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Category: Mystic


Kūkai (空海), , (774–835) also known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師) and The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching, was a Japanese monk, scholar, poet, and artist, founder of the Shingon or "True Word" school of Buddhism. Shingon followers usually refer to him by the honorific title of O-Daishi-sama (お大師様) and the religious name of Henjō-Kongō (遍照金剛).

Kūkai is famous as a calligrapher and engineer. Among the many achievements attributed to him is the invention of the kana, the syllabary with which, in combination with Chinese characters (kanji), the Japanese language is written to this day. Also according to tradition, the Iroha, which uses every phonetic kana syllable just once and is one of the most famous poems in Japanese, is attributed to him. His religious writings, some fifty works, expound the tantric Buddhist Shingon doctrine.

Shingon refractions – Dr Mark Unno

Kobo Daishi Kūkai stands as a towering figure [in the history of Shingon Buddhism]. Kūkai means "ocean of emptiness," Kobo Daishi, meaning "Great Master of the Vast Dharma," is the posthumous title given to Kūkai by the emperor Daigo in 921, in recognition of his achievements. A renowned scholar-monk, educator, architect, and man of letters, Kūkai was something like a renaissance figure. By the time of his death in 835 he had established a remarkable complex of temples at Mount Koya as the seat of the Shingon sect, as well as other temples; he is famous for his public works, having established schools, refurbished a major reservoir on the island of Shikoku, and built bridges. As an author he composed numerous treatises on Buddhist thought and practice and was widely recognized for the beauty of his poetry and calligraphy. Such was his fame that among the numerous legends that have grown around his name is one that  attributes the invention of the Japanese syllabic writing system (kana) to him.

Above all, however, he was the founder of Shingon Buddhism, the student of the esoteric traditions in China who returned to Japan in 806 to transmit his own understanding of them along with a store of sacred writings and objects from the continent. If the title "founder" fits anyone, surely it is Kūkai.  Certainly, no one in the Shingon tradition since has attained even one-tenth of his stature, and in this sense Kūkai is in many ways Shingon Buddhism.  Today, tens of thousands of pilgrims to Mount Koya annually visit his shrine in the belief that he somehow lives on in eternal meditation watching over the faithful.


Early life


Kūkai was born in 774 in the present-day Zentsū-ji precincts in the province of Sanuki on the island of Shikoku. His family were members of the aristocratic Saeki family, a branch of the ancient Ōtomo clan. Kūkai was born in a period of important political changes with Emperor Kanmu (alt. Kammu, 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).

Little more is known about Kūkai's childhood. At the age of fifteen, he began to receive instruction in the Chinese Classics under the guidance of his maternal uncle. During this time, the Saeki-Ōtomo clan suffered government persecution due to allegations that the clan chief, Ōtomo Yakamochi, was responsible for the assassination of his rival Fujiwara no Tanetsugu. 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 (大学寮). Graduates were typically chosen for prestigious positions as bureaucrats. Biographies of Kūkai suggest that he became disillusioned with his civil service studies, but developed a strong interest in Buddhist studies instead.

Interest in Buddhism

Around the age of 22, Kūkai was introduced to Buddhist practice.   During this period in Japanese history, the central government closely regulated Buddhism through the Sōgō (僧綱, Office of Priestly Affairs) and enforced its policies, based on the Ritsuryō system. Ascetics and independent monks, like Kūkai, were frequently banned or outlawed.  Nevertheless, Kūkai continued his search until one day he had a dream, in which a man appeared and told Kūkai that the Mahavairocana Sutra is the scripture which contained the doctrine Kūkai was seeking.

Though Kūkai soon managed to obtain a copy of this sutra, which had only recently become available in Japan, he immediately encountered difficulties. Much of the sūtra was in untranslated Sanskrit written in the Siddham script. Kūkai found the translated portion of the sūtra was very cryptic. Because Kūkai could find no one who could elucidate the text for him, he resolved to go to China to study the text there.

Studies in China

In 804 ,Kūkai left for China in order to learn more about the Mahavairocana Sutra. Kūkai's ship arrived weeks later in the province of Fujian and Kūkai proceeded to Chang'an [present day Xi'an], at the time the seat of power of the Tang Dynasty.  The Tang court granted Kūkai a place in the Ximingsi temple where his study of Chinese Buddhism began in earnest, as well as studies of Sanskrit with the Gandharan pandit Prajñā (734-810) who had been educated at the Indian Buddhist university at Nalanda.

It was in 805 that Kūkai finally met Master Hui-kuo (746 – 805) the man who would initiate him into the esoteric Buddhism tradition at Chang'an's Qinglong Monastery (青龍寺). Huiguo came from an illustrious lineage of Buddhist masters, famed especially for translating Sanskrit texts into Chinese, including the Mahavairocana Sutra. 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. 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".

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

Return to Japan

Kūkai arrived back in Japan in 806 as 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 recognized 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.

Transfer to Takaosan


Little is known about Kūkai's movements until 809 when the court responded to Kūkai's report on his studies, the Catalogue of Imported Items, 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. The court's response was an order to reside in the Takaosan (later Jingo-ji) Temple in the suburbs of Kyoto. This was to be Kūkai's headquarters for the next 14 years.

The year 809 also saw the succession of the Emperor Saga, who supported Kūkai. In 810 Kūkai was appointed administrative head of Tōdai-ji, the central temple in Nara, and head of the Sōgō (僧綱?, Office of Priestly Affairs).

Kūkai 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. Records show that Kūkai was also busy writing poetry, conducting rituals, and writing epitaphs and memorials on request.   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. The dialogue between them proved constructive and helped Kūkai.

Mount Kōya

In 816, Emperor Saga accepted Kūkai's request to establish a mountain retreat at Mount Kōya as a retreat from worldly affairs. The ground was officially consecrated in the middle of 819 with rituals lasting seven days.  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.

All of Mount Kōya is built according to sacred geography principles.  Kūkai's vision was that Mt. Kōya was to become a representation of the two mandalas that form the basis of Shingon Buddhism: 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 Kongōbu-ji — the Diamond Peak Temple. At the center of the temple complex sits an enormous statue of Mahavairocana Buddha who is the personification of Ultimate Reality.



In 823, the soon-to-retire Emperor Saga asked Kūkai,  to take over Tō-ji and finish the building project. 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. 

At Tō-ji, in addition to the main hall (kondō) and some minor buildings on the site, Kūkai added the lecture hall in 825 and in 826 he initiated the construction of a large pagoda at Tō-ji which was not completed in his lifetime.

Shingon Buddhism is established

In response to a request from new emperor, Emperor Junna, Kūkai, along with other Japanese Buddhist leaders, submitted a document which set out the beliefs, practices and important texts of his form of Buddhism. In his imperial decree granting approval of Kūkai's outline of esoteric Buddhism, Junna uses the term Shingon-shū (真言宗 Mantra Sect) for the first time.

An imperial decree gave Kūkai exclusive use of Tō-ji for the Shingon School.  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 authorization.  In 825, Kūkai was invited to become tutor to the crown prince.  In 827 Kūkai was promoted to be Daisōzu in which capacity he presided over state rituals, the emperor and the imperial family.


School of Arts and Sciences (Shugei shuchi-in)

The year 828 saw Kūkai open his School of Arts and Sciences (Shugei shuchi-in). The school was a private institution 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 school closed ten years after Kūkai's death.

Final years

The first signs of the illness that would eventually lead to Kūkai's death appeared in 831. He sought to retire, but the emperor would not accept his resignation and instead gave him sick leave. Toward the end of 832 Kūkai was back on Mt. Kōya and spent most of his remaining life there. With the end approaching, he 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) he died at the age of 62.

Legend has it that Kūkai has not died but entered into an eternal samadhi and is still alive on Mount Kōya, awaiting the appearance of Maitreya, the future Buddha.


The legacy of Kūkai permeates the very fabric of the Japanese culture. He is the greatest Japanese Buddhist saint of all times. He introduced Esoteric Buddhism to Japan, founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism and nourished other branches of Buddhism as well. He is credited with the creation of hiragana, a Japanese syllabary modeled on Sanskrit. He is the founder of temples and centres of religious learning. He is the author of numerous religious tracts. He is a paragon of calligraphy, both in Japan and in China.

The trouble is that he lived over a thousand years ago. After such a long time, the verifiable historical information about Kūkai is scant, while legends about him would fill volumes.

Kūkai was born in the Japan of the end of Nara period, a culture in turmoil, trying to absorb and assimilate immigrant clans from the Continent and the newly conquered tribes from Japan's own frontier. Buddhist sects jockeyed with each other and with Taoism and Confucianism for influence within the imperial court. The government, eager to follow the path of culture and civilization, established a university to train scholars and administrators and sent embassies to China with missions of political, cultural and religious exchange.

Into this society in flux was born Kūkai, a scion of an influential provincial clan, who was brilliant from the start and seemed destined for great things in life. Contrary to his family's expectations, instead of following the established career path of the civil service, he dropped out of the university and, drawn to Buddhism, spent years living in obscurity, working on his original theological research that would lay down the framework of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. But in order to give his future school the legitimacy of the direct continuity of the tradition, which is extremely important in Buddhism, Kūkai had to travel to China to receive the transmission of Dharma from Master Huiguo, the head of the school of Esoteric Buddhism there.

Kūkai went to stay in Chang'an.  He arrived as an unknown young monk from a country that was culturally, at that time, little more than a satellite of Tang China.  But, thanks to his previous preparatory work and natural talent, he exploded like a rocket onto the vibrant, cosmopolitan scene of the Tang capital city, which at that time boasted the ultimate political and economic power and literary and theological sophistication second to none in Asia. He was quickly able to round off his studies with Sanskrit, Indian Buddhism, poetry and calligraphy, to become a complete scholar of his time.

The fact that he was able to receive the Dharma transmission from the ailing Master Huiguo in a few months, speaks volumes about Kūkai's attainments in his chosen path. Furthermore, the fact that Kūkai's company and friendship was sought by China's literati and the cultural elite, including famous scholars, poets, calligraphers, courtiers and religious leaders, shows what kind of a phenomenon he had become in a country that was very hard to impress at that time.

The stay in Chang'an was the highlight of Kūkai's life, it made him who he was, gave him a tremendous leverage with the Japanese imperial court and the Buddhist community and allowed him to proceed unimpeded to become what he ultimately became in the history of Japan.





    Kukai Major Works (Translations from the Asian Classics) - Hakeda, Yoshito S.
  • Kūkai - Ryotaro Shiba - As it says above in the quote, Kukai lived over a thousand years ago and verifiable historical information about him is scant. Ryotaro Shiba has been described as “an honest, meticulous historian with a poetic flair, who is passionate about his subject” and he spent over ten years working on this book, working from “an untold number of primary sources and using his own poetic vision of history”. He understood that he would not be able to recreate Kūkai’s life in minute detail, but he instead focused on recreating the atmosphere in which Kūkaiwas steeped and which influenced his world-view and endeavours.  He does it rather well, it is something of a ripping yarn.  One reader in the Amazon reviews said “it is Shiba's crowning achievement to be able to reproduce in this book, a picture of Chang'an that almost makes the spectacular early 9th century city, and Kukai in it, to come to life”.  Chang'an is present day Xi'an and at the time was the seat of power of the Tang Dynasty

Major works

  • Jūjūshinron (十住心論 Treatise on The Ten Stages of the Development of Mind) - Kūkai completed his magnum opus, in 830. Because of its great length, it has yet to have been fully translated into any language. A simplified summary, Hizō Hōyaku (秘蔵宝鑰 The Precious Key to the Secret Treasury) followed soon after.
  • The admonishments of Konin - In 813 Kūkai outlined his aims and practices in this document .  By 817 he had 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
  •  Sangō Shiiki - At age 24 Kūkai published his first major literary work, in which he quotes from an extensive list of sources, including the classics of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The Nara temples, with their extensive libraries, possessed these texts.