Kukai (Kobo Daishi)

Shingon Buddhism is the third largest Buddhist sect in Japan with 5.5 million followers according to 2021 statistics on religion by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan. It is an indigenous Japanese Buddhist sect with close affiliations to original Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese Buddhist thought founded by Kukai (also called Kobo Daishi, 774-835). 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.

An esoteric form of Buddhism, Shingon became the most important religion of Heian Japan. 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 Beliefs and Practices

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.

The goal of Shingon is the realization that one's true nature is identical with the universal Mahavairocana Buddha (also Vairocana, a cosmic buddha from Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism). This goal is achieved through esoteric initiation, and mantrayana ritual practices (Tanric, Tibetan Buddhist-style practices) such as mantra chanting and deep mediation on Tibetan-style objects in the mind. To engage in Shingon practice one has to receive secret doctrines, methods and instructions, from the school's ordained masters. [Source: Wikipedia]

The "Three Mysteries" of body, speech, and mind are put to use simultaneously in the process of uncovering one's nature: 1) The Body through devotional gestures (mudra) and the use of ritual instruments, 2) Speech through sacred formulas (mantra); and The Mind through meditation. These methods allow a Shingon contemplative to realize that his body-mind is none other than the body-mind of Mahavairocana.


Koyasan, founded by Kukai
Kukai (774-835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is one of Japan’s most beloved religious figures. He 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 (The Great Master of the Extensive Dharma),, he is considered a giant of the esoteric Buddhist school who had a great impact on Buddhist art in Japan.

Kukai was a brilliant thinker. He learned the Buddhism known as the True Words (Mantrayana in Sanskrit, Shingon in Japanese). in China and introduced it to Japan. In Shingon Buddhism the secret techniques are transmitted orally from master to disciple. Kukai produced many important works on esoteric Buddhism and philosophical issues, including Jujushinron ("Treatise on the Ten Stages of Consciousness") and Sokushin-jMbutsugi ("The Doctrine of Becoming a Buddha in This Body in Time"). The latter doctrine is unique to Japanese Buddhism. Kukai's mausoleum on Mount Koya remains a major pilgrimage site today. [Source: Gary Ebersole, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ 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). 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 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’s Early 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.

Events in the Life of Kobo Daishi

Kukai in China

Kukai was sent by Japan to study Buddhism in China and arrived there in 804 and studied esoteric Buddhism under the Chinese master Huiguo at Qinglong Temple in Changan (present-day Xian). Kukai had come across esoteric teaching while studying Buddhism in Japan and was anxious to learn more.

On his arrival in China, Kukai wrote: During the sixth moon of 804, I, Kukai, sailed for China aboard the Number One Ship, in the party of Lord Fujiwara ambassador to the T'ang court. We reached the coast of Fukien by the eighth moon, and four months later arrived at Ch'ang-an, the capital, where we were lodged at the official guest residence. The ambassadorial delegation started home for Japan on March 15, 805, but in obedience to an imperial edict, I alone remained behind in the Hsi-ming Temple where the abbot Yung-chung had formerly resided. [Source: 'Kobo Daishi Zenshu,' I, 98 ff., Translation by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition (Columbia University Press, 1958), PP. 144-6, from Eliade Page website]

One day, in the course of my calls on eminent Buddhist teachers of the capital, I happened by chance to meet the abbot of the East Pagoda Hall of the Green Dragon Temple. This great priest, whose Buddhist name was Hui-kuo, was the chosen disciple of the Indian master Amoghavajra. His virtue aroused the reverence of his age; his teachings were lofty enough to guide emperors. Three sovereigns revered him as their master and were ordained by him. The four classes of believers looked up to him for instruction in the esoteric teachings. [Source: 'Kobo Daishi Zenshu,' I, 98 ff., Translation by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition (Columbia University Press, 1958), PP. 144-6, from Eliade Page website]

I called on the abbot in the company of five or six monks from the Hsi-ming Temple. As soon as he saw me he smiled with pleasure, and he joyfully said, 'I knew that you would come! I have been waiting for such a long time. What pleasure it gives me to look on you today at last! My life is drawing to an end, and until you came there was no one to whom I could transmit the teachings. Go without delay to the ordination altar with incense and a flower.' I returned to the temple where I had been staying and got the things which were necessary for the ceremony. It was early in the sixth moon, then, that I entered the ordination chamber. I stood in front of the Womb Mandala [Garbha Mandala] and cast my flower in the prescribed manner.1 By chance it fell on the body of the Buddha Vairochana in the centre. The master exclaimed in delight, 'How amazing! How perfectly amazing!' He repeated this three or four times in joy and wonder. I was then given the fivefold baptism and received the instruction in the Three Mysteries that bring divine intercession. Next I was taught the Sanskrit formulas for the Womb Mandala, and learned the yoga contemplation on all the Honoured Ones.

After arriving in Changsan, Kukai studied Sanskrit with Gandharan pandit and learned to read original Buddhist texts in their original language. At Qinglong Temple, Kukai demonstrated his skill in languages and calligraphy and quickly caught the eye of Huiguo who said: “Since learning of your arrival, I’ve ben waiting anxiously. How excellent it is that we now meet at last.” Ignoring his own disciples, he bestowed on Kukai all of his teachings, about 1,000 in all.

Huiguo, who died while Kukai was at Qinglong Temple, bestowed on Kukai the final initiation within a few months of his death, making him a master and the highest priest. Following Huiguo;s last words”return t Japan and spread the esoteric teachings there,” Kukai return to Japan in 806. Buddhism fell out of favor in the Tang Dynasty and Qinglong temple was destroyed with other Buddhist temples in the 11th century. Kukai helped keep esoteric Buddhism alive by breathing fresh life into it Japan.

Kukai's Initiation into Esoteric Buddhism

The passage below is taken from the “Memorial Presenting a List of Newly Imported Sutras”, which Kukai wrote to the Japanese emperor upon his return from studying in China. Kukai wrote reports on the results of his studies and cautiously relates his initiation.

Kukai wrote: Early in the seventh moon I entered the ordination chamber of the Diamond [Vajra] Mandala for a second baptism. When I cast my flower it fell on Vairochana again, and the abbot marvelled as he had before. I also received ordination as an acharya early in the following month. On the day of my ordination I provided a feast for five hundred of the monks. The dignitaries of the Green Dragon Temple all attended the feast, and everyone enjoyed himself.

I later studied the Diamond Crown Yoga and the five divisions of the True Words teachings, and spent some time learning Sanskrit and the Sanskrit hymns. The abbot informed me that the Esoteric scriptures are so abstruse that their meaning cannot be conveyed except through art. For this reason he ordered the court artist Li Chen and about a dozen other painters to execute ten scrolls of the Womb and Diamond Mandalas, and assembled more than twenty scribes to make copies of the Diamond and other important esoteric scriptures. He also ordered the bronzesmith Chao Wu to cast fifteen ritual implements. These orders for the painting of religious images and the copying of the sutras were issued at various times.

One day the abbot told me, 'Long ago, when I was still young, I met the great master Amoghavajra. From the first moment he saw me he treated me like a son, and on his visit to the court and his return to the temple I was inseparable from him as his shadow. He confided to me. 'You will be the receptacle of the esoteric teachings. Do your best! Do your best!' I was then initiated into the teachings of both the Womb and Diamond, and into the secret mudras as well. The rest of his disciples, monks and laity alike, studied just one of the Mandalas or one Honoured One or one ritual, but not all of them as I did. How deeply I am indebted to him I shall never be able to express.

'Now my existence on earth approaches its term, and I cannot long remain. I urge you, therefore, to take the two Mandalas and the hundred volumes of the Esoteric teachings, together with the ritual implements and these gifts which were left to me by my master. Return to your country and propagate the teachings there.

'When you first arrived I feared I did not have time enough left to teach you everything, but now my teaching is completed, and the work of copying the sutras and making the images is also finished. Hasten back to your country, offer these things to the court, and spread the teachings throughout your country to increase the happiness of the people. Then the land will know peace and everyone will be content. In that way you will return thanks to Buddha and to your teacher. That is also the way to show your devotion to your country and to your family. My disciple I-ming will carry on the teachings here. Your task is to transmit them to the Eastern Land. Do your best! Do your best !' These were his final instructions to me, kindly and patient as always. On the night of the last full moon of the year he purified himself with a ritual bath and, lying on his right side and making the mudra of Vairochana, he breathed his last.

That night, while I sat in meditation in the Hall, the abbot appeared to me in his usual form and said, 'You and I have long been pledged to propagate the esoteric teachings. If I am reborn in Japan, this time I will be your disciple.' I have not gone into the details of all he said, but the general import of the Master's instructions I have given. [Dated 5th December 806].

Kukai After His Return to Japan

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 founded Kongobuji Temple, the headquarter of the Koya san Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, at 900-meter-high Mt. Koya in presnt-day Wakayama Prefecture. 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 on the "Three Teachings" and "School of Arts and Sciences"

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.”

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 Buddhism in Heian Period Japan

In the Heian period (794 - 1185) Buddhist culture was primarily the property of the court and the aristocracy — a very small minority in Japan. Religion to some extent was separated from politics but Buddhist clergy were very powerful and had close ties with the Imperial family and ruling elite.

Shingon Buddhism rose to prominence during the Heian Period. The elaborate rituals of the Japanese Shingon temples were an immediate success with the ceremonially minded Heian aristocracy. Shingon was superb theater, with chants, incantations, sacred hand signs (mudra), and meditation on the sacred mandala — geometrical diagrams purportedly containing the key to the cosmological meaning of reality. [Source: Thomas Hoover, “Zen Culture”, 1977]

Thomas Hoover wrote in “Zen Culture”: The headquarters for the Shingon school was established on Mt. Koya, near Kyoto but sufficiently removed that the monks were not tempted to dabble in state affairs. Nevertheless, in later years it too became a stronghold for mercenary warrior-monks, with the result that it also was chastened by an outraged shogun. Today there are Shingon monasteries in remote mountain areas, standing regal and awesome in their forested isolation.

Koyasan (Mt .Koya)

Koyasan (two hours from Osaka by train) is a sacred site for esoteric Buddhism that attracts many visitors not only from Japan but also overseas. It is the headquarters of Koyasan sect of Shingon Buddhism. It was founded in 816 as a training monastery by Kukai (774-835), a monk also known as Kobo Daishi.

Mt. Koya is an important religious center located on a 900-meter (3,000-foot) -high tableland. Surrounded by thick forests and peaks, it contains more than 2,000 temples, shrines, towers, stupas and assembly buildings, 117 major temples, and 52 monasteries which offer lodging and vegetarian meals at a reasonable price to visitors.

Mt. Koya is regarded as one of three holiest mountains in Japan along with Mt. Osorezan. It is also home to some of Japan’s greatest works of Buddhist art. No other place in Japan has such a large number of well-preserved religious buildings clustered in such a small area. Although development, vehicles and tourism has infiltrated the community it still manages to retain an atmosphere of tranquility and piety.

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.


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.


“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 January 2024

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