Kukai (774-835) was a Japanese Buddhist monk who founded the Shingon sect. This great scholar's activities extended beyond the domain of the purely religious, including the building of roads, irrigation canals, and temples.

In 794 the city of Heian (modern Kyoto) was founded, replacing the former capital of Nara. The reason for this removal is unclear, but the increasing power of the Nara sects was causing some alarm in government circles by the end of the 8th century. The new capital was suitably distant from the old religious centers, and the founding of new sects to counterbalance any influence the old Nara schools might seek to exert was considered desirable. Thus it was that Saicho established the Tendai sect on Mt. Hiei located to the northeast of the new capital, while Kukai founded the Shingon center on Mt. Koya to the south.

Kukai was born on July 27, 774, the son of Saeki Yoshimichi, a local noble, in the province of Sanuki (modern Shikoku). He was given the name Mao and was related through his mother to the Ato family, which was active in Chinese learning. In 789 he went to Nara to pursue Chinese studies under the tutelage of an uncle. He read both Confucian and Taoist works. At 17 he entered the Confucian college. In 795 he was ordained at the Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple) and took the religious name of Kukai ("sea of void"), by which he is commonly known.

In 797 Kukai wrote Sangyo shiki (Indications to the Three Teachings), a work in which he attempts to evaluate the respective contributions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. It is apparent in this work that the author is completely won over to Buddhism, which he shows to be superior to the other two in its concern for man's future existence and in the systematization of the religious experience.

Embassy to China

Despite his recognition of the superiority of Buddhism, Kukai was not satisfied with the traditional sects represented by the Nara schools, which he had studied. And so he set out in April 804 for China in the company of the ambassador to the T'ang court, Fujiwara Kadonomaro. The great Tendai ecclesiastic Saicho was also a member of the ambassadorial party, although on a different ship. Kukai arrived at the T'ang capital of Ch'ang-an in December. In February 805 he petitioned for, and was given, permission to reside in the Hsi-ming-ssu. There he studied under the patriarch Huikuo, the seventh in a line that traced itself to mystical origins in India, and from him received the secrets of the Esoteric teachings. In 805 Kukai received ordination to the degree of Master Transmitter of the Law and was given the epithet henjo kongo ("universally illuminating thunderbolt"), a reference to his anticipated role of disseminator of the Thunderbolt, or Esoteric, doctrine. Collecting over 300 sutras as well as mandalas (graphic representations of the cosmos), cult instruments, and priest's robes, Kukai returned to Japan in 806.

Kukai's stay in China, however short, was rich in experiences subsequently reflected in Japanese cultural history. Not the least of these was his alleged meetings with Prajna, the Indian monk, who was in residence in the Chinese capital at the same time and with whom Kukai is said to have studied Sanskrit. It is, in fact, interesting to speculate on the possible influence of Sanskrit on the modern Japanese syllabary, which attributed to Kukai.

Founding of the Shingon Sect

In 808 Kukai was appointed abbot of the Makinoosanji, a date which some scholars consider marks the founding of the Shingon sect. The usual year, however, is 816, when Kukai founded his famous monastery on Mt. Koya, now the chief monastic center of the sect. In 823 he was given the as yet incomplete Toji, or Eastern Temple, in Kyoto, which is still the official administrative center where the principal treasures of the Shingon sect are kept.

In compliance with an imperial order in 830 in which the various sects were commanded to submit in written form the essentials of their beliefs, Kukai composed perhaps his most famous work, Jujushinron (The Ten Stages of Religious Consciousness). It far excelled in quality and scope the other works submitted. It was composed in an ornate Chinese poetic style, a prodigious feat in its own right. This was the first attempt by a Japanese to organize the existing mass of teachings, including both Confucianism and Taoism, before proceeding to an exposé of his own sect.

The first stage is the animal life of uncontrolled passions unguided by religious ideas. Superior to it by but one step is Confucianism, which preaches secular values but is not really a religion. One step higher is Taoism (or according to some, Brahmanism), in which one aspires to heaven but remains ignorant of the nature of it. Stages four and five are two Hinayana stages, in which there is but partial understanding and where extinction in nirvana is the highest aspiration.

Kukai considered the altruism of Mahayana superior to this. The sixth stage is that of Pseudo-Mahayana, which aims at discovering the nature of existence through the investigation of its characteristics (the Hosso sect is an example). At this stage there is compassion for those still in ignorance. The seventh, eighth, and ninth stages are represented, respectively, by Sanron and its elimination of all false conceptions, the universality of Tendai (one moment contains eternity; a sesame seed may hold a mountain), and Kegon with its doctrine of interdependence and convertibility. The tenth stage of religious consciousness is, of course, Shingon and its mysteries.

Shingon Teachings

Shingon, which means "true word" (that is, mantra), is an esoteric sect depending on the oral transmission of mysteries: thought, word, and act. Thought is represented by meditation and Yogic concentration, in which mandalas (cosmograms) are the object of meditation; the word is represented by mantra, or "magical formulas," which correspond to cosmic forces which the adept can thus incorporate; and the act is represented by mudra, or "hand gestures," kinds of seals of veracity corresponding to given mantra. This lore is secret and is passed along only to initiates, hence the term Esoteric Buddhism, by which Shingon is frequently known.

For Kukai that which is beautiful partakes of the Buddha, and much of the appeal of Esoteric Buddhism lies in this esthetic concept. Art was painting and sculpture, music and literature, gestures and acts, and implements of civilization and religion. Shingon especially encouraged the arts of painting and sculpture. Some of the greatest religious art of all times was inspired by Shingon ideas.

Kukai died on April 20, 835. He must have known the end to be near, for he had been stricken 4 years earlier. Tradition holds that he was miraculously restored to health, and the faithful believe he never really died but entered into a deep meditative trance. He is believed to exist un-corrupted in his tomb on Mt. Koya, where he is worshiped as a deified saint. In 921 he was posthumously accorded the title of daishi (great teacher), and he is widely referred to by the name Kobo Daishi.

Further Reading on Kukai

Translated excerpts from Kukai's writings are in Ryusaku Tsunoda, William Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, Sources of the Japanese Tradition (1958). There is no work in a Western language devoted solely to Kukai, but sketches of his life and work are in Charles Eliot, Japanese Buddhism (1935; repr. 1959), and E. Dale Saunders, Buddhism in Japan (1964). For background reading concerning Shingon iconography see E. Dale Saunders, Mudra: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture (1960). Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince (1964), provides an excellent picture of Kukai's times.

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