Kukai, the founder of Japanese esoteric Buddhism, was born
in Zentsuji on the island of Shikoku to an aristocratic family.
His uncle, a tutor to the crown prince, also became his teacher.
As a young man, he dropped his studies of Confucius and career
at court to study Buddhism, then very much a minority
perspective. He was only 23 when he produced his first book,
in which he argued for the superiority of Buddhism over Confucianism
and Taoism. Over the next few years he studied
widely in the several different schools of Buddhist thought then
available in Japan, all of which were headquartered at Nara,
near the imperial capital at Kyoto.
In 804 he traveled to Changan, then the capital of China,
and became the last student of Hui-Guo (746805), the leader
of the Shingon or esoteric school of Buddhism. When he returned
to Japan he was an accomplished exponent of the esoteric
tradition. He established himself in two centers, one on
Mount Koya south of Kyoto and the other in Kyoto at the Toji
temple. He would teach at these two places for the rest of his
life and establish Dhingon as a major school of Japanese Buddhism.
In contrast to most Buddhists of his day who suggested that
enlightenment took many lifetimes, Kukai argued that it was
possible to achieve in a single lifetime. He also argued that the
body, which most who sought enlightenment considered an obstacle,
was in fact the vessel for its realization. He argued that
the Buddha nature is present in all things, including all human
beings. To understand the essential and innate unity of all
things, Kukai proposed that students engage in meditative disciplines.
Meditative insight would bring clarity to what was otherwise
a seemingly unbelievable idea. Kukai also argued for the
dissolving of the secular and sacred. He argued for a form of
natural mysticism in which the Buddha was incarnate in the
world of nature and by extension in the world of art and music.
He believed that even words could have the power of revelation.
In his book The Meanings of Sound, Word, and Reality, Kukai
argued for the correlation of words and reality. Some words
correspond to the reality of the Buddha nature. These True
Words are termed mantras, and chanting a mantra articulates
the Buddha nature for as long as the sound persists. He also believed
that the overcoming of the ordinary consciousness and
the Buddha nature was in fact most difficult for most people.
People could overcome the separation through the practice of
meditation, the chanting of mantras, and the use of mystical
hand gestures called mudras.
Kukai died at Mt. Koyo in 835. In later generations he came
to be worshipped almost as a god and many came to believe
that he had never died. He is now generally called Kobo Daishi
or Great Master of the Extensive Teachings. Shingon Buddhism
now exists in a variety of separate schools in Japan who
have, over the centuries, developed a wide variety of esoteric
methods to achieve communion with the Buddha nature.
Kukai Major Works. Translated by Yoshito Hakeda. New
York Columbia University Press, 1972.
Yamasaki, Taiko. Shingon Japanese Esoteric Buddhism. Boston