空海Kūkai (空海) or also known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師) , 774–835 CE: Japanese monk, scholar, and artist, founder of the Shingon or “True Word” school of Buddhism. Kūkai is famous as a calligrapher (see Shodo), engineer and is said to have invented kana, the syllabary in which, in combination with Chinese characters (Kanji) the Japanese language is written. His religious writing, some 50 works, expound the esoteric Shingon doctrine, of which the major ones have been translated into English by Hakeda (see below). Kūkai is also said to have written the iroha, one of the most famous poems in Japanese, which uses every phonetic kana syllable.



Early years

Kūkai was born in 774 in the province of Sanuki on Shikoku island in the present day town of Zentsūji. His family were members of a declining aristocratic family, a branch of the ancient Ōtomo clan. There is some doubt as to his birth name: Tōtomono (precious one) is recorded in one source, while Mao (True Fish) is recorded elsewhere. Mao is popularly used in recent writings.

Little more is known about Kūkai’s childhood. At age fifteen, he began to receive instruction in the Chinese Classics under the guidance of his maternal uncle. In 791 Kūkai went to “the capital”, (probably Nara), to study at the government university, the graduates of which were chosen for prestigious positions as bureaucrats. However, at some point Kūkai became disillusioned with the course of study at the university and resigned to take up a life of mendicancy.

Kūkai was born in a period of political turmoil with Emperor Kammu (r. 781-806) seeking to consolidate his power and to extend his realm. Earlier Imperial sponsorship of Buddhism, beginning with Prince Shōtoku (574-622), led to a general politicization of the clergy, along with an increase in intrigue and corruption. In 784 Kammu shifted his capital from Nara to Nagaoka in a move that was said to be intended to edge the powerful Nara Buddhist establishments out of state politics – while the capital moved, the major Buddhist temples and their officials stayed in Nara. Indeed, there was a steady stream of edicts issued from 771 right through the period of Kūkai’s studies. Some edicts sought to limit the number of Buddhist priests and the building of clan temples. However, moving was to prove disastrous and was followed by a series of natural disasters including the flooding of half the city. In 785 the principal architect of the new capital and a royal favourite, Fujiwara no Tanetsugu, was assassinated and members of the Ōtomo clan were implicated. This was detrimental to the fortunes of Kukai’s family. Meanwhile, Kammu’s armies were extending the boundaries of his empire. This led to an uprising and, in 789, a substantial defeat for Kammu’s troops. Also, in 789 there was a severe draught and famine – the streets of the capital were clogged with the sick, people avoiding a military draft or forced labour. Many disguised themselves as Buddhist priests to avoid conscription. Then, in 794 Kammu suddenly shifted the capital again, this time to Heiankyō, which is modern day Kyoto. The new capital was started early the previous year, but the change was abrupt and led to even more confusion amongst the populous.

Kammu shored up his political rule by changing the syllabus of the university. Confucian ideology still provided the raison d’être for the Imperial government. In 784 Kammu authorised the teaching of a new course on the Spring and Autumn Annals which were based on two newly imported commentaries: Kung-yang and Ku-liang. These commentaries used political rhetoric and promoted a state in which the Emperor, as “son of Heaven”, should extend his sphere of influence to barbarous lands, thereby gladdening the people. In 798 the two commentaries became required reading at the government university. This surely had an impact on Kukai.

Buddhism had been introduced into Japan from Korea in 552. It had been adopted as the state religion partly to legitimise its rule and partly to assert its cultural superiority to rebellious rival clans. However, Buddhism’s initial role was to chant magical formulas to prevent and mitigate disasters, in essence to pray for the well being of the Emperor and the empire. Ryuichi Abé notes for example that in 824 the court ordered the fifteen great temples of the nation to recite the Greater Pranjñā-pāramitā-sūtra to prevent the spread of drought and famine, as well as several other examples.

Biographies of Kūkai suggest that he became disillusioned with his studies. As well as the militaristic ideology, Kūkai was also imbibing something of Buddhism. Yoshito Hakeda also suggests that the ructions with the Ōtomo clan also left him without a highly placed patron which dimmed his career prospects. Whatever it was, Kūkai went through a decisive transformation while at university that led to him abandoning his studies and becoming a wandering mendicant. Mendicants were despised by the government and the aristocracy, so Kūkai could hardly have been seen to fall further. The story of this transition is a little hazy. However, it is clear that at some point Kūkai was introduced to Buddhist practice involving chanting the mantra of the Bodhisattva Ākāsagarbha. During this period Kūkai frequently sought out isolated mountain regions where he chanted the Ākāsagarbha mantra relentlessly. But he also must have frequented the large monasteries of Nara. We know this because his first major literary work, Sangō shiiki (三教指歸; Indications of the Goals of the Three Teachings), composed during this period at the age of 24, quotes from a remarkable breadth of sources, including the classics of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The Nara temples, with their extensive libraries, were the most likely place, perhaps the only place, where Kūkai could have found all of these texts.

Kūkai’s apparent fall from grace did not go uncommented upon by his family. It seems he came in for some harsh criticism, and as a result he composed the Indications as a vindication of his decision to leave the university to pursue Buddhist practice, but also a stinging critique of Confucianism as practised by the court. Indications gives the first hint of the way that Kūkai will transform Japanese society away from essentially importing Chinese culture wholesale and toward the emergence of a truly Japanese culture. He establishes, to his own satisfaction at least, that Buddhism is the highest of the available spiritual teachings and that his resolve to follow those teachings is, rather than an abdication of his filial duties, actually the highest fulfilment of them. Kūkai continued to follow the life of a sometime mendicant, sometime scholar until, at the age of thirty-one, we find him suddenly becoming ‘officially’ ordained as a Buddhist priest and setting sail for China. During this freelance period Kūkai found himself in a difficult predicament. His lifestyle itself was proscribed by the government. All activity outside the main temples was strictly regulated, and entry into the temples was also regulated. Although Buddhism was the state religion, the Japanese people didn’t really have freedom of religion at this time. However, Kūkai managed to maintain the lifestyle for some time, perhaps helped by the fact that he preferred living in the wilds and by the sheer number of other ‘unlicensed’ practitioners around.

Kūkai was unsatisfied with the learning he had acquired and with the results of his practice. In fact, it may be observed that these two aspects of Kūkai – the ascetic and the scholar are apparently at odds. At some point during this period of freelance Buddhist practice, Kukai had a dream. In the dream, a man appeared and told Kūkai that the Mahāvairocana-sūtra is the scripture which contained the doctrine Kūkai was seeking. Though Kūkai soon managed to obtain a copy of this sūtra which had been only recently translated and made available in Japan, he immediately encountered difficulty. Much of the sūtra was in untranslated Sanskrit written in the Siddham script. Kūkai found the translated portion of the sūtra was very cryptic. Kūkai could find no one who could elucidate the text for him so he resolved to go to China to study the text there. Professor Abé suggests that the Mahāvairocana-sūtra bridged the gap between his interest in the practice of religious exercises and the doctrinal knowledge acquired through his studies.

The esoteric

The Mahāvairocana-sūtra is an esoteric text. Esoteric Buddhism is “a complex system of icons, meditative rituals, and ritual languages, all of which aim at enabling the practitioners to immediately grasp abstract Buddhist doctrines through actual ritual experiences”. Shingon Buddhists distinguish, largely on the basis of Kukai’s thinking, esoteric texts from exoteric which rely on conventional use of language to elucidate Buddhist doctrines. So the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, although beginning with a doctrinal statement, is largely made up of descriptions of elaborate ritual practices, which include the silent recitation of mantra, the adoption of ritual hand gestures (mudra), and the visualisation of mandalas, and the figures of various Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas. The rituals are designed to give the practitioner a direct experience of the doctrine set out. This is what professor Abé means when he suggests that the Mahāvairocana-sūtra acted as a bridge between practice and scholarship. The Mahāvairocana-sūtra was to become one of two central texts in Shingon Buddhist, the other being the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasamgraha, part of the Vajrasekhara-sūtra cycle of texts. Associated with each is a mandala consisting of many Buddhist mythic figures (the word deities is often used, however they are not gods in the sense that the word is used in English – they are Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas which were, and still are, a distinct category of being in Buddhist cosmology).

However it is not likely that Kūkai was aware of the full significance of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra as an esoteric text when he first met it. Esoteric Buddhism had yet to be systematically imported into Japan and existed in a fragmentary condition, and he would have only had such a partial understanding and a standard Mahāyāna perspective from which to understand the sūtra. Indeed many of the terms such as mandala, samaya, and abhisheka would have been unfamiliar to him. Esoteric scriptures were available, indeed the practice of chanting the Ākāsagarbha mantra which Kūkai had been practising is from an esoteric text. However Professor Abé strongly argues that the relevant teachings, the keys to unlocking the secrets of the esoteric texts were not available. These texts could only have been viewed from the Mahāyāna perspective.

Travel and study in China

How Kukai managed to be included on a government sponsored mission to China is uncertain, but he set sail in 804. And immediately before he left he was given the full Bhikshu ( Jp. bishu) ordination. This was unusual for several reasons. Firstly Kukai had been outside the government regulated system for the ordination of bhiksus for many years. Secondly the regulations stated that a person must first undergo the lower, or shramanera (Jp. shami) ordination and have at least three years of additional training, but Kukai did not do this. Thirdly the official certificate of Kukai’s ordination was dated a month after he set sail for China. However despite the mystery, we do know that Kukai set sail on one of four ships bound for the mainland. Of the two ships which made it to China one carried Kukai, and the other carried Saicho the founder of the Tendai school of Buddhism.

At first Kukai’s party were denied access to the capital where Kukai hoped to find someone that could explain the Mahavairocana Sutra to him. But eventually, partly due to Kukai’s efforts, he was part of a small contingent who were invited to proceed to T’ang Chinese capital Ch’ang-an (present day Xi’an). Kukai’s fluency in both spoken and written Chinese were proven very valuable. Eventually after more delays the T’ang court granted Kukai a place in the Hsi-ming-ssu temple where his study of Chinese Buddhism began in earnest. Ch’ang-an would have been a very cosmopolitan city at this time which attracted people of many races and creeds. Indian influence would have been visible, as would Islamic, but there were also at least one temple each devoted to Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Manichaeism. The T’ang court was said to employ anyone who passed the state examinations and did not discriminate against foreigners. The Hsi-ming Temple had been a centre of Buddhist academic activities for at least two hundred years when Kukai arrived. It was at Hsi-ming that pilgrim and traveller Hsüan-tsang (602-664) had translated the scriptures he had brought back from India. Another traveller Yi Jing (635-713) also based himself at Hsi-ming while working on translations of Indian scriptures. An interesting connection is that the text on Akashagarbha, which had inspired Kukai in his youth, was also translated at Hsi-ming by the Indian scholar monk Shubhākarasimha, and he was also responsible for the introduction of the Mahavairocana Sutra and the esoteric tradition associated with it. Hsi-ming was celebrated for its library which was the most comprehensive library of Buddhist texts in China at the time. Scholars of many disciplines were resident there and Kukai must have delighted in the abundant resources. He was fortunate to be able to study Sanskrit with the Gandharan pandit Prajñā (734-810?) who had been educated at the great Indian Buddhist university at Nalanda. It was possibly Kukai’s rapid progress in his studies that brought him to the attention of his future master, Hui-kuo.

It was in 805 that Kukai finally met Master Hui-kuo (Jap. Keika) (746-805) the man who would initiate him into the esoteric Buddhism tradition. Hui-kuo came from an illustrious lineage of Buddhist masters, famed especially for translating Sanskrit texts into Chinese, including the Mahavairocana Sutra. Kukai describes their first meeting:

“Accompanied by Chi-ming, T’an-sheng, and several other Dharma masters from the His-ming monastery, I went to visit him and was granted an audience. As soon as he saw me, the abbot smiled, and said with delight, “since learning of your arrival, I have waited anxiously. How excellent, how excellent that we have met today at last! My life is ending soon, and yet I have no more disciples to whom to transmit the Dharma. Prepare without delay the offerings of incense and flowers for your entry into the abhisheka mandala”
(note the same passage is quoted in English translation in Hakeda , but here it seems to suggest that Kukai was the only disciple to whom he could transmit his teachings, however it is clear that this was not the case, so I’ve given preference to Abé’s translation)

Hui-kuo immediately bestowed Kukai first level Abhisheka or esoteric initiation. Whereas Kukai had expected to spend 20 years in China studying, in a few short months he was to receive the final initiation, and become a master of the esoteric lineage. In other words Kukai would have mastered the complex rituals involving combinations and mudra, mantra, and visualisations associated with each of the deities in the two mandalas (discussed below) amounting to several dozen distinct practices. Hui-kuo was said to have described teaching Kukai as like “pouring water from one vase into another”. Hui-kuo died shortly afterwards but not before instructing Kukai to return to Japan and spread the esoteric teachings there, assuring him that other disciples would carry on his work in China. However Kukai does seem to have occupied a special place amongst Hui-kuo’s disciples, not only because of the rapidity with which he absorbed the teachings, but also because he was the only one who received the entire teaching of both the Garbhakosha and the Vajradhatu mandalas. Hui-kuo also gifted Kukai a number of ritual implements and art works. Kukai arrived back in Japan in 806 the eighth Patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism, having learnt Sanskrit and its Siddham script, studied Indian Buddhism, as well as having studied the arts of Chinese calligraphy and poetry all with recognised masters. 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 Siddham script.

However in Kukai’s absence Emperor Kammu had died and was replaced by Emperor Heizei who had no great enthusiasm for Buddhism. Saicho, the founder of the Tendai school, was a court favourite however, and these two factors seemed to have contributed to the lack of interest shown by the court in Kukai’s return. Saicho had travelled to China at the same time, and he was also initiated into esoteric Buddhism (by Shun-hsiao), and also returned with esoteric Buddhist texts. Indeed he can rightly claim priority in introducing esoteric Buddhism to Japan. Esoteric Buddhism became an important aspect of the Tendai school which was primarily focused on the Lotus Sutra, an exoteric text. Saicho 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 Kukai returned to Japan. Kukai was in quite a difficult position in that he was a relative unknown, up against the rising star of Saicho, in a field of opportunities strictly limited by draconian state control of religious practice. However with the demise of Emperor Kammu, Saicho’s fortunes began to wane. But we know that he and Kukai corresponded frequently and that Saicho was a frequent borrower of texts from Kukai. Saicho also requested, in 812, that Kukai give him the introductory initiation, which Kukai agreed to do. Kukai also bestowed a second level initiation on Saicho, but refused to grant the final initiation (which would have qualified Saicho as a master of esoteric Buddhism) because Saicho had not completed the required studies. Their friendship could be said to end when Kukai refused to lend one scripture saying that Saicho could not learn what he needed from a text, but only through a proper initiation into the teachings.

We know little about Kukai’s movements until 809 when the court finally responded to Kukai’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. That document, the Catalogue of Imported Items is interesting because it is the first attempt by Kukai to distinguish the new form of Buddhism from that already practised in Japan. Late in 809 Kukai finally received the courts response which was an order to reside in the Takaosanji (later Jingoji) Temple in the suburbs of Kyoto. This was to be Kukai’s headquarters for the next 14 years. The year 809 also saw the retirement of Heizei due to illness and the succession of Emperor Saga who supported Kukai. During the three year period after his return from China there was little that Kukai could do, but he seems to established himself as a calligrapher of note, for Saga often invited Kukai to the palace where he would write letters on the Emperor’s behalf. They also exchanged poems and other gifts.

Emerging from obscurity

In 810 Kukai emerged as a public figure when he was appointed administrative head at Tōdaiji Temple in Nara. Tōdaiji was the central temple in Nara and therefore the most important in the country. To get the appointment Kukai needed not only the support of the Emperor, but also of the powerful Nara clergy. This fact tends to undermine the argument that Kukai’s esoteric Buddhism was established in opposition to the Nara establishment. Although he took up this new, and powerful position, his headquarters continued to be Takaosanji.

Shortly after his enthronement Saga was seriously ill and while he was recovering Heizei fomented a rebellion, which had to be put down by force and resulted in much bloodshed on both sides. Eventually Saga won the day, but the political crisis, combined with his illness made this a very difficult period. And it seems that Kukai was one of his mainstays at the time. In any case in 810 Kukai 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”. And his petition was granted. Note that Kukai here appears to be fulfilling the traditional function of the Buddhist clergy in Japan at the time – using magic to protect the Empire. However the rituals which Kukai desired to perform were esoteric rituals, and the performance of them was the beginning of the flowering of esoteric Buddhism in Japan.

With the public initiation ceremonies for Saicho and others at the Takaosanji Temple in 812, Kukai became the acknowledged master of esoteric Buddhism in Japan. 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. In 813 Kukai outlined his aims and practices in the document called The admonishments of Konin. It was also during this period at Takaosanji that he completed many of the seminal works of the Shingon School: Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence; The Meaning of Sound, Word, Reality; and the Meanings of the Word Hūm; all of which were written in 817. Records show that Kukai was also busy writing poetry, conducting rituals, and writing epitaphs and memorials on request. His popularity at the court only increased, and spread. However Kukai must have felt that life in the capital was lacking something, because in 816 he asked Saga to grant him Mt. Koya, with which he is most famously associated.

Mount Kōya

Mt. Koya was located several days walk Southeast from the capital, and is the highest mountain in the region. At that time it was a forest wilderness and was quite isolated, and it is thought that Kukai had discovered it during his days as a wandering ascetic. It has a central plateau approximately 5.5 km by 2.5 km and has abundant water supply. In short it was ideal for the monastic retreat centre that Kukai wanted to build. The emperor granted the mountain to Kukai free from all state control, and Kukai immediately sent some of his disciples to occupy the site. It was only in 818 that he himself was able to get away from his many duties to visit Mt. Koya. The ground was officially consecrated in the middle of 819 with rituals lasting seven days. He could not stay, however and entrusted the project to a senior disciple, having received an imperial order to act as advisor to the secretary of state. Fund raising for the project now began to take up much of Kukai’s time as many surviving letters to patrons attest, and financial difficulties were an on going concern which meant that the project was not fully realised until after Kukai’s death in 835. Kukai’s vision for Mt. Koya was that it become a representation of the two mandalas which form the basis of Shingon Buddhism: with the central plateau as the Womb Realm mandala, with the peaks surrounding the area as petals of a lotus; and located in the centre of this would be the Diamond Realm mandala in the form of a Temple which he named Kongōbuji – the Diamond Peak Temple. At the centre of the Temple complex sits an enormous statue of Mahavairocana Buddha who is the personification of Ultimate Reality.

In 821 Kukai took on a civil engineering task, that of restoring a reservoir, which survives to this day. His leadership helped the previously floundering project to be completed smoothly, and is now the source of some of the many legendary stories which surround Kukai. In 822 Kukai performed an initiation ceremony for the ex-emperor Heizei. In the same year Saicho died.

The Toji Period

When Kammu had moved the capital, he had not permitted the powerful Buddhists from the temples of Nara to follow him. He did commission two new temples: Toji (Eastern Temple) and Saiji (Western Temple) which flanked the road at southern entrance to the city which were intended to protect the capital from evil influences. However after nearly thirty years the temples were still not completed. In 823 the soon to retire Emperor Saga asked Kukai to take over the temple and finish the building project. We can imagine that Kukai’s civil engineering ability was as important a factor as his spiritual leadership and his administrative skill demonstrated at Takaosanji. Saga allowed Kukai free rein which allowed him to create it as the first Esoteric Buddhist centre in Kyoto, and also giving him a base much closer to the court, and its power, than any other Buddhist. The new emperor, Emperor Junna (r. 823-833) was also well disposed towards Kukai. In response to a request from the emperor, Kukai, along with other Japanese Buddhist leaders submitted a document which set out the beliefs, practices and important texts for his form of Buddhism. In his imperial decree granting approval of Kukai’s outline of esoteric Buddhism, Jun’na uses the term Shingon-shū, or True Word School (or Sect) for the first time. Kukai had previously not used the term school to describe his new form of Buddhism, perhaps trying to reinforce the idea that this was not simply another school of Buddhism, but an entirely new teaching which needed to be sharply distinguished from all that had come before it. The decree gave Kukai exclusive use of Toji for the Shingon School, which set a new precedent in an environment where previously temples had been open to all forms of Buddhism, it also allowed him to retain 50 monks at the temple and train them in Shingon. This was the final step in establishing Shingon as an independent Buddhist movement, with a solid institutional basis with state authorisation. Shingon had become legitimate.

1n 824 Kukai was officially appointed to the temple construction project. Also in this year he was appointed to the administrative body that oversaw all the Buddhist monasteries in Japan, the Soogoo, or Office of Priestly Affairs. The Office consisted of four positions, with the Supreme Priest being an honorary position which was often vacant. The effective head of the Sogo was the Senior Director (Daisoozu). Kukai’s appointment was to the position of junior director (Shoosoozu). In addition there was a Vinaya Master (Risshi) who was responsible for the monastic code of discipline. At Toji, in addition to the Golden temple and some minor buildings on the site, Kukai added the lecture hall in 825 which was specifically designed along Shingon Buddhist principles, including the making of 14 Buddha images. Also in 825, Kukai was invited to become tutor to the crown prince. Then in 826 he initiated the construction of a large pagoda at Toji which was not completed in his lifetime (the present pagoda was built in 1644 by the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu). In 827 Kukai was promoted to be Daisozu in which capacity he presided over state rituals, the emperor and the imperial family.

The year 828 saw Kukai open his School of Arts and Sciences (Shugei shuchi-in). The school was a private institution which was open to all regardless of social rank. This was in contrast to the only other school in the capital which was only open to members of the aristocracy. The school taught Taoism, and Confucianism, in addition to Buddhism, and provided free meals to the pupils. The latter was essential because the poor could not afford to live and attend the school without it. Unfortunately the school closed a scant ten years after Kukai’s death, when it was sold in order to purchase some rice fields, the income from which went to support monks who in the words of Hakeda: “would only divert the thrust of Shingon activity from the universalistic and egalitarian spirit fostered by Kukai.”

Final years

Kukai completed his magnum opus The Ten Stages of the Development of Mind in 830. A simplified summary, The Precious Key to the Secret Treasury followed soon after. 831 brought the first signs of the illness that eventually killed Kukai. He sought to retire but the emperor would not accept his resignation, and instead gave him sick leave. Towards the end of 832 Kukai was back on Mt. Koya and spent most of his remaining life there. In 834 he petitioned the court to establish a Shingon chapel in the palace for the purpose of conducting rituals which would ensure the health of the state. This request was granted and Shingon ritual became incorporated into the official court calendar of events. In 835 just two months prior to his death Kukai was finally granted permission to annually ordain three Shingon monks at My Koya – the number of new ordainees being still strictly controlled by the state. This meant that Koya had gone from being a private institution to a state sponsored one.

Finally Kukai sensed the end approaching and is said to stopped taking food and water, and spent much of his time absorbed in meditation. At midnight on the 21st day of the third month (835) Kukai breathed his last breath at the age of 62. Emperor Nimmyō (r. 833-50) sent a message of condolence to Mt. Koya, expressing his regret that he could not attend the cremation due to the time lag in communication caused by My Koya’s isolation. However Kukai was not given the traditional cremation, but instead was interred in accordance with his will, on the Eastern peak of Mt Koya.

Legend has it that Kukai has not died but entered into an eternal samadhi (or deeply concentrated meditation) and is still alive on Mt Koya, awaiting the appearance of the next Buddha Maitreya. Kukai came to be regarded as a Bodhisattva who had come to earth in order to bring relief from suffering to the time between Shakyamuni Buddha, and Maitreya, which is said to be characterised by increasing disorder and decay.

Kukai’s significance to Japanese culture


Shingon was to be the dominant Japanese Buddhism school until the Kamakura period (1185-1333) which saw the arising of the Pure Land school started by Hōnen (1133-1212) and Shinran (1173-1263). The 12th and 13th centuries saw the introduction of Chinese Ch’an (Jap. Zen).

Professor Abé argues that Kukai’s true contribution lay not just in his bringing a new form of Buddhist teaching to Japan, although that in itself led to major changes in Japan Buddhism: but also in his introduction of a new spiritual and political discourse which enabled the Japanese to establish the first truly Japanese culture. The Japanese had always relied on imported Chinese Culture, especially Confucianism. Kukai’s new religious discourse allowed the Japanese to free themselves from a rigid approach to statehood. Essential to this new discourse was Kukai’s theory of mantra which suggests that words are saturated with meaning, and that especially mantra are manifestations of the ultimate truth according to Buddhism. As part of this discourse Kukai insisted that the Sanskrit writing system, which is syllabic and phonetic, was better suited to conveying the truth than the Chinese writing systems ideograms. This led to the introduction of a phonetic writing system for Japanese: the kana. Kukai is popularly accorded the credit for inventing the kana, but scholars have cast doubt on this. Never-the-less, it was Kukai’s efforts in learning, importing, and teaching the Sanskrit essential for the understanding of esoteric texts which paved the way for the adoption of the kana. As we have seen, Kukai, from an early age rejected Confucianism, and sought to establish esoteric Buddhism as the supreme religious teaching – and this constitutes his first attack on the imported Chinese political system of the day.

Just as Kukai personally experienced a gap between his textual studies and his spiritual practices before going to China, it can be said the Buddhism in Nara Japan was in a similar state. Without the esoteric doctrines, the rituals and practices current were divorced from the intense academic study that predominated in Nara Buddhism. Kukai managed to bridge this gap for himself, but also for Japanese Buddhism as a whole. Kukai’s esoteric discourse also provided for the integration of indigenous Shinto beliefs. The central figure of esoteric Buddhism, Mahavairocana (literally: the Great Sun) was able to be identified with the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Which in turn also helped to identify the emperor with Mahavairocana.

The result of Kukai’s efforts was to replace Confucianism with Buddhism as the official state ideology. Kukai’s great work, the Ten Abiding Stages, can be seen as not simply a vindication of Shingon’s superiority, but as a manifesto for the ideal state, based, not so much on the Confucian heaven, but on the Buddhist Pure Land. The emperor began to be seen as the Universal Monarch described in Buddhist scripture, rather than the Son of Heaven. This was a crucial factor in the future development of Japanese society during the medieval state, and in particular the Heian period.

Abé says : “Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, and its ritual system in particular, functioned as a practical technology that had a direct bearing on medieval politics and economy as well as literary production. It served as a pivotal matrix for the integration of medieval society’s diverse fields of science, art and knowledge in general; an integration that, in turn, gave rise to the religious, political, and cultural discourse characteristic of the medieval Japanese intellectual constellation..In short, the Kukai of medieval Japan was major cultural icon illustrative of the deep cultural assimilation in which Buddhism constituted, almost transparently, the nucleus of Japanese society”.

Kūkai’s main contribution to Buddhist thought was in synthesising all the existing teachings into a coherent whole. Over more than 1000 years Buddhist teachings had multiplied enormously, and many seemingly contradictory teachings were available. Kūkai created a hierarchical approach to spiritual practice which included Confucianism and Daoism as lower stages on the path – this was published in 830 as Jujushinron (Ten Stages of Mind Development). He placed the Mahavairocana Sutra (actually an early Tantric text) at the pinnacle of teachings. Shingon is stronly influenced by the Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine, also known as ‘Buddha Nature’ which says that all beings are inherently pure from the very beginning. The highest attainment according to Shingon is the union of the individual’s mind and body with the mind and body of the Dharmakaya Buddha, Mahavairochana.

Folk legends

Over the centuries, Kukai became the object of various folk traditions. One of them credits him with the introduction of the homosexual tradition to Japan. In the 1100’s we begin to see mentions of Kukai as the father of nanshoku, or male love, which he is alleged to have brought from China together with the dharma. Throughout the medieval and pre-modern period his monastery, Mount Koya, was a byword for the practice of male love (known as shudo, the way of the young, the samurai tradition of male love) in literature and everyday parlance. This tradition may have been inspired by the countless erotic relationships between monks and their acolytes, known as chigo, and recorded as love stories known as chigo monogatari.

It should be emphasised though that Kūkai was a celibate monk, and that throughout his teachings there is an insistence on Buddhist ethical principles, and on celibacy for his followers. No one could be ordained in the Shingon tradition of Kūkai’s day without first taking the Bikshu ordination, which of course included the practice of celibacy.


  • Abé, Ryuichi. 2000. The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press.
  • Hakeda, Yoshito S. 1984. Kukai and His Major Works. Columbia University Press.
  • Skilton, A. 1994. A Concise History of Buddhism. Birmingham : Windhorse Publications.
  • Wayman, A and Tajima, R. 1998 The Enlightenment of Vairocana. Delhi : Motilal Barnasidass.
  • White, Kenneth R. 2005. The Role of Bodhicitta in Buddhist Enlightenment. New York : The Edwin Mellen Press.

Kūkai 空海 Кукай

buddha monk

buddha monk