Kūkai was born into an aristocratic family in Sanuki Province (now Kagawa Prefecture) on the northeastern coast of the island of Shikoku in 774. At birth he was given the name Saeki no Mao — or, Mao of the Saeki Family. His father and several other family members were local aristocrats and his ancestors had even been provincial governors in the past. The Saeki family was an offshoot of the Ōtomo family, which, until just after Kūkai's birth, played an important role in the imperial court. However, in 785, during construction of the new capital in Nagaoka, Ōtomo no Tsuguto was charged with the assassination of Fujiwara no Tanetsugu and the Ōtomo and Saeki families lost all prestige and influence.
If you strip away the numerous myths and legends that have been written since his death, nothing much is known about Kūkai's life as a child. It can be conjectured, though, that when he reached his teens, the Saeki clan looked to Mao as the person who was going to reclaim the clan's right to prominence and fame. The only way to reclaim their lost aristocratic privileges was to have Mao become a court bureaucrat. Therefore, at the age of 15 (in 788) he was sent to Nara to study with Ato Ōtari, his maternal uncle and tutor to Emperor Kammu's third son, Crown Prince Iyo. As was the custom for the aristocracy, Mao studied the Confucian classics, poetry, and rhetoric in order to prepare himself for entrance to the university.
At the age of 18 (in 791), having passed the entrance exams, he left his uncle's house and entered the State Confucian College in Nara (usually referred to as the university as a translation of the Japanese daigaku). There, he continued his Confucian-based studies of poetry and rhetoric in preparation for a court career. However, at some time during this period, he met a monk who introduced him to the esoteric Mantra of Kokūzō (Akashagarbha) and the Gumonji Hō, an esoteric Morning Star meditation practice which is centered on this mantra to the bodhisattva Kokūzō. At this point, his life took a dramatic turn and his studies started to wander off the normal Confucian track. From then on, in addition to his required Confucian studies at the college, he began to read both Taoist and Mahayana Buddhist literature as well. However, as Yoshito Hakeda points out in his book, "...his interest in Buddhism arose not so much from book learning as from the actual experience of meditation. This point is important to an understanding of his religion as a whole."
These new teachings must have gone directly to his heart. The impact of what he read seems to have affected him immediately, and within a year of arriving at the college he had begun to return on a regular and frequent basis to the forests and mountains of Shikoku in order to devote himself to rigorous and ascetic meditative practices. In fact, since the Gumonji Hō meditative practice typically takes about 100 days to perform (10,000 recitations of the mantra per day for 100 days), and since no student could miss more than 100 days of classes before being dismissed from the college, Mao was probably a student in name only after his first years of studies.
I've read of three possible reasons for his then dropping out of college. One possibility says that, since no student was allowed to stay at the college past the age of 25, when Mao turned 24, he decided to admit that he wasn't going to become a bureaucrat and quit his studies. A second possibility cited is the political problems that the Saeki and Ōtomo clans were undergoing due to the murder and turmoil that occurred as construction began on a new capital in Nagaoka (and hence cancelled). Realizing that his family name made it doubtful he would be accepted in the imperial court, he dropped out of the college that's sole purpose was to train bureaucrats. Thirdly, some say that at first sight he was completely smitten with Buddhism and never went back to Confucianism or Taoism. (Taoism was forbidden in Japan at the time but bureaucrats knew of it and read about it.)
In any case, against the wishes of his family, and to their deepest disappointment, he left the college and the capital and returned to Shikoku to become an itinerant mountain ascetic.
Even though Kūkai had renounced the aristocratic life and become an unregistered, wandering ascetic, he began a routine that he would continue throughout his life — he apparently split his time between meditative isolation in the mountains and scholarly research in the large monasteries of the capital. In order to gain religious insight and spiritual powers he spent part of his time wandering and performing the gumonji hō and other meditative practices at remote sites like Mt. Tairyū in Awa Province (now Tokushima Prefecture) and Cape Muroto in Tosa Province (now Kōchi Prefecture). At other times he would return to Nara (probably) to read and study the Buddhist literature in the libraries of the major Buddhist monasteries. It was at this time that he first discovered the Dainichikyō, the esoteric Great Sun Sutra (Mahavairocana Sutra).
Kūkai wasn't the only ascetic on Shikoku — far from it. But, there was a significant difference between him and many of the others. Kūkai was an ubasoku, a Buddhist lay believer. Unlike many of the other ascetics he had never been ordained — either officially or unofficially. Like all of the other ascetics Kūkai strove to gain supranormal spiritual powers, to gain the deepest of religious insights, and to find the truth. Unlike many of the others, though, his goal was not to use these new found powers to become a priest at one of the official temples and obtain worldly power.
Kūkai makes it clear in his first book, Sangō Shiiki (Indications of The Goals of The Three Teachings), that his ideal during this period of his life was that of a beggar — clothed in rags, with no more personal possessions than were absolutely necessary, and living aloof from the world, dedicated to nothing more than living a life according to the Way, and to gaining the deepest realizations possible.
Sometime between returning to Shikoku and when he turned 31 in 804, he had an enlightenment experience while meditating in a cave on Cape Muroto. At this time he declared his intention of dedicating his life to all mankind. He also took the name of Kūkai, apparently because the focus of his meditations had been the point where the ocean and sky meet. (Kū = Sky; Kai = Ocean)
Why he was chosen will never be known for sure, but shortly after his enlightenment experience in 804, Kūkai was selected by Emperor Kammu to be a member of a diplomatic mission preparing to depart for Ch'ang-an, the capital city of China. Since only ordained Buddhist monks could participate in such missions, he was fully ordained in April at Tōdaiji — just 3 months before departing as a student scholar. His plans at the time were to spend the next twenty years in China learning Chinese customs and deepening his understanding of esoteric Buddhism. After some difficulty, both diplomatic and with the weather, the mission finally arrived in Fukien Province three months after leaving Japan. Kūkai then worked his was to the Tang capital in Ch'ang-an, arriving in December of the same year.
His first task was to study Sanskrit, the language from which most of the Buddhist writings had to be translated. By mid-805, though, he was introduced to Hui-kuo, (Jp. Keika) the leading Chinese Shingon master, and became his student. Luckily for Kūkai, his years of study and practice on Shikoku had prepared him well for this meeting and he made fast and deep progress in his studies. I say lucky, because by the end of the same year Hui-Kuo found that he was dying and there was little time left for him to transmit his teachings to his students. Before his death in December of that year, though, he had completed the transmission to Kūkai and made him promise to return to Japan to transmit the esoteric teachings to the Japanese.
In order to fulfill his promise to Hui-Kuo, Kūkai broke his promise to stay in China for 20 years and returned to Japan in the autumn of 806, bringing 216 works in 451 volumes (of which 142 works in 247 volumes were translations of Shingon Buddhism).
Upon his return, Emperor Heizei refused to recognize him or his accomplishments and Kūkai was forced to remain at Dazaifu on Kyūshū until late in 807. It is thought that Heizei didn't recognize his return for three possible reasons, or some combination of these. 1) Kūkai had promised to stay in China for 20 years and had broken that promise. That probably angered some people in the capital, and the government had to decide what to say and do, 2) Heizei had driven his younger brother, Prince Iyo, to death because he suspected him of treason. Ato Ōtari, Kūkai's uncle, had tutored the prince and Heizei might have assumed that Kūkai and Iyo had been friends, or 3) Saichō had gone to China with the same diplomatic mission as Kūkai, but had returned within a year. His mission had been to study and master Tendai Buddhism, but when he returned to Japan he brought back some aspects of esoteric buddhism as well. Upon his return, he sold himself as not only a master of Tendai Buddhism, but as a master or esoteric buddhism. That put the government in the position of trying to figure out what to do with Kūkai. If Saichō was already a master of esoteric buddhism, and had already begun preaching it and initiating members of the court, what was there for Kūkai to do? Until the government could figure that out, it was best to leave him at Dazaifu.
After a year at Dazaifu, Kūkai was sent an imperial notice that he should return to Honshū, but instead of going to Kyōto, he was told to go to Izumi Province where he was to live at Makino'o-sanji, on Mt. Makino'o. Kūkai, himself, may have asked to stay here when he found that he was being ordered back to the capital. When he returned to Japan, he was not content to simply spread the esoteric teachings that he had learned while in China. Here at Makino'o-sanji, he would have the time, away from imperial pressures to teach, to continue what he had started at Dazaifu — the serious work of developing those teachings into the integrated theoretical system that was to become Japanese Shingon Buddhism.
In early summer of 809, newly appointed Emperor Saga gave Kūkai permission to return to Kyōto and ordered him to take up residence at Takaosanji, on Mt.Takao, just northwest of the capital. This temple was chosen by the leaders of the 6 sects of what has come to be called Nara Buddhism. By 809 they had come to realize that Saichō, who had brought back and established Tendai Buddhism on Mt. Hiei, on the northeast outskirts of Kyōto, was determined to expand Tendai Buddhism in Japan at their expense and by denigrating the teachings of the 6 sects. While at Daizaifu, on the other hand, Kūkai had made it clear in both words and actions that he did not intend to take this course. His approach was to be compromise and adaptation.
Kūkai intended to recognize the Nara sects for their accomplishments to date and for having spread the Buddhist message as they knew it. Very soon after his return from China he let it be known that he felt that it was because of the teachings of Kegon Buddhism that he had studied while on Shikoku those many years that he was able to so quickly see into the depths of esoteric Buddhism. In fact, Kūkai is quoted as having said of Kegon Buddhism, "One step further, and it could reach the level of Esoteric Buddhism." Sensing that Kūkai would help offset the growing power of Saichō in the imperial court, the leaders of the six Nara sects went out of their way to help him settle in the capital after his return and begin spreading his message.
At Takaosanji, Kūkai continued his studies of the esoteric Buddhism he had brought back to Japan. By 810 he had become a public figure and was working to integrate his Shingon teachings with those of the six Nara sects and Tendai. His influence with the court was also growing as Emperor Saga was actively approaching Kūkai because of his well known skills at literature and calligraphy, which had amazed even his Chinese hosts in Ch'ang-an.
In November 811, Emperor Saga ordered Kūkai to leave Takaosanji and move to Otokuni-dera, a temple in Otokuni County, near the site of the short-lived capital of Nagaoka. While Saga told Kūkai that the reason was because Takaosanji was just inconvenient, some say the move was an attempt to pacify the wrathful spirit of Crown Prince Sawara. Ever since Emperor Kammu had exiled Sawara to this temple, and then sent him into exile, and death, on Awaji Island in 785, the imperial court had felt cursed by Sawara's angry spirit. Some believe that Kūkai's forced move was because he was the only person who had the power to pacify this spirit.
Kūkai was allowed to return to Takaosanji in October 812 and he immediately recommenced his teaching and work to spread the influence of Shingon. He also began writing in order to explain his new religion to others.
Although their relationship soured in later years, both Saichō and Kūkai remained friends for most of their early years together in Kyōto. Kūkai met Saichō for the first time when Saichō visited him at Otokuni-dera. Saichō then went on to receive initiation into the first realm of Shingon's Mikkyo from Kūkai at Takaosanji in late 812. Saichō was seven years older than Kūkai, extremely idealistic, and introspective. He adamantly believed that the corruption of the Nara sects needed to be reformed and refused to work with them. Kūkai, on the other hand, was an extrovert, ambitious, and a master in the art of compromise. While he must have seen the same corruption, his philosophy, reflecting Shingon universalism, was to embrace all views, attitudes, and teachings. He did this in the belief that, in the end, his own teachings and ideas would triumph.
To Saichō, Kūkai's willingness to compromise and work with the corrupt Nara sects appeared insincere and hypocritical. Yet to Kūkai, Saichō's attempt to introduce Tendai (a sect that in China predated Nara Kegon philosophy) seemed reactionary. In addition, Kūkai adamantly refused to accept Saichō's contention that Tendai esoteric philosophy and Shingon esotericism were identical. On top of all this, Kūkai firmly believed that esoteric Buddhist teachings could only be understood when they were transmitted directly from a master to the student. Saichō, on the other hand, seemed to believe that you could learn these same teachings simply by reading the books that Kūkai had brought back with him from China. In the end, they were doomed to separate.
In 813, Kūkai began the process of putting his teachings in writing and released a document he called The Admonishments of Kōnin (Kōnin no Goyuikai), in which he laid out the aims and practices of Shingon Buddhism. Sometime around 814 he wrote The Difference Between Esoteric and Exoteric Buddhism (Benkenmitsu Nikyō Ron), in which he proclaims Shingon's independence and its superiority over all other forms of Buddhism in both China and Japan.
As an indication of his growing stature, in 816 (at age 43) Kūkai was granted permission by Emperor Saga to use land on the summit of Mount Kōya, in the center of Kii Province (now Wakayama Prefecture) for the establishment of a monastery dedicated to Shingon Buddhism. It was in this document granting the land where the words Shingon Shū (Shingon Sect) were used officially for the first time. Kūkai planned that Mount Kōya (in addition, later, to Tōji in Kyōto) would be where monks were trained exclusively in the Shingon teachings and where he would be able to practice his meditative rituals in isolated surroundings. As was the case when he spent his younger years on Shikoku, however, he was never able to make himself spend all of his time in the remote region of Mt. Kōya. Throughout his life he divided his time between the isolated mountain and working in the capital city.
817 and 818 were very productive years for him as he completed and released three books that explained the very heart of his new teachings: Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence (Sokushin Jōbutsu Gi), The Meaning of Sound, Word, and Reality (Shōji Jissō Gi), and The Meanings of The Word Hūm (Unji Gi). While he had immediately sent his disciples to Mt. Kōya to begin the building process when Emperor Saga had granted him the land in 816, it wasn't until now, in 818, that Kūkai himself went there. He was to spend most of the year there supervising the building process and making sure that the design matched his inner vision of what he wanted his monastery to become.
In 821 he was asked by the emperor to direct the reconstruction of Mannōike reservoir in Sanuki Province on Shikoku. This was completed successfully in several months and brought him even more fame and recognition. Also in this year, he wrote The Transmission of Shingon Dharma (Shingon Fuhō Den) and supervised the process of reproducing the mandala and dozens of other religious paintings that he had brought back from China.
In 822 Kūkai was given permission to build a Shingon chapel and initiation hall (Nan-in) at Tōdaiji in Nara. Given that Tōdaiji was the headquarters of Nara Buddhism, this shows just how complete his dominance of Japanese Buddhism had become.
In early 823 (at age 50) he was granted the uncompleted Tōji in Kyōto for exclusive use by Shingon clerics and as a training center for Shingon esoteric doctrines. Since the temple had originally been started under national auspices, the continued construction under Kūkai would be undertaken at the governments expense. Emperor Saga granted this just three months before retiring the throne as the highest sign of his patronage and respect for Kūkai and what he was doing.
As his stature and importance grew, the demands on his time and energies also grew. This ten year period, between being granted Tōji in 823 and retiring to Mt. Kōya in 832, was his most productive period. In 824, besides supervising the construction of the monastery on Mt. Kōya and the construction and renovation work at Tōji, he was appointed Shōsōzu (Junior Director) of the official Buddhist monastic system. In 824, Emperor Junna (who took office in 822 when Saga retired) issued an edict stating that there should be 50 monks in residence at Tōji under Kūkai's guidance and direction. In 827 Kūkai was promoted to Daisōzu (Director of the official monastic system), which he would hold until 831. In 825 he became tutor to the crown prince, maybe the ultimate in indications that he had reached the pinnacle of success.
Not satisfied with the welfare of just the aristocracy, however, in 828 Kūkai founded the first school in Japan to allow anyone, regardless of social status or economic means, to register and study. Called the School of Arts and Sciences (Shugei Shuchi-in), he accepted students from all walks of life and taught Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism (both exoteric and esoteric), the three major intellectual systems then known in Japan and China. Housing was provided to all teachers and students who needed it. Funds to run the school came from donations and from revenue gained from rice paddies the government had granted Kūkai over the years. Unfortunately, however, the school didn't last much past his death as it was sold in 847 by the monks of Tōji in order to raise needed funds. Somewhere during this time period, Kūkai developed a dictionary for his students, the first dictionary available in Japan.
In 830 Kūkai completed his his two seminal works Jūjūshin Ron (The Ten Stages of the Development of Mind) and Hizō Hōyaku (The Precious Key To The Secret Treasury), in which he systematizes Shingon teachings and lays out ten stages in the process of spiritual awakening. Here, he quotes a passage from the Mahavairocana Sutra (Dainichikyō) : "To attain enlightenment is to know one's own mind as it really is." (This quote has little to do with the Daishi's history, i just really like it and wanted to include it here.)
In late spring 831, Kūkai became seriously ill and was forced to retire all of his official duties. The emperor, however, refused to let him leave the capital until the summer of 832, at which time he retired to Mt. Kōya. He returned to Kyōto in December of 834 for a short period in order to establish a Shingon chapel (Shingon-in) in the imperial palace and to perform ceremonies there.
In January 835, the Emperor granted Kūkai permission to officially ordain three monks annually on Mt. Kōya, thus officially recognizing Shingon as a state supported institution.
After predicting the date of his death, Kūkai died on Mt. Kōya on April 23, 835 (by today's calendar), at the age of 62. His mausoleum is located behind the Okunoin on Mt. Kōya. In 921 an imperial order gave him the posthumous name of Kōbō Daishi, The Great Teacher (Daishi) of The Vast Dharma (Kōbō).
So that's the official story of the Daishi's life. And while it is interesting, it doesn't tell us everything we need to know to understand this pilgrimage. On another page we looked at the history of the pilgrimage itself; here we added the history of the Daishi. Now we just have to put those two pieces together.
When it was evident to the Daishi that the end of his life was at hand, he told his followers on Mt. Kōya that, instead of dying, he would sit in eternal meditation in his mausoleum until the arrival of the next buddha, Maitreya (Jp: Miroku Nyorai), saving any and all people that called out and asked for his help.
At the time of his "death," he had a fantastic reputation. Not only in the sense of extraordinarily great, but in the sense of extra-ordinarily great, beyond just ordinarily great, fantastic, verging on the sense of magical and mythical. And people throughout Japan accepted this mythical reputation, allowing Daishi stories to thrive and flourish, and allowing the pilgrimage to grow and prosper into what it is today.
Outside of Shingon Buddhism, buddhists will all agree that it is the Budddha's teachings that bring salvation, that offer the chance for enlightenment. The founders and teachers of the various schools of Buddhism, themselves, can not deliver you from samsara and to nirvana, that is something you have to do for yourself by following the teachings they offer. The Buddha himself said this.
In Shingon, however, it is believed that the Daishi had spoken the truth as he went into his final meditation when he vowed to save all who called on his name. Shingon Buddhists believe that if you sincerely call on the Daishi he will answer and help you attain enlightenment in this very body. Given the average person's willingness to believe anything about the Daishi after his death, and a strong missionary effort by the Shingon school, this also came to be an almost universal belief — you can attain enlightenment in this very body, and the Daishi himself can help you do that.
It doesn't matter if you know and practice the teachings of Shingon Buddhism, all that matters is that you believe it to be true and perform the appropriate religious rituals. The key is the rituals and faith in them, not your religious beliefs. If you are an ordained monk or nun, then the required rituals will be clearly defined by the Shingon school itself. If you are a layman or woman, however, you probably don't have the time, place, or money to do these rituals. So, the next best thing is to undertake pilgrimages to Mt. Kōya and to the 88 (or 108) sacred places related to the Daishi on Shikoku Island. It is there where you can meet the Daishi personally, ask for his help, and attain enlightenment in this very body. The ritual of walking and the rituals performed at each of the temples are all you need, if your faith in the Daishi is strong enough.
The key phrase for the entire pilgrimage is not the Heart Sutra. It is not the commonly seen Dōgyō Ninin (Two Pilgrims Practicing Together). No, THE key phrase is Namu Daishi Henjō Kongō. The name Kūkai received from his teacher in China was Henjō Kongō and 'Daishi' is translated as Great Teacher, so this should be translated as "I entrust myself fully to the great teacher Kōbō Daishi."
This phrase is written everywhere. EVERYWHERE. On a henro's clothes, on their walking stick, all around temple compounds, on trail markers, on the nameslips (fuda) that henro hand out to other people and leave at every temple. This is the mantra that all henro are supposed to keep in mind, if not say, throughout the day, every day, every minute of every day, while they are on the trail. Henro have one sole job — to perform the required rituals — leaving the rest of the work towards enlightenment to the Daishi. He has promised to deliver those that call to him, and he will, if you do the work.
This is the importance of the Daishi to this pilgrimage. This is not just a pilgrimage to places made sacred by his name. This is not just a visit to temples founded by, or visited by, the Daishi. This is a month's long walking ritual where you ask the Daishi to walk with you and then completely turn yourself over to his care. And if asked, he long ago vowed to walk with anyone who requests it. In return for your efforts, the rewards are unimaginable.
|In Front of Kōbō Daishi's Mausoleum|
|(Scan of picture on official brochure from Wakayama Prefecture World Heritage Promotion Koya Region Association)|