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Kukai: Japanese Buddhist Monk

By Devik Balami at
Kukai: Japanese Buddhist Monk

Kukai, a Japanese Buddhist monk also known as Kobo Daishi was born in 774. He was also a civil servant, scholar, poet and artist who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. He was also referred to the title Odaishisama and religious name, Henjo-Kongo.

Early years of Kukai

Kukai was born on the island of Shikoku, present-day Zentsu-Ji precinct, Sanuki. His family belongs to the aristocratic Saeki family. It is confused whether Kukai's birth name was Totomono or Mao since various documents have their own verse. It was also little known about Kukai's childhood. It is recorded that at the age of fifteen, he began to receive instruction in the Chinese classics under the guidance of his maternal uncle.

In 791 CE, Kukai set off to the Diagakuryo, Government University in Nara with the objective to continue his further studies. During his studies, he began to develop a strong interest in Buddhist studies. It was also recorded that he was disillusioned with his Confucian studies.

Kukai was introduced with the Buddhist practice that involved chanting the mantra of the Bodhisattva Akasagarbha only after the age of 22. it was recorded that during this period, Kukai frequently sought out for the isolated mountain regions. He then chanted the Akasagarbha mantra relentlessly. Then at the age of 24, he published his first major literary work, Sango Shiiki, for which he had worked and studied various sources including the classics of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Currently, these texts are preserved in the libraries of Nara temples.

In his youth, he had faced a lot of limitations from the central government due to enforced policies which were based on the Ritsuryo system. In those times, independent monks, like Kukai were frequently banned and lived outside the law, but they were still wandered the countryside or from temple to temple. Therefore, Kukai was intensely practicing Buddhist practice privately. While practicing privately, Kukai had a dream. He saw that a man appeared before him and suggested him to look for Mahavairocana Tantra since it contains the doctrine Kukai was seeking.

With the suggestion, he searched for the copy of Mahavairocana Tantra and also managed to obtain it but it was written in untranslated Sanskrit in the Siddham scripture. Kukai also managed to find the translated one by the sutra was very cryptic. Therefore, he determined to visit China to study the text there.

Kukai's journey to China

Kukai's wish to visit China to learn about Mahavairocana Tantra was accomplished by taking part in a government-sponsored expedition to China. The main purpose of this expedition was to learn about the Buddhism and spread the teaching of Buddha in Japan.

The expedition was not so simple for them since there was much trouble from the beginning. Only a few scholars had the opportunity to reach China and one of them was Kukai. He was first granted to live in Xi Ming Temple where he learned Chinese Buddhism as well as studies of Sanskrit under the Gandharan Pandit, Prajna. After that in 805, he met Master Huiguo who helped him to learn esoteric Buddhism tradition at Changan's Qinglong Monastery. Master Huiguo is best known for the lineage of Buddhist masters who translated Sanskrit texts into Chinese including the Mahavairocana Tantra. Therefore, it was the amazing time for Kukai since he was in China to learn this sutra. Since Huiguo was at the last stage of his life, Huiguo immediately bestowed the first level abhisheka and in few months he receives the final initiation as well. He became a master of the esoteric lineage in a short visit to China which was unbelievable for him. After learning, Kukai then returned to Japan with the motive to spread the knowledge of esoteric lineage. Huiguo died shortly afterward.

Spread of Esoteric lineage in Japan

Kukai was learned man then and also returned with a large number of texts which were esoteric in character. He arrived back in Japan in 806 CE and found out that Emperor Kanmu had died and Emperor Heizei was in charge. He also found out that Emperor Heizei had no great enthusiasm for Buddhism. Therefore, it was hard for him to disseminate the knowledge, he had within.

The movement that Kukai was involved was not documented or was only little known. Kukai submitted the reports on his studies including all the texts and other objects he had brought with him. The document along with other texts and objects distinguished itself from the Buddhism that already practiced in Japan. Finally, in 809, the court responded to Kukai's report and ordered to reside in the Takaosan Temple (Jingo Ji Temple) in the suburbs of Kyoto. The esoteric tradition was then spread from this temple. Later after the retirement of Emperor Heizei, Emperor Saga took over the management of the country. During the reign of Emperor Saga, Kukai got support and it was easy for him to disseminate the knowledge.

Kukai's magnum opus and final years

Kukai completed his magnum opus, The Jujushinron / Treatise on The Ten Stages of the Development of Mind only in 830 CE. Since the Jujushinron was in great length, a simplified summary, Hizo Hoyaku was later published.

Kukai during his work period in 831 CE, he requested to retire but the emperor didn't accept his resignation and instead gave him sick leave. Therefore, he then took rest and was back on Mt. Koya towards the end of 832 CE. In 834, Kukai petitioned the court to establish a Shingon chapel in the palace. The request was granted and then after the establishment of the chapel, Shingon ritual became incorporated into the official court calendar of events. Hence, this order also made the Koya from being a private institution to a state-sponsored one which was realized through ordaining three Shingon monks at Mt. Koya.

In 835 CE, Kukai stopped taking food and water. He spent his time more in meditation and died at the age of 62. Kukai was entombed on the eastern peak of Mt. Koya.

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