningful purpose for existence. This is not an easy venture. Humans are equipped with varying capacities for grasping the concepts of this world and beyond. When this capacity does not match one’s aspirations, there is bound to be some anguish. Perhaps for this reason, we are particularly in awe of those that seem to be blessed with a capacity to learn that is beyond the average.
Sugawara no Michizane was one such gifted scholar in the Heian period in Japan, around 794 A.D. He wrote exquisite Chinese poetry as a child, ran schools, and was a renowned diplomat. But political complexities led to his demotion and death in exile. Following his death, plagues and disasters struck Kyoto. To calm his angry spirit, the officials built Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.
Sugawara’s spirit is said to have transformed over time to become a kinder spirit, till he eventually came to be associated with the God of academics. Hundreds of shrines were dedicated to him. Kitano Tenmangu is the most important of these shrines. Students come from all over the country to pray so they pass their exams. There are calligraphy exhibitions, and most people write the kanji for 合格 or passing (an exam).
Sugawara loved plum flowers and plum trees were planted in Kitano Tenmangu to honor him. In early March, the shrine transforms to a field of plum blossoms. This makes for a curious contrast. On the one hand, the giddy enchantment of the plum blossoms and on the other, the earnest prayers of thousands of students for progress in their education.
But then, learning is not about passing exams. It is about transformation and broadening one’s mind and soul so there may be a larger capacity to absorb the beauty and breadth and variety of our world, a contemplation that goes quite well with plum trees in bloom in early spring.