KūKAI (空海), also known posthumously as KōBō-DAISHI
(弘法大師, The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching),
774–835, was a Japanese Buddhist monk , civil servant , scholar,
poet, and artist who founded the
Shingon or "True Word" school of
Shingon followers usually refer to him by the honorific
title of Odaishisama (お大師様) and the religious name of
Kūkai is famous as a calligrapher and engineer . Among the many
achievements attributed to him is the invention of the kana , the
syllabary with which, in combination with Chinese characters (kanji ),
Japanese language is written to this day. Also according to
Iroha , which uses every phonetic kana syllable just
once and is one of the most famous poems in Japanese , is attributed
to him but again, this is a popular belief and nowhere attested to.
His religious writings, some fifty works, expound the Esoteric Shingon
doctrine. The major ones have been translated into English by Yoshito
Hakeda (see references below).
* 1 Biography
* 1.1 Early years
* 1.2 Travel and study in China
* 1.3 Emerging from obscurity
* 1.5 Public works
* 1.7 Final years
* 2 In popular culture
* 3 See also
* 4 References
* 4.1 Additional sources
* 5 External links
Kūkai as a child Wood statue of Kūkai.
Kūkai was born in 774 in the present-day
Zentsū-ji precincts in the
province of Sanuki on the island of
Shikoku . His family were members
of the aristocratic Saeki family, a branch of the ancient Ōtomo clan.
There is some doubt as to his birth name: Tōtomono (precious one) is
recorded in one source, while Mao (True Fish) is recorded elsewhere.
Mao is generally used in modern studies.
Kūkai was born in a period
of important political changes with
Emperor Kanmu (r. 781–806)
seeking to consolidate his power and to extend his realm, taking
measures which included moving the capital of
Japan from Nara
ultimately to Heian (modern-day
Little more is known about Kūkai's childhood. At the age of fifteen,
he began to receive instruction in the
Chinese classics under the
guidance of his maternal uncle. During this time, the Saeki-Ōtomo
clan suffered government persecution due to allegations that the clan
chief, Ōtomo Yakamochi, was responsible for the assassination of his
Fujiwara no Tanetsugu . The family fortunes had fallen by 791
Kūkai journeyed to Nara, the capital at the time, to study at
the government university, the Daigakuryō (大学寮). Graduates were
typically chosen for prestigious positions as bureaucrats. Biographies
Kūkai suggest that he became disillusioned with his Confucian
studies, but developed a strong interest in Buddhist studies instead.
Around the age of 22,
Kūkai was introduced to Buddhist practice
involving chanting the mantra of the
(Kokuzō). During this period,
Kūkai frequently sought out isolated
mountain regions where he chanted the
relentlessly. At age 24 he published his first major literary work,
Sangō Shiiki , in which he quotes from an extensive list of sources,
including the classics of Confucianism,
Daoism , and
Buddhism . The
Nara temples, with their extensive libraries, possessed these texts.
During this period in Japanese history, the central government
Buddhism through the Sōgō (僧綱, Office of
Priestly Affairs) and enforced its policies, based on the ritsuryō
system. Ascetics and independent monks, like Kūkai, were frequently
banned and lived outside the law, but still wandered the countryside
or from temple to temple.
During this period of private Buddhist practice,
Kūkai had a dream,
in which a man appeared and told
Kūkai that the Mahavairocana Tantra
is the scripture which contained the doctrine
Kūkai was seeking.
Kūkai soon managed to obtain a copy of this sūtra which had
only recently become available in Japan, he immediately encountered
difficulty. Much of the sūtra was in untranslated
Sanskrit written in
Siddhaṃ script .
Kūkai found the translated portion of the
sūtra was very cryptic. Because
Kūkai could find no one who could
elucidate the text for him, he resolved to go to China to study the
Ryuichi Abe suggests that the
Mahavairocana Tantra bridged
the gap between his interest in the practice of religious exercises
and the doctrinal knowledge acquired through his studies.
TRAVEL AND STUDY IN CHINA
Kōbō Daishi altar at Tian Hou Temple, Taipei .
Kūkai took part in a government-sponsored expedition to China
in order to learn more about the Mahavairocana Tantra. Scholars are
Kūkai was selected to take part in an official mission to
China, given his background as a private, not state-sponsored, monk.
Theories include family connections within the Saeki-Ōtomo clan, or
connections through fellow clergy or a member of the
Fujiwara clan .
The expedition included four ships, with
Kūkai on the first ship,
while another famous monk,
Saichō was on the second ship. During a
storm, the third ship turned back, while the fourth ship was lost at
sea. Kūkai's ship arrived weeks later in the province of
its passengers were initially denied entry to the port while the ship
was impounded. Kūkai, being fluent in Chinese, wrote a letter to the
governor of the province explaining their situation. The governor
allowed the ship to dock, and the party was asked to proceed to the
Chang'an (present day Xi\'an ), the seat of power of the
Tang dynasty .
After further delays, the Tang court granted
Kūkai a place in Xi
Ming Temple where his study of Chinese
Buddhism began in earnest as
well as studies of
Sanskrit with the Gandharan pandit Prajñā
(734-810?) who had been educated at the Indian Buddhist university at
It was in 805 that
Kūkai finally met Master
Huiguo (746 – 805) the
man who would initiate him into the esoteric
Buddhism tradition at
Chang\'an 's Qinglong Monastery (青龍寺).
Huiguo came from an
illustrious lineage of Buddhist masters, famed especially for
Sanskrit texts into Chinese, including the Mahavairocana
Kūkai describes their first meeting:
Accompanied by Jiming, Tansheng, and several other
from the Ximing monastery, I went to visit him and was granted an
audience. As soon as he saw me, the abbot smiled, and said with
delight, "since learning of your arrival, I have waited anxiously. How
excellent, how excellent that we have met today at last! My life is
ending soon, and yet I have no more disciples to whom to transmit the
Dharma. Prepare without delay the offerings of incense and flowers for
your entry into the abhisheka mandala".
Huiguo immediately bestowed upon
Kūkai the first level abhisheka
(esoteric initiation). Whereas
Kūkai had expected to spend 20 years
studying in China, in a few short months he was to receive the final
initiation, and become a master of the esoteric lineage.
said to have described teaching
Kūkai as like "pouring water from one
vase into another".
Huiguo died shortly afterwards, but not before
Kūkai to return to
Japan and spread the esoteric
teachings there, assuring him that other disciples would carry on his
work in China.
Kūkai arrived back in
Japan in 806 as the eighth Patriarch of
Esoteric Buddhism, having learnt
Sanskrit and its Siddhaṃ script,
studied Indian Buddhism, as well as having studied the arts of Chinese
calligraphy and poetry , all with recognized masters. He also arrived
with a large number of texts, many of which were new to
Japan and were
esoteric in character, as well as several texts on the Sanskrit
language and the Siddhaṃ script.
However, in Kūkai's absence
Emperor Kanmu had died and was replaced
Emperor Heizei who exhibited no great enthusiasm for Buddhism.
Kukai's return from China was eclipsed by Saichō, the founder of the
Tendai school , who found favor with the court during this time.
Saichō had already had esoteric rites officially recognised by the
court as an integral part of Tendai, and had already performed the
abhisheka, or initiatory ritual, for the court by the time Kūkai
returned to Japan. Later, with Emperor Kanmu's death, Saichō's
fortunes began to wane.
Saichō requested, in 812, that
Kūkai give him the introductory
Kūkai agreed to do. He also granted a second-level
initiation upon Saichō, but refused to bestow the final initiation
(which would have qualified
Saichō as a master of esoteric Buddhism)
Saichō had not completed the required studies, leading to a
falling out between the two that was not resolved; this feud later
extended to the
Little is known about Kūkai's movements until 809 when the court
finally responded to Kūkai's report on his studies, which also
contained an inventory of the texts and other objects he had brought
with him, and a petition for state support to establish the new
Buddhism in Japan. That document, the Catalogue of Imported
Items, is the first attempt by
Kūkai to distinguish the new form of
Buddhism from that already practiced in Japan. The court's response
was an order to reside in the Takaosan (later
Jingo-ji ) Temple in the
suburbs of Kyoto. This was to be Kūkai's headquarters for the next 14
years. The year 809 also saw the retirement of Heizei due to illness
and the succession of the
Emperor Saga , who supported
exchanged poems and other gifts.
EMERGING FROM OBSCURITY
Cui Ziyu 's Beliefs (崔子玉座右銘)
Kūkai emerged as a public figure when he was appointed
administrative head of
Tōdai-ji , the central temple in Nara , and
head of the Sōgō (僧綱, Office of Priestly Affairs).
Shortly after his enthronement Saga became seriously ill, and while
he was recovering, Heizei fomented a rebellion, which had to be put
down by force.
Kūkai petitioned the Emperor to allow him to carry out
certain esoteric rituals which were said to "enable a king to vanquish
the seven calamities, to maintain the four seasons in harmony, to
protect the nation and family, and to give comfort to himself and
others". The petition was granted. Prior to this, the government
relied on the monks from the traditional schools in Nara to perform
rituals, such as chanting the
Golden Light Sutra to bolster the
government, but this event marked a new reliance on the esoteric
tradition to fulfill this role.
With the public initiation ceremonies for
Saichō and others at
Takaosan in 812,
Kūkai became the acknowledged master of esoteric
Buddhism in Japan. He set about organizing his disciples into an order
- making them responsible for administration, maintenance and
construction at the temple, as well as for monastic discipline. In 813
Kūkai outlined his aims and practices in the document called The
admonishments of Konin. It was also during this period at Takaosan
that he completed many of the seminal works of the
* Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence
* The Meaning of Sound, Word, Reality
* Meanings of the Word Hūm
All of these were written in 817. Records show that
Kūkai was also
busy writing poetry, conducting rituals, and writing epitaphs and
memorials on request. His popularity at the court only increased, and
Meanwhile, Kukai's new esoteric teachings and literature drew
scrutiny from a noted scholar-monk of the time named
Tokuitsu , who
traded letters back and forth in 815 asking for clarification. The
dialogue between them proved constructive and helped to give Kūkai
more credibility, while the Nara Schools took greater interest in
Part of a series on
BUDDHISM IN JAPAN
* Pure Land
* Avataṃsaka Sūtra
* Lotus Sūtra
* Heart Sūtra
* Infinite Life Sūtra
* Mahāvairocana Sūtra
* Vajraśekhara Sūtra
* Glossary of Japanese
Emperor Saga accepted Kūkai's request to establish a
mountain retreat at
Mount Kōya as a retreat from worldly affairs. The
ground was officially consecrated in the middle of 819 with rituals
lasting seven days. He could not stay, however, as he had received an
imperial order to act as advisor to the secretary of state, and he
therefore entrusted the project to a senior disciple. As many
surviving letters to patrons attest, fund-raising for the project now
began to take up much of Kūkai's time, and financial difficulties
were a persistent concern; indeed, the project was not fully realised
until after Kūkai's death in 835.
Kūkai's vision was that Mt. Kōya was to become a representation of
Mandala of the Two Realms
Mandala of the Two Realms that form the basis of
the central plateau as the
Womb Realm mandala, with the peaks
surrounding the area as petals of a lotus; and located in the centre
of this would be the
Diamond Realm mandala in the form of a temple
which he named
Kongōbu-ji — the Diamond Peak Temple. At the center
of the temple complex sits an enormous statue of
Vairocana , who is
the personification of Ultimate Reality.
Kūkai took on a civil engineering task, that of restoring
Manno Reservoir, which is still the largest irrigation reservoir in
Japan. His leadership enabled the previously floundering project to
be completed smoothly, and is now the source of some of the many
legendary stories which surround his figure. In 822
an initiation ceremony for the ex-emperor Heizei. In the same year
Saichō , stored in
Tō-ji Kobo Daishi in
Emperor Kanmu had moved the capital in 784, he had not permitted
the powerful Buddhists from the temples of Nara to follow him. He did
commission two new temples:
Tō-ji (Eastern Temple) and Sai-ji
(Western Temple) which flanked the road at southern entrance to the
city, protecting the capital from evil influences. However, after
nearly thirty years the temples were still not completed. In 823 the
Emperor Saga asked Kūkai, experienced in public works
projects, to take over
Tō-ji and finish the building project. Saga
Kūkai free rein, enabling him to make
Tō-ji the first Esoteric
Buddhist centre in Kyoto, and also giving him a base much closer to
the court, and its power.
The new emperor,
Emperor Junna (r. 823-833) was also well disposed
towards Kūkai. In response to a request from the emperor, Kūkai,
along with other Japanese Buddhist leaders, submitted a document which
set out the beliefs, practices and important texts of his form of
Buddhism. In his imperial decree granting approval of Kūkai's outline
of esoteric Buddhism, Junna uses the term Shingon-shū (真言宗,
Mantra Sect) for the first time. An imperial decree gave Kūkai
exclusive use of
Tō-ji for the
Shingon School, which set a new
precedent in an environment where previously temples had been open to
all forms of Buddhism. It also allowed him to retain 50 monks at the
temple and train them in Shingon. This was the final step in
Shingon as an independent Buddhist movement, with a solid
institutional basis with state authorization.
Shingon had become
Kūkai was officially appointed to the temple construction
project. In that year he founded
Zenpuku-ji , the second oldest temple
Edo (Tokyo) region. In 824 he was also appointed to the Office
of Priestly Affairs. The Office consisted of four positions, with the
Supreme Priest being an honorary position which was often vacant. The
effective head of the Sōgō was the Daisōzu (大僧都, Senior
Director). Kūkai's appointment was to the position of Shōsōzu
(小僧都, Junior Director). In addition there was a Risshi (律師,
Vinaya Master) who was responsible for the monastic code of
discipline. At Tō-ji, in addition to the main hall (kondō) and some
minor buildings on the site,
Kūkai added the lecture hall in 825
which was specifically designed along
Shingon Buddhist principles,
which included the making of 14 Buddha images. Also in 825,
invited to become tutor to the crown prince. Then in 826 he initiated
the construction of a large pagoda at
Tō-ji which was not completed
in his lifetime (the present pagoda was built in 1644 by the third
Tokugawa Iemitsu ). In 827
Kūkai was promoted to be
Daisōzu in which capacity he presided over state rituals, the emperor
and the imperial family.
The year 828 saw
Kūkai open his School of Arts and Sciences (Shugei
shuchi-in). The school was a private institution open to all
regardless of social rank. This was in contrast to the only other
school in the capital which was only open to members of the
aristocracy. The school taught Taoism and Confucianism, in addition to
Buddhism, and provided free meals to the pupils. The latter was
essential because the poor could not afford to live and attend the
school without it. The school closed ten years after Kūkai's death,
when it was sold in order to purchase some rice fields for supporting
Monks bringing food to Kōbō Daishi on
Mount Kōya , as they
believe he is not dead but rather meditating. They feed him every day
and change his clothes. No one except the highest monks are allowed to
Kūkai completed his magnum opus , The Jūjūshinron (十住心論,
Treatise on The Ten Stages of the Development of Mind) in 830. Because
of its great length, it has yet to have been fully translated into any
language. A simplified summary, Hizō Hōyaku (秘蔵宝鑰, The
Precious Key to the Secret Treasury) followed soon after. The first
signs of the illness that would eventually lead to Kūkai's death
appeared in 831. He sought to retire, but the emperor would not accept
his resignation and instead gave him sick leave. Toward the end of 832
Kūkai was back on Mt. Kōya and spent most of his remaining life
there. In 834 he petitioned the court to establish a
Shingon chapel in
the palace for the purpose of conducting rituals that would ensure the
health of the state. This request was granted and
became incorporated into the official court calendar of events. In
835, just two months before his death,
Kūkai was finally granted
permission to annually ordain three
Shingon monks at Mt. Kōya — the
number of new ordainees being still strictly controlled by the state.
This meant that Kōya had gone from being a private institution to a
With the end approaching, he stopped taking food and water, and spent
much of his time absorbed in meditation. At midnight on the 21st day
of the third month (835) he died at the age of 62. Emperor Ninmyō
(r. 833-50) sent a message of condolence to Mount Kōya, expressing
his regret that he could not attend the cremation due to the time lag
in communication caused by Mount Kōya's isolation. However, Kūkai
was not given the traditional cremation, but instead, in accordance
with his will, was entombed on the eastern peak of Mount Kōya. "When,
some time after, the tomb was opened, Kōbō-Daishi was found as if
still sleeping, with complexion unchanged and hair grown a bit
Legend has it that
Kūkai has not died but entered into an eternal
samadhi and is still alive on Mount Kōya, awaiting the appearance of
Maitreya , the future Buddha.
IN POPULAR CULTURE
The 1991 drama film
Mandala (Chinese: 曼荼羅; Japanese:
若き日の弘法大師・空海), a China-
Japan co-production, was
based on Kūkai's travels in China. The film stars Toshiyuki Nagashima
as Kūkai, also co-starring
Junko Sakurada and
Zhang Fengyi as Huiguo.
Wikisource has the text of a 1920
Encyclopedia Americana article
about KūKAI .
* Biography portal
* ^ A B C D Hakeda, Yoshito S. (1972).
Kūkai and His Major Works.
Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-05933-7 .
* ^ A B C D E Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and
the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University
Press. ISBN 0-231-11286-6 .
* ^ Matsuda, William, J. (2003). The Founder Reinterpreted: Kukai
and Vraisemblant Narrative, Thesis, University of Hawai´i, pp. 39-40.
* ^ Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra:
Kūkai and the
Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University
Press. pp. 206–219. ISBN 0-231-11286-6 .
* ^ Mogi, Aiichiro (1 January 2007). "A Missing Link: Transfer of
Hydraulic Civilization from Sri Lanka to Japan".
* ^ Brown, Delmer et al. (1979). Gukanshō, p. 284.
* ^ A B Casal, U. A. (1959), The Saintly Kōbō Daishi in Popular
Lore (A.D. 774-835); Asian Folklore Studies 18, p. 139 (hagiography)
* ^ Yusen Kashiwahara, Koyu Sonoda "Shapers of Japanese Buddhism",
Kosei Pub. Co. 1994. "Kukai"
* Clipston, Janice (2000). Sokushin-jōbutsu-gi: Attaining
Enlightenment in This Very Existence, Buddhist Studies Reviews 17 (2),
* Giebel, Rolf W.; Todaro, Dale A.; trans. (2004).
Berkeley, Calif.: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research
* Inagaki Hisao (1972). "Kukai\'s Sokushin-Jobutsu-Gi" (Principle of
Buddhahood with the Present Body), Asia Major (New Series)
17 (2), 190-215
* Skilton, A. 1994. A Concise History of Buddhism. Birmingham:
* Wayman, A and Tajima, R. 1998 The Enlightenment of Vairocana.
Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass .
* White, Kenneth R. 2005. The Role of
Bodhicitta in Buddhist
Enlightenment. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press (includes
Bodhicitta-śāstra, Benkenmitsu-nikyōron, Sanmaya-kaijō)
Wikimedia Commons has media related to KUKAI .
Kūkai officially founded the seminary
* "Kōbō Daishi".
New International Encyclopedia . 1905.
* Bridge of dreams: the Mary Griggs Burke collection of Japanese
art, a catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries