Kukai / Kobo Daishi
Founder of Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism

Kukai.jpg (19811 bytes)


by Koyu Sonoda Kukai:       Fact and Legend

     There are few figures in Japanese history about whom such abundant biographies have been written as Kukai, popularly known by his posthumous title, Kobo Daishi. The Collected Biographies of Kobo Daishi; compiled in 1934 to mark the eleven hundredth anniversary of his death, or entry into eternal samadhi, contains all the biographical works written before 1868 and totals 93 works in 194 volumes. Adding those published since 1868 would probably double the number. In addition, there are the "unwritten biographies," the vast oral tradition and folklore that still exist in every part of Japan. Though it would be virtually impossible to gather them together, they would doubtless fill an enormous set of volumes rivaling the selected Biographies in size. In strictly historical terms, Kukai's activities were limited to western Japan, particularly the region of today's Osaka and Kyoto and the island of Shikoku. In the world of folklore, though, his traces are to be found in the eastern and northern regions as well, and legends concerning his travels, and his wells and springs, are to be found throughout Japan.

     Usually studies of traditional biographies are plagued by a paucity of materials, but in Kukai's case the opposite is true; there are difficulties deciding what to accept and what to reject. The traditional biographies contain, in addition to verifiable historical fact, a surprisingly voluminous mixture of absurd nonsense, and it is often difficult to separate the two. Nevertheless the miraculous and mystical legends that pervade the biographies derive from the special relationship that grew between Kukai and the common people, so it is wrong to discard them unconditionally in the name of historical accuracy.

     Most ubiquitous are the tales about wells and springs associated with Kukai. A typical story is that in a certain village there was not sufficient water for irrigation, so the villagers had to be sparing in use of the water they drew from a far-off well. One day, there came passing through the village a traveling priest, who asked for a drink. The villagers willingly brought him one, whereupon the traveler, in thanks, struck the ground with his staff and a spring of water came gushing up. The traveler was in fact Kukai. In such tales he appears as a figure with mystical, supernatural powers, who can answer the pressing needs of the common people. At the core of such legends is the historical fact of Kukai's multifaceted social undertakings.

     The best known of such activities is his direction of the reconstruction of the reservoir called Mannoike in Sanuki Province on Shikoku. It was, and is, the area's largest reservoir, formed by damming a river and surrounded on three sides by hills. It is eight kilometers in circumference and covers 3,600 hectares of land. The reservoir was originally constructed by a provincial administrator around 703, but it broke its retaining wall during a great flood in 818. In 820, the government sent an official to take charge of reconstruction. He and the provincial governor strove to complete the repairs, but the work made little progress. The governor therefore requested that Kukai, a native of the area and extremely popular with the local people, be sent to accomplish the task. An 821 entry in the Abbreviated Chronicles of Japan reads:

     The provincial governor of Sanuki says: . . . "The priest Kukai is a native of the district.... He has now been long gone from his native place and lives in Kyoto. The farmers yearn for him as they do their parents. If they hear that the master is coming, they will fly to welcome him. I sincerely request that he be made superintendent so that the work might be completed."

     So Kukai was appointed director of the reconstruction of Mannoike. We do not know how the work progressed subsequently, but in an entry for two months later, the Abbreviated Chronicles notes that twenty thousand new coins were given to Kukai, suggesting a reward for the completion of the work. We can therefore conjecture that the difficult task was completed in a scant two months after Kukai's appearance on the scene.

     Originally the construction and maintenance of irrigation ponds had been the responsibility of the state. According to the Procedures of the Engi Era (a collection of supplementary governmental regulations of the tenth century), each province was to provide the resources for such work. Indeed, during the zenith of the ritsuryo system, it was, as seen above, a provincial administrator with whom responsibility for building of Mannoike rested. About one hundred years later, the central government assigned a specialist to aid the local officials in the task of reconstructing it, but he was unable to complete the work. The rapid decline in the power of the central government during the intervening century is clearly illustrated. Kukai's popularity was such that he could bolster the declining influence of the central government.

     Popular legend has it that it was Kukai's supernatural abilities that enabled him to complete the huge job, but reliable historical sources do not bear this out. Kukai's success rested neither on magical ability nor on engineering skill, but on the confidence the local people had in him, as demonstrated by the governor's words, "If they hear that the master is coming, they will fly to welcome him. " Wherever Kukai went, people swarmed of their own accord to meet him. This charisma was both the fundamental reason that Mannoike was completed successfully and the source of legends concerning Kukai's magical powers. It was this grip he had on the imagination of the people that national and local power and community controls could not match. Let us now examine Kukai's life to discover where his special strengths came from.

The Life of Kukai

     Kukai was born in 774 in Sanuki Province on Shikoku. His birth name was Saeki no Mao. His father's family were local aristocracy whose ancestors were reputed to have been the provincial governors. The clan had produced many administrators and scholars. Kukai, who from childhood had been regarded as highly gifted, was sent to the capital at fourteen to study under his maternal uncle, the tutor to the crown prince. At seventeen he succeeded in entering the university, where he studied Tso's Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals and China's Five Classics (the Classic of Changes, Classic of History, Classic of Poetry, Collection of Rituals, and Spring and Autumn Annals). It was in this period that he undoubtedly accumulated the wealth of knowledge that so astounded Chinese literary circles when he later visited T'ang China.

     The turning point in Kukai's life, set as it was toward an illustrious official career, came during his university studies when he met "a Buddhist priest."

During that time, a Buddhist priest showed me a text called the Mantra of Akashagarbha.... Believing what the Great Sage [the Buddha] says of the truth, I hoped for a result, as if rubbing pieces of wood together to make fire. I climbed Mount Otaki and meditated at Cape Muroto. The valleys reverberated with the echo of my voice, and the Bright Star [Venus] appeared in the sky. From that time on I despised the fame and wealth of the court and city; I thought only about spending my life in the midst of the precipices and thickets of the mountains (Preface to Indications of tire Goals of the Three Teachings).

     Kukai wrote this work in his later years, recalling his younger days. He learned a mantra for acquiring a good memory, a mantra dedicated to Akashagarbha Bodhisattva, from a certain priest; cast aside his prospective career with no qualms; and threw himself into the life of a mountain ascetic, traveling around Shikoku's quiet, secluded holy places such as Mount Otaki and Cape Muroto. Who was this priest who persuaded him to take the severe path of an ascetic, to move from the concerns of this world to those beyond it? Since ancient times there have been various conjectures as to his identity, and Gonzo of Daianji, in Nara, has been mentioned as well as refuted. The identity does not really matter, for the key to Kukai's "conversion" lies not in a chance meeting with a particular cleric but somewhere else entirely.

     Recall that Kukai came from a family of local gentry. During this period, locally prominent families acted as district officials and military officers; they were the final units in local administration, though at the same time they were also members of their own village communities. Their lives were complicated in that they always embodied two sides, the ruler and the ruled, the exploiter and the producer. With the decline of the ritsuryo system, exploitation by the central authorities grew so much that the local gentry hardly knew whether they were supposed to act as agents of the exploiters or as protectors of local interests. The reason early Buddhism pervaded this class so widely lies in this basic contradiction in their lives.

     Kukai's abandonment of his university life in the capital and his espousal of ascetic practice also seemed to originate from the contradictions and troubles faced by local landowners. He would have fully absorbed the sufferings of the farming community and been perplexed by the gentry's conflicting stance regarding the common people. His university education would have been no use at all to him in resolving those problems. Day after day there would have been repeated the stereotyped lectures and readings of the Chinese classics that formed the backbone of ritsuryo ideology. Bored with his classes, he had only to meet a Buddhist priest who showed him the Mantra of Akashagarbha to choose unhesitatingly to throw away everything for a life of asceticism in the mountains. His later zeal in the reconstruction of Mannoike derived partly from the fact that he was born not far from there and partly from the great influence of his family background. There can be no doubt that he was convinced that the repairs were essential if the lives of the farmers were to be preserved. Here is the community awareness of one who was born a member of the local gentry. For a major project like that of Mannoike, however, it was hard to organize labor through individual communities. When the national government was unable to use its authority to bind people together to complete the work, there was nothing to do but look to the influence of a great religious figure, such as Kukai. What people hoped for from him was an ideology that could bind together the individual farming communities and the local gentry. For Kukai, this ideology was Shingon esotericism. Let us look now at how he discovered it.

Skingon and Kukai's Visit to China

     The text that was related to Kukai's decision to become a priest, the Mantra of Akashagarbha, was a work of the new, orthodox teachings on esoteric Buddhist meditation translated by Shubhakarasimha, the founder of esoteric Buddhism in China. It is clear from this that the priest who persuaded him to lead an ascetic life was himself an esoteric practitioner. It was only a question of time before the clear-sighted Kukai discovered and read one of the central texts of Shingon esotericism, the Great Sun Sutra.

     According to the biographies, Kukai came across it beneath the eastern pagoda of Kume-dera in Yamato Province. The reliability of this story is problematic, and the date is not clear, yet it must be a fact that he encountered the Great Sun Sutra sometime before he went to China in 804. Broadly speaking, esoteric Buddhism is divided into the old and the new. It was thought until recently that esoteric Buddhism in the Nara period had been confined to the old form, but recent studies have shown that sutras and commentaries of the new esotericism were even then relatively widespread. The Great Sun Sutra and the Mantra of Akaskagarbha, which were both known by Kukai before he went to China, were works of the new school, and Kukai's understanding of them was considerable.

     Esoteric Buddhism emerged during the last period of the development of Buddhism in India, and from relatively early times the eastward movement of Buddhism brought sutras associated with it into China via Central Asia. These early works represented miscellaneous esoteric Buddhism, with their incorporation of magical elements from folk religion or old esotericism. With the development of the southern sea route to China by Muslim traders in the seventh century, texts of pure esoteric Buddhism, or new esotericism, began to be imported to China directly from the center of esoteric Buddhism, southern India. Esoteric Buddhism was initially introduced to China by Vajrabodhi, who arrived by sea at Canton in 720, and by Shubhakarasimha, who had arrived by the inland route four years earlier, in 716. Esoteric Buddhism after the time of these two masters is commonly known as the new stream, and was more organized than the older type. It was, in fact, Shubhakarasimha who translated both the Great Sun Sutra and the Matitra of Akashagarbha into Chinese. There was nothing strange, therefore, in Kukai's wish to go to China and receive tuition in the deeper meaning of certain aspects of the Great Sun Sutra.

     His chance came sooner than expected. In the autumn of 804, the first of the official diplomatic ships, in which Kukai was traveling, arrived in northeastern Fukien province.   Kukai, in the train of the ambassador, eventually reached the T'ang capital after a long and arduous journey. Though Ch'ang-an had declined following a rebellion, it was still the greatest city in the world of its time. The Chen-yen (Shingon) school of esoteric Buddhism was the most popular of all the Buddhist schools in the capital, particularly through the efforts of the famed esoteric master, Amoghavajra, who had translated and circulated a large number of esoteric texts, surpassing even Vajrabodhi and Shubhakarasimha, and who had received the Buddhist vows of three successive emperors.

     On his arrival in Ch'ang-an, Kukai went first to study Sanskrit under the north Indian masters Prajna and Munisri. Mastery of Sanskrit was essential for the study of esoteric Buddhism. It was typical of Kukai's thoroughness that he gave his attention to language before going to study at the Ch'ing-lung temple under Hui-kuo, the true master for whom he had been searching. Kukai became a student of Hui-kuo in the middle of 805. Kukai himself records, in the Memorial Presenting a Record of Newly Imported Sutras and Other Items, that as soon as Hui-kuo saw him, the latter cried out, "I have long known that you would come. For such a long time I have waited for you! How happy I am, how happy I am today, to look upon you at last. My life is reaching its end, and there has been no one to whom I could transmit the teachings. Go at once to the initiation platform with incense and flowers! Shortly after this dramatic first meeting, Kukai received the initiation ritual of the Womb-Store Realm. The next month he was initiated into the Diamond Realm, and in the following month, he received the final ritual, the transmission of the teachings. Thus in just three months, Kukai received from his master formal transmission of the major esoteric teachings. Hui-kuo, who had said on the first meeting that his life was running out, died near the end of that year, aged fifty-nine, having transmitted the dharma to Kukai. It was fortunate for Kukai that he should have received dharma transmission from such an illustrious teacher so close to his death, but Hui-kuo also was lucky in finally being able to meet a suitable dharma heir. Having received the transmission of orthodox Chen-yen from Hui-kuo, Kukai became the eighth patriarch of Chen-yen, and the direct line of transmission crossed the sea to be passed along in Japan.

     In the autumn of 806, Kukai returned to Japan aboard a diplomatic ship and came ashore in northern Kyushu. With him he had brought 216 works in 451 volumes, of which 142 works in 247 volumes were translations of texts of the new esoteric Buddhism, chiefly those of Amoghavajra. In addition we should note the existence of forty-two Sanskrit works in forty-four volumes. Kukai also brought back with him various graphic works and ritual implements, which tell of the completeness of the transmission of his dharma lineage.

Kukai and Saicho

     It can be verified that Kukai remained at Dazaifu on Kyushu from the time of his return to Japan until early 807, but his circumstances over the two and a half years are not clear at all. Recent research suggests that he remained in Kyushu until 809, preparing for the future and making copies of the works he had brought back from China. This was in marked contrast to Saicho, who returned to the capital quickly and received imperial sanction to ordain two annual quota priests. Kukai remained unflurried, awaiting his chance.

     That great spectacle, outstanding in the history of Buddhism in Japan, the association between Saicho and Kukai, appears to have begun very soon after Kukai arrived in the capital in 809. At the time, Saicho was forty-two, and he wrote to the thirty-five-year-old Kukai asking to borrow certain texts. In the winter of 812, Saicho and his students went to Takaosan-ji, where they received the initiation of the Womb-Store Realm from Kukai. The first communication that can be verified as being sent by Kukai to Saicho also dates from that time. This is in the famous collection of letters to Saicho written in Kukai's own hand, which is preserved at Toji and has been designated a National Treasure. The letter is replete with Kukai's brimming self-confidence:

You [Saicho] and I and [Shuen of] Murou-ji should meet in one place, to deliberate upon the most important cause for which the Buddha appeared in the world, together raising the banners of the dharma and repaying the Buddha's benevolent provision.

     As far as Kukai was concerned, only three people in Japan were qualified to teach Buddhism. Saicho was widely known as an intellectual who had brought back a new kind of Buddhism from China, and Shuen, a Hosso priest, was among the prominent figures of the traditional Buddhist sects. Compared with these two men, Kukai was barely known in society at large, but his confidence was obviously strong nevertheless.

     Kukai's dazzling genius is graphically apparent in the calligraphy of that letter, which is considered his greatest masterpiece. A comparison of Kukai's and Saicho's calligraphy reveals their differences in personality. If Saicho's is like the crystalline water of a mountain stream, Kukai's is like the resonance of the vast ocean. Despite the warm friendship that throve initially between the two men, their differences in personality contained the seeds for their eventual parting of the ways. It was the personalities of these two that were to shape the development of the Tendai and Shingon sects and to stamp a deep individualism on the Buddhism of their era.

Mount Koya and To-ji

     Kukai's brilliance soon brought him into contact with the court of the new emperor, Saga. In the winter of 809, Kukai had already answered the emperor's request to write calligraphy on a pair of folding screens. Exchanges between the emperor and Kukai continued; Kukai presented the emperor with books of poetry copied in his own hand (811), brushes and writings (812), books on Sanskrit and poetry (814), and screens with calligraphy on them (816). The real friendship between the two is apparent in a poem included in the Collection of National Polity, an anthology of prose and verse in Chinese compiled in 827. It includes a poem entitled "A Farewell to Kukai, Departing for the Mountains":

Many years have passed
Since you chose the path of a priest.
Now come the clear words and the good tides of autumn.
Pour no more the scented tea;
Evening is falling.
I bow before you, grieving at our parting,
Looking up at the clouds and haze.

     Saga wrote this poem after he had abdicated in 823 to spend his time in cultural pursuits. There is no sense of ruler and subject here. Kukai and Saga were renowned, with Tachibana no Hayanari, as the greatest calligraphers of their time, and the three were called collectively the Three Brushes. Historians of calligraphy see a marked influence of Kukai in the emperor's style of writing.

     Kukai thus gained entry into court circles as the leading exponent of Chinese culture and won the emperor's patronage. Backed by that patronage, he spread the teachings of Shingon esotericism that he had brought back with him. We should note in particular the founding of a temple on Mount Koya in 816. In the summer of that year, Kukai had sent a formal message to the emperor asking for the grant of "a flat area deep in the mountains" on Mount Koya, where he could build a center to establish esoteric training. He was no doubt thinking in particular about the temples on Mount Wu-t'ai administered by Amoghavajra, which he had heard about when he was in China. Though Kukai was not able to finish the temple during his lifetime, Mount Koya, as the site of the master's eternal samadhi, became the most hallowed center of the Shingon sect.

     Early in 823, Kukai was granted Toji, a temple situated at the entrance to Kyoto. In the winter of the same year, he received permission to use the temple exclusively for Shingon clerics, as a specialist training center for the esoteric doctrines, similar to Ch'ing-lung temple in Ch'ang-an. Toji and Mount Koya thus became the bases for Shingon in Japan. With the establishment of Mount Koya and the grant of Toji, the foundations were laid for the religious organization of the Shingon sect. Both were gifts of Emperor Saga.

     In the summer of 823, Saga abdicated in favor of Emperor Junna. During the reign of this emperor Kukai's glory reached its peak. That summer, he was authorized to have fifty Shingon priests permanently residing at Toji, and in the summer of 825, he received imperial permission to build a lecture hall there. In 827 he performed a ritual for rain and was elevated to the rank of senior assistant high priest in the Bureau of Clergy. Early in 834, he received permission to establish a Shingon chapel within the imperial palace, similar to one in China, and he constructed a mandala altar there. Shingon teachings were already penetrating the court deeply. Here again Kukai was in startling contrast to Saicho, who feared the court would contaminate student priests and sought an independent ordination platform on Mount Hiei.

     Kukai did not exhibit the belligerence toward the older sects that Saicho did. His attitude was one of temporary compromise, awaiting a time when he could bring others around to his position. In 822, a Shingon chapel, Nan-in, was established at Todaiji. This became a means of spreading Shingon from within the stronghold of Nara Buddhism. Among the many priests who came under Kukai's influence through Nan-in was the former crown prince Takaoka, who had lost his position after being implicated in a conspiracy to put the retired emperor, Heizei, back on the throne (810), and had become a priest with the name of Shinnyo at Todaiji in 822. It did not take much time for all the Nara sects to be completely dominated by esoteric Buddhism.

Later Years and Entry into Samadhi

     Kukai's tolerance sprang from his personality and his genius, as well as from the nature of Shingon teachings themselves. In 830 he completed his work on the classification of the teachings and the place of Shingon within them, the Ten Stages of the Development of Mind in ten volumes. The classification was performed at the order of Emperor Junna, who had required all the sects to detail the essentials of their teachings. This work is based upon the chapter "The Stages of Mind" in the Great Sun Sutra. Kukai divided the human mind (or religious consciousness) into ten categories and compared each level with various non-Buddhist and Buddhist philosophies and sects in order to show that Shingon is superior to all. Kukai's Ten Stages is more than just a classification of the teachings in the traditional style, for he extends the classification beyond the Buddhist sects to all religions and systems of ethics. From the standpoint of the esoteric teachings, the great and splendid wisdom of Mahavairocana Tathagata dwells profoundly within even the shallowest kinds of thought and religion. Consequently, the One Vehicle thought of esoteric Buddhism (Shingon), unlike the One Vehicle doctrine of esoteric Buddhism (Tendai and Kegon), is not incompatible with the Three Vehicles theory of Hosso. This tolerance inherent in Shingon prevented the Buddhist sects of Nara from coming into direct conflict with Kukai's Shingon, and allowed them, almost without realizing it, to be absorbed within it. It was not only the Nara sects that were so influenced. The same thing is evident in the teaching program of Shugei Shuchi-in, the school Kukai founded next to Toji, which offered Confucian and Taoist as well as Buddhist studies; in social endeavors such as the reconstruction of Mannoike; and even in Kukai's multifaceted cultural pursuits. As far as Kukai was concerned, even making tea and writing poems in the company of the emperor and nobles were forms of religious activity. The fact that he was so eminently popular among the people can be considered a further expression of his religious outlook.

     Kukai died on Mount Koya on April 23, 835, and it is believed that even now he remains in eternal samadhi in his bodily form within the inner shrine on the mountain. This belief also is a legacy of the burning admiration felt for him by the people as a whole.

This document is courtesy of the book "Shapers of Japanese Buddhism"
by Yusen Kashiwahara and
Koyu Sonoda / Kosei Pub. Co.

Copyright 1994 Kosei Publishing Co. / Tokyo Japan

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