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Category: Mystic


Myōe (Japanese: 明恵) (1173–1232) was a Japanese Buddhist monk active during the Kamakura period who also went by the name Kōben (Japanese: 高弁).  He was a contemporary of Jōkei and Honen. 

He is perhaps best known for his development of a sutra brought back from China by Kūkai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism – the Mantra of Light.  But, there is added interest in Myōe because he also kept dream records and analysed them. He kept a diary of his dreams and visions for over 35 years -  The Chronicle of Dreams (Yume no ki) is available in English, Japanese and French [see references].  Furthermore he was recognised by the foremost contemporary authority on waka poetry Fujiwara Teika as a preeminent poet.

Shingon refractions – Professor Mark Unno
Buried among the treasures that Kūkai brought back with him from China was a copy of the Bukong zhuansuo shenbian zhenyan jing - Sutra of the Mantra of Divine Transformation of the Unfailing Rope Snare, a translation made by Amoghavajra (705-74) , a tantric monk of North Indian and Central Asian descent, from Sanskrit into Chinese …... This Mantra of Divine Transformation is none other than the Mantra of Light; it would become one of the central practices of Shingon Buddhism.


Religious affiliations and influences

In order to understand something of Myōe’s motives for promoting and adapting the Mantra of Light, it is helpful to look at his religious affiliations.  Myōe entered the Kegon lineage by receiving the full monastic precepts at the ordination platform of Todaiji, the seat of the Kegon school, in 1189 at the age of sixteen.  He received formal instruction from a Kegon master – Rinkanbo Shosen. 

He then chose a somewhat unorthodox route choosing to make extensive use of the lay Huayan master Li Tongxuan (d 730).  The massive Flower Ornament Sutra is the main sutra of Kegon and full of visions and other experiences.  Tanabe has suggested that Myōe turned to Li because both sought the meaning of the visions and dreams they obtained.

Shingon refractions – Professor Mark Unno

Myōe was a Buddhist monk ordained in the Shingon tradition, but this was not his only sectarian affiliation. In the latter half of his career, he served as abbot of Kozanji, a temple of the Kegon (Ch. Huayan) sect. This may strike some as being rather odd. Although it would generally be impossible, for example, for a Christian minister to be simultaneously ordained and active as both a Methodist and a Baptist minister, it was not uncommon for Buddhist monks in medieval Japan to be ordained in multiple sectarian lineages. Thus, Myōe had a dual sectarian affiliation; lineage charts tracing his religious ancestry exist for both sectarian identities, and he alternately signed his treatises and correspondence as a monk of the Kegon sect or the Shingon sect through much of his career. As abbot of Kozanji, however, and due to the strong influence of Kegon thought, Myōe has more often been regarded as a monk of the Kegon sect. …. It is easy to understand, then, why Myōe might not figure so prominently in the sectarian accounts of Shingon tradition or of the history of the Mantra of Light, even though Myōe devoted upward of ten works to its explication during the final decade of his life.

The Mantra of Light

Although Kūkai (774-835) brought the scripture of the Mantra of Light to Japan, it does not appear to have been used by Kūkai himself.  The earliest known use of the Mantra of Light in Japan took place in 880 for a memorial service for the emperor Seiwa.  At that time, 50 monks are said to have gathered to recite the mantra from the eleventh day following the funeral until the forty ninth day memorial service.  There is little mention of the Mantra of Light from that time until the mid to late Heian Period (794-1185).  It is not until the eleventh century that references to the Mantra of Light begin to appear with some regularity. It was occasionally employed at state funerals, but it was not until the thirteenth century that Myōe made the move to disseminate the practise more widely.

The Mantra had already undergone a great deal of revision and adaptation even before Myōe worked on its codification and adaptation:


Shingon refractions – Professor Mark Unno

Hanjun (1038-1112), a cohort of Gihan, made a study of the Mantra of Light within the Tomitsu tradition in order to apply its powers to curing illnesses and increasing longevity. He specified different ritual protocols for these purposes from those for the funerary use of the ritual. This marked the beginning of the use of the mantra for purposes other than funerals. Mandalas, circular diagrammatic depictions of Buddhist cosmology …., were also used in conjunction with performance of the mantra; the type and ritual location of the mandala to be used were specified as well, and these practices were transmitted to Shokaku of Sambo'in, who was the abbot of Daigoji and preceptor to Emperor Shirakawa. ……………Shokaku's innovation was to bring together all the functions of the mantra, whether for expiating sins of the deceased or for curing illness in this life...

Shokaku transmitted his understanding to his younger brother Jitsu’un, who in turn taught his disciple Jokai.  In 1159, Jokai was chosen to perform the Mantra of Light in the palatial hall of the Ninshoden, whereupon “the nobleman Chunagon Tomotaka dreamt that his entire being was suffused with Light”.

By this time, the ritual had expanded to become seven stages and sixty eight steps.  The entire ritual was designed to effect a ‘deity yoga’, the union of the supplicant [initiate] with the main deity – moksha.  The methods at this stage can be summarised as:

Thus by the mid 1100s, the Mantra of Light was already well developed and had been expanded beyond its original conception.

Myōe’s objectives in adapting the Mantra of Light

What was Myōe trying to do when he adapted the Mantra of Light?

If we priests were living in the age of the Buddha, we would never dare regard ourselves as equal to even the lowliest novice-monk.  We should be ashamed, therefore, to put on airs of being great masters.  Most monks these days envisage the Buddha darma they have chanced to learn not as the key to emancipation but as a means for attaining high rank, a trivial contemptible thing… What has become of Buddhist practise in this land, so remote from India, in these depraved days of the final dharma.

  • Unification and peace - Myōe deplored the in-fighting and division that had taken place amongst Buddhists. What Myōe contributed were amendments such that the practises could be disseminated more easily across both lay members and the different sects, and the addition of practises from other sects that might serve to unite the monks and avoid the factional splits and arguments
  • Reverse the decline in Buddhist values - Myōe was a firm believer in the notion of Dharma Decline and sought to promote the Mantra of Light as a means of reversing this. Whilst Kūkai developed practices for attaining Enlightenment in this life, Myōe promoted the mantra as a means of being reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha – going to heaven!  The parallels with what happened to Christianity are clear.  Jesus too promoted the equivalent of Enlightenment for all during their lifetime, only later did the theologians introduce the ‘bread tomorrow if you are good’ approach.  What makes Myōe’s methods better than the ‘bread tomorrow’ Christian approach, however, is that he added methods that were actually quite conducive to ‘bread today’ as well!
  • Widening the constituency -  Shingon and other Buddhist sects had become like exclusive clubs open only to members of the aristocracy and nobility.  Very few were allowed to study at the major temples and monasteries; copies of sutras were unavailable, if permission to copy a sutra was given it had to be achieved using brush and ink – hand copying.  The meaning of the texts could only be explained by qualified masters and the initiations were secret.  Myōe hoped that by clearer explanation of the practises, they could be disseminated more easily, to a much wider audience, making the Buddha’s Enlightenment for all wish, a practicality.

Tanaka - Komyo Shingon shusei
The general propagation of the Mantra of Light took place after Myōe Kōben began to advocate it.  He began with the simple intent of reviving the Kegon school and from there worked to harmonise the Pure Land and Kegon doctrines.  Furthermore he worked to unify Kegon and Shingon and out of this arose the Commentary on the Syllables of the Mantra of Light.  He also composed the Dosha kanjin ki – Recommended Faith in the Sand in which he sought to harmonise Pure Land and Shingon, to free the Mantra of Light from its subordinate status in relation to Amidism and introduce the Mantra of Light to the common people.

Myōe and women

One group largely excluded from direct spiritual experience at this time was women.  Women were not excluded from religious life, but Enlightenment was effectively denied them.  There is every reason to believe that Myōe corrected this anomaly.  Women played a significant part in Myōe’s life, in fact he rejected much of the male Buddhist establishment in favour of women, he saw them as the route to spiritual Enlightenment.  He both helped them and was in turn helped, they became his guides and companions.  Both in spirit and in material means, the women surrounding him played key roles in his life during the period of his most intense concentration on the Mantra of Light. The nuns of Zenmyoji, the convent founded by Myōe, were one very key group, but two other women also played a significant part in his spiritual life:

    Lady Sanmi [Kosanmi-no-Tsubone] -  a noblewoman and Myōe’s lay patron.  Lady Sanmi’s husband had died, as had her son.  She had one daughter, a nun, whom Myōe once tended when she was ill.  She was a noblewoman with means and one of the principal patrons of Myōe and Kozanji. In 1206, by the imperial decree of the retired emperor Gotoba, Myōe was given abbotship of Kozanji, but it was Lady Sanmi whose patronage was crucial to the construction and support of Kozanji.   “The depth of the relationship between Myōe and Lady Sanmi  was beyond the merely financial.  They related to one another both at the level of the familiar love of mutual friendship but also at the level of dharmic love in which they saw each other as spiritual beings.”  She is said to have paid for a number of important scrolls and to have ‘elevated her eros to Buddhist compassion’, although the same writer noted that ‘one would have to be quite naïve to think that all of Myōe’s feelings for her consisted of sublimated eros’.
  • The Woman of Yuasa – was his cousin and the wife of his uncle Yuasa Munemitsu.  She was a medium.  When Myōe went to pray for an oracle concerning his wish to go to India in early 1203, the Woman of Yuasa had been preparing for seven days by fasting.  She suddenly entered into a trance, in which two Buddhist deities – Fukukenjaku Kannon and Sakyamuni himself, spoke through her and advised him not to go.  As a result he abandoned his plans.  There is every reason to believe that if he had gone to India, the Mantra of Light would never have been written.  The observations provide more details. “As in other cases, there appear to be elements of both maternal care and erotic passion in the relationship between Myōe and the Woman of Yuasa

Shingon refractions – Professor Mark Unno
The women who were related to Myōe through the mantra were anything but secondary or auxiliary in importance.  In fact in some cases, it was Myōe who submitted to their erotic passion and religious power.

The Changes in methods

Records for the time show that the daily regimen of practices for the monks at Kōzan-ji, during Myoe's administration, included zazen meditation, recitation of the sutras and the Mantra of Light. These same records show that even details such as cleaning the bathroom regularly were routinely enforced. A wooden tablet titled Arubekiyōwa (阿留辺畿夜宇和?, "As Appropriate") still hangs in the northeast corner of the Sekisui'in Hall at Kōzan-ji detailing various regulations.

As Appropriate

  • 06:00 - 08:00 PM, Liturgy: Yuishin kangyō shiki (Manual on the Practice of Contemplating the Mind-Only)
  • 08:00 - 10:00 PM, Practice once. Chant the Sambōrai (Revering the Three Treasures).
  • 10:00 - 12:00 AM, Zazen (seated meditation). Count breaths.
  • 12:00 - 06:00 AM, Rest for three [two-hour] periods.
  • 06:00 - 08:00 AM, Walking meditation once. (Inclusion or exclusion should be appropriate to the occasion). Liturgy: Rishukyō raisan (Ritual Repentance Based on the Sutra of the Ultimate Meaning of the Principle) and the like.
  • 08:00 - 10:00 AM, Sambōrai. Chant scriptures for breakfast and intone the Kōmyō Shingon (Mantra of Light) forty-nine times.
  • 10:00 - 12:00 PM, Zazen. Count breaths.
  • 12:00 - 02:00 PM, Noon meal. Chant the Goji Shingon (Mantra of the Five Syllables) five hundred times.
  • 02:00 - 04:00 PM, Study or copy scriptures.
  • 04:00 - 06:00 PM, Meet with the master (Myōe) and resolve essential matters.


If one examines the practises that he appears to have added using the list above, what we can glean from his relationship with women, along with the ones he inherited we find methods that are varied and quite effective:


Myōe’s additions



 The five senses are a continual distraction when one is attempting spiritual experience and Myōe added sensory deprivation to a growing list of methods needed.  The list of methods is quite long as one can see, and it appears he might have been criticised for the continual extension of the list, as at one point he cut off one of his ears to prove his point:

not having an ear is like being deficient in the five senses, …I have to resort to such means since I am weak of determination...

The Ritual of Sand

Sand is symbolic, it has much the same meaning as dust.  Water purifies and disintegrates aggregates, Earth is an aggregated state.  The seashore is that boundary between the spiritual [Water] and the land [Earth] where aggregates are formed.  By the movement of waves – or if you prefer by the constant activity of the functions of the universe - solids [form] are perpetually being formed and dissolving.  Coalescing and disintegrating.  Different coloured sand in a number of symbol systems denotes the different building blocks that make up aggregates – the Platonic solids.

Myōe made the symbolic actual.  He introduced rituals that were designed to reinforce the symbolism and help people comprehend what is a difficult set of concepts.  From what we can see ,very few western writers understand this aspect of Myōe’s adaptations to the Mantra of Light, but today the Mantra of Light with its use of sand is one of the most important and widely practised mantras in Japanese Shingon.  Furthermore, the use of sand has become an integral part of the practises of other schools including Tendai and Zen.

Shingon refractions – Professor Mark Unno
Myōe’s use of the sand eventually became central to his advocacy of the Mantra of Light because Myōe saw the efficacy of the sand as a means of extending all the benefits of the mantra to everyone, lay or ordained, male or female. The sand thus signified two kinds of inclusivity: temporal inclusivity for effects in this life as well as the next, and social inclusivity of gender, social, and religious status.



In the same way that those in the west may sprinkle dust over a coffin during burial,  Myōe’s  sand is also sprinkled on corpses and graves ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.  Once blessed it also took on a placebo role and could be given to the ill as a form of symbolic ‘frozen’ healing energy.  We have to think of it as spirit input made visible, and in this form it could be used ceremoniously to cure various ailments and to provide spiritual relief from the burden of evil karma.

Shingon refractions – Professor Mark Unno
Although the full ritual of the mantra may have been quite involved, Toganoo's  description of the mudras indicates that the sand did not require elaborate ritual for it to take effect. As long as the sand was maintained in a ritually purified container, it retained its power and could  be used at any time.

The Importance of Ritual

The practise of contemplation and detachment requires great discipline.  One has to teach the mind to ignore the mind!  Perhaps of all the techniques on this site it is the most difficult, it is also the most rewarding long term with higher states being attainable.  The method that Myōe used to instill the sort of disciplined behaviour needed to succeed, was to introduce numerous rules into the daily lives of the monks.  By getting used to living under a constant rule bound regime, the discipline needed to use contemplation and detachment as a method had been instilled:

Etiquette in the Temple Study Hall

  • Do not leave rosaries or gloves on top of scriptures.
  • Do not leave sōshi [bound] texts on top of round meditation cushions or on the half tatami-size cushions [placed under round cushions].
  • During the summer, do not use day-old water for mixing ink.
  • Do not place scriptures under the desk.
  • Do not lick the tips of brushes.
  • Do not reach for something by extending one's hand over scriptures.
  • Do not enter [the hall] wearing just the white undergarment robes.
  • Do not lie down
  • Do not count [pages] by moistening one's fingers with saliva. Place an extra sheet of paper under each sheet of your sōshi texts.

In summary

In assessing Myōe’s contribution, we need to be aware that it is the methods he advocated and the extension into areas not fully articulated before, that are his key contribution.  His writings in general show not only a profound awareness of the problems of Buddhism at the time, problems relevant to today, but also a creative response, a positive vision.

Shingon refractions – Professor Mark Unno

Myōe took into account karmic limitations and potentials at both the individual and communal levels, addressed the specific needs and demands of women and men, lay and ordained, and placed the Mantra of Light in the pluralistic context of the burgeoning practises of the time.  He drew upon the scriptural legacy of the mantra, and articulated practise that is designed to alleviate suffering and to cultivate virtues at all levels; physical and spiritual, individual and social in this life and the next


Myōe was a prolific writer, composing over 50 works, of which about 25 are extant.  Numerous additional documents purport to record his statement in the form of transcripts, chronicles and hagiographies.  Myōe wrote on a wide variety of subjects, including philosophical treatises, meditation manuals, oracular chronicles, travel itineraries, codes of conduct, and polemics.  We also have a number of his letters


Chronicle of Dreams [Yume no ki]

Both Tanabe and Girard’s works contain translations of Myōe ‘s Chronicle of Dreams [Yume no ki] . 

  • Girard, Frédéric (1990). Un moine de la secte Kegon à Kamakura (1185-1333), Myôe (1173-1232) et le Journal de ses rêves, Paris: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient
  • Tanabe, George – The Dream Diary of Myoe Shonin.  In Myoe the Dreamkeeper – Fantasy and knowledge in Early Kamakura Buddhism 1992
  • Hayao Kawai – The Buddhist Priest Myoe:  A Life of Dreams, a translation from the Japanese, analyses the Chronicle of Dreams from the perspective of Western depth psychology.  Given that dreams of a religious nature employ religious symbolism, then this might not be as helpful spiritually as the other two sources.  It is however, at least an alternative source for the dream records.

Mantra of Light

The following have been attributed to Myōe:

  • Commentary on the significance of the Syllables of the Mantra of Light of the Baptism of the Buddha Vairocana of the Unfailng Rope Snare - 1222
  • On the Efficacy of the Mantra of Light 1224
  • Significance of the Mystic Power of Sand and the Mantra of Light 1227
  • Recommending Faith in the Sand of the Mantra of Light -  2 fascicles 1228
  • Recommending Faith in the Sand of the Mantra of Light -  supplement 1228
  • The Matter of the Mantra of Light 1230
  • Secret Treasury of the Huayan Contemplation of the Samadhi of the Buddha’s radiance
  • Collected sayings of things truly heard
  • Tales of Toganoo.


  • Unno, Mark (2004). Shingon Refractions: Myōe and the Mantra of Light.


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