Kukai (Kobo Daishi)

Shingon is an indigenous Japanese Buddhist sect with close affiliations to original Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese Buddhist thought founded by Kukai (also called Kobo Daishi). Kukai greatly impressed the emperors who succeeded Emperor Kammu (782-806), and also generations of Japanese, not only with his holiness but also with his poetry, calligraphy, painting, and sculpture. [Source: Library of Congress]

Shingon Buddhism (whose name was derived for the Sanskrit word for "magic formula" or "mantra") is centered at Kongobu-ji Temple at Mt. Koya and To-ji Temple in Kyoto. It is closely linked with the Tendai sect and is known for its ornate art and incorporation of Shinto elements. Today there are 3,700 Shingon-affiliated temples nationwide.

F.W. Seal wrote in Samurai Archives: “Shingon (or True Word) was centered on the worship of Maha-Vairocana (or Great Illuminator, otherwise known as the Dainichi Nyorai), believed to be the first and greatest of the Buddhas. Shingon held that the Dainichi Nyori was present in all things in the universe and by extension was all people. Essentially, Kukai taught that to understand the Great illuminator, one needed to unlock the mysteries of their own minds and spirits. This involved a large amount of ceremony and ritual - hence earning Shingon the label of 'esoteric Buddhism'. [Source: F.W. Seal, Samurai Archives |~|]

Shingon Buddhism has Tantric elements and is known for it rich ceremonies and has many similarities with Tibetan Buddhism. A central idea is to find the "mystery at the heart of the uncovered” using rituals, symbols and mandalas representing the sphere of the indestructible and the womb of the world.


Koyasan, founded by Kukai
Shingon Buddhists practice “takigyo” — standing under freezing cold waterfalls at Hakuryu Bentenzan Shumpukuin temple in Mikumocho, Mie Prefecture and the Oiwasan Nissekiji Temple in Kamiichimachi in Toyama, Prefecture as part of an ascetic purification ceremony to mark the beginning of the coldest time of the year. Participants wear white gowns and headbands and chant as they stand under the waterfalls. Sometimes they chant as conch shells are blown. . Sometimes they for stand for over an hour in freezing water.

At Oiwasan Nissekiji Temple pilgrims pray for good health while standing under a waterfall in early January on a day traditionally regarded as the coldest day of the year. In 2009 about 60 people took turns standing under the six-meter-high waterfall in -3 degree C weather chanting Buddhist sutras.

In April 2009, a professional boxer died while doing training at a temple waterfall. It is believed he accidently fell in.

See Yamabushi

Kukai and Shingon Buddhism

Kukai (774-835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is one of Japan’s most beloved religious figures. Kukai established the teachings of Shingon esoteric Buddhism in Japan in the early Heian period (794-1192). Often referred to by his posthumous name, Kobo Daishi, he is considered a giant of the esoteric Buddhist school who had a great impact on Buddhist art in Japan.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Kūkai (774-835), posthumously titled Kōbō Daishi (The Great Master of the Extensive Dharma), was the founder of the Shingon or “True Word” Japanese school of Buddhism and is considered one of the most important intellectual and cultural figures in Japan. Kūkai traveled to China in 804 and went as far west as the Tang dynasty capital of Changan (today, Xian), where he was introduced to the esoteric Buddhist tradition. Upon returning to Japan two years later, he founded a Shingon temple on Mt. Kōya as well as Tōji temple in Kyoto. His main treatise is the Jūjū Shinron (Treatise of the Ten Stages of Mind). [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Events in the Life of Kobo Daishi

Kukai is revered as a scholar, Bodhisattva, artist, calligrapher and inventor of the 47-symbol Japanese Kana symbols and is credited with merging the deep spirituality of someone who meditating for long periods in a cave with rituals and discipline of Tang-era Chinese esoteric Buddhism. He remains a popular folk hero. In some stories he is merely sleeping in his tomb in Mt. Koya and will rise up again some day.

Kukai used Jingoji and Toji temples in Kyoto, as well as Kongobuji temple in Wakayama Prefecture, as bases for his Shingon teachings. He was very influential in court politics. He helped reconcile Buddhist sects with each other and with Shinto. After his death he was given the name Kobo Daishi.

Kukai’s Life

Kukai was born, depending on the source, in either Shikoku or the area known today as Kagawa Prefecture. He was a Japanese envoy to Tang Dynasty China in 804. During a two-year stay in China he studied esoteric Buddhism; upon returning to Japan, he devoted himself to systemizing and spreading its teachings. Kukai studied at the Imperial University and spent some time as a wandering monk and mountain ascetic and died at Mt. Koya.

Kukai was a friend of Saicho’s who traveled to China in 802, the same year Saicho did, but went not to Mt. Tientai but to Changan (Xian), the capital of China, where he was influenced by Mikkyo (Esoteric Buddhism) and the Chinese Chen-yan school. In China, it is said, Kukai learned Sanskrit and all the secret teachings and doctrines of Tantricism and Esoteric Buddhism in the amazingly short period of three months to two years, depending on the source.

Upon his return to Japan in 807, Kukai secluded himself in mountain ashrams at Mt. Misem on Miyashima Island near present-day Hiroshima and was forced to stay in Kyushu for breaking an agreement to stay in China for 20 years. During this time Kukai and Saicho exchanged infromation on what they had learned at their respective destinations in China. Kukai left Kyushu with Saicho’s help and was initiated into Esoteric Buddhism. Kukai and Saicho had a falling out when Kukai started propagating his own teachings. Each considering the other a disciple not an equal. After Saicho’s death in 822, Kukai’s influence grew.

Kukai decided to establish his headquarters at Koysan, the Buddhist priest Shodo Habukawa told the Daily Yomiuri, because it was a place where he could feel the connection between the sky and the earth...The basin is surrounded by two circles of mountains and the inner and outer circles have eight peaks each. The area resembles a lotus flower."

Kukai used Jingoji and Toji temples in Kyoto, as well as Kongobuji temple in Wakayama Prefecture, as bases for his Shingon teachings. He was very influential in court politics. He helped reconcile Buddhist sects with each other and with Shinto. After his death he was given the name Kobo Daishi.


Kukai: "Indications of the Goals of the Three Teachings"

In “Indications of the Goals of the Three Teachings”, Kukair wrote: “My relatives and teachers opposed my entering the priesthood, saying that by doing so I would be unable to fulfill the Five Cardinal Virtues [1 The Five Confucian Virtues: humaneness, rightness, ritual decorum, wisdom, and trustworthiness] or accomplish the duties of loyalty and filial piety. [Source: “Sources of Japanese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 158, 171-172; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“I thought then: living beings are not of the same nature; there are birds which fly high in the sky and fish which sink low in the water. To guide different types of people, there are three teachings: Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. Although their profoundness varies, they are still the teachings of the sages. If an individual chooses one, he does not necessarily repudiate loyalty and filial piety by doing so.

“Now I have a nephew who is depraved and indulges in hunting, wine, and women and whose usual way of life consists of gambling and dissipation. It is obvious that an unfavorable environment has caused him to lead this kind of life. What has induced me to write [this story] are the opposition of my relatives [to my becoming a Buddhist] and the behavior of this nephew.”

Kukai: "A School of Arts and Sciences"

When asked his view on establishing a school of arts and sciences in Japan, Kukai said: “My reply is, “In the capital of China, a school is set up in each ward to teach the young boys. In each prefecture a school is maintained in order widely to educate promising young students. [Source: “Sources of Japanese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 158, 171-172; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Because of this, the capital is filled with talented young men and the nation is crowded with masters of the arts. In the capital of our country, however, there is only one government college and no local schools. As a result, sons of the poor have no opportunity to seek knowledge. Those who like to study but live a great distance from the college encounter great difficulty traveling to and fro. Would it not be good, then, to establish this school to assist the uneducated?”“

Shingon Esoteric Buddhist Art

Shingon esoteric Buddhism places great importance on visual forms such as mandalas, paintings, sculptures and ritual articles. The statues from Kodo Hall at Toji temple are particularly well-known works. Eight statues from the hall, including two mystical myoo wisdom kings, a dignified Taishakuten and a fierce Jikokuten are greatly treasured. [Source: July 22, 2011]

Other important pieces in the exhibition include plush monk headpieces known as Shakujoto, a highly elaborate niche adorned with various buddhist figures known as Shoson-Butsugan, and portable shrines adorned with Buddhist figures, all brought to Japan from China by Kukai. Ryokai (two worlds) Mandala, also known as Takao Mandala, is the oldest existing work of its kind. Works by Kukai himself include five autographed calligraphy pieces.

Kukai greatly influenced his senior disciples, who went on to produce some powerful Buddhist art themselves. The Yakushi Triad from Daigoji temple and the Amida Nyorai with Attendants from Ninnaji temple, both dating back to the early Heian period, contain fine examples of this.


mountain hermit “Yamabushi” are Shugendo mountain ascetics. Also known as “shugenja”, they are members of Esoteric Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism. Traditionally they were shaman or hermits with long beards who lived in huts on sacred mountains and endured rigorous training and exercises. Yamabushi means “those who lie down in the mountains.”

Early yamabushi went on long treks and mountain climbs and lived for months and even years in the wilderness. Their training and lifestyle were believed to have given them magical and supernatural powers. Villagers welcomed them so they could perform rituals to prevent earthquakes and other natural disasters and bring rain and good harvests.

Yamabushi seclude themselves in the mountains for months or even years at a time, praying endlessly, performing fire rituals, fasting in caves, and subjecting themselves to various physical and psychological tests, such as hanging headfirst from cliffs and standing under frigid waterfalls. Early yamabushi not only pursued inner enlightenment they also sought magical powers which could used to cure disease and prevent disasters.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Guardian deity, Ray Kinnane.

Text Sources: Samurai Archives; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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