Kukai/Kobo Daishi – Founder of Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism

Fact and Legend

You won’t find any figures in the rich Japanese history about who such lively and abundant biographies were written as Kukai, perhaps better known by his popular posthumous title of Kobo Daishi.

In 1934, a complete biography of Kobo Daishi was compiled to celebrate the 1100th anniversary of his passing away or his entry into the eternal samadhi. This compilation included all earlier biographical works from before 1868 and contains 194 volumes in 93 works. If the authors had added the biographies published from 1868 onward, the number would have probably been double.

There are also a number of “unwritten biographies.” This refers to the many folklore and oral tradition tales that even today still are existing in all corners of Japan. Gathering these together would be a virtually impossible task but these tales would undoubtedly fill another enormous set of biography volumes that would, in size, rival the earlier mentioned combined Biographies.

Strictly historical speaking, Kukai’s activities took place in western Japan only, specifically the region that today is Kyoto and Osaka and Shikoku Island. In Japanese folklore, however, his traces relate to the northern and eastern portions of Japan as well. Throughout Japan, you can come across legends relating to his travels, his springs, and his wells.

Generally, studies of historic and traditional biographies will be plagued by an apparent paucity of study materials. In Kukai’s case, however, we see the opposite. Researchers have to make difficult decisions on what they should accept and what they should reject. The existing traditional biographies include not only verifiable historical facts, but also an astonishing amount of absurd nonsense. Often, it is quite difficult to separate these two.

Anyway, the mystical and miraculous legends that are found in the biographies all find their origin in the special relationship that existed between Kukai and ordinary so we cannot discard all these tales unconditionally just to satisfy historical accuracy.

Well-known are the ubiquitous tales about springs and wells in relation to Kukai. One of the typical stories relates to a specific village where wasn’t enough water for irrigation. Thus, the villagers needed to spare their usage of water that they collected from a far-away well. Then one day, a traveling priest passed through their village asking for something to drink.

Willingly, the villagers brought him a drink and the traveler struck his staff on the ground as a sign of thanks and all of a sudden, a spring of freshwater gushed up. Now that traveler was actually 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.

One of the best-known activities of Kukai is the reconstruction of a water reservoir named Mannoike in the province Sanuki on Shikoku. This was and is the largest reservoir in the area formed by a dam in a river on three sides surrounded by hills. It covers over 3,500 hectares of land and has a circumference of 8 kilometers. Originally, the reservoir and dam were constructed in 703 by some provincial administrator, but in 818, the dam broke during a massive flood in 818. The Japanese government sent over an official in 820 to take on the reconstruction of the reservoir but there was progress. Therefore, the governor asked Kukai, an extremely popular native of that area, to complete the task. Check out the following entry in the Ja[panese Abbreviated Chronicles from 821:

The Sanuki governor says: . . . “Kukai, a priest, is a local native though he has lived in Kyoto now for quite a while. The local farmers are yearning for him as they would for their parents. Hearing that this master would be coming would make them fly out to welcome the priest. I do request that Kukai is appointed superintendent in order to complete the work.”

Popular legends state that the supernatural abilities of Kukai enabled the priest to accomplish this huge job but other reliable historical resources are not supporting this. Kukai’s successful performances were neither based on magical abilities nor on his engineering skill. Kukai’s success was based on the strict confidence that the locals had in the priest, as becomes clear when we read the words of the governor, “Hearing thatKukai comes the locals would fly out and welcome the priest.” No matter where Kukai was going, the people would come out and meet him. Kukai’s charisma was actually the main reason that Kukai completes Mannoike and the key source regarding legends concerning his magical powers. Check out also this post about Mikao Usui, one of the most influential philosophers in the history in Japan.

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