David L. Gardiner

In addition to being the founder of the influential Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism, Kūkai (774–835) was one of Japan’s greatest calligraphers, a masterful scholar of pre-Tang dynasty classical Chinese literature, a ritual innovator, and an institutional builder who developed influential networks of relationships among Buddhist monastics, political leaders, and powerful aristocrats alike. Within the circles of Buddhist theorists and practitioners at a very formative early period in Japan’s history, his creative rendering of theological perspectives on contemplative ritual effectively galvanized existing practices with a novel esoteric Buddhist perspective on the means and ends of religious practice itself. His promotion of new approaches to the value of chanting scriptures, adorning sacred spaces, and imagining a more perfect world – within a highly articulated Mahāyāna Buddhist ‘mandalic’ vision of the cosmos – had a lasting impact on Japanese culture, religious and beyond. He became a prominent cultural hero for these accomplishments and others, some of admittedly questionable authenticity. Regardless, his saintly status has sustained centuries of reverence in the domains of pilgrimages to sacred sites related to his life, and a belief that he never died but entered a state of suspended samādhi (meditative concentration) in which he awaits the arrival of the future Buddha Maitreya. As one of Japan’s most celebrated cultural figures, Kūkai’s contributions in the religious sphere deserve substantive attention.

1 Introduction

Kūkai 空海 (774–835) is one of the most fabled figures in Japanese history. The ancient wooden mausoleum that purportedly holds his remains is the central focus of one of the largest and most majestic burial grounds in Japan, the Okunoin 奥之院, in the small town of Koyasan 高野山 in Wakayama prefecture (designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2004). Over one million people visit Koyasan each year, including an increasing number of international tourists in addition to throngs of white-robed pilgrims dedicated to honouring Kūkai’s life and spirit (many consider him still alive in the mausoleum). Thousands visit Koyasan as part of a larger pilgrimage to some or all of the eighty-eight sacred sites on the island of Shikoku believed to be related to his own spiritual peregrinations (Reader 2004). He is revered by many as a saint. Kūkai was a Buddhist monk who founded the Shingon 真言 school of Japanese Buddhism after studying in China for two years. He was also a prolific author of influential theological works, a master of classical Chinese literary forms and calligraphy, a bibliophile par excellence, and a ritual expert who established multiple centers for Buddhist practice that remain active today. Kūkai possessed abundant social connections and political savoir faire that enabled him to establish a lasting foundation for religious life that incorporated a complex cosmology, intricate ritual, and rich iconography of paintings (especially mandalas) and statues that came to adorn elaborate spaces in Buddhist temples throughout Japan and even in the Imperial Palace.

The Okunoin cemetery in Koyasan holds not only Kūkai’s remains – or his living body according to many faithful – but also has miles of paved paths through a hauntingly beautiful forest of centuries’ old, towering cryptomeria trees and thousands upon thousands of moss-covered gravestones memorializing members of the imperial family, famous religious and military leaders of Japanese history, as well as aristocrats and commoners alike who were fortunate enough to be honoured in this special place. Legend has it that Kūkai awaits the coming of the future Buddha Maitreya, and will arise at that time. In the meantime, his many followers frequently chant his name to receive blessings: Namu Daishi Henjō Kongō. A century after his ‘passing’ he received the posthumous title ‘Kōbō Daishi’ 弘法大師 from the emperor, meaning ‘great teacher who spread the dharma [Buddhist teachings]’. Those who revere him do not usually refer to him by his monastic name, Kūkai, but rather by his title, which they often replace with the more intimate ‘O-Daishi sama’ (honourable great teacher).

Some tourists visit Koyasan simply because it is an attractive small town on top of Mount Koya with over one hundred Buddhist temples, many with intricate medieval architecture and lush gardens. Three hours south of Kyoto (or two from Osaka), its 2500ft (800m) altitude makes it notably cooler in the summer. Many of the temples offer lodging for visitors that includes a traditional vegetarian dinner and breakfast, and rooms with tatami mat flooring (soft woven-straw panels) and futon bedding. The town resembles both an outdoor and indoor museum with majestic buildings and gardens throughout. The glorious grounds of Okunoin grace the town’s the eastern end, and form the central focus for most visitors. Many Japanese visit because one of the local temples is the caretaker of their ancestor’s cremains and so the descendants attend memorial services (annually or less frequently). Kūkai, however, is honoured daily. Specially trained Buddhist priests prepare a meal for him every morning and ritually place it, with prayers, in front of the mausoleum (Nicoloff 2007).

Legends about Kūkai include that a ritual implement he threw into the sky from his boat when returning from China landed in a tree on Mount Koya. Hence, it became the location for his monastery ten years later. Also, his calligraphic prowess was said to be such that he once wrote on a massive mural using a brush in each hand, both feet, and his mouth. He is also credited with civil engineering skills (building a reservoir), creating masterful wooden sculptures of Buddhist images, and inventing the Japanese syllabary (phonetic alphabet) that came to be combined, around a century after Kūkai’s life, with Chinese graphs. The truth value of these legendary accomplishments aside, his documented achievements are surely noteworthy, and we can trace his footsteps from 804 onward with confidence in many details. What follows includes a brief biographical sketch, a summary of the main ideas of his best-known writings, and an accounting of the lasting impact of his life’s work.

2 Outline of Kūkai’s life

2.1 Early life before traveling to China

Prior to his departure to China in 804, we have only fragmentary knowledge of his movements. Born on the island of Shikoku in 774 (there remain debates about the town of his birth), he followed generations of his family to the national college in the capital city of Nara, where he concentrated in classical Chinese literature. Chinese was the only written language in Japan at the time, and it appears Kūkai not only learned to read and write it with great command but likely learned to speak it as well. However, according to his own written account, his encounters with Buddhist meditation outside the life of the college impelled him to leave formal schooling after several years in favour of the semi-formal life of a monk. He became a ‘self-ordained monk’ (shidosō), a status discouraged by the government that controlled monastic ordination procedures. He wrote the Rōkoshiiki (‘Indicating the Destination for the Deaf and Blind’) in 797 as a partly fictional account of his life focusing on explaining why taking the Buddhist path as opposed to that of Confucianism and Daoism was a superior choice (revised in 804 as Sangōshiiki, ‘Indicating the Destinations of the Three Teachings’; Hakeda 1972). It is unclear how he managed to join an imperial mission of three boats to China in 804, but it likely owed to his familial connections and his mastery of Chinese. He was sponsored by the government as a student-monk with a stipend intended to last twenty years. At the time, monastic ordinations were administered by the national government such that monks were effectively employees of the state whose knowledge, presumed ethical purity, and ritual expertise (in particular, the recitation of Buddhist scripture) all advanced the interests of the ruling elite. It appears that Kūkai received formal ordination just prior to his departure so that his monastic status was legitimate. At this relatively early stage in Japanese history, in order to enhance its prestige and power the ruling house desired to learn about law, architecture, literature, religion, and more, from the highly developed civilization of Tang dynasty (618–907) China. Kūkai’s target was aspects of Buddhist learning – from texts, meditation, ritual practice, and art. He was also likely determined to learn more about specific Buddhist scriptures he had read that no one in Japan could explain.

An early biographical account says that a chief reason for his wanting to travel to China was to find someone to help him decipher the esoteric language of the Chinese translation of the Mahavairocana-sutra (Dainichi-kyō in Japanese). This seventh-century Indian Buddhist text offers one of the earliest expositions of tantric Buddhist (also known as esoteric Buddhist or Vajrayāna) ritualized cosmology (Hodge 2003; Giebel 2005). Kūkai’s Sangōshiiki further notes that his experience with meditating in accordance with a method called the Kokūzōgumonjihō enticed him with a yearning for a deeper contemplative state (Kasulis 1988). This meditation focused on chanting a mantra of the deity Kokūzō (or Ākāśagarbha, meaning ‘womb of space’ in Sanskrit) with the belief that it would improve memory. One possible reward of such efforts is reported to have been enhanced performance in Buddhist text memorization that was required to pass ordination exams. A group of monastics loosely called the ‘natural wisdom school’ (jinenchi-shū) engaged in such Buddhist and other ascetic practices in the mountains near the capital city of Nara. Kūkai’s involvement in the communities of Buddhist monks in the city and the countryside, and his experiences in meditation, seems to have stimulated his passion for forms of study outside the limits of the formal education offered by the government college.

While Kūkai’s writings later distinguished the kind of Buddhist practice he learned in China as being superior to anything available in Japan, various people in Nara were already engaging with texts and practices related to Kokūzō and other Buddhist deities central to the form of religion he eventually promoted as ‘esoteric’ (Abé 1999: 151–184; Beghi 2011; Ford 2011; Gardiner 2018). Kūkai’s Shingon school, formally established in 823, focused on the chanting of mantra (shingon, meaning ‘true words) along with specific ritual gestures (mudrā) and the use of mandalas. Later Shingon exegetes framed Kūkai’s systematized model of practice as representing the ‘pure esoteric’ (junmitsu) in contrast to prior forms being ‘miscellaneous esoteric’ (zōmitsu). Despite this value-laden distinction, a strong thread of continuity across these forms was the application of practices toward worldly accomplishments such as preserving long life, averting disaster, and protecting the nation. Kūkai can at minimum be credited with developing a theoretical framework for systematizing existing ritual practices together with new ones he imported (Abé 1999). Furthermore, the spiritual motivation of a genuine Shingon practitioner is expected to maintain the Mahāyāna Buddhist bodhisattva ideal of practicing for the sake of all sentient beings, such that they may eventually liberate themselves from every form of suffering, and not only toward the temporary alleviation of mundane discomforts.

2.2 Kūkai’s stay in China

Kūkai traveled on one of three government sponsored ships as part of a series of regular missions to China (Abé 1999: 113–120; Borgen 1982). The ship had gone off course due to rough waters and landed farther south on the coast, and much later, than expected. Local Chinese officials were not welcoming and apparently it took Kūkai’s drafting of an elegant plea on behalf of the mission for them to be granted entry (Borgen 1982: 26–28). Permission to travel north to the capital of Chang’an (modern day Xian) also took time, and it was well over a month before a small portion of the mission was able to reach the capital. Kūkai was permitted to reside at the Ximingsi 西明寺 temple, which for over a century had hosted famous Chinese and Indian scholars and translators, and was known for its vast library. He wrote that he studied Sanskrit there with the monk Prajñā, who was from the region of modern Afghanistan and had translated several Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese. Within a few months, Kūkai moved to the Qinglongsi 青龍寺 temple where he was able to study closely with the monk Huiguo 惠果. It appears that Huiguo took Kūkai under his wing for intensive study of the tradition of esoteric Buddhism he had trained in under Amoghavajra (Abé 1999: 120–127; Orzech 1989). Amoghavajra (Chinese: Bukong 不空) was a prolific translator whose writings and translations had an enormous impact on Chinese Buddhism as well as on the ruling elite (Goble 2019; Orzech 1989). He became so closely affiliated with the throne that he performed an esoteric abhiṣekha initiation for emperor Xuanzong in an altar that Amoghavajra designed for the palace. Kūkai not only relied deeply on Amoghavajra’s written works but likely also modeled his own activities in Japan on those of his teacher’s teacher. According to Kūkai’s account, in only a matter of months Huiguo had mentored him so closely that he told Kūkai he was qualified to transmit the esoteric teachings and practices to Japan.

Huiguo died about six months after meeting Kūkai, and it appears that an epitaph for him was written by his relatively new foreign disciple (Green 2015). As does Kūkai’s Catalog of Imported Items, the epitaph for Huiguo depicts the master as eager to pass on all he can to his disciple so the latter can return to Japan to benefit beings there with these powerful teachings. Kūkai even writes that the night before he departed from China, his deceased master appeared to him in a dream and told him that the two of them had been working together to promote the Buddha-dharma for lifetimes, alternating as teacher and student (Green 2015: 160).

Photograph of a bronze statue depicting Huigo delivering a scroll to Kūkai.