• 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 esoteric Buddhism in Japan.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Scholars are unsure why Kūkai was selected to take part in an official mission to China, given his background as a private monk who was not sponsored by the state.

  • [6] Huiguo died shortly afterwards, but not before instructing Kūkai to return to Japan and spread the esoteric teachings there, assuring him that other disciples would carry
    on his work in China.

  • In 823 the soon-to-retire Emperor Saga asked Kūkai, experienced in public works projects, to take over Tō-ji and finish the building project.

  • The school closed ten years after Kūkai’s death, when it was sold in order to purchase some rice fields for supporting monastic affairs.

  • Saga gave 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.

  • [6] 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.

  • In modern scholarship, his first name is generally believed to be Mao (“True Fish”),[5] although one source records his birth name as Tōtomono (“Precious One”).

  • 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 Kyoto).

  • After further delays, the Tang court granted Kūkai a place in Ximing Temple, where his study of Chinese Buddhism began in earnest.

  • 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.

  • 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) because
    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 Shingon and Tendai sects.

  • 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.

  • [6] Travel and study in China In 804, Kūkai took part in a government-sponsored expedition to China, led by Fujiwara no Kadanomaro, in order to learn more about the Mahavairocana

  • With the public initiation ceremonies for Saichō and others at Takao-san temple in 812, Kūkai became the acknowledged master of esoteric Buddhism in Japan.

  • 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.

  • [5] Though Kūkai soon managed to obtain a copy of this sutra which had only recently become available in Japan, he immediately encountered difficulty.

  • 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.

  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • Mount Kōya was chosen by him as a holy site, and he spent his later years there until his death in 835 C.E.

  • Kukai’s return from China was eclipsed by Saichō, the founder of the Tendai school, who found favor with the court during this time.

  • Kūkai describes their first meeting: Accompanied by Jiming, Tansheng, and several other Dharma masters from the Ximing monastery, I went to visit him [Huiguo] and was granted
    an audience.

  • [5] The family fortunes had fallen by 791 when Kūkai journeyed to Nara, the capital at the time, to study at the government university, the Daigakuryō.

  • The year 809 also saw the retirement of Emperor Heizei due to illness and the succession of the Emperor Saga, who supported Kūkai and exchanged poems and other gifts.

  • 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.

  • However, Kūkai was not given the traditional cremation, but instead, in accordance with his will, was entombed on the eastern peak of Mount Kōya.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Huiguo was said to have described teaching Kūkai as like “pouring water from one vase into another”.

  • Because Kūkai could find no one who could elucidate the text for him, he resolved to go to China to study the text there.

  • In 835, just two months before his death, Kūkai was finally granted permission to annually ordain three Shingon monks at Mt.

  • It was in 805 that Kūkai finally met the monk Huiguo (746–805) the man who would initiate him into Chinese Esoteric Buddhism (Tangmi) at Chang’an’s Qinglong Monastery.

  • The first signs of the illness that would eventually lead to Kūkai’s death appeared in 831.

  • This meant that Kōya had gone from being a private institution to a state-sponsored one.

  • It was also during this period at Takaosan that he completed many of the seminal works of the Shingon School: • Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence • The Meaning
    of Sound, Word, Reality • Meanings of the Word Hūm All of these were written in 817.

  • Biographies of Kūkai suggest that he became disillusioned with his Confucian studies, but developed a strong interest in Buddhist studies instead.

  • Kōya – the number of new ordainees being still strictly controlled by the state.

  • Ascetics and independent monks, like Kūkai, were frequently banned and lived outside the law, but still wandered the countryside or from temple to temple.

  • Like other influential monks, Kūkai oversaw public works and constructions.

  • Tō-ji Period[edit] Monks bringing food to Kōbō Daishi on Mount Kōya, as they believe he is not dead but rather meditating.

  • The dialogue between them proved constructive and helped to give Kūkai more credibility, while the Nara Schools took greater interest in esoteric practice.

  • When searching for a place on Mount Kōya to build a temple, Kūkai was said to have been welcomed by two Shinto deities of the mountain—the male Kariba, and the female Niu.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • [11] 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.


Works Cited

[‘Kūkai was born in 774, the 5th year of the Hōki era; his exact date of birth was designated as the fifteenth day of the sixth month of the Japanese lunar calendar, some 400 years later, by the Shingon sect (Hakeda, 1972 p. 14). Accordingly, Kūkai’s
birthday is commemorated on June 15 in modern times. This lunar date converts to 27 July 774 in the Julian calendar, and, being an anniversary date, is not affected by the switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1582. Similarly, the recorded date of death
is the second year of the Jōwa era, on the 21st day of the third lunar month (Hakeda, 1972 p. 59), i.e. 22 April 835.
2. ^ “弘法大師の誕生と歴史”. 高野山真言宗 総本山金剛峯寺. Retrieved 2019-01-18.
3. ^ Ryūichi Abe (2000). The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction
of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. pp. 3, 113–4, 391–3. ISBN 978-0-231-11287-1.
4. ^ Kobo Daishi (Kukai) as a Boy (Chigo Daishi) – Art Institute of Chicago
5. ^ Jump up to:a b c d Hakeda, Yoshito S. (1972). Kūkai and His
Major Works. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-05933-6.
6. ^ Jump up to:a b c d e Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-11286-4.
7. ^
Matsuda, William, J. (2003). The Founder Reinterpreted: Kukai and Vraisemblant Narrative, Thesis, University of Hawai´i, pp. 39-40. Internet Archive
8. ^ Singer, R. (1998). Edo – Art in Japan, 1615-1868. National Gallery of Art. p. 37.
9. ^ Abe,
Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. pp. 206–219. ISBN 978-0-231-11286-4.
10. ^ Mogi, Aiichiro (1 January 2007). “A Missing Link: Transfer of Hydraulic Civilization
from Sri Lanka to Japan”.
11. ^ Brown, Delmer et al. (1979). Gukanshō, p. 284.
12. ^ Jump up to:a b Casal, U. A. (1959), The Saintly Kōbō Daishi in Popular Lore (A.D. 774-835); Asian Folklore Studies 18, p. 139 (hagiography)
13. ^ Yusen Kashiwahara,
Koyu Sonoda “Shapers of Japanese Buddhism”, Kosei Pub. Co. 1994. “Kukai”
14. ^ The Four Deities of Kōyasan Temple Complex. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
15. ^ Reader, Ian (2005). Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku. University
of Hawaii Press. pp. 60f. ISBN 978-0-8248-2907-0.
16. ^ Miyata, Taisen (2006). The 88 Temples of Shikoku Island, Japan. Koyasan Buddhist Temple, Los Angeles. pp. 102f.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/topsteph53/8174935013/’]